The Rise of Tony Jaa

With his latest flick “The Protector,” Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa reaches new heights

By Uyen Le

Date posted: September 07, 2006

Following his dazzling debut in 2003’s instant classic “Ong Bak,” Tony Jaa returns to U.S. screens this weekend with “The Protector (Tom Yum Goong),” a wildly entertaining big-budget film that should solidify his status as the next great martial arts star.

As with movies of this kind, it’s best to ignore the plot (as the filmmakers clearly have). All you need to know is that our young hero must leave his Thai village for Sydney, Australia, to track down the baddies who have kidnapped his family’s treasured…elephants. Save your brain power for Jaa’s mind-blowing fight scenes (including one involving a helicopter), all accomplished without the help of CGI, wires or stunt doubles. Judging by the big marketing push by the film’s distributor, the Weinstein Company, Hollywood is paying attention.

During his press tour in New York several weeks ago, I sat down with Tony Jaa at a hotel restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The quiet jazz playing over the speakers encouraged whispered speech, so I could never really tell whether Jaa was as soft-spoken as he seemed. Through a translator, we talked about his new movie, his next project and, yes, his elephants.

TMM: Can you describe ‘The Protector’ and how it’s different from ‘Ong Bak’?

Tony Jaa: This new movie emphasizes a different style of Muay Thai kickboxing that’s related to elephants. I really wanted to show the relationhip of Thai people with elephants. I grew up with two elephants named Leaf and Flower, so I have a natural affinity for elephants. I wanted to portray that in the movie. There’s also more action to this film. My style is not to use stuntmen, not to use CG. It’s a bigger budget. I’m trying to reach out to the international community.

TMM: What makes it different from other martial arts films?

TJ: We really wanted to be clear about the acting and the method. We do all of our own stunts. All the actors were hand selected. There has never been a big feature film that was all Muay Thai. That was something that I really wanted to do.

TMM: What is it about the Muay Thai style of fighting that you want to share?

TJ: The Muay Thai in the movie is a new style that features elephants, a more traditional style of Muay Thai. There is also the breaking of bones—well, not actually breaking but simulating the breaking of bones.

TMM: How was it working with director Prachya Pinkaew and actor Phetthai Wongkhamlao again?

TJ: We’re so familiar with each other, so it helped with the filming.

TMM: Obviously, the budget you worked with for ‘The Protector’ is a lot bigger than what you had for ‘Ong Bak.’ What is lost or gained with this kind of change? What kind of pressure does that put on you?

TJ: There are some pressures that I’ve experienced as a result of working on a bigger budget film, but I see it as a challenge to overcome. It’s made it easier in that I’ve been able to do things that I really want to do—like I wanted to film in Sydney or being able to hire international actors. In those ways, it’s improved the production.

TMM: I know that after I see a film like ‘The Protector’ or ‘Ong Bak,’ I have the urge to go out and fight people or scale walls because you make it look so easy. Why do you think your films elicit such a reaction?

TJ: [Laughs] It’s not as easy at it looks. It requires a lot of training. Safety is number one for everybody on the set. Even though we don’t use stuntmen or we don’t use wires, we make sure there are safety precautions. For me, it’s really about self-improvement, improving the skills I have.

TMM: You’ve had extensive training in various forms of martial arts. Is there one that you favor more than others?

TJ: I am a fan of all martial arts. But if I have to choose one—Muay Thai.

TMM: How is it different to be the star of a movie instead of doing stunts for others?

TJ: I am very proud and very fortunate to be able to give back to my country and pay respects to my parents. I was able to build a forest for my elephants. Now that I am an actor, I have more responsibilities and more commitments, but also decreased independence, but that is a part of the job. [Shrugs shoulders]

TMM: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li are often listed as your idols. What do you like about their fighting styles and movies? What elements from their careers would you like to emulate?

TJ: They are all my heroes. I have been inspired by them ever since I was a small child. Bruce Lee was so fast and strong. And he was the first person to really popularize martial arts. As for Jackie Chan, I like how he uses gymnastic stunts within his films. I also enjoy his comedy. And with Jet Li, just the beauty, the grace, the agility he presents onscreen is amazing. I would really like to take from all three of these masters these qualities and bring them to Muay Thai to create my own personal style.

TMM: What are some martial arts films that you count among the best or that you find inspiring?

TJ: The first movie that really inspired me was a Thai movie called “Born to Fight.” Panna Rittikrai who was my instructor directed and starred in that film. It was one of Thailand’s first action films and it made me realize that this can be done in movies and I can do that.

TMM: What kinds of things can we expect from you next?

TJ: “Ong Bak 2” is in the works. It’s going to be a period piece, and I’m going to be directing for the first time, which is very exciting for me. It will showcase a new style of Thai fighting, which includes swords and other traditional weapons. I want everyone to wait and see.

TMM: Why are you making the leap from acting to directing?

TJ: I have an image in my head and I want to be able to produce that into a film. I want to be able to take everything that’s in here [points to head] and allow other people to see.