On Friday the long awaited Star Wars spin-off movie was finally revealed to fans. And amongst the breathtaking CGI and the intriguing plot twists, we also saw a whole host of new characters.
But the true edge of Rogue One, comes from its diverse cast. Riz Ahmed who plays British-Asian pilot, Bodhi Rook, has publicly praised the ‘colour blind’ casting that sees the rebel band consists of a Mexican (Diego Luna), two Chinese (Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang) and African-American (Forest Whitaker), all of whom are led by a young British woman (Jones) whose on-screen father is Danish (Mads Mikkelsen).
“That’s what’s cool about Star Wars now,” says Ahmed. “They are such global films that they can’t help but reflect the global nature of their audience. And I find that refreshing, and exciting. And yes, it’s a step towards the promised land for all of us.”
But it was the blind badass warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe that stole the show. Played by the martial arts actor Donnie Yen, Chirrut is a blind ninja, whose unshakable faith and bravery are key to stealing the plans for the Death Star
And yet Yen almost passed on the opportunity to play this incredible part. “It was several months after I was approached for the part that I decided to take it up,” Yen was quoted as saying. “Because it would mean that I had to leave Hong Kong – and my children – for months. I couldn’t make up my mind at the beginning. But, of course, I feel lucky that I didn’t turn it down.”
He was also concerned his character was a forced attempt at marketing to the huge Chinese fanbase. “When the director [Gareth Edwards] approached me, I began by asking, quite frankly, if it’s a real character, or if he’s only casting me based on commercial considerations for the [Chinese] market. Once he told me what my character was going to be like, and some of my lines, including the iconic ‘May the Force be with you’, I recognized the importance of my character.”
Yen, who choreograph most of his own action as Imwe, also revealed that he was the reason the character was made blind.
“They asked for my opinions after giving me the script, and I told them I thought the character could use some more distinctive characteristics,”he said.
“It’s very much consistent with the story of the film, because when you can’t see, you have to feel things with your heart … Martial arts is also about feeling with one’s heart,” Yen explained.
He noted, however, that fighting as a blind character was extra difficult. Yen told USA Today that his vision impairment was not created by special effects and in the weeks before filming began, he trained himself to imagine his surroundings to be pitch black even with his eyes open.
— Star Wars (@StarWarsFrance) May 30, 2016
“As a blind character, I wasn’t able to look at them in the eyes and control the reactions, so that was actually the hardest part. Plus, wearing the contact lenses, it was not comfortable and I had to [take] them out of my eyes every 20 minutes,” Yen said.
Yen added that the best part about being in the Star Wars spin-off is that he’s now a part of a franchise that includes and represents a greater variety of people and that he was delighted that a Chinese actor is finally involved in Star Wars.
“As a Chinese actor, that’s a long time coming,” Yen told Boston Magazine. “You could not imagine this could happen decades ago. The world’s a lot closer today. We’re in a complex but diverse world. I’m glad I can represent and, hopefully when the movie comes out, it sets a great example for younger actors, not just Chinese actors. They too can achieve their goals.”
Rogue One represents a brighter future for people often ignored or sidelined by Hollywood. It’s inclusion – and celebration – of disability and diversity is certainly a promising step in the right direction. Still, the next achievement would be for Hollywood to cast disabled actors in disabled parts – rather than just casting able-bodied actors to play at being disabled. Hopefully, in this galaxy not too far away, we’ll see more disabled actors working in prominent roles, where their disability is both central as well as incidental.
Like Leia, we’ve got hope.