Rogue One: A Star Wars Story took plenty of chances as the first standalone movie in the Star Wars franchise, and many of them relate to the cast. Despite the risks involved with reviving classic characters, Rogue One also bet big on several new faces that the movie introduced to the Star Wars universe. The chemistry between the team of rebels led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is one of the major reasons that Rogue One has become both a critical and commercial success.
One of the breakout characters of Rogue One was Chirrut Îmwe, the blind Force-devoted warrior played memorably by Donnie Yen. The character’s noble devotion to the rebel cause and strong capabilities as a fighter (despite being blind) made Chirrut Îmwe one of the key members of the team, and Yen became a standout performance in the movie as a result. But Yen recently revealed that Chirrut Îmwe could very easily have been portrayed by a different actor.
In a new Q&A with the Los Angeles Times, Yen explained the process for how he eventually signed on for Rogue One. He was surprised to learn from director Gareth Edwards that he would not play a Jedi character – and to find out that his friends and family were more excited to see him in a Star Wars movie than another installment of the Ip Man movie franchise (which Yen was more well-known for both in China and among Western audiences, at the time).
Here’s how Yen described his decision:
“I turned to my children and I said, ‘Do you like baba’s ‘Ip Man’ series?’ — because I’m known to Western audiences for Ip Man. ‘Or do you want baba to be in ‘Star Wars’?’ They went, ‘Star Wars, of course!’ … I said, ‘Wait a minute — there’s something special there.’ Then my friends and family and fanboys, everybody was so excited and I realized, this is not just making a movie. You’re making history here. So that’s how I got involved, and I’m so glad I did.”
Yen added in the interview that he was hesitant about accepting the role of Chirrut Îmwe because of the extra time he had to spend away from his family after he had just completed work on another movie. But many Star Wars fans are surely thrilled that Yen made the sacrifices necessary to bring Chirrut Îmwe to life on the big screen. As the only rebel character with any kind of personal (in his case, spiritual) connection to the Force, Chirrut Îmwe delivered many of Rogue One’s most memorable lines and crafted a character that is sure to be a fan-favorite for years to come.
A character as distinctive and memorable as Chirrut Îmwe is the kind that leaves viewers unable to imagine any other actor embodying the role. Yen has arguably achieved that to a considerable degree, and it makes it that much more of a relief that he did not end up passing on the role. In retrospect, a different actor easily could have done less justice to the character than Yen did – but fortunately, no such thing happened, and Yen gave birth to one of the Star Wars franchise’s most popular new characters.