Dialogue: Donnie Yen


A true martial artist in the vein of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Donnie Yen is the star, choreographer and director of action films that reflect the energy of Hong Kong and cultural heritage of China. Raised in a martial arts family, he has studied the arts since he was a toddler. Although tagged as the next action superstar to come out of Asia, Yen is quite content to stay there, where he already is a household name. Now starring in the Gordon Chan-directed fantasy epic "Painted Skin," the official Hong Kong entry for the foreign-language Oscar, the perennial action hero talked to The Hollywood Reporter's Karen Chu about goofing off, action or not action, and why Hollywood stardom is not for him.

The Hollywood Reporter: "Painted Skin," adapted from a classic Chinese ghost story, is predominantly a love story. Are you trying to move away from action?
Donnie Yen: It's true that I have to do more romantic scenes in this film. I've become a brand that investors or directors feel it's a guarantee that I'll bring action elements to the film. When the producers contacted me at the beginning, I turned them down. I thought there was nothing I could give to "Painted Skin," unless I play the piece of skin. Later, Gordon Chan came to me and asked me to look at the role as something akin to the character of Captain Jack Sparrow of "Pirates of the Caribbean" -- a humorous character, but in my case also a kung fu master. Gordon wanted to show the world the side of me that he knew well in private. Sometimes actors get typecast, and the audience has a certain impression of what Donnie Yen is. But how can a person be the same 24/7? For me, it's very difficult to be the Donnie Yen in the movies all the time; it takes a lot of effort. So Gordon asked me to be more like me in real life -- with a sense of humor. My character in the film is quite goofy.

THR: You've been the action director and choreographer in many of the recent films you starred in but not this year. Why?
Yen: I didn't work on the action directing on the three films I acted in this year: "The Empress and the Warrior," "Painted Skin" and "Ip Man." The last time I was action director it was for "Flash Point," and the outcome was quite good; it won me a few awards and I was satisfied. After that, I wanted to recharge my creative batteries and I also wanted to focus on my acting. The characters in those three films were so different from each other that I needed to handle each of them seriously.

THR: You've previously acted in "Shanghai Knights" and "Blade II" and were the action director of "Stormbreaker," while "Flash Point" and "Seven Swords" were released in the U.S. Do you have any solid plan for a career in Hollywood?
Yen: I get Hollywood scripts sometimes, but I have turned most of the offers down because I don't want to play Chinese stereotypes. For instance, I was offered the role Collin Chou played in "The Forbidden Kingdom," and a role in "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," but I turned them down. There's no point for me as an actor to play those roles, especially in an ensemble. I'll only consider accepting a role if the character has meaning. A lot of Chinese actors want to make films in Hollywood; I don't know what their mentality is, but I don't think it's necessary to think in those terms. What matters is a decent script and a decent character. Hollywood studios only want to put Chinese actors in their films to help break into the Chinese market -- they will never let you play the roles that Tom Cruise or Robert De Niro play. Everyone thinks differently, but for now I will keep on focusing on the Asian market.

THR: What's next for you?
Yen: I'm planning a Chinese James Bond movie -- but a James Bond that is a martial arts expert, of course. We're developing the script now, but I'll very likely be the action director as well as the lead. It's been a year since I've done action directing for "Flash Point."

Vital Stats
Nationality: Chinese
Date of birth: July 27, 1963
Film in PIFF: "Painted Skin" (Asian Film Market)
Selected filmography:
"The Empress and the Warrior" (2008), "Flash Point" (2007), "Dragon Tiger Gate" (2006), "Seven Swords" (2005), "S.P.L.: Kill Zone" (2005), "Hero" (2002), "Blade II" (2002), "Ballistic Kiss" - director (1998), "Once Upon in a Time in China II" (1992)
Notable awards: Hong Kong Film Awards best action choreography, "Flash Point" (2008); Golden Horse Awards best action choreography, "Flash Point" (2007); Hong Kong Film Awards best action choreography, "S.P.L.: Kill Zone" (2006); Golden Horse Awards best action choreography, "The Twins Effect" (2003)