Donnie Yen has been around the film world a long time. There is little he has not done and very little that surprises him. Then came the call from Disney, a little more than a year ago, about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which opens Friday.
"I got a call from my agent, saying, 'Disney just called me. They want you to be in a Star Wars movie,'" Yen said in an exclusive interview with Philly.com's Geek Blog. His first question? "Why?"
"I was like, 'Are they going to make me a lightsaber or something?' you know. Bad idea. 'Are they going to ask me to get Darth Vader?' "
"Finally, I got on the phone with Gareth" Edwards, director of Rogue One, he said. "Gareth introduced me to this character -- and then it took a little bit of deciding to do this movie."
Thousands of actors would kill to be part of a film as high-profile as Rogue One. What gives, Donnie?
In the end, Yen's three children sealed his decision.
"I asked my kids, 'Do you like Papa [more] in Ip Man' -- because everybody knows me as Ip Man [a series of Hong Kong martial-arts films based on the life of Bruce Lee's teacher] -- 'or Star Wars?' Without a doubt or a pause, they shouted, 'Star Wars!' I was like, 'OK, wait a minute! I need to be a cooler dad,'" Yen said. Friends and other family members expressed excitement, too, "and I realized how important this is to add Star Wars to my list of films."
Yen said it was starting to register that more people would likely see Rogue One than all of his other films combined. "I understand totally now," he said, laughing.
Yen has had action figures made from his previous film characters, but he conceded he was excited that his Star Wars character, Chirrut, would be a Lego figure. "When I had that little Lego, that did it to me," Yen said, "because my son [has] been playing Lego."
Chirrut Imwe, Yen's character, is a blind "warrior monk," according to Starwars.com. He doesn't have Force abilities, but he believes in it. And he's a force to be reckoned with in his own way.
"He's feeling with his heart ... what he feels is the right thing to do -- and he's a preacher," said Yen. As Lucasfilm president "Kathy Kennedy described this character, he's [guided] to the right path and inspires the right path in others."
The martial artist said he had input on his gritty fight scenes.
"I choreograph all my films. ... It comes naturally, whether I'm the official choreographer or not," said Yen. "I think that's what they expect ... when they hire Donnie Yen."
He said it was a challenge portraying a blind character.
"I underestimated its difficulty," he said. "I had never played a blind person before, so I thought it would be quite cool, until I was actually on the set, acting with my fellow actors."
"For one thing, I realized I couldn't look at them in the eye. I couldn't get reactions that way. And then I had these contact lenses, which were not comfortable. I could only wear them for three hours at a time."
He couldn't see clearly, either. "My vision was kind of blurry, and I found I wasn't able to function at my fullest."
The discomfort won't be visible on the screen. "It's called acting! That explains it all," he said, laughing.
Yen said he was proud to portray the first major Asian character in the Star Wars film franchise.
"I've been in so many movies the past 35 years. I've witnessed transitions and the revolutions of filmmaking. Don't things change drastically seemingly every decade, from the '80s to the '90s to 2000s? I mean, look at the way we were dressed."
"So, to go from the 1970s, when there were pretty much no meaningful roles for Asian actors, to today, as a Chinese actor, playing the spiritual center of Rogue One, [who] gets to say ... 'May the Force be with you' -- well, how cool is that?
"In the end, I think the message of Rogue One is that all of us are different, and all of us have imperfections," Yen said. "The heroes in this movie are different from other heroes, because they have flaws. ... At the same time, we don't lose hope. We compete and strive forward. By doing the right thing, and by teaming up and not alienating each other, we prevail."