On a chilly Oscars eve, Donnie Yen has just returned from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, where he was rehearsing for the Academy Awards along with a slew of fellow global superstar presenters like Spain’s Antonio Banderas and India’s Deepika Padukone. The “John Wick: Chapter 4” scene-stealer, who hails from southern China, feels good about how the following night might unfold, namely for his friend and Hong Kong neighbor Michelle Yeoh. Her victory and that of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” would be a landmark moment for Asian representation, he says.
“I’ve known her for more than 20 years, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here — to support her and share in a possible historical moment,” he says of his “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” co-star. “And ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ has a lot of Chinese language and it talks about the Chinese heritage, which I find out has been so accepted and embraced here. So, that really warmed my heart. I’m sure hoping for Michelle.”
Sure enough, Yeoh took home best actress, becoming the first Asian to do so, while the film itself took home six additional Oscars. In fact, nominees of Asian descent — including of Chinese and Indian lineage — nabbed trophies in eight categories, the most ever in a single year.
As Yen moves closer to the heat lamp on the patio of a Beverly Hills hotel, he is cold and tired. After his plane from Hong Kong landed at LAX, he headed to rehearsals, which he called an “overwhelming” scene.
“Everybody there was very welcoming and friendly, but it was serious,” he says. “I had five script writers in the room sitting there typing. A good eight people surrounded me, and I’m sitting in front of this monitor with the script, and I was joking that it felt like an interrogation. ‘Oh, I better not mess up.’”
Tomorrow he’ll don a tuxedo. Today he’s wearing a gray Louis Vuitton hoodie, pale blue leather parka, blue velvet sweatpants and sneakers. As one of China’s most recognizable actors — thanks to playing the eponymous Wing Chun grandmaster in the “Ip Man” films and squaring off against Jet Li in the wuxia hit “Hero” — he is happy to just blend in here at this bustling hotel where a wedding is afoot as he talks about “John Wick: Chapter 4,” an orgy of mar- tial arts and gun play in which Yen’s blind assassin Caine is locked in a body-count contest with Keanu Reeves’ hit man.
“Keanu is a super nice guy. He just loves martial arts. He also always shares his experience. working in China, telling us how much fun he had,” Yen adds. “[Unfortunately] ‘John Wick’ has never had a Chinese release because of the violence. It’s too radical.”
And this one is no different, with its hard R rating. Not that Lionsgate, the studio behind the franchise that keeps topping itself in terms of eye-popping stunts and box office grosses with every new incarnation, is terribly concerned. The Chad Stahelski-helmed film set a franchise record when it debuted last weekend with $138 million worldwide.
Stahelski calls Yen a “machine of athleticism,” not a typical descriptor for a 59-year-old actor.
“We’re doing the museum [scene], and it’s the first time Keanu and Donnie interacted, and we were using the nunchucks,” Stahelski remembers. “We had a little piece of choreography — it was a bit of punch, kick, punch, kick, back and forth. We started moving, and you realize how fast Donnie really is.”
How Yen got that fast began in Boston. At 11, he and his family moved to the city after his journalist father was transferred from Hong Kong. His mother ran a martial arts school in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, and Yen befriended another eventual star, Michael Woods (the pair later worked together on “Blade II”).
“It very difficult then compared to now,” he says of his outsider status during the ’70s. “Now, when I visit [his daughter who attends college in the city], you can find Chinese restaurants everywhere. It’s a totally different city now.”
Seeing his potential, his parents sent him to China to train in Beijing. A decade later, he was on his way to Chinese action star status. For much of the 1980s and ’90s, Yen made his mark in his homeland with such iconic films as “Tiger Cage,” “Once Upon a Time in China II” and “Iron Mon- key.” His success brought him back to the States, working on productions like “Highlander: Endgame,” “Blade II” and “Shanghai Knights” as well as “Mulan” more recently. But Hollywood proved bittersweet. He sparred with a producer on “Blade II” who didn’t want his input.
“Some people are more cold-blooded,” he says of the experience. Other projects, like “The Expendables 2” and “Aquaman,” seemed promising but didn’t work out because of timing.
“Zack Snyder called. It was a friendly call, and he said, ‘Would you like to consider a cameo in the film?’” he says of the James Wan- helmed DC movie about the aquatic superhero. “I couldn’t do it, so we didn’t explore it. But that kind of thing happens all the time.”
Yen finds it hard to watch his cultural heritage bastardized in American films. He bristles at Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of martial arts legend Bruce Lee in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
“Everybody is entitled to their opinions,” Yen explains. “Quentin Tarantino is a very renowned filmmaker, and he’s entitled to his status. And I’m entitled to state my own view. Obviously, he was making fun of Bruce. It was cartoonish.”
Still, Yen is game to continue working in Hollywood. And he has a few ideas. “I’d love to do a ‘John Wick’ spinoff centered around Caine,” he says. As for the likelihood, he adds with a laugh: “There’s always ‘talks’ in Hollywood.”
That may require some deft scheduling. He has never been busier back in China, where his wife of 19 years, Cissy Wang, runs their company that spans film, TV and merchandise (think Caine-esque sunglasses). He’s directing, producing and starring in projects as well as working with new talent. Though breaking in up-and-comers proved to be too daunting.
“We used to manage new artists, but I felt like I was putting too much time on that. It was too consuming,” Wang says. “In the end, I had to pull back. The new generation, they’re not really as focused with discipline. So I ended up just saying, ‘Maybe it’s better you find other representation.’”
In the meantime, she’ll continue vetting scripts and opportunities for her husband. Yen says he is content straddling both Hollywood and the Chinese film industry and is “up for anything,” “except controversy.” But on this day, a Change.org petition is circulating that calls for the Academy to remove Yen as a presenter because he previously accused Hong Kong protesters “of being rioters.” He stands firm and characterizes the 2019 uprising as “a riot” and not a protest and says he witnessed the violence firsthand.
“I’m allowed to love my own culture. Love my own country. Why cannot I be patriotic?” he asks. “This whole online cyber-bullying/cancel culture has got to stop. You can’t own somebody’s thoughts. And you want to silence them? It’s totally hypocrites.”
Alas, the petition fails, and Yen graced the Oscars stage the next night to introduce the trippy “Everything Everywhere All at Once” best song nominee “This Is a Life,” which was performed by Son Lux, Stephanie Hsu and David Byrne. Today, he’s just embracing the moment, jetlag notwithstanding.
“I’ve just been very lucky,” he says. “Every time when I feel like my life has a downturn. Something good happens. And we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”