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!
original interview I did with Tony that same day.
TONY JAA: MUAY THAI
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.
what’s it like having the expectation that you’re “The Next
Bruce Lee” hanging over your head?
JAA: Bruce Lee is my hero and my inspiration so I see
Bruce Lee as one of my masters.
understand there were many injuries while filming Ong-Bak.
What were some of the worst injuries that you’ve encountered
while making the movie?
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?
JAA: (laughs) He was one of the stuntmen.
that was a great shot. Are there any American martial arts
stars that you’d like to work with?
JAA: Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris.
SEANBABY: Did you
ever see Walker Texas Ranger?
JAA: Yes, I was still a kid back then. And Tom Cruise,
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.
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.
you say that Muay Thai is harder or easier to choreograph than
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?
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
SEANBABY: Who are
some of your favorites?
JAA: I don’t really know their names, but I like that
Thai boxer that’s in Japan. Are you in K1?
I wish, but I think that I’d get killed.
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?
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
SEANBABY: I love
the barbed wire!
many times did it take for you to get that right?
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.
about when you go under the car?
you do the splits...
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!”
working on Ong Bak 2?
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
SEANBABY: Is there
lots of Muay Thai in it?
JAA: There’s definitely a lot of Muay Thai in it, and
it’s Muay Thai that involves elephants, which is used in war
an example of how Muay Thai and elephants would be combined?
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?
JAA: I want to work here, but I want to build stronger
roots in Thailand first.
American stars you want to work with?
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.
starred in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which I love. Do you
like that movie? What do you think of that movie?
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?
JAA: I don’t like it as much as ones where you can really
show your abilities.
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?
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.
other types of martial arts do you like? What’s your
background? I know you like Muay Thai and gymnastics…
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?
JAA: It’s a physical education academy, but not everyone
usually gets involved, you have to be really devoted to do it.
the one Thai dish that you’d recommend to someone, above all,
that’s your favorite.
JAA: (laughs) Tom-Yung-Goong! Can you eat spicy food?
retroCRUSH: Yes, I
love very spicy food.
your vertical leap?
JAA: 2 Meters.
Can you dunk a basketball?
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.
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