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Martial-arts maestro DONNIE YEN attributes his recent run of success to the grounding family life has given him – and divulges why he finally said yes to Harvey Weinstein. MATHEW SCOTT reports
BY ALL RIGHTS Donnie Yen should be taking time out simply to draw breath, given the exertions he’s just been through as part of the Prestige photo shoot, and the whirlwind of events that have swirled around him in the weeks before we meet.
But when he takes a seat inside a Chai Wan studio, Yen hasn’t even broken a sweat and quickly stresses that he’s learned, these days, not only to take everything that life throws at him in his stride but also to savour every moment along the way.
Over the past decade the now-50-year-old’s career has scaled new heights, with the box-office success and critical acclaim for his lead roles in Ip Man and its sequel being followed by the sensation that was the Soi Cheang-directed spectacular The Monkey King, which last year hauled in more than one billion renminbi. Yen has recently signed on for the long-anticipated and soon-to-be-shot sequel to the Oscar-winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, while also joining forces with the influential Creative Artists Agency. And then there’s the little matter of Yen’s latest blockbuster, Iceman, the Law Wing-cheung-directed 3D extravaganza that hit screens at the end of April and sees the star fashioned as superherocum-Ming dynasty warrior who finds himself in modern-day Hong Kong.
All the while, Yen says, his feet have remained planted squarely on terra firma, thanks in no small part to the calming influence of his wife and business partner Cissy Wang, the woman he credits with bringing stability to his life and with whom he has two children (Yen also has a son from a previous marriage).
Family, Yen says, will always come first and it’s his family’s support that’s given him a confidence and a serenity that he believes he’s been able to carry over to his screen roles – and that’s been recognised by an audience that flocks to his films wherever in the world they screen.
Yen is one of the very few actors who’ve been able to turn the action genre into an art form, but there’s more to the man than meets the eye, as he charts his career along a course that’s open to any – and all – challenges.
You career seems to be continually on the rise. Is there anything specific you put this down to?
A lot of people give credit to my wife, especially the local media here in Hong Kong. They say that since she married me my career has just multiplied. I agree.
What, specifically, do you feel she’s given you?
It’s her whole perspective on life, and I’d like to think she’s brought the best out of me. I’ve been in the business for 31 years and a lot of people question why it took until the past six or seven years for me to get really successful. It seems the older I get the more success I get, which is unusual. Usually an actor’s career flourishes in the late-20s to mid-30s, but I started booming after 40, and it’s not slowing down. For a long time I was travelling on my journey but I felt I hadn’t found a base. She’s given me that with our wonderful family.
Do you think the fact that you moved around as a child affected you?
Yeah, well, I emigrated to the United States when I was a kid and my family was always so busy just making a living. I recall when I was young, I never really had the opportunity to have that family base. My father was busy working on a newspaper and my mother was teaching martial arts. I don’t recall having a family dinner – ever – except for meals in Chinatown, but even then we were never together. My mother had her schedule and my father had his, and I was running around wild. So I never really had a sense of what a family is all about. My wife grew up in a very traditional Shanghainese family, a Hong Kong-rooted Shanghainese family. Every night all the family had to sit down together and bond.
And did this change in lifestyle affect your career?
When we were married my whole lifestyle flipped, even though I was 40. For example, at the beginning of our relationship I would have fans – passionate fans – who would come to me, and I would shy away. My wife would ask why I didn’t want to sign an autograph or whatever. I realised I was never good at socialising, at being with a group of people, and my wife asked why, as she knew her husband was a good person, a soft-hearted person. Maybe that was one of the reasons I couldn’t grow my career. I wasn’t being hostile, I was just being shy and in my box. But then I started to open myself up. People started to see another side of me.
Do you think this was also reflected in how you came across on-screen?
I think today’s audience can see more than just how you are up there on the screen. The energy you show off-screen is important as well. I could never have done Ip Man if I hadn’t changed. There was a freedom that came artistically because my family was secure. I believe most actors have insecurities, and I can’t say that I don’t worry about things, but I really don’t have too many insecurities any more. It’s not because of my career being successful, it’s because I feel secure and confident of whom I am through that solid family support.
So it’s been down to the creation of Donnie Yen the family man?
It’s common knowledge in the film industry here that I have to be home for dinner each night by 7.30. It’s true. Everyone knows that I work my ass off. I’ll be up at 5am and work all day, rolling around on the ground. I’ll come to work by myself, I don’t need 10 assistants. But I have to go at seven o’clock. I have to sit down with family, with my kids. And that security has helped in my acting over the last 10 years.
Do you think in the role of Ip Man we witnessed the culmination of that growth?
I think before playing Ip Man there were a couple of roles where I started to realise what was happening to me, the change. It was really when my daughter came along. I have a son from my first marriage but that’s been over for about 20 years and I never appreciated back then what it meant to be a father. I realised when my daughter came along that I needed to be a father. I was learning how to be a partner, how to be a husband and to be someone’s father. And I’m still learning. The cool thing about it is I’m still learning. That has helped me in my work. I’m constantly trying to be a better actor.
Even now you’ve passed 50?
