‘Rogue One’ Star Donnie Yen Flies Past His Martial Arts Roots

donnie yen Rogue One
Courtesy of Disney

On film, actor Donnie Yen’s hands and feet move too fast for the human eye to follow. They can smash through walls, not to mention human opponents.

Yen will slow them down and apply them considerably more gently when he makes hands-and-feet imprints in cement Nov. 30 at TCL Chinese Theatre.

“It’s only recently that Asian actors have been recognized for their artistic contributions,” Yen says. Jackie Chan was the first Asian actor so honored, in 1997. “So this is a great honor. It’s been a long time coming for Asian actors.”

For Yen, 53, it is particularly sweet: Though he’s been working in films — as performer, action choreographer and director — since his early 20s, it’s only recently that he has been noticed as much for his acting as his martial-arts skills.

“Thirty years ago, when I was starting, martial-arts movies were just about martial arts,” Yen says. “Now these films are thought of as just good movies that have martial arts as a commercial element. It’s no different than other movies; it has to be a good film, first.”

Outside the United States, Yen “is the biggest action star in the world,” says critic Grady Hendrix, a founder of the New York Asian Film Festival. His profile is on the rise Stateside, thanks to the popular Hong Kong “Ip Man” movies, and a couple big Hollywood franchise plays about to hit multiplexes.

The first “Ip Man,” about the grandmaster of the Wing Chun martial-arts style and Bruce Lee’s mentor, wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S., but built a wide audience thanks to Netflix and other streaming platforms, paving the way for the U.S. theatrical release of the second and third installments.

Next up: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.” In “Star Wars,” he plays part of a heroic squad that steals plans for the Death Star; in the latter, he plays the chief villain opposite Vin Diesel’s daredevil operative.

Yen, who lives in Hong Kong, admits he initially balked at the “Star Wars” role because it would take him away from his children for five months of filming in England: “My kids said, ‘Are you crazy? It’s ‘Star Wars’,” Yen says. “They said, ‘You’ve got to go.’”

Still, Yen knows what his presence means to any film’s international box office prospects — particularly with the burgeoning movie audience in China. He didn’t want to be mere martial-arts eye-candy, as it were. “There are films where the only reason they want you is to reach the Chinese market,” he says.

“When I asked [director Gareth Edwards] why he wanted me for the role, he told me he’d studied my films and I had the persona he wanted, that he had the perfect role for me,” Yen says. “The focus isn’t on my martial-arts ability but my ability as an actor. But there are still scenes to satisfy the martial-arts fans.”

Yen is tight-lipped about his “Star Wars” character, Chirrut Imwe: “I play one of the characters who is connected with the Force,” he says. “He’s not a Jedi. His line is, ‘I AM the Force.’ Obviously, it’s a big deal, being the first Chinese actor asked to play a prominent role in a ‘Star Wars’ film. That means a lot.”

Yen, who spent his adolescence in Boston after a Hong Kong childhood, considered becoming a professional musician, but chose martial arts instead, finding a mentor in legendary film-action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who saw Yen as someone with the potential to be another Chan. Yuen eventually paired Yen in a memorable battle with Jet Li in “Once Upon a Time in China II.”

“In the past six or seven years, I’ve been fortunate to be able to choose things that inspire and challenge me,” Yen says. “I’ve played all kinds of roles: comedy, drama, romantic. There have been a lot of obstacles, because martial-arts films have always been perceived as less sophisticated about acting and I don’t think that’s the case. I’m known as an actor and a martial artist. Now, as an actor, I want to grow as an artist.”