Every martial arts style represented by some actor in movies. We have Dolph Lundgren and Michel Jai White who represent Kyokushin, Jackie Chan – Kung Fu, Jet Li – Wu Shu, Bolo Yeung – Tai Chi, Philip Rhee- Taekwondo, even Indonesian Silat represented by Iko Uwais. But when it comes to powerful Muay Thai there is no competition for this person who shaked the world in 2003 with Ong Bak showed everyone what can he is able to do blending Muay Thai with acrobatics and stunts.
Sitting under the tight contact with Thai studio he couldn’t get enough freedom to showcase his abilities in Hollywood and with the offer to play a character in Fast 7 in 2013 he has got this chance. He may not have gotten a whole load of screen time but world found out about the new action star – Tony Jaa.
Soon after he was touted to appear in the Hong Kong production SPL 2, and another action flick Skin Trade with two titans of action – Dolph Lundgren and Michael Jai White, produced by Jaa’s new manager, Michael Selby, and also designed to get Hollywood’s attention.
Budomate: You were born as Panon Yee-rum but what is the story behind Tony Jaa name?
Tony: Actually there is not much of a story behind it. It was just easier to take the Ja from Japanom and use it as a last name. At first Ja was spelled with one A. The Tony was just an easier stage name. Friends and family call me Jaa or Jaaski.
Budomate: As far as I know Panna Rithikrai was your mentor, please tell how did you meet him?
Tony: I had a number of mentors including my father, but Panna was very important to me. I met him when I was trying to get some stunt work. He was doing some local action films and gave me a chance to participate. I learned a lot about choreography from him.
Budomate: Do you remember your first ever stunt, when and where it was and how did it go?
Tony: It was in a local film, basically just a short fight scene. There wasn’t much to it.
Budomate: Your first opportunity came with a stunt double for Robin Shou in Mortal Kombat 2, not everyone knows about that. Please tell how did you find this opportunity?
Tony: I had done a fair amount of stunt work by this time, my size was right, and I was familiar with the style they wanted for Robin, so I was approached for this and happy to do it.
Budomate: Is it true that you doubled Sammo Hung in a commercial?
Tony: Yes I did, I had to wear quite a few pillows.
Budomate: In 2003 you shifted the world with Ong Bak movie and fans desperately started looking for information about you as the new action star. Don’t you think you raised the bar of Thailand action movies since than?
Tony: I think it was not so much that I raised the bar, but that we were able to draw attention to Thailand and how much talent there is here.
Budomate: Tom Yum Goong movie deals with animal trafficking, how close it to your heart? What is the main message of this movie?
Tony: I am very concerned with conservation, nature is part of the world we live in and we should treasure and protect it. Elephants in particular are important to me. I grew up with elephants. My parents were elephant herders. I learned to ride and train elephants and take care of them at a very early age.
Budomate: Do you remember how many world tours and presentations you made to promote Ong Bak and TYG?
Tony: I really don’t know how many, but it was a lot especially for Ong Bak. That was a very exciting time.
Budomate: In Asian movies characters are not so emotional and more about fighting skills, how it has changed with your break through to Hollywood market?
Tony: I always enjoyed acting and wanted to have a chance to extend my range. I think that with some Asian films although the action is very cool, the story lags behind. I like the idea of a complete movie that has great action, but also has good acting and an engaging story.
Budomate: What is the most dangerous stunt trick you have made so far?
Tony: The one where they set my legs on fire and had me do a flying knee at a guy on a motorcycle. I felt like I was part of a barbecue.
Budomate: In SPL 2 you have a role of prison guard with ill daughter, was it hard to play this role and how did you land this role?
Tony: I was approached by the producers and I really liked the story and cast. I also liked the idea of having a dramatic role combined with the action side of things. SPL II is the type of Asian film I like, action, story, acting.
Budomate: SPL 2 has so intense climatic fight and Max Zhang as the main bad guy is so impressive, how much time it took to film this scene and were there any injuries?
Tony: Max Zhang who played the bad guy is very talented both as an actor and a martial artist. Max does his own stunts. It took over a week to shoot that scene. The choreography was really well thought out. There was also great attention to safety and there were no injuries.
Budomate: Please tell how it is fight Dolph Lundgren and Michael Jai White as it is really hard to choreograph this kind of fights in the right way because of height and weight of fighters.
Tony: It is not hard to choreograph, you just need to think about how each person moves and what appears realistic. Michael and I choreographed our fight scene together over a four day period. Dolph is a real pro, so setting up the scene with him was easy.
“I’m more into power and he is into kicks and acrobatics. That’s tough to match, especially if you’re trying to make it feel real. It took us a couple weeks to rehearse. We shot for almost a week. I definitely got a lot of bruises.” – Dolph Lundgren
Tony: This was my first Hollywood production, I was like a little kid, excited every day.
Budomate: Will we see you in FF8 and FF9?
Tony: I can’t answer that, only time will tell.
“I have been a big fan of the Fast and Furious franchise,” said Jaa. “The films are fast-paced, fun and keep the audience involved. There is a great mix of humor and action, something I really appreciate. There is no better film to be involved in for a first U.S. studio production.”
Budomate: Currently you are working on Xander Cage alongside Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen and others. How is it to be a part of a such anticipated action movie?
Tony: Vin and I have become good friends. He took me in like I was family during the Fast 7 shoot. This is like working with family. Donnie has been great and I have really enjoyed spending time with him. The rest of the cast has been equally wonderful, Kris, Deepika, Nina are really fantastic people on and off set. The Director DJ is super fun.
Budomate: Is there any chance to see you alongside Jason Statham or Scott Adkins soon?
Tony: I am friendly with both of these guys, and would love to work with them.
Budomate: Now some martial artists such as Ron Smoorenburg, Gary Daniels or Brahim Achabbakhe moved and settle down in Thailand. More and more movies made there. What is the reason for that?
Tony: Thailand is a great place to make movies. Lots of talent, lots of potential locations, and very good local crews.
Budomate: Do you like superhero movies and have you been offered to play any? Or maybe you have some thoughts to make your own movie?
Tony: I think it would be fun to do a superhero movie. I have a few thoughts on some potential types, but I am holding those for the moment.
Budomate: Who is your dream actor who do you want to work with and accept the offer no matter what?
Tony: There are a number of people, it would be impossible to narrow it down to one.
Budomate: Have you seen The Raid movies?
Tony: Yes, very very good action.
Budomate: Don’t you think it could be a really kick-ass movie with you and Iko Uwais playing brothers and Michael Jai White playing a villain?
Tony: I like Mike playing a good guy, but I would enjoy working with Iko, he is very talented.
Budomate: As we all hope you are not going to slow down and just getting started. What next for Tony Jaa?
Tony: I have two other action films slated for this year. I will let you know about them in due course.
Budomate: My traditional question: which three martial arts movies you can call a classic?
Tony: There is one film that in my mind stands above all others, “Enter The Dragon”.
Budomate: Thank you for your time Tony, when I discovered Ong Bak in 2003 I couldn’t imagine that now I will be talking to you about it and other huge projects you have been involved into. Keep it up!
Tony: Thank you, best wishes, TJ.