Tony Jaa, who's real name is Panom Yeerum, was born on February 5, 1976 near Surin (Isan Province in Thailand's northeastern, about 457 km away from Bangkok near the Laotian and Cambodian border). He is the third of four children (one brother and two sisters) and Panom's parents are rice farmers and mahouts (elephant trainers). As a child Panom raised elephants and each day would leap up onto the backs of two baby elephants, Flower and Leaf, and did so every day for many years; as the elephants grew so did his jumping abilities. "Riding elephants is a skill in itself", Jaa says, "but when you train them to like pick up leaves or water and throw it back at you, you become attached to the elephant and you must eventually become one with them."
But childhood life wasn't all peaceful and serene. "As a kid playing with the elephants, we'd always be reminded we lived in a Red area near the Cambodian border", Jaa says, "so there was a constant wartime reminder where we'd hear the planes coming and have to literally run away from the bombs."
During those tumultuous times, besides tending his father's rice paddies and somersaulting off elephants into the river, Panom found solace and direction by watching Bruce Lee and early Jackie Chan films shown outdoors on white sheets when a projectionist visited the village and would possibly travel 10 kilometers just to watch a film. "Because of Bruce and Jackie, I realized I wanted to be a martial arts film star", Jaa said. "But they were doing Chinese kung-fu. I wanted to do something to show the world Thai culture, Thai martial arts, so I decided to practice Muay Thai Boran."
Little Tony decides to work hard to become a champion. He trained every morning from 5am to 10am followed by an evening session right after school. His father was used to train him since he was a Muay Thai boxer and Panom attended the Koke Klang Wittayakok School in Surin at the age of 10. At that moment he discovers a movie called Born to Fight (Kerd Ma Lui, 1978) directed by Panna Rittikrai, a famous thai stuntman...
After his third year of college (secondary school for some countries), around the age of 13-14, Panom asks Panna to live with him. Panna thought that Panom was too young and would rather have him finish his schooling, but authorizes Panom to train with him during his spare time. This is when Panom begins to work on films and do various backstage jobs from being a water boy, to cleaning the sets, cooking, holding the umbrella over the cameraman...
Finally, at the age of 15, Panna Rittikrai takes Panom Yeerum under his wing and becomes his master. Panna was living in Khon Kaen, a province in the Northeastern highlands and Panom traveled there and began to study with him. When he was 21, Panna advised his protégée to study at the University of Mahamarakam (Maha Sarakhma Physical Education College – 400km from Bangkok), a school specialized in sports sciences. All of the Martial Arts are taught there and Panom would study more chapters of fighting skills including Tae-Kwan-Do, Muay Thai, Swordplay, Krabi Krabong, Judo, Aikido, gymnastics, and many more skills, plus acting and stunt skills from Panna every weekend in Khon Kaen.
After tough training for awhile, Panna started endorsing Panom into several stunt works and co-star in several films. At the same time, Panom tried to blend acting skills with Thai fighting skills with fundamental concepts of gymnastics, and started the road shows to high schools in north-eastern region. As the president of Swordplay club at college, he was a representative to demonstrate the arts of Thai fighting skills in China, as well as representative for all demonstration in north-eastern region. Panom always won the gold medal in college competitions of swordplay, gymnastics, and track-and-field.
His first steps in the film industry would be as a stuntman (approximately 10 films), which allowed him to earn money as he finished his studies. During the college years, Panom worked as double-stunt for Robin Shue in "Mortal Kombat 2", for James – Ruengsak Loichusak in "Gang Gratack Guan" by Five-Star Production, and in TV series "Insee Dang" on Channel 7. In 1995, the Ong-Bak project starts as a Panna Rittikrai idea that wanted to show a new kind of action that would be more powerful. A meeting with Prachya Pinkaew would definitely launch the movie.
Tony Jaa studied Muay Thai during four years plus three years of preparations for Ong-Bak. All fights in the movie are made without wires, stunt doubles or digital effects. "I refuse to use wires for safety because I want people to see it's real and bring back that feeling from Jackie's prime years and show those kind of film stunts to the public eye. Besides, the wires interfere with the real techniques and I wish to show the world the other side of Thai martial arts, not just what most think is the ring fighting". On its release, Ong-Bak, on which Tony Jaa also worked as fight choreographer, became a smash hit and it established Tony as Thailand's top action actor.
After a brief appearance in The Bodyguard (directed by his friend Petchtai Wongkamlao), Tony Jaa has finished his second film, Tom Yum Goong, and has many projects for the next years...
- Bio by Sawatdee of TJ.org