Capone interrogates the coolest martial arts actor alive today, Tony Jaa - THE PROTECTOR!!!


September 5, 2006
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Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here with the man whose last film ONG-BAK blew everyone away at BNAT a couple years ago, and whose latest film THE PROTECTOR (better known to some of you as the Americanized version of TOM YUM GOONG) is even better. Tony was working with a very nice translator for this interview, and I've tried as best I could to put his responses in Tony's voice. I'm actually going to see the new version of THE PROTECTOR tonight, but I did this interview a couple weeks back, having only seen the original Thai version. Enjoy...

Capone: I have not seen this version, THE PROTECTOR, yet.

Tony Jaa: Have you seen the Thai one?

C: I've seen the original again, yes, but I don't know what the differences are between the two.

TJ: I have seen some...other than the soundtrack [from The RZA], there are quite a few scenes which have been cut out, just to tighten up the movie.

C: Okay. So similar to what was done to ONG-BAK, that sort of just pulling scenes to tighten it up a little?

TJ: Yeah.

C: Got it. Why is it so important that the characters you play are basically ordinary men defending the honor of their people and village?

TJ: It's a character close to my heart--just a very simple man, and it's something about being Thai, about being simple.

C: And, you grew up in a smaller rural setting?

TJ: Yes, a very rural setting.

C: With that in mind, would you ever consider at any point playing a character less like yourself, the villain in a movie, or would that not be something you'd be interested in?

TJ: It depends on the opportunity, so I may like to play a bad guy one of these days. It depends on how bad the person, on what bad things he does, and it depends on the script.

C: In your life, how important is it for you to inject your Buddhist beliefs and themes into your films? Certainly in your films, there's more of a spiritual connection and interaction between the hero and the situation than I've seen in other action films. Literally, in ONG-BAK, you're going after a Buddha's head, and then even more so in the new one.

TJ: There has to be a spiritual aspect to my movies. In any film that I am making myself, I hope that there will be at least some sort of spiritual aspect of my beliefs that can be pertinent to the theme. I believe that this will improve the quality or, at least, add to the quality of the film and help to spread the belief.

C: In Thailand, has that been the case? Has it been applauded for having the spiritual quality when so many other action films don't?

TJ: It definitely has, I mean, Thailand being a Buddhist country and very spiritual in what we do. I think the audience feels a sense of good when we have this spiritual or religious thing added into my films.

C: Both of your most recent films also have very strong social messages, primarily about the big city versus the smaller community. Are there any issues, maybe unique to Thailand, that you'd like to include and address in future films? Are there ideas that you have?

TJ: I would like to focus more on he idea of karma. In any film, hopefully, I would like to have it a bit obvious, like learning, You're good, you get good; you're bad, you're going to get bad. So, it's a bit of karma that is very important. This is something that will be quite obvious in my films.

C: There are also characters in the films who, because of drugs or just bad influences around them, are good people leading lives they're not happy with, and sometimes they don't survive. Other times they are pulled out of that lifestyle. I think that's really unique to your films. Is that something you're always looking for--redemption--in your characters?

TJ: I do that on purpose. I feel I said about karma, whenever there is good, you get good, but you do bad...sometimes you even do good, you get bad, because of the karma that you did in your past lives or something like that. But, in my films, I hope to show that if you do good, you get your good, and if you do bad, but you realize your mistake, you still can come back and get your good things. These people see and realize that even if you do bad, there is hope.

C: We've talked about spiritual things, let's talk about action a little bit. Why is it important to you that your fight sequences are all the things that you're know for--no special effects, no wires, no doubles?

TJ: I feel that this is part of the advertising that the company does, but for myself, I want to instill realism and a realistic aspect of filming. Nowadays, if you see a lot of martial arts films or action films, there are a lot of slings, wires, there's a lot of CGI involved in filming it. I want my movie to be a Tony Jaa movie. It has is different in that, firstly, it incorporates more Muay Thai, which is, I think, hardly ever seen anywhere else. This is the first time that anybody has done Muay Thai in film.

Secondly, being a Tony Jaa film means it's a realistic film in which there is no stunt man. I do the stunts myself. I do all the action scenes myself, as much as I can do, that my ability is able to do. And, I want to show that on film. I think it creates a different and much more interesting work, such that when the audience watches the film they will be amazed--and not because of some CGI or special effects person who does it.

