Profile & Interview: Tony Jaa
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Tony Jaa poses for AboutFilm in Los Angeles.
That's the tagline of the new martial arts film from Thailand, Ong-Bak, and now 27 year-old Tony Jaa is going to prove it.
With cords wrapped around his hands and wrists, and ropes around his arms and forehead, Jaa does a somersault and accurately kicks a padded target a dozen feet off the ground. The press watches as Jaa lines up his crew—five assistants in T-shirts bearing the words “Muay Thai Stunt.” Jaa leaps through the air, then crowd-walks over all five on a dead run, stepping on their shoulders. Jaa then demonstrates his fighting skills, hitting and throwing his assistants.
Jaa has demonstrated the point, which is that he has the skills to do everything you see in Ong-Bak, the first film to feature him as an actor and not a stunt double. What's special about Jaa, compared to bigger name stars, is his jaw-dropping acrobatic ability. Wires seem almost superfluous when it comes to Jaa. He may not be able to stand on leaves or run on water, but when he leaps over a car in a single bound, he's really doing it.
It takes a lot of work to get to this point. Tony Jaa, born Panon Yee-rum in the province of Surin (about 200 kilometers from Bangkok), has been fixated on martial arts since childhood. At fifteen, he began to work for Thai action star/fight choreographer Phanna Rithikrai, training in kung fu and stunt work while simultaneously working on movie sets as a waterboy, cook, and general crewmember. Jaa also studied taekwondo, swordplay, and gymnastics. His first real opportunity came when he appeared as a stunt double for Robin Shou in Mortal Kombat 2. He also stunt doubled Thai star James Ruengsak and worked on the Thai TV series In See Dang.
Finally Jaa took up Muay Thai, the ancient discipline of his land, and mastered it under the guidance of his mentor. Together they developed the idea for Ong-Bak and took it Thai director/producer Prachya Pinkaew, who agreed to helm the project.
After the press demonstration, Jaa settles down to an interview with AboutFilm. Out of traditional garb and in plain sweat clothes, you'd never guess that the soft-spoken, easy-going Jaa could well be one of the most skilled martial artists in the world. Now that Ong-Bak has opened on 200 screens in the United States, American audiences have the opportunity to decide for themselves what they think, and whether Jaa deserves to be the next Jackie Chan or Jet Li.Note: This interview was conducted through a translator, who explained and paraphrased Tony Jaa's responses. The content has been rewritten in the first person and edited for readibility.
AboutFilm: What is the difference between Muay Thai and other martial arts?
Jaa: They're both the same, and they're both different. They're similar in that they all have roots in nature, and they're different in the cultural background that you bring into the martial art. The ancestors pass those cultures along. You express the way of living of the people, and in Muay Thai you also show gratitude. That's what makes it different from other forms of martial arts.
AboutFilm: Most of us here are not that familiar with the differences between Asian cultures. What is particular about the Thai way of living?
Jaa: Thai people live a simple life devoted to Buddhism. They live alongside nature, have a good heart, and follow the beliefs of metta [loving-kindness] and karuna [compassion], which are part of Buddhism. Their belief and devotion to Buddhism is seen in their way of life.
AboutFilm: That's clearly a major theme in the movie. How important was it to you to express these things in the film?
Jaa: That was an important part. I also wanted to demonstrate my abilities—my true ability, without any wires or stuntmen—through the way of life of Thai people that you see in the film.
AboutFilm: What are some other themes or symbols in the movie that a Thai audience would understand that a Western audience might not?
Jaa: Thai people will see the Buddhism and the traditions of Thai culture, but another thing that I wanted to bring out was the good and the evil. If you do good, then you receive good, and if you do evil then you receive evil. That comes out in the film.
AboutFilm: In the film, Bangkok seems almost like an evil place. Does this reflect the attitude of Thai people? Is there a tension between the urban and the rural worlds in Thailand?
Jaa: Actually, it wasn't our intention to portray Bangkok as an evil place. It was just one perspective where I wanted people to see good and evil, where good gets good and evil gets evil in return.
AboutFilm: How did all this begin for you?
Jaa: When I was ten years old, I learned the basics of Muay Thai, but I didn't really start getting into the meat of it until four years before making Ong-Bak.
AboutFilm: How much of your time did you devote to this in your teen years? Was your life very different from that of a normal Thai kid?
Jaa: I was definitely different from other teenagers. I would spend more of my time training and meditating rather than going out to clubs and partying. I would train for about eight hours a day.
AboutFilm: When did you meet your mentor Phanna Rithikrai?
Jaa: I went to see Phanna when I was fifteen. I'm inspired by Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, but he showed that Thai people are able to do stunts and martial arts as well, so I was inspired to go see Master Phanna.
AboutFilm: What were your initial interactions like?
Jaa: Phanna tested me to see what I could do, so I did flips for Phanna, but Phanna told me to go finish school first. During summer, I would go back to work with Phanna. I would work with the crew and pick up things from them.
AboutFilm: Did Phanna take a lot of convincing, or did he see your potential immediately?
Jaa: He took a little bit of convincing, because a lot of people come to Phanna wanting to be students, but then they just go away. I was persistent. I asked my dad for permission to come, and I told him that if he wouldn't let me come I would kill myself. So then I went back and worked in the crew with Phanna every summer, doing everything, to show I was really devoted and wanted to work here.
