Tony Jaa of The Protector
Interview by Brian Tallerico, contributing editor

The first thing that strikes you when you meet Tony Jaa, the star of Ong Bak and The Protector, is that this martial arts legend isn't exactly what you'd expect. Maybe it's because our action heroes are larger than life, kicking and fighting on the big screen, but Tony Jaa is surprisingly soft-spoken for a man who could kick the ass of everyone in the room before you can put your notepad down. He doesn't speak English, requiring his manager to translate, but he laughs and smiles a lot and clearly seems to be enjoying bringing what he loves about his culture and film to the USA. Note: This interview was conducted through a translator, who answered in third person, which has been edited back to first person for Tony's answers.

UGO: What inspired you the most to do what you do?

TONY JAA: My inspiration comes from the films that I've been watching since I was a kid. I've watched a lot of films since I was young and was especially inspired by action and the martial arts films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. My dream is to be able to do the film I want to do without any interference.

UGO: What would that film be like?

TONY: (After a long pause.) Definitely martial arts and action.

UGO: So, you were inspired by so many martial arts experts. How do you hope to inspire people?

TONY: To inspire the future and the next generation would have to come from the Thai martial art Muay Thai. For my style, to inspire is not to able to fight like me or to be really strong or hurt people, but to project that my action has a story to tell, something about the doing of good. It's not just fighting for the sake of fighting, but fighting for the sake of good and that's what I hope to inspire in the next generation.

UGO: This film in particular has a very personal emphasis for you with its focus on elephants. Can you comment on how elephants have played a role in your culture and own personal history?

TONY: Thais have a very strong reverence of the elephant. The elephant is very embedded in Thai culture and history. In historical times, the elephant was used for war, where the king and his bodyguards would be on elephants fighting against other parties. In modern times, the elephant is still being cared for as a being that is very high, almost to the point of a God. A lot of elephants are used for ceremonial purposes. My family have been looking after elephants for many generations. My ancestors look after elephants. Even, in present day, I have two elephants named Flower and Leaf, one is sixty years old and the other is fifty years old. They are treated as part of the family. I have bought a huge piece of land just to be a jungle for these two elephants to roam.

UGO: In the film, you use the elephants to train. Did you ever do that in real life?

TONY: It's been in my blood since I was young. They were more like playthings. I would have to take the elephants to bathe and we would do acrobatic, gymnastic stunts. My friends would ride buffalos, while I rode an elephant and we would act out scenes from movies. It was playacting, but it was also a form of training.

UGO: How do you distinguish your films from other martial arts films? What makes a Tony Jaa film different?

TONY: The very important point is that my films are about Muay Thai. It's very rare - Ong Bak was the first film about Muay Thai - and that's what I want to concentrate on for now, the showing of Muay Thai and Thai culture. Another strong aspect is to film as realistically as possible. I don't use stunt men. I do the stunts myself. There are no wires. There are no CGI effects.

UGO: Then how is The Protector different from Ong Bak?

TONY: This movie is a much, much bigger budget film. It has a lot more action built in. There are more international actors. Story-wise, it is totally different. The action scenes are very different. The Muay Thai is a totally different style - this one is an elephant Muay Thai style which is very different.

UGO: Do you worry at all about other filmmakers copying your style or making films like yours?

TONY: Not at all. It's a spreading of Thai culture. If the other person was able to do something as good or even better, that is fine. Every individual has a different way of doing things.

UGO: The market scene in Ong Bak took about a month to produce, so how long did the helicopter scene take in The Protector?

TONY: The helicopter scene wasn't the real hard one. It was the four-story staircase scene. It was the most difficult that I have ever had to do. The handicam has only one, four-minute reel - so it's one shot in one reel. We prepared for almost a month and we took eight takes and it was only on the eighth take that we were able to do it. The maximum we could do was two takes a day because we had to prepare so much. We had to change the photographer because he wasn't fit enough to follow up the four-minute climb. Running up the four stories in four minutes was really tiring. So, we found a Thai photographer to follow me up the stairs. It was quite frustrating and almost very dangerous. During one of the takes - everything has to be prepared way in advance - as I was coming in from the ground floor and going to the second and third floor, on the third floor I kick one of the stunt men down to the ground floor. The safety net isn't there at first, so after I go up, they push it in and I was going to kick the stunt man and the safety net wasn't in place. I had to push him and then pulled him back at the last minute. In another scene, everything was perfect and they were about to finish when the film ran out. Only on the eighth take did everything turn out as planned. That scene is very historic.

UGO: What's the worst you've ever hurt yourself and do you know how many bones you've broken?

TONY: I've hardly had any major injuries, no broken bones at all. In Ong Bak, I sprained my ankle fighting Big Bear. They had to stop production for three weeks. For The Protector, it was like a torn ligament when I was doing this scene with a rollerblade. Within two days I went back to shooting.

UGO: Why haven't you been more injured?

TONY: A lot of practice before film is actually shot. It's like preparing for the Olympics. You do a lot of practice to make sure there are no injuries or stunts that are too dangerous to be done. Like any sportsman, there will be some problems, like a kick went more than it should. There are bruises and sprains, but these are like normal sports injuries, rather than anything real serious.

UGO: After The Protector, what can fans expect next?

TONY: Ong Bak 2, which I am developing from the very beginning to the very end. I will be directing myself. It will be a period piece but we can't tell you much. You will see me using a Muay Thai which you have never seen before, something totally new. In addition, you will see me with ancient Thai weapons for the first time on film. It will be extremely action-packed.