C: It really does make a difference. I was just in New York movie theatre last weekend, and they showed a trailer of THE PROTECTOR before the movie I was there to see. And, people instantly remembered you from ONG-BAK. This was in Times Square, so that means a very vocal crowd. And, they all clapped, they all knew who you were. And, they all clapped when the trailer was over. The scene that really got them was where you jump off the building onto the helicopter.

You mentioned Muay Thai before, but I've also read where you have said that you actually borrow from several different martial art styles and then inject something of your own into it. How do you describe what you're adding to it? Do have a name for that?

TJ: It's more of an inspiration thing. I get my inspiration from the different martial arts of Bruce Lee, Jet Li, or Jackie Chan. I take those inspirations and add Muay Thai into it, changing it a bit. In many ways, it's also about using gymnastics, using different forms of sports, and putting it in and seeing whether it incorporates with the Muay Thai. Muay Thai itself is a martial art. It isn't as gymnastic as it is in the film. To make it more interesting, that's what I add. I put these inspirations into my action scenes.

C: I've often read that Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Jet Li are your main influences and were part of the reason that you wanted to get into filmmaking. But, I also read that BORN TO FIGHT was a big influence. And, I actually saw that after right after I saw ONG-BAK just because I...

TJ: The original or the...

C: I assume it was the original.

TJ: There was a remake.

C: I'm pretty sure it was something that came before ONG-BAK, though.

TJ: There was also a BORN TO FIGHT remake. It was done by the same director, my mentor Panna Rittikrai. That was done actually after ONG-BAK. Were there a lot of gymnastics, or was there, like, a group of kids going into this town, and then the town is terrorized by somebody? And, the kids use all their gymnastic and sports abilities?

C: The part I remember was at the end, when the hero is going down that hill with all the homes and...

TJ: Yes! That's the remake.

C: Okay, then I've been fooled! But, what was it about the original that was so influential. Was there an aspect to it that you liked and made you want to meet the people that made that film?

TJ: When I saw the film...during the period when they were doing BORN TO FIGHT, it was still very Hong Kong-influenced sort of action. To me, when I saw the film, it was like, Wow, at least Thais can also do that, and I was very inspired by that. Because by then, I had known my master Panna Rittikrai for quite some time, and had been in that team for quite some time, and seen how the stunt team worked--that they were willing to risk their lives for the film. And, that sort of inspired me.

C: In THE PROTECTOR, you get to do a lot more acting. What was it like to cry on camera for the first time?

TJ: That was something I really enjoyed a lot. I believe that the drama drives the action. It's not the action that drives the drama. I feel that with the right story, the right drama, it actually makes the action scenes even better. So, I'm very much into it.

C: Is it important to you to work as much on your ability as an actor as it is to develop the physical parts of your work, to get better as an athlete?

TJ: It's something that goes hand in hand. I haven't really taken any professional acting classes, but basically I try to improve myself acting-wise, and physically as well. It's equally important. You can't have one without the other. If it was just action, it would be almost like an action show--it's just acting and demonstration. But, with the right acting skills and with the right drama and the right story, it only will make the film a lot better. And, make me a much better actor.

It's really difficult to get the right balance. It's like, you know, getting into the mood of a character, especially when he's angry and crying when he loses the elephant. If I put too much of my emotion into my acting, I could actually act out the character's frustration during the fight scenes. So, I could actually injure somebody if I were too much into it. It's very, very hard for me to find the balance.

To fight with the realism and the feelings that you should feel as an actor but to also always bear in mind that you have to be very careful what you're doing with your fellow actors.

C: I was going to ask if during some of those more dramatic fight scenes, like the one where you're breaking everyone's arms and legs, if it is difficult to keep those emotions in check--in a scene like that that's very passionate and it's not just about defending yourself. It's about raw emotion.

TJ: It's really difficult, I mean, it's about you're having the emotional aspect as well as the knowing that you are going to be fighting with opponents and trying to get the realistic feel of the role and yet knowing very, very clearly that you have to control your emotions such that you do not overdo your fight scenes, because you could actually seriously hurt others.

C: You said earlier that the drama and the action need to go hand in hand. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen in some films. Do you laugh at martial arts films that rely so heavily on wires and CGI and stunt doubles. Do you look down on films like that?

