Saturday, March 05, 2005

Interview with Tony Jaa about "Ong-Bak"

Martial artist does it the real way

By NELL MINOW Special to The Kansas City Star

“No safety nets. No computer graphics. And no strings.”

That's the selling point for “Ong-Bak; The Thai Warrior,” a new martial arts film starring Tony Jaa that opened Friday.

Jaa works without wires or special effects. His stunts are dazzlingly gymnastic. To use a line from another movie, he has “the hang time of a helium balloon.” Our interview, conducted through a translator, began by watching some stunts Jaa performed for a basketball half-time show.

What's the difference between fighting in competition and fighting on screen?

On stage, people fight for points. On screen, viewers feel the beauty of the sport. On stage, you try to hit as hard as you can, but film is about what you show, not what really happens.

What did you enjoy most as a child?

I lived in the very rural outer provinces, and for me the most special thing was movies. I would go 10 kilometers to see a movie, especially if it had martial arts. I would come home and practice all the moves, showing my elephants what I had learned.

Tell me about your pets.

I have two elephants, named Flower and Leaf. They live in a forest by my home (in rural Thailand). They are important to me because they were passed down by my grandparents, along with the traditions and culture that come with them. Elephants have played an important role in Thailand, once during wartime but now more for ceremonial purposes. They bring luck and family.

Which action stars influenced you the most?

From Bruce Lee, I learned swiftness, from Jackie Chan, use of props and surroundings, and from Jet Li, I took his fluidity of movement and combination of different martial arts. I also watched the Thai action movie hero, Phanna Rithikrai, who became my teacher when I was 10 and is still my teacher. He is like family, a father/brother/friend. He has also taught me more deeply about Buddhism and meditation. Another influence was my father, who was a Muay Thai boxer. That is the discipline I study.

Why is Muay Thai so important to you?

From studying the martial arts you learn selflessness and humility, respect for elders and masters, and the most important thing — love for the peoples of the world. The philosophy of martial arts is not winning over your opponent, but winning your own heart.

What makes Muay Thai special?

All martial arts have roots in nature, but tradition and culture change the art of each one. The kicks may be the same, but they have different names. There are three types of Muay Thai: Boran, the ancient form shown in the movie, with more beautiful and defined movements; stage boxing, with rules and a point system; and amateur, where the greatest importance is on the use of elbows and knees.

Why didn't you want to use special effects or wires?

This was the first time Muay Thai was shown on film, so it had to be real.

What did you learn from the director, Prachy Pinkaew?

He taught me a lot about acting, how to become natural on screen. I can't keep up with the technical parts of making a movie, so he fills in the gaps. I had worked as a stunt man, where you don't want people to know you are not the leading man. So I was glad to do my own stunts, combining acting with martial arts. I tried to show my character's readiness and willingness to do the task.

Many Americans love Thai food. Is there any American food you like?

KFC! Especially the cole slaw.

And what's next?

A movie with the same director called “Tom Yum Goong” (the name of a Thai soup), featuring Muay Thai Baran and the use of elephants. It opens in Asia on Aug. 12, which is our Mother's Day.

Any plans to make a movie in the United States?

I like the independence I have in choreographing my own stunts, and I like building roots in Thailand and putting our traditions and cultures in films seen by everyone, but maybe some day!

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