There are few, if any, actors that can rival Donnie Yen’s current position as an action star in Asia, but the actor, who turns 48 this year, is not resting on his laurels. In town to promote his latest big-budget martial arts epic ‘Wu Xia’, Donnie says that he constantly pushes himself to take on different types of characters, in order that he be able to offer something different for his audience- and of course his fans- with every movie.

Take for instance the role of Liu Jinxi, the enigmatic paper-maker with a history of violence whom he portrays in ‘Wu Xia’- one of the reasons that Donnie signed on this movie was the trust he had in director Peter Chan’s ability to create something fresh and exciting. And true enough, the role has been hailed as a breakthrough for him, so much so that there is already talk that Donnie might have a shot at winning a Best Actor trophy, a ‘present’ as Donnie calls it which has eluded him over his 28 years in the film industry.

But his intentions for challenging himself constantly are not narcissistic- he says that it is his responsibility to do so, given the affirmation and recognition from audiences in recent years. “I’m very fortunate that my recent films have been so well-received, so I think that as an actor, it is only right that I continue to work hard to see how I can present something new for them with every movie that I make.”

Even so, he is candid to admit that it is an uphill task. “It’s not being an action star,” Donnie says. “Audiences tend to have a very conservative view of you if you’re an action star. They are there to see you fight, but they don’t realise that it’s not easy to always come up with some unique fight sequence that they haven’t seen before.” So instead, Donnie begins with the character in mind, and designs the action scenes around the nature and circumstances of the character he’s playing.

Donnie’s determination to focus on character is all too apparent- when asked to talk about some of the challenges faced shooting the elaborate action sequences in the film, Donnie deftly avoids the topic, and would rather emphasise on the acting that he does in the film and that he hopes audiences will see him for in this movie. Nonetheless, he is also savvy to know that there is no escaping his status as an action star.

He compares an actor to a brand, and acknowledges that because of how his brand has been defined by the action movies he’s been making since the beginning of his career, it would probably be quite impossible to divorce himself completely from the image he’s associated with. But to ensure that every new movie is a step forward for him, Donnie says that he looks for a good ‘partner’, a director who gives him the latitude to develop as an actor, someone like his ‘Wu Xia’ director Peter Chan.

Peter first made his acquaintance on the set of ‘Bodyguards and Assassins’, where Peter was producer and the two got along so well that Donnie booked his schedule to work on a film with Peter even before seeing the script. In fact, ‘Wu Xia’ was one of the two films that he intended to film last year- ‘The Lost Bladesman’ came along incidentally as a chance to act alongside acclaimed Mainland actor Jiang Wen; and ‘All’s Well Ends Well 2011’ was as a favour to his good friend cum ‘Ip Man’ producer Raymond Wong.

For Donnie, one of the toughest challenges of making ‘Wu Xia’ was to achieve a balance between the simple family man that is Liu Jinxi and the dangerous assassin Tang Long that is Jinxi’s past. “Having to portray both these personas and switch between them interchangeably on the set is something like changing channels, so whether is it in terms of technique or performance, I think it was quite tough,” he says. 

While it’s easy to associate Tang Long with the Donnie Yen we are used to seeing on screen, Donnie says that he was more alike in real life to Jinxi. Like Jinxi, Donnie says he loves to spend time with his family, and doesn’t mind following his wife and kids around wherever they would like to go. Otherwise serious and formal, he lightens up considerably when talking about his personal life, and even jokes that he’s like a slightly livelier version of what ‘Ip Man’ was as a father.

And speaking of ‘Ip Man’, Donnie likens the movie to a cultural touchstone, one that he believes became such a reference point because audiences wanted to see a hero that was at the same time a devoted family man. Though one could point out the similarities between his character in ‘Wu Xia’ and that in ‘Ip Man’, he is circumspect about the prospect of Liu Jinxi becoming such an iconic character as Ip Man.

While it may be beyond his power to ensure that Liu Jinxi becomes enshrined into a similarly iconic position, he again points out that what he can do is to make sure that he gives his best as an actor both in choosing interesting roles that will possibly resonate with his audiences as well as playing them to the best of his abilities. It is a point that he stresses repeatedly throughout the interview- and a mission that he has set for himself as an actor.

“I’ve put many many years of my life and my efforts into acting,” he says. “And I will continue to devote my time and energy into it.” For fans of Donnie, and for that matter any action movie fanatics out there, his promise and dedication can only be gratifying- after all, there are really not many true-blue ‘gongfu’ stars out there, and there is certainly no one right now that can match up to Donnie’s prowess. 

Text by Gabriel Chong; Photos by Linus Tee