Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe was the standout character for many viewers in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story thanks to his often scene-stealing qualities. But it turns out he was almost a much more generic role that likely wouldn’t have gotten nearly the amount of praise he ended up with. Fans who loved him can thank Yen for much of that.
While few expected Rogue One to spawn something as incredible as Andor, much of that confusion came from audiences wondering why Diego Luna’s character of Cassian Andor was the one to get his own spinoff. To some, it would have made more sense to star someone like Yen in his Chirrut role, given how popular the character became. But despite the unexpectedly high quality of Andor and fans’ newfound appreciation for Luna’s fledgling rebel, Chirrut still holds a place in the hearts of many a Star Wars faithful. But how much of that reverence is due to Yen’s influence?
In an interview with GQ, Yen recently spoke about how he’s been dealing with stereotypical typecasting throughout his career due to his ethnicity. One such instance was Chirrut Îmwe, who started as “just the same generic martial arts warrior.” But the Hong Kong actor had some suggestions for the character right from the start. “One thing I pointed out is he was a stereotype,” Yen explained. “Typical master. Doesn’t smile.” GQ then clarified that “it was Yen who suggested making the character blind, and gave him a sense of humor, improvising jokes on the set—and, in turn, turning an otherwise straight cliché into the soul of the movie.”
This is a big discovery, as Chirrut added so much to Rogue One that it’s difficult to imagine the film without his wit and charisma. Rogue One was the first Star Wars war film, and Chirrut added equal parts heart and levity that contributed to the movie leaving such a lasting impression on so many. From his enchanting martial arts to hilarious moments like pointing out the absurdity of putting a sack over the head of a blind person, it’s now clear that Yen should be thanked for more than just his excellent performance.
This wasn’t the only instance of Yen fighting against tired Asian stereotypes in Hollywood. His upcoming role as Keanu’s old buddy in John Wick: Chapter 4 also initially fell into similar pitfalls before he offered some input. “The name was Shang or Chang,” Yen says, referring to his assassin character, who has since been renamed Caine. “Why does he always have to be called Shang or Chang? Why can’t he have a normal name? Why do you have to be so generic? Then the wardrobe again—oh, mandarin collars. Why is everything so generic? This is a John Wick movie. Everybody’s supposed to be cool and fashionable. Why can’t he look cool and fashionable?” GQ added that Yen says Caine’s updated costume design is now partially inspired by the actor’s hero, Bruce Lee.
Star Wars often has issues with stereotypical characters, so it was helpful that Yen wasn’t afraid to speak his mind in this regard. His notes on his John Wick: Chapter 4 character likely similarly improved the role and how he’ll stand out as his own person rather than a collection of clichés. Either way here’s hoping his efforts can inspire others to take similar steps toward more individuality like this in Hollywood.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is available on Disney Plus.
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