If you don’t remind me of my age, sometimes I forget that I’m 50. It’s like 30 years ago. Every day is a new day for me. I’m progressing as a human being, as a film-maker, as an actor, as a student, and sometimes I just realise, “Oh, I’m 51!” But my heart is young. I think as an actor you need to have that. I mean, how can a 50-year-old play the Monkey King and play it well? It’s not just the physical capability. You have to have that purity, that heart of a child.
How excited are you about being involved in the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
To be honest, I’m calm. I’m not taking it for granted but I’m more excited about taking my family to New Zealand. I told Harvey Weinstein that. He approached me for the last three years and I kept turning him down. I told him I wasn’t really interested in the film. I said it’s not that I don’t have respect for the franchise and the brand and yourself – you’re one of the greatest producers in the industry – it’s just that as someone who has been in the business for a long time, it doesn’t appeal to me. I played these roles a thousand times and I’m not looking to break into Hollywood. You have to give me a reason to look forward to the role. He was shocked.
So what was it that swayed you?
Several things. The fact that it’s being shot in English – a Chinese-language costume drama but in English. This is something I’ve never done before. As an actor I still have a lot of passion to see how far I can go. And the other big reason is New Zealand, with the Lord of the Rings studio.
You seem in the past few years to have expanded your range of roles too. Was this part of a deliberate plan?
I’ve tried so many different angles, especially coming off the success of Ip Man. There was quite an aggressive move from me several years ago to take on comedies, wuxia, things like The Monkey King. The Monkey King was a huge challenge. But I really enjoyed the challenge as an artist, the satisfaction of being able to achieve not just in terms of box office – which is great. That doesn’t have to be the main goal, it can be the sense of achievement you get.
At the same time you’ve expanded your interests offscreen as well. How is that all going?
Well, my wife runs the business side of things and there’s no better position I could be in than knowing that she has my back. In terms of charity work, I’ve always wanted to contribute. It’s not something we really publicise, but I think it’s important to give back to society. It’s important for our kids to know this too, to help keep them grounded, and it goes back to those traditions I mentioned earlier.
How important were the traditions of martial arts you learned as a child?
I’m forever grateful to my parents for introducing me to martial arts. If not for my mother’s teaching, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. My father, as a traditional Chinese man, tried to put these values into me but I was such a bad kid that I never listened, until I became a father. That’s when I really reflected on what my father tried to teach me. I constantly think of that now – what my father went through with me. I wished I’d had a bit more appreciation for my parents but I guess that comes with age.
How did the move to the Creative Artists Agency come about?
I’m not trying to break into Hollywood. I’m quite comfortable making films here, and my home is here. I’ve had scripts and roles offered to me periodically, for example The Expendables I and 2. I said I appreciated the offer but I just didn’t want to spend three months on a movie where I’m one of the backdrops. I turned them down in a very gentlemanly way. But Creative Artists came along and it doesn’t hurt to have the best agency in the world helping you. It’s still not my intention to ever say I’m going to move back to LA, because this is my home.
What sort of projects might tempt you?
If it were a little bit more family-orientated. If it were a Pixar production, or Disney, or something from DreamWorks there’d be more chance of me taking it no matter how prominent the role is, because I can take my kids to watch the movie!
Have you not been able to do that before?
The Monkey King was the first time they’d seen something that I’m in. It was great. I’ve always wanted to do that and I want to do it more often. Most of my films are pretty aggressive. When I look at Disney films I always wish that I could be Hercules or something.
What effect has the rise of the Chinese film market had on the industry?
I think it’s allowing all film-makers more opportunities. In 2004, there were around 2,000 screens in China; now there are around 20,000. Soon their box office will be bigger than Hollywood’s. The second-and third-tier cities are still to be explored. So obviously this gives Chinese film-makers more opportunities to find the market, as well as all film-makers. Look at all the big-name actors from Hollywood coming over to China. That tells you a lot about what it’s happening and that’s great for the industry here.
Are you thinking about getting behind the camera and directing again?
Not any time soon. Directing takes a lot of devotion and time – two years at least to make a decent film. That’s too big a commitment for me. I don’t have the time. After Crouching Tiger I have films to produce for my own company, and then next year I have Ip Man 3 – my version of Ip Man. And by then I’ll already be committed to other projects and we’re looking at 2016. So I just don’t have the time.
What is it about Ip Man that makes him such a popular focus for films?
It’s not fair for me to judge other people’s interpretations of Ip Man, and I don’t want to do that either. But for my interpretation, he was actually an anti-hero. He didn’t want competition. He wanted to stay home. I think that appealed to a new type of audience – women, children. We took the image of this master and helped mould it into a perfect role model. Of course the action looked great and all that, but I believe those films were so successful because here you had a guy and you wanted to be like him, you wanted to have a friend like him, a husband like him and a father like him.
So what’s left to explore with the character?
To be honest, I don’t have any idea at all yet. That pressure will be on [director] Wilson Yip and the scriptwriter. There’s been a lot of pressure on me to play this role again and the time just seems right. Maybe it’ll be my last time, but I just feel the time is right. Everything seems to be perfect.