Tuesday 8th February 2005: Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior
Interview with Tony Jaa conducted by Ryan Izay.
I recently sat down and had a roundtable with Thai action star, Tony Jaa. Tony was in Los Angeles publicizing his new film, Ong-Bak, which is filled with all sorts of amazing stunts that he choreographed and performed himself, without the help of wires, stunt doubles, computer graphics, or any other tricks. Tony is the real deal, able to perform any of the stunts seen in his films.
Ong-Bak, which opens in a surprisingly large amount of theaters in the United States this Friday, is Tony's introduction to American audiences after already breaking all sorts of records in Thailand. Armed with a new edit and new music from producer Luc Besson, the version brought to America is sure to amaze audiences all around.
Ong-Bak is a film that was years in the making, meticulously choreographed, and has done great things for everyone involved. Tony, small in stature but with a commanding presence, speaks softly in Thai as his translator tells us what he is saying. He has a humble attitude, gracious in every way to be sitting around and talking about his passion.
Q. I just wanted to say, it was an awesome film. A lot of action and a lot of energy. My first question would be, how do you feel being a spokesperson; A, for the film, but also for your culture and your fighting style.
Tony Jaa- I'm really proud. I am very proud to be exhibiting Thai culture through film, especially since not even all Thai people know about it, and for all the world to see, especially Muay Thai, the ancient form of Muay Thai that you don't see anywhere. This is really the first film. I'm like an ambassador for Thai culture and Muay Thai.
Q. What do you think about the western reactions to your film?
T.J. - I'm so happy and so proud after the responses I got when we were in San Francisco, and the warmth and the love that you get from the audiences when they're watching the film. They cheer on the film like they're watching a boxing match.
Q. What are your feelings about the direction that most martial arts films have taken recently?
T.J. - There are different styles presenting it for different people. Bruce Lee has his Kung-Fu and his hard definite style of fighting, where as Jackie Chan uses his comedy and his ability to incorporate the things around him, and Jet Li has his fluidity and agility, and I combine all of these things that make up these stars into me, along with Muay Thai, which makes me Tony Jaa.
Q. How does it feel to be in their shadows, and to be trying to take that next step, to be coming off their shoulders, and you do that physically as well. But how does that make you feel as someone who looked up to them?
T.J. - My inspiration comes from these three people, and they were the inspiration for me reaching my goal to presenting Muay Thai through film, and for people all over the world to see no matter what race or religion you are. You receive this feeling of love and friendship through watching these films and this film.
Q. Film and the entertainment business has a reputation of being really false and fake, and money oriented. I'm wondering how the spiritual aspect of martial arts is compromised by being a star, and having to worry about things like the events you go to, and talking to the right people, and making the amount of money that you make. How can you reconcile the tenants of martial arts in the spiritual sense with something like being a film star?
T.J. – I look back at my younger years, where I wanted to do this, and the love and the perseverance that went through it gives me the faith and dedication to do these things because I don't do it out of wanting fame or money, but it's 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 the films and being able to do the action things just makes me proud. That's why I do it. If I didn't have that love and dedication I wouldn't be here to talk to you today.
Q. All of the stars we have talked about found their place in American cinema. Do you see that for yourself eventually, or would you like to remain in Thailand making films?
T.J. – I want to work in Thailand for now, but it's a matter of the future, but to make quality films and good films, and to present to the world and to have something in the form of film, it can be presented for the world to see anyways. If I were to come to work in Hollywood, it would be a good opportunity to present Thai culture and Muay Thai for the world to see.
Q. Now that you're making films and edits and redo's and practice; how has film changed in your vision. Is the mystic of film gone? Has the adventure of film gone, for you? How important is it to you to not include CG, not include doubles, not include strings; these other things that make film bigger than life. How important is it to stay as part of life as a real film, or a real presentation?
T.J. – In terms of CG, it's part of the development of technology, and it's great, but I choose to present it in a different way, where you see my real abilities first and not everybody can do those things, but I choose to present those things in that way through training and dedication.
Q. How is Muay Thai different than other forms of martial arts that we are used to seeing in film?
T.J. – There are things that are different, and the same with every type of martial arts. All martial arts have roots in nature and no matter what martial art you practice; they all have the same philosophy of humanity for the human kind through the martial arts. But what makes Muay Thai different is the customs that go into it. Martial arts may have the same moves, but the customs that get passed on, and the culture that goes into it makes Muay Thai different. These things are passed down from your ancestors, like the respect that you pay to your elders and your teachers, when you practice Muay Thai, and also the moves that you use. They use the elbows and knees more in Muay Thai. To give an example, Muay Thai uses the humanity in inner meditation to come out. You have to combine the body and soul as one. Before we practice Muay Thai we have a ceremony where we thank the masters including our parents and anyone that has passed down the tradition to pay respect to elders.
Q. When you hit someone with your elbows, obviously there is a lot of training, but it seems like it would be a strange place to hit someone with.
T.J. – Of course it takes a lot of training involved, but also the choreography involved with making a film is different than in a ring. Where what you see in a ring, there's rules involved, but in a making an action film, the choreography and the stunts and really important to get it right, otherwise you could really injure yourself.
Q. There are an amazing amount of stunts, having to do with jumps, fire, and some water. Were there any stunts that you were nervous to do?
T.J. – No, because we had already thought about it and if it was something we can't do, then we don't do it. And then we look to see how it looks on the screen. If it looks good on screen then we'll go with it.
Q. Was there any stunt that you considered, but decided not to do because it was too dangerous?
T.J. – There were some that we tried, and we filmed it, but they didn't look quite as good as we had in mind, so we changed it to get one that fit the scene.
Q. You've incorporated a lot of the culture into this action packed film. Would you ever consider doing something less action oriented? Do you see yourself involving the culture on a more subtle basis?
T. J. – One thing that I want people to receive from watching this is to be able to see Thai culture and be pleased, thrilled, and enthralled by the movie along with it. That's part of the goal in making the film. People have different needs and desires. What you see on film is everything, from those you want to see action or those who want to see culture.
Q. Would you consider that fact that it is an action film helpful to being a vehicle for distribution of Thai culture and yourself?
T.J. – 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 itself as a vehicle to show people our country's martial art and culture.
Q. Are you excited about having female fans? Do you have a message for the women going to see your film?
T.J. – In terms of female fans, I'm happy that they are so excited about the film and they embraced me so well, they have come and asked me for hugs and stuff like that. For those who are not interested in martial arts, if you do come and see the film, you'll receive something good about it that you can use in your every day life.
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