The greatest living martial artist talks about his craft.


September 7, 2006 - Fans of martial arts films will already know who Tony Jaa is: the heir to the martial arts movie throne. With Ong-Bak, he made a huge splash on the world scene, and Jaa became not only a martial arts superstar, but an ambassador for the Muay Thai style.

After the global success of that film, the follow-up Tom Yung Goong, named The Protector in the US, had to be bigger, badder and much more dangerous. It is those things and more, but it's also much more spiritually tied to the culture of Thailand than its predecessor. Central to the core of the film is a quest to preserve the culture: the sanctity of sacred elephants and the purity of the Muay Thai fighting style.

We recently got an opportunity to sit down and chat (through an interpreter) to Tony Jaa, and here's what the world's greatest martial artist had to say:

IGN: Describe the significance of elephants in Thai culture.

Tony Jaa: I don't know where to start with the significance of the elephant. It's so important. In history, elephants were always used in war. When they had wars in Thailand, the king would always sit on the elephant in battle, because the elephant is a strong symbol to the Thai. Now, there is no war, so they don't use the elephants for travel so they are mostly used in hometowns. They worship elephants as brothers, sisters, fathers, their mothers, their ancestors, their grandfathers. It is a spiritual symbol for them.

IGN: If you're looking at elephants as family, did your personal family include an elephant?

Jaa: In real life, I have two elephants in my hometown and they were inherited [from] my grandparents. They're still living. One is named "Flower," and the other is named "Leaf." They are worshipped as gods.

Their role in the family—there are a lot of ceremonies in Thai culture, when people become Buddhist monks or marriage—they use elephants to make the ceremony more sacred. And they're used sometimes for labor.

IGN: This film had a much larger budget than Ong-Bak. What things were you able to do with a larger budget that you couldn't include in that movie?

Jaa: The main key that is different from Ong-Bak is characters. They [got] more and more big characters in supporting roles. We flew to Australia to do the scenes, and the preparation was smoother than the first movie.

IGN: How much planning goes into each fight sequence?

Jaa: We did so well on Ong-Bak that we had to prepare more on fight scenes in this movie. So, we did like mock shots on video and then evaluated if it was good enough for the movie or not. Especially for the long-shot scene where there were five minutes and four floors, everybody had to be perfect… We had to prepare one month for that scene and it took eight takes to get it. All seven, they threw away and just used the last one.

IGN: Do you think it's difficult to find things that haven't been done in a martial arts film?

Jaa: We find it challenging finding uniqueness in a movie, however, most of the movies are kung fu, and Muay Thai or Thai kickboxing hasn't been that popular, so we feel that there's more to explore in the Muay Thai.

IGN: What is the scariest stunt you've had to perform in a movie?

Jaa: Every stunt he does is dangerous. If something goes wrong, it's my life. For the long take, it was the most tiring and frustrating, so probably that would be my answer. The last scene, where I use bones from elephants to knock out 50 of my enemies; when I do a scene, I get into character so sometimes it's dangerous for the stand-ins because I'm hitting everywhere. I'm really concerned about their safety, too. But everyone came out okay, so that was a good thing.

IGN: Did injury ever halt the production?

Jaa: There are always injuries; in Ong-Bak and this movie, The Protector. There was one scene where I tore my muscles because I wanted to double-leap from each wall. At first, I wanted to do three, but then I wanted to beat the record. 1-2-3-4. I tore my muscle.

IGN: How do you respond to people saying you're the next Bruce Lee or the next Jackie Chan?

Jaa: I don't really want to be compared to Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, but I really feel honored and really proud that people actually see me as them or similar to them, and because they are my inspiration for what I have become today. I am really honored that people compare me to those people.

IGN: What's your personal favorite martial arts film?

Jaa: I watch mostly every martial arts movie… I really like movies that aren't just martial arts. I like movies that have spiritual meaning behind them, like samurai movies, or movies that have meditation. The movie by Akira [Kurosawa] really inspires me.

IGN: Is it a goal to come over and make movies in Hollywood?

Jaa: I have another project in Thailand right now, but for the future, nothing is for sure. Whatever the future brings, it depends on the role in the movie.

IGN: Is there an actor or director you've dreamed of working with?

Jaa: For directors, Steven Spielberg. For actors, Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise.