Tony Jaa Kicks Open Cultural Doors

Asia's latest action star discusses his culture, his skill, and his personal heroes

Tony Jaa battles in 'Ong Bak'
Tony Jaa battles in ‘Ong Bak’

The first time I saw Tony Jaa in person, he was being interviewed by The RZA of Wu Tang for MTV at the Los Angeles premiere of his latest film, Ong Bak, which opens this Friday, Feb. 11. Tony was displaying an amazing jump stunt, which involved his doing a full backward, head over feet rotation from a standing position, and hitting a stationary target. It was really cool to see live.Afterwards, I got the opporunity to see the film. Ong Bak was a lot of fun (check for my review tomorrow) and served as an amazing display for Tony’s huge array of skills, which I had earlier seen first hand.

Directly after the screening, Tony appeared with a small support crew and reproduced some of the stunts from the film which included spinning jump kicks that hurled men across the floor, reverse feet over head spin kicks that hurled a popcorn bucket into the audience, and even a leap off of The RZA’s chest that looked like something out of The Matrix. Tony spoke only a few words to the audience but with his amazing abilities, excited mannerisms, and a huge smile, he was able to continue and even increase upon the enormous energy that had been established by the movie.

Fortunately, I got the opportunity to participate in a roundtable interview session with Jaa the following day. He was accompanied by an interpreter, and the following are the questions and answers from that session.

ROUNDTABLE: How do you feel about being a spokesperson for Ong Bak, Thai culture, and your martial arts style, Muay Thai?

TONY JAA: I am very proud to be exhibiting Thai culture through film, Muay Thai especially, because my form of Muay Thai which is an ancient form that not even Thai people really know, especially the youth. I see myself as an ambassador for the Thai culture and Muay Thai.

RT: Could you explain the difference between Muay Thai and other forms of martial arts like Kung fu, what makes it different, how is it mentally different?

Tony Jaa in 'Ong Bak'
Tony Jaa in ‘Ong Bak’

TJ: All martial arts are different and same, all martial arts have roots in nature and no matter what martial arts you practice, they all adapt the same philosophy of humanity for the human kind but what makes Muay Thai different is the things that go into it. It may have the same moves as other martial arts but the customs that go into it and the culture that gets put into it makes Muay Thai different. These things are passed down from your ancestors, like the respect that you pay to your elders, to your teacher, when you practice Muay Thai. The style of dress that you see in Ong Bak, which is ancient, for martial arts, and used in war times. And also, the use of elbows and knees happens more in Muay Thai.

To give an example, Muay Thai uses humanity and Samadhi, which is like an inner meditation to come out and combine the body and the soul as one.

And before we practice Muay Thai, we have a ceremony where we thank the masters and our parents and anyone who has passed on the tradition to who respect for our elders.

RT: What do you think about the western reaction to your film? What about the American response to your film?

TJ: I am so happy and proud of the responses that I have gotten. Like when we were in San Francisco, the warmth and the love that I felt when the audience was watching Ong Bak and cheering it on like it was a boxing match.

RT: How does it make you feel as someone who has looked up to all of these stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan all of these years, to now be in their shadow, to now be the next step in their progression?

TJ: My inspiration comes from these people and to portray Muay Thai to the world. No matter what race or religion you are from, you get a feeling of love and friendship through watching their films and Ong Bak.

RT: All of the other stars found their niche in American cinema, is that something you see as a goal for yourself or do you see yourself making Thai films for the rest of your career?

TJ: I want to work in Thailand for now but that is a matter for the future. If there is a good, quality film to present to the world and to have something in the form of a film is to have something that the world can see. But if I were to come to Hollywood, it would be a good opportunity to present Thai culture and Muay Thai for the world to see.

RT: What are your feelings about the direction that action films have taken, like with Jackie Chan, a more humorous feel?

TJ: It’s a different style of presenting it for different people. Bruce Lee has his Kung fu, a hard, definite style, where as Jackie Chan has his ability to incorporate things around him, and Jet Li has his agility and fluidity. All of these things individually make up these stars but I incorporate all of these things into my work, which is what makes me Tony Jaa.

RT: Film has a reputation of being false, fake, and money oriented. I was wondering how the spiritual aspect of martial arts on film is compromised by being a star and having to worry about the events that you go to, talking to the right people, and making the amount of money that you make. How can you reconcile the martial arts and the tenants of martial arts with being a film star?

TJ: I look back at my younger years when I wanted to do this and the love and the perseverance that went into it gives me the faith and dedication to do it. And I don’t do it for fame or money but because I want to present these things through film and I want people to see the love and dedication that I put into it and to be able to express myself through film. If I did not have that love and dedication, I would not be able to be here and talk to you today.

RT: In Ong Bak, there is an amazing array of stunts involving fire, some underwater work, jumps, and climbing. Were there any stunts that you were nervous to do?

TJ: No. Because when we do them, we’ve already thought about it and if it’s something we can’t do, we won’t. Before we do a stunt, we will look to see how it will appear on screen and if it looks good, then we will go with it.

RT: Is there any stunt that you considered but then said, “No, It’s too dangerous?”

TJ: There were some that we tried and filmed to see how they worked and they didn’t quite look as good as we had in mind so we changed them to get something that does fit the scene.

RT: When you hit somebody with your elbow or your shin or your knee, it seems like a strange place to hit somebody with or like it might hurt.

TJ: It takes a lot of training but also there is a lot of choreography involved in making the film and that makes it totally different from what you might see in the ring. In the ring, there are rules involved but in making an action film, the choreography and the steps involved are important or you can really injure yourself.

'Ong Bak' movie poster
‘Ong Bak’ movie poster

RT: How important is it for you not to include computer generated stunts, doubles, string-work and these other things that make film bigger than life. How important is it to you to present something that is real?

TJ: In terms of CG, it is part of the development of technology and it is great but I choose to present it in a different way so that you can see my real ability and not everybody can do those things but I choose to present those things in that way, through training and dedication.

RT: You’ve incorporated a lot your culture, a lot of whom you are into this exciting action film. Would you ever consider doing something less action oriented, something involving your culture even more. Do you see yourself in the future involving the culture more with the action in a subtler way?

TJ: One thing that I want people to receive from watching Ong Bak is to be able to see Thai culture and to be pleased, thrilled, and enthralled by the. People have different needs and desires but what you see on film is everything for those who want to see action and those who want to see Thai culture.

RT: So would you consider the fact that it is an action film and open to a very large audience, a vehicle for yourself and for Thai culture?

TJ: Yes, it is a vehicle and it was my dream since I was a child when I saw my mentors Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan to be able to use film as a vehicle to show people their country’s martial arts and their culture and for me to be able to show Thai culture and Thai martial arts.

RT: Are you excited about having female fans or is that annoying? Do you have a message for the women watching the films who aren’t necessarily action fans but maybe they’ll go see the movie just because you are in it.

TJ: In terms of female fans, I’m happy that they’re so excited about the film and that they’ve embraced me so well, they’ve come and asked me for hugs and stuff. But for those fans that aren’t interested in martial arts but may want to come and see the film, I think that if you do come and see the film, you will receive something good something that you can use in your everyday life.

Dale Wilson

Dale Wilson is a writer and artist living with his wife and dog in Los Angeles, what is now his fifth hometown. Dale has worked in several areas of art including writing, video, and installation but has a love for film and comic books.

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