AboutFilm: What do your parents do?
Jaa: They're farmers.
AboutFilm: So you trained with Phanna, and worked with him in the movies. When did your work in the movies begin?
Jaa: First I went to work with Phanna's crew so I could learn from the stunt men, and then I would go home and train by myself. Finally Phanna said, “If you really want to do this, then you should go to the physical education academy, and they will really work on your skills.” So I did that, and Phanna saw that I was really devoted to it. Then I told Phanna that I really wanted to be with the movies, so Phanna said, “Come with me.” So then I dropped my college, and worked with Phanna doing movies.
AboutFilm: One of the movies you worked on was Mortal Kombat 2, as a stunt double for Robin Shou. Which scenes can we see you in?
Jaa: The backflip where his character hits a really big guy, and the one where he does a twirl. After Mortal Kombat, I took my friends to see Mortal Kombat, and I said, “That's me, that's me!” They didn't believe it was me, so then that made me want to do something bigger where people would know it was actually me doing it. So I did stunts to save up money, to create a project with Phanna and to present to Prachya [Pinkaew].
AboutFilm: How did you approach Prachya?
Jaa: Phanna actually knew Prachya before, and Prachya had said that he wanted to work on a more Thai-themed film. So then Phanna and I worked on this project and presented it to him.
AboutFilm: How did Prachya respond?
Jaa: At first it seemed kind of normal to him, but then he said, “Wow, this kid really has abilities. Looks like he can fly!” So then he accepted the project.
AboutFilm: How was the script developed?
Jaa: The script took a long time to develop. The script itself took four years, but for me it took eight years because of the Muay Thai training I did for Ong-Bak.
AboutFilm: You learned a lot of stunts specifically for the film, I imagine.
Jaa: The stunts we did took a long time because we would write them out as a storyboard first, and then did test shots to see how it looked before we did the actual filming. So it took a really long time.
AboutFilm: How does one learn to slide under a car on the run in a single move?
Jaa: I already knew how to do the splits, but we didn't really know how to incorporate that with a prop. So we thought about it and thought that doing the splits under a car would look perfect on the screen. So Phanna, Prachya, and me all agreed that was the perfect scene. For that scene, my master had to drive the car, because I felt most comfortable with Phanna doing it. We both knew the cues for the scene very well.
AboutFilm: You obviously took a lot of risks with these stunts. Which ones worried you the most?
Jaa: There are a lot of scenes, especially the market scene—you kind of defy nature by doing the double jump and then running across. That doesn't look like something that would actually happen. So when we did that shot we wanted to make sure it was a long shot so you could see it was really me doing those stunts, without any wires.
AboutFilm: There were a couple that seemed very dangerous to me—when your pants catch fire, and when you go through the window with your opponent and fall two or three stories. Those were done with no special effects?
Jaa: For those scenes there were no special effects, but we did a lot of preparation and practiced them a lot, so that it all came out. We wanted viewers to ask, “How did you do that? Why did you do that?” For example, in the market scene where I jumped through the barbed wire—why did I have to use that move, instead of another move? That was one of the things that we aimed for, to captivate the audience's attention.
AboutFilm: How much budget did you have for this film?
Jaa: [consults with production people] Three million U.S. dollars.
AboutFilm: Did you do any acting training on top of the martial arts training?
AboutFilm: How much training did you do?
Jaa: When I was studying with Phanna I learned a little acting with the crew, but before making Ong-Bak I had an acting coach for about a year.
AboutFilm: It took you four years to prepare this project. People won't want to wait four years for your follow-up project. Tell me a little bit about it. It's called Tom Yum Goong?
Jaa: Because of the tours for Ong-Bak, we've halted the production for Tom Yum Goong, but it's been in production for two years. It's about seventy percent done.
AboutFilm: What is the story in that movie?
Jaa: It has to do with the bond between people and elephants in Thailand.
AboutFilm: What kind of stunts might we see? Will you leap over an elephant?
Jaa: [laughs] You'll just have to wait. There will definitely be something new for you to see.
AboutFilm: How long do you plan to work in Thailand? Do you want to work outside of Thailand?
Jaa: I want to work in Thailand for a little bit longer, to develop stronger roots, and because of the independence that I get in producing my films there. So I want to build strong roots in Thailand first.
AboutFilm: And then? Will you be drawn more to Hong Kong, or the United States, or somewhere else?
Jaa: Actually, I want to work everywhere, in order to demonstrate the Thai culture and the Thai way of life for other people to see. That's one thing I want to do.
AboutFilm: What are some of your favorite martial arts films?
Jaa: Every Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan movie, but most importantly Fist of Fury and Police Story .
AboutFilm: In Ong-Bak it was very important for you not to use wires and harnesses. How do you feel about them in other movies? Do you like any of those movies?
Jaa: It's a way of presenting a movie that's different. It's up to the viewers what type of movie they like to watch. It might come down to an actor that they like to watch, too.
AboutFilm: We have to wrap up, but thank you for time. The movie was a lot of fun.
Jaa: Thank you.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Ong-Bak]
Feature and Interview © February 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Magnolia Pictures. All Rights Reserved. (except where indicated)
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