TJ: No, certainly not. I don't feel like that. I actually enjoy a lot of the modern-day things with wires and the stunt doubles. That's where I get my inspiration. A lot of the films that I watch, I really and truly enjoy the modern films with their over-the-top action. I feel I take inspiration from them. I look at some of them and take inspiration, in which I will sometimes think maybe I'll be able to that particular stunt without the wire. Would it be possible to do that? If I am able to do that, I will take more pride in it, but I don't feel that it's a bad thing. I think it's actually a different means of expression. I want to do a film which is small, realistic, I want to do my own stunts. But, for the other films, I think it's okay, it's fine. I enjoy them.

C: I noticed that Luc Besson, who helped edit and distribute ONG-BAK internationally, has started using a lot more martial arts in his films. How would you rate that? The one he produced called DISTRICT B13 that I saw the year after ONG-BAK had another actor who did all his own stunts with no tricks.

TJ: I think it's fine. I think it's great that everybody is able to do something that's very much their own style. That being their own style. I'm sure that Luc Besson's film has its own style, which is maybe very different from what mine is. And, I have my own style. So, to me, it's absolutely fine.

C: One thing I did want to address, some Western audiences may not understand the cultural significance of elephants in Thai culture. And, I want to get the word out, so people will understand. Can you explain that.

TJ: Elephants are a very, very important part of Thai culture. To many Thais, they are taken as very important animals of high level, almost to the point of being gods to some people. In ancient times, the elephants were used for war, and the kings would ride on their backs and then fight against the opponents during war times. In present times, a lot of the elephants are used for religious ceremonial purposes, for parades and things like that. So, it's really something that is very in tune with the Thai culture.

My family has been raising elephants for many, many generations. My ancestors were elephant `mahuts' [trainers], looking after elephants for a long time. And, I myself have two elephants called Flower and Leaf. And, they are like a part of my family. One is 60, and the other is 50 years old. I have bought this really large piece of land, like a jungle, and I sort of let them run free and live the rest of their lives there.

C: What is next for you. I've been reading two things: One is that you're preparing for ONG-BAK II, and then there's another film called SWORD?

TJ: SWORD is on the back burner for the time being. We will be doing it later.

In the next film, ONG-BAK II, this really comes from my heart and from my spirit. I have already many scenes, action scenes in my head. I've already filled up my head. I will be directing the film as well. It will be a period piece. You will see a lot of Muay Thai that you have never seen before. It will be a very interesting new Muay Thai movie, but there will also be ancient Thai weaponry used. There will be elephants involved in the movie as well, and they will be part of the action.

C: Will you be playing the same character, or will it be a completely different story?

TJ: I will be a different character and a different story.

C: I have to ask: In THE PROTECTOR, I'm sure lots of people are going to focus on the scene where you're going up the many flights of stairs. I had to watch that a couple times, just because I didn't believe my eyes that it was all done in one take. How long did it take you, and how many times did you have to shoot that before you got it right?

TJ: Basically, this particular scene took a month to prepare and two weeks to shoot it. It took eight takes altogether, and with the eight takes, you could only do two a day, because with each take, you just had to prepare everything. I start from the bottom and I start fighting from the bottom to the fourth floor, so every scene, lighting, camera has to be at the right spot at the right time. For the film, it's a Steadicam, so basically, the film roll is only about four minutes long. So, it has to finish that four stories within that four minutes of film. So, that was a really difficult aspect to it. Originally, it was supposed to be a white guy who was going to be the cinematographer for that scene, but he just wasn't fit enough to coordinate everything, so in the end, we took an Asian Thai guy who actually became the cinematographer for that particular scene.

So, in this film, there were eight takes. In one of the takes I was doing everything perfectly, and the camera is following me, and I am doing it, and then...when you watch the sequence, there was one scene in which I threw the bad guy over the third-floor balcony, and the guy fell to the ground floor. So, in that scene, as you start from the beginning, it's just an empty ground floor, and I start going up. So, as I got to the second and third floor, they're supposed to push in the safety thing with the net and the boxes, so that when the stunt men fall into it there's not a problem, you know? As I was going to throw the stunt man off the balcony, that safety thing wasn't in place. So, I had to pull the stunt man back, the whole scene was destroyed, and we had to restart.

Another scene, I was doing everything perfectly, right to the fourth floor, where I was supposed to say something--I can't remember what the line is--and the film ran out, just as I was about to say it. Everything was perfect, and we had to do it again. So, it was only on the eighth take that everything was perfect. And, that was my dream sequence.