I was really excited to have the chance to sit down and talk with Donnie Yen about his character, Chirrut, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. After watching 28 minutes of the film, this was one of the interviews I was most looking forward to. There is one Chirrut scene in particular that we watched where my mouth was likely hanging open the whole time – it was that incredible. I could not wait to pick his brain about his character – and I ended up learning that he had a lot to do with shaping Chirrut into who he is.
The first thing we asked Donnie was to tell us a little bit about his character “Chirrut, he’s blind but he’s spiritual. He’s the spiritual center of the team. He’s the Force believer. He’s got a little bit of a sense of humor. And he beats up all the Storm Troopers.” Donnie was asked if it was true that he changed his character – someone had read that originally he was not blind. “[I don’t want to take all the credit, it was more like a] contribution. That’s the nature of being an artist. You express your takes on your character. So in the beginning when I was discussing about my character with Gareth, I just felt it would be so much cooler to make him less of a cliché character – a warrior monk. How about give him a little bit of vulnerability – a disabledness. How about being blind? And a little bit [of a] sense of humor? That has always been my persistence of keeping him grounded – having that sense of humor so the audience can relate to him a lot more. I suggested it and [Gareth was] cool with it and Disney loved it and here we are.”
I thought it was really interesting that Donnie made that suggestion about Chirrut being blind, because that seems to really shape who he. We asked him if a lot of the story had to be changed to accommodate Chirrut being blind, “I don’t think much. That was months before we actually started filming. [In film making,] you make adjustments on a day-to-day basis – even with the lines. We revise it. Obviously we need approval by the studio, but we do get that kind of freedom to shape our character.”
Donnie Yen has been in many movies and has a huge (and amazing) fan base that enjoy seeing him stretch himself to the limits with his martial arts. We asked if he sets a ceiling for himself for what he is going to do in movies, or if he just goes with it. Donnie had a great response. “I’ve been in business for quite a while – 70 movies. I have different sets of fans – straight action fans and Donnie Yen fans. It wasn’t so much of what I’m gonna do with my body each time, but [the] different characters that I I try to take on. Beside action movies, I’ve done comedies, romantic, all kinds – I played a monkey king where I insist on not recognizing my face. I just wanted to take challenges as an actor. I don’t look at myself as this guy who does really good [who] specialize in the action field. I wanted to be perceived as a good actor – and I strive to be a better actor each time.”
Donnie then went on to talk more about his character being blind and the struggles he had on set. “I never played a blind person before. That was another reason why I wanted to do something completely different, challenging. I underestimated the difficulty of playing a blind character because it was hard. Having that contact lenses – it looks interesting – but having to take them off every three hours because it irritates your eyes and every ten minutes I needed drops. It bothers me. Very irritating. And you can’t really see – everything was blurry. I was having difficulty measuring the distance as well. I couldn’t look at my fellow actors in their eyes and I couldn’t get [their] reactions.” I had never thought of the fact that many actors play off the emotions of the other actors on set. It just shows how great an actor Donnie is – the fact that he could play off their emotions without being able to read their faces. We asked if it helped him play a blind man being somewhat blind himself on set. “Yes, in that perspective yes. Certain benefits were given because of the fact that he’s blind. He has to feel, he has to use his heart to feel – and that puts my character even closer to the Force. He’s the spiritual center and he practices the Force, but being a blind person, he has to feel the Force [as well].”
We asked Donnie which Star Wars weapon he would prefer Chirrut use to fight the Empire – a bowcaster or a lightsaber. “It’s funny, when my fans found out that I was gonna be in this movie, everybody thought I’m gonna be a Jedi and have a lightsaber and go against Darth Vader. But I couldn’t really say anything so I couldn’t tell anyone that [I would not be a] Jedi in the movie.” Donnie then joked that if Chirrut was given a lightsaber, he would be able to take on Darth Vader and the Empire himself – and that Rogue One would be all about him.
The other actors we talked with about Rogue One stated that it was a pretty physically grueling film. Donnie Yen is in great shape and has quite the background in martial arts, so we asked him if there was anything particularly difficult he had to deal with in terms of preparing for the role or on set. “I just do it. To me it’s like a musicians. You play music all your life and it’s just jump in there. As an actor who specializes in physical expressions, it was just another [day].” Because of his experience, we wondered if he gave any pointers or advice to his castmates. “Not so much. I recall I gave Felicity a [few] pointers here and there, but I didn’t want to interrupt what they were doing. I didn’t want to overwhelm them, bombard them with, “Oh, this is what you need to do,” because you can get really technical with this type of knowledge. So [I just gave] general directions – things to do with safety and some pointers here and there. But I didn’t want to interrupt anybody from them crafting their own character.”
The last question we asked was how it felt to become a part of Star Wars. We were all surprised to find out that he almost didn’t take the role. “My agent called me and said, ‘Disney wants you to be in Star Wars.’ Then Gareth called [and he told me] I have the persona of portraying this character in his mind and that was the answer I was looking for as an actor. I know it sounds crazy, but in the very beginning I was hesitant of coming on board. I know [it’s] Star Wars [but] I didn’t wanted to leave my family, my kids, and be in London for five months. I just got off from another movie and I live in Hong Kong. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ then I went to my kids, Jasmine and James. They were 11 and 7 or 12 and 8 at the time.” Donnie explained that he asked them if they wanted him to go be in Star Wars, or to stay home for a while. He smiled as he told us that they did not even hesitate and yelled out Star Wars!“Then all the family members and friends and all the fans came out of nowhere. They found out about it and said, “You gotta be in Star Wars! You gotta be in Star Wars!” I realized I’m making history here, so I’m so glad. ”
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hits theaters on December 16th!
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