In early 2005, I was given the opportunity to attend an incredibly awesome performance  by martial arts actor Tony Jaa.  He was in San Francisco promoting the American release of Ong Bak.  He's since starred in Tom Yung Goon, both of which have some of the most insane over the top stunts and fight scenes you've ever seen.  The comparisons to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee are inevitable, and deserved.  Here's a couple clips that I'm happy to share (thanks to the hosting at YouTube.com).

In this shot, Tony Jaa does a wonderfully choreographed fight against 5 different guys.  The two flip kicks he does near the end look too difficult for even Spider-Man to pull off.

Here's a great stunt where Jaa takes just one step and manages to kick a tennis racket out of an assitant's hand from what seems like about 12 feet in the air!

Here's the original interview I did with Tony that same day.

TONY JAA: MUAY THAI WARRIOR

WE TALK WITH TONY JAA ABOUT HIS NEW FILM ONG BAK
 and THE BURDEN OF BEING LABELED "THE NEXT BRUCE LEE"
 

Tony Jaa was in San Francisco last week to promote his film Ong-Bak, which is getting an American release on February 11th.  Tony is a newcomer to the film world, so I didn't know too much about him, but with the publicity machine heaping praise on him as "The Next Bruce Lee" and the answer to Jackie Chan, the hype certainly got my interest.  The interview invitation was intriguing, as Tony was to do a demonstration of his martial art specialty, Muay Thai, for the media, then we'd be paired up with other reporters for 30 minute interviews.  I was surprised and amazed to be paired up with a fellow pop culture samurai, Seanbaby who writes for The Wave, and is known to many as the creator of Seanbaby.com, the granddaddy of cool 80s retro sites.   After talking our geek talk and comparing webmaster war stories, we reviewed each other's questions in advance to make sure there wasn't any overlap, and decided to do a joint interview with this up and coming star. 

You wouldn't think Tony Jaa was much of a badass upon meeting him.  At just 5 and a half feet, he's hardly the most imposing looking figure you'd come across, but neither was Bruce Lee, for that matter.  It's his brilliance with the Muay Thai fighting style that makes him a force to be reckoned with.  It's a brutal hard contact martial art full of knees, kicks, and elbows that make you wince in pain to watch.  In one of the opening scenes of Ong-Bak, Jaa takes care of an opponent in less than a second with a quick blow to the head.

Ong-Bak is a pleasant departure from the "wire-fu" CGI stylized martial arts films that have been popular in America as of late, showcasing fight scenes and stunts that feature real contact and no special effects.  This caused filming to be delayed for weeks on end as principal performers would periodically injure themselves.  Tony Jaa, looking almost like a kid himself, has a youthful exuberance when talking about his work, and his charm is contagious.  The interview Seanbaby and I had with him via his interpreter was a blast, and we hope you like it.

retroCRUSH:  So what’s it like having the expectation that you’re “The Next Bruce Lee” hanging over your head? 

TONY JAA:  Bruce Lee is my hero and my inspiration so I see Bruce Lee as one of my masters.

retroCRUSH:  I understand there were many injuries while filming Ong-Bak.  What were some of the worst injuries that you’ve encountered while making the movie?

TONY JAA:  I tore a ligament, and I sprained my ankle, that put me out for a month, and the scene where they did the flames, I burnt my eyelashes.

SEANBABY:  In that scene where your leg is on fire…that guy you kicked, that actor’s dead now, right?

TONY JAA: (laughs) He was one of the stuntmen.

SEANBABY:  Man, that was a great shot.  Are there any American martial arts stars that you’d like to work with?

TONY JAA: Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris.

SEANBABY:  Did you ever see Walker Texas Ranger?

TONY JAA:  Yes, I was still a kid back then.  And Tom Cruise, too.

retroCRUSH:  Can you tell me about what it was like filming that opening scene when the villagers are climbing the tree, fighting in the tree, and falling out of the tree.  What was that experience like, it looked so brutal…people were really falling and hitting the branches.

TONY JAA:  It is adapted from a childhood game where you climb a tree, but the tree is usually submerged in water, so when you fall it doesn’t hurt as much. 

SEANBABY:  Would you say that Muay Thai is harder or easier to choreograph than Kung-Fu?

TONY JAA:  It’s probably just as hard as Kung Fu…but the moves you see (in this film) you see them definitely, they’re real and hard, you know.  The stuntmen who come in to this film have to put out a lot of skill and a lot of training to be a part of this film.  The people that come and work on the film, they know the tricks to not getting hurt, it’s a real hit, but it’s not as hard as a definite hit, it’s more like a pass.  In some scenes, just to make it look real, they have to be real fights.  Sometimes the punches would really hit you, and you’d be dizzy for a bit.  It’s like the sport of boxing, you do get hurt, but it’s a sport.

retroCRUSH:  Is it difficult to get insurance for this type of film, where there’s real fighting going on, when they are hitting and making real contact?

TONY JAA:  It’s kind of difficult, they didn’t really want to do it when they see all the scenes.  We wanted to demonstrate real abilities, and not use wires and stuff like that.

SEANBABY:  Do you follow K1?

TONY JAA:  Yes.

SEANBABY:  Who are some of your favorites?

