Martial Arts Star Tony Jaa: 'Protector' On- and Off-Screen

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2006

Tony Jaa, the Thai martial arts powerhouse starring in "The Protector," is vying to be the next Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li. After all, he has always had a vision: "I could see myself in my mind [as] a martial arts star, to entertain the crowds. This is what I was destined for."

Jaa is philosophical (or so he seems in an interview conducted through an interpreter). But the Muay Thai master can also fly, doing wire-free stunts that need no translation.

In the follow-up to the 2003 hit "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior," Jaa plays a country boy, Kham, who must travel to Australia to rescue two elephants from a gang of mobsters. Remarkably, the plot is close to his heart. (See review on Page 30.)

Born Panom Yeerum in rural Thailand, Jaa, 30, grew up raising elephants among his family's rice paddies. Between chores and schooling, Jaa discovered Hong Kong action movies and soon was practicing the stunts he saw his heroes perform, leaping and somersaulting off his family's elephants as he bathed them. Incorporating elephants into "The Protector's" plot is one way Jaa shows his love of the giant creatures. The fighting style of the film is another.

"The main difference is that a lot of the movements have been taken from the elephants," Jaa says. "I developed a form of Muay Thai using my arms to mimic elephants' tusks and trunks." Jaa also studied and drew on an ancient form of Muay Thai used by soldiers who were called Jaturungkabart -- "protectors" in Thai. "In ancient times," Jaa says, "the elephants were used for war, and the king was sitting on the elephants. [The soldiers' job] was to protect the elephants' legs," thereby protecting the king.

"My family has been raising elephants for many generations," he says, mentioning two pachyderms -- Flower and Leaf -- who were patient springboards for his childhood acrobatics. At first he calls them "the elephants I raised," then corrects himself. Both elephants are more than 50 years old, Jaa says. "I've lived with them my whole life."

As a movie star, though, his days of rural poverty are long past, and his travels take him far from his elephants. But his success in films allows him to be a protector off-screen, too. "Elephants are in danger with the modern [development] of Thailand and many parts of the world," he says. "We tend to cultivate and modernize parts of the land where the elephants used to live. So I personally take pride in preserving land, cultivating land for bamboo and sugar cane that the elephants enjoy eating."

Jaa bought a plot of land to serve as a preserve for elephants that have been abandoned. His family works on the preserve, while he's "more into making films, making money to support my family and the elephants as much as I can."

The preserve is possible only because his one other love -- being in movies -- blossomed into international stardom, thanks to years spent practicing martial arts and breaking into show business the old-fashioned way: starting at the bottom and working his way up.

As a young teenager, he approached Panna Ritthikrai, a stunt coordinator, actor and director whose low-budget early-'80s movie, "Born to Fight," convinced Jaa that there was a place for Thai action stars in the movie business. Ritthikrai encouraged Jaa to finish school, but by age 15, he was working odd jobs on Ritthikrai's movie sets on breaks from school as a cook, a cleaner and a water boy, learning about film from the inside.

While he was at college, where he continued to study martial arts, Jaa got wind of an audition to be a stuntman in one of Ritthikrai's films. He says he wowed them with his "outrageous stunts," winning that job and others in films with Ritthikrai. After Jaa and Panna persuaded Thai director Prachya Pinkaew -- who made both "Ong-Bak" and "The Protector" -- to take a chance on the unknown country boy with extraordinary skills, Jaa became, almost overnight, an international martial arts sensation.

He gets philosophical again when asked what advice he'd give young movie-star hopefuls. "Never be afraid to fail," he says. "Failure is only a stepping stone to improvement. Never be overconfident because that will block your improvement. Self-confidence, thick skin and a willingness to do the things you might not otherwise do."

Of course, there's always a price to fame: "I just can't go out to the usual places without people staring at me," he says, adding: "This is what I chose, and I have to live with that."