Muay Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa caused a sensation with Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, a breathtaking action film with stunts unaided by doubles, wires, or special effects. Jaa, whose real name is Panom Yeerum, took up martial arts when he was ten, emulating his father (a Muay Thai boxer) and film stars Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. Threatening suicide if he was denied, Jaa asked his father's permission to train with martial artist, film director, and star performer Panna Rittikrai, who became Jaa's mentor. I met with Jaa at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel, where—with the help of manager Gilbert Lim, who translated—Jaa explained that he had to turn down Brett Ratner's offer of a role in Rush Hour 3 to meet his schedule for Ong-Bak 2, which will be Jaa's directorial debut. Jaa focused on spreading the word about his new film, The Protector (a.k.a. Tom yum goong).
Groucho: You developed a new style for this film that is like elephant moves. Can you talk about how elephants use those movements, and how you use them in the film, in fight scenes?
Tony Jaa: So basically when you look at an elephant, you know what I mean, when an elephant is eating or when it moves around, it uses its legs, its trunk, and even its tusk quite a lot, you know, in its everyday life. I have sort of incorporated that into the Muay Thai that I'm showing in this film. It's like elephant moves, you know? When you look at an elephant with its legs and with its tusks or with its trunks, you know, you are able to use both your arms and your legs to incorporate all that for that. And especially when I'm using it to grab a person's leg or a person's arm, you can either change your movements from being a trunk grabbing a person's leg or arms, you can always change it to make it into the elephant's tusk, you know? So you can do that...
G: Like your character in the movie, you grew up around elephants, and you have two at home with your parents. Can you give me some tips about how to handle and how not to handle an elephant?
TJ:You know, in ancient times, the elephants in Thailand were used for war. And even in modern times, they're used for a lot of work like logging and pulling of logs and a lot of other work in jungles. For me, my elephants—they have worked with me for quite a long time. But for now I'm basically looking after them like they're my friends, my family. I bought a large piece of land, and that's sort of my own jungle just for them to roam and enjoy the rest of their lives. Usually elephants, nowadays, are used for special occasions. You know, when there is a big occasion in my hometown, the elephants are brought in to show for these occasions, but for me it's very important because I really love these animals. So what I do whenever I have time in my hometown, I'll bring them to the bathing ground and help bathe them, provide them good food, and hopefully they'll live the rest of their days happily in my little small jungle that I've provided for them...
G: In the four-minute fight scene that goes up several floors in a single take, I notice there's a move where you give a very forceful kick and the bad guy goes flying across the room, and I wonder in a move like that does that require a wire to pull the guy away or are you really kicking him with enough force to push him?
TJ: During that scene there were no wires involved, during that particular scene that you are saying.
G: But when somebody does get kicked or punched, are those punches pulled, or is it really a matter of acting between both players?
TJ: No. The punches and the kicks are real. I mean, basically, there is a lot of safety that goes underneath the body. There's some safety equipment that we do wear on our chests and on the places where we do it...
G: How many times was the scene with the stairs performed? And were errors made?
TJ: So basically it took eight takes totally for this particular shot, and it was only on the very last take that everything was perfect. As you understand, I mean, a normal roll of film for a handicam is basically about fout to five minutes only, so we had to complete the whole shot within that four to five minutes. And during that process of the eight takes, we had to change the photographer: originally there was supposed to be a Caucasian guy who was actually doing it, but he just couldn't keep up with the pace because it was so tiring. And having to carry the handicam and following me up the four flights of stairs, so we changed it to an Asian guy who was able to do it. There was some parts we chose—you know everything had to be in place because, being in one take—I mean, you saw the scene—with the action, with the stunts, with some of the stuntmen having to fall, everything had to be really in place. So there was one take in which, you know, everything seemed to be fine until I reached the third floor, and there was a scene in which I had to kick or push the stuntman and he fell off the third floor.
G: Oh yeah.
TJ: Just as the stuntman was going off, the safety at the bottom—they had to push the safety boxes. It wasn't in time, so as I was pushing, I had to pull the stuntman back because, you know, it wasn't in time.
G: Oh wow.
TJ: And then another scene was that everything was so perfect, everything was timed so perfect—well not timed so perfect because as we were finishing the last scene, right on the top floor, the film ran out. So we had to redo it. So it took quite a lot of preparation for this particular scene...
G: So far the films have demonstrated a good-versus-evil theme, and I wonder if you would ever be willing to play, you know, the "bad guy"?
TJ: For now, I'm not sure what the future will hold. I'm just waiting day-by-day, how it goes. Whether I will ever, ever take a bad role—I mean, a theme in which I'm the "bad guy," that would depend on the script and whether—how bad the person is. I mean, if it was just really a theme in which he's a bad person for the sake of—just totally bad, I might just not accept it...
G: Focus has to be really important, so I want to know what you do to maintain focus before a dangerous stunt, especially, so that you're not thinking to yourself, "Don't screw this up"?
TJ: So before there is a major scene, and before even the movie is shot and there is a major scene, there are a lot of workshops and practice in place. As you know, most of our films we don't have, you know, the stunt guy for me in place or wires for me. So there's a lot of practice, and if there is a scene that comes up that is extremely special we have to decide whether my ability fits this particular action scene or not. For me personally, before every scene is set up, I take a lot of time to make sure that my body is physically fit for the scene. And I do a lot of meditation before I actually do it to make sure that I'm in focus for the scene itself...
G: You're a very busy man. When you do have free time, what are your favorite ways of spending it?
TJ: Being a very busy person, I really don't have much time. Whenever I have some free time, you know, basically it's rest. Of course there are things which I like to do, like I like to give alms to the temples; I like visiting temples. And one of my interesting things is, you know, being with my friends and singing. I love karaoke.
G: Oh yeah. Do you have any favorite American songs?
TJ: Linkin Park. I'm one of those Linkin Park fans. But I'm also into hip-hop quite a bit.
[For Groucho's review of The Protector, click here.]