TONY JAA:  I don’t really know their names, but I like that Thai boxer that’s in Japan.  Are you in K1?

SEANBABY:  (laughs) I wish, but I think that I’d get killed.

retroCRUSH:  Have you ever encountered people in real life that want to fight you and see how good you are?

TONY JAA:  Usually they just come and want to be friends.  They want me to teach them.  With the art of Muay Thai, there’s a sense of goodness of the art where you study, and it’s for meditation…keeping your skills, being a good boxer.  Not so much fighting but meditating and keeping your inner strength.

SEANBABY: Of all the stunts in this movie, which are you the most proud of?

TONY JAA:  I’m proud of all of them (laughs).  With the Muay Thai sequences, to be able to demonstrate the Muay Thai scenes, and the art of Muay Thai for the rest of the world to see.  The market scene where you get to see strength and real abilities, with no wires, you can do those things.  It’s different in that there’s no real action, the viewer is just captivated by that scene.

SEANBABY:  I love the barbed wire!

RETROCRUSH:  How many times did it take for you to get that right?

TONY JAA:  Three.  Well, how they start is with a bigger one and then they get smaller and smaller.  I like the one where I go under the car.

SEANBABY:  How about when you go under the car?

retroCRUSH:  Where you do the splits...

TONY JAA:  Master Panna , my master, who worked on the film also, had to drive the car for that scene.  Because if someone else was doing it, they wouldn’t know the timing of it.  (laughs)  I said, “My life is in your hands!”

SEANBABY:  They’re working on Ong Bak 2?

TONY JAA:  It’s called Tom-Yum-Goong, it’s not actually the sequel to Ong-Bak.  But, I guess you could call it a sequel because Ong-Bak talks about Thai culture through Buddhism, while through while Tom-Yum-Goong talks about Thai culture through the history of elephants in Thailand.

SEANBABY:  Is there lots of Muay Thai in it?

TONY JAA:  There’s definitely a lot of Muay Thai in it, and it’s Muay Thai that involves elephants, which is used in war times.

retroCRUSH:  What’s an example of how Muay Thai and elephants would be combined?

TONY JAA:  The style that you see in Tom-Yum Goong is called Muay Thai Cochisai,  where you use the movements of an elephant, like the elephant’s trunk, and moved in with the Muay Thai to become a Muay Thai move.

SEANBABY:  Are you looking for more work in America?

TONY JAA:  I want to work here, but I want to build stronger roots in Thailand first.

SEANBABY:  Any American stars you want to work with?

TONY JAA:  Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks (laughs…)

retroCRUSH:  Why do you think Muay Thai is becoming more popular in America?

TONY JAA:  Muay Thai is a newer style of fighting for Americans, and then maybe for Americans, there are three different types of Muay Thai.  There’s the one you see in Ong-Bak, then there’s the stage one, and the amateur one.  And when they see that one, it’s more brutal than most of the fighting that they’ve seen before, so maybe that’s why they like Muay Thai. 

SEANBABY:  You starred in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which I love.  Do you like that movie?  What do you think of that movie?

TONY JAA:  I had the opportunity to go and audition for it while I was still studying at the Academy, for sports physical education, and I was still there while I auditioned for it.  It’s a good way to show off martial arts skills. 

SEANBABY:  Do you like those types of movies?  I know you want to show straight physical power, but do you like those magical flying around type Kung-Fu movies?

TONY JAA:  I don’t like it as much as ones where you can really show your abilities.

retroCRUSH:  On that same angle, with so many of the popular martial arts movies that have been released in America lately, like House of the Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, do you think that America is ready to embrace movies like this where this is real skill and actual fighting being displayed, as opposed to wires pulling people all over the bamboo trees?

TONY JAA:  It should be different for every person, but for someone who truly loves martial arts, they should be able to raise it as much as they can, especially those who liked it in the beginning like Bruce Lee, who really initiated the genre.

SEANBABY:  What other types of martial arts do you like?  What’s your background?  I know you like Muay Thai and gymnastics…

TONY JAA:  I learned all types of fighting at the Academy, I like sword play, Bushido, Akido, Ju-Jitsu.

SEANBABY:  Is this an academy for actors?

TONY JAA:  It’s a physical education academy, but not everyone usually gets involved, you have to be really devoted to do it.

retroCRUSH:  What’s the one Thai dish that you’d recommend to someone, above all, that’s your favorite.

TONY JAA:  (laughs) Tom-Yung-Goong!  Can you eat spicy food?

retroCRUSH:  Yes, I love very spicy food.

SEANBABY:  What’s your vertical leap?

TONY JAA:  2 Meters.

SEANBABY:  Whew!  Can you dunk a basketball?

TONY JAA:  I was an athlete in the high jump (laughs) I have never tried slam dunking, but I did a stunt where I ran across people’s shoulders and dunked a ball.

Unfortunately we ran out of time at this point, but talking with Tony was great.  Ong-Bak opens today and it's a charming film with action that definitely lives up to the hype.  I think it's unfair to throw the mantle of being Bruce Lee's successor on Jaa's neck, but he's a fun to watch and extremely gifted performer that should have no trouble carving out his own unique legacy.

-Robert Berry
rberry@retrocrush.com

 

 


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