Jaa rules - Thai martial artist kicks career into high gear with ‘Protector’
By Stephen Schaefer
Boston Herald Entertainment Reporter

Monday, September 4, 2006 - Updated: 11:06 AM EST

There’s actually a touching moment amid the murderous martial arts mayhem of Tony Jaa’s “The Protector.”
     That’s when Jaa, Thailand’s answer to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, passes Chan in an airport and the two exchange looks as Chan smiles and bows. It’s a sweet cameo, a passing of the torch from one generation to the next.
     “Only that was a gag - it wasn’t Jackie but an impersonator,” Jaa, 30, revealed as he spoke in Thai with an interpreter.
     Jaa is the Bangkok-based sensation whose fearlessness has won him a global following. His 2003 thriller “Ong-Bak” was an international hit.
     “The Protector” (opening Friday), told with minimal dialogue and nearly nonstop action, has Jaa leave Asia for Australia to rescue two beloved elephants from a fate worse than being locked up in any zoo.
     “Before filming I stayed with the elephants for one week,” Jaa said. “I gave them food and played with them, to be familiar with my scent and mannerisms. In my life, my ancestors had always raised elephants, and so elephants have always been part of my family. I’ve bathed them and known them all my life.”
     Jaa - born Panom Yeerum, the third of four children - began studying martial arts at 10.
     “Along the way I developed my skills on my own and worked on film sets from grunt work to being a stuntman.”
     “Ong-Bak” was his first starring role, the culmination of a dream.
     “When I was young and saw Bruce Lee films, I wanted to do what he did for kung fu with Muay Thai,” the Thai martial art.
     “I was determined to do an action film with Muay Thai which hadn’t been seen. I wanted to be different from other martial artists and do the reality of Muay Thai, and I wanted people to see the individuality of my skills - without strings or CGI or doubles - Tony Jaa in full action.”
     His dazzling leaps, kicks and twirls are choreographed with a precision that would make even the Rockettes envious. Jaa sets the action sequences with his team, rehearses, videotapes and then films - usually twice. So far, he’s escaped serious injury.
     “I’ve been fairly lucky, I’ve not yet had a broken bone,” he said. “Like any sport, I’ve been injured - torn muscles and tendons, sprained my ankle.”
     A practicing Buddhist, does he think about death?
     “I believe death is something that is beautiful and natural, like falling asleep and never waking, like an eternal sleep. At some point everyone has to die, but while I think about the possibility of death with my stunts, I make sure I concentrate on the safety to minimize the risk of anything happening.”
     Single, Jaa now receives marriage proposals and finds fans give him their babies to hug.
     “The hope is they will grow up to be martial arts masters like Tony Jaa.”