THE BIG LEAP: My Interview With Martial Arts Action Cinema Superstar TONY JAA

Tony Jaa Short Reel Demo August 2013 Check out Tony's new Official Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/officialtonyjaa from Michael Selby on Vimeo.

In 2003, the world was blown away with excitement as martial arts action cinema leveled up its game with a seemingly new player on the field. Straight from the Surin province of Isan in Thailand, Tony Jaa trained hard to be an athlete as well as an entertainer, taking big hits to make even bigger hits on the big screen, performing amazing feats of some of the most death-defying martial arts action sequences and stunts ever seen on screen.

I remember the first time I saw the trailer for Ong Bak, and I'm pretty sure the world shifted a few inches with the amount of jaws that dropped. It was beautiful and I, among many, couldn't wait to flood the theater to see it. And with his success, Tony was touring the world, performing demos and meeting people in different countries, and in the summer of 2006 he came to New York and performed a demo just a few subway rides away from me...a demo I missed because, well, no one ever said life was fair. Lol!

Since then, Tony has come into his own as an action star, as well as a business man. Granted, there have been some hurdles, (and there still might be some) particularly when it came to answering questions I emailed to both him, as well as his manager, Mike Selby, regarding Tony's prior work during his time with his now-former employer at Sahamongkol, (as you will see in my following interview).

Fortunately, and at any rate, in the process of moving on with his career, Tony has also evolved in his reachability with the public. His newfound flexibility, in accordance with his increasingly comprehensive understanding of English and the establishment of his official Facebook community fan page not only grants him more opportunities as an actor, but it allows him to do what he is passionate about while staying in touch with fans who adamantly support his work, and love him in general, through his Facebook posts, and his own comedic adventures, as recently seen in his latest inventive shortfilm, Ong Bark: The Beginning.

Evidently, these things would also grant me (I see it and I'm still taking time believing it) an opportunity, ten years in the making, to finally speak to a man who has become a superstar in his own right. And after years of reading the news as my only means of staying in tune with his career as often as I could, I finally got to learn a little more, and a lot in value, about a man whose work I admired, and would often interpret in my sleep-(thankfully, no one got hurt, although I did stump my toe in bed for a few nights. Good times.)

On that note, without further ado, I proudly present my e-mail interview with the one and only, Tony Jaa.

Film Combat Syndicate: The years have been largely good to you it seems, as you have risen from stuntman to actor, action choreographer and director, as well as family man. :-) How does it feel now compared to the last 10 years and before? Is there less pressure now than before?
Tony Jaa:There was an initial sense of pressure during Ong Bak since it was my first real starring role. During the filming I became comfortable with the format. I found that I enjoyed acting and the action parts were already something I enjoyed and had done for fun for many years. I don't feel pressured these days since I am doing something I really enjoy. With Fast and Furious 7 coming up I will finally have a chance to work with a real international cast and crew. It will be a learning experience for me and a chance for me to show what I can do. On the family side getting married, having a child has helped give me a great point of focus and an understanding of responsibility towards others.
FCSyndicate: The Ong Bak trilogy and Tom Yum Goong were big hits for you as a major action star around the world. The level of danger was pretty intense in your films-with that in mind, forwarding a question from Maryanne (@imwebgurl on Twitter), what was the scariest stunt you performed in Ong Bak?
TJ: The elephant stunt involving running on top of the elephants was quite dangerous. They were moving, there were nearly 20 elephants. We needed 8 takes to get it perfect and one bad fall could have had very bad results.
FCSyndicate: You briefly retired from films to joined the monkhood, but then you left it to get back into films. What influenced that decision?
TJ: This is actually a misnomer I never retired despite what was said. In Thai culture and Thai Buddhism it is not at all unusual for a man to take time off and join the Monk hood, often more than once. A great many Thai men do this at some point in their life. I did not become a Monk as a permanent vocation nor did I intend to. I find Buddhist philosophy interesting and relaxing, the time off helped me to gain perspective.
FCSyndicate: I want to talk a little bit about Tom Yum Goong 2, but first, you have two other films coming up with American action hero Dolph Lundgren, A Man Will Rise and Skin Trade. How did you two initially meet?
TJ: I met Dolph through my Manager and my Agent.
FCSyndicate: Can you describe your character for A Man Will Rise?
TJ: A Man Will Rise is within the purview of Sahamongkol with whom I used to have a working relationship. As I am know longer involved with them it would not be appropriate for me to comment.
FCSyndicate: With Skin Trade already announced, are you looking forward to working with Dolph again?
TJ: Dolph is a great guy and a good friend. Off screen he is really fun to spend time with. On screen/set he is a real professional with a wealth of experience, he is someone anyone would enjoy working with.
FCSyndicate: The trailers for Tom Yum Goong 2 look great and fans can't wait to see more of you in A Man Will Rise. Considering the dynamic nature of the action scenes in your films, what are some measures taken to help keep the choreography fresh for each film? And how does it feel filming it all in 3D?
TJ: As I mentioned earlier there are some aspects of past films that are not currently appropriate for me to comment on. Often fight scenes in movies are choreographed by others rather than oneself. I have been fortunate to have input in several of my films, others I have not always had a high level of input. Viewers often forget that the person they see on screen is an actor. The story is written by others, and directed by others. I am often asked why I didn't do "this or that", but it very much depends on who is running the production.
FCSyndicate: Some fans have differing opinions about CGI and wirework in a martial arts movie, which is what we learned a few years ago when Tom Yum Goong 2 went into production. With that in mind, what would you add about some of the safety measures taken for this film compared to Tom Yum Goong and previous productions you have worked on?
TJ: Due to camera angles 3D often requires CGI or wire work otherwise the shot angle would be virtually impossible. Personally I still prefer to do things myself but that is not always an option that is open to me. In some cases certain films stylistically demand something that is physically impossible and can only be done by CG. Safety is of paramount importance which is something some of the regional studios have not always considered adequately. These days a good action director will make every effort to have the necessary safety equipment and protection gear on set to avoid mishaps. 
FCSyndicate: Tom Yum Goong 2 appears to be a big reunion for you, director Prachya Pinkaew and action director Panna Rittikrai, with Dan Chupong and Jija Yanin on the set. What was it like working with such an energizing cast, in addition to filming with Maresse Crump and actor RZA?
TJ: I enjoyed working with Jeeja, Dan and RZA we had a lot of fun. RZA is quite an interesting guy.
FCSyndicate: Can you tell readers now if Tom Yum Goong 2 will get the same 3D release in theaters when it hits other countries?
TJ: The release of TYG 2 is within the control of the studio and the distribution system they have, it is not something that they share with me.
FCSyndicate: You're currently poised to star in Fast And Furious 7 with Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and it is one of the biggest, most successful franchises to date, especially with the success of Furious 6. How excited are you to be working among such a big-name A-list crowd?
TJ: I am very excited about Fast and Furious 7. The cast is amazing, the action doesn't stop and it gives me a chance to learn from the best.
FCSyndicate: Considering the surprise news that you'll be in this film, which has always been more of an action-adventure thriller with racing as its main theme, what is your opinion about the martial arts action genre suddenly merging into the franchise?
TJ: In a sense an action film is an action film. Fight scenes are not new to FF. A good action film, with a good Director can merge many different types of action into a story and have it come out very well crafted. The Director of FF7 is top notch, Most of the other stars have strong backgrounds in action genre films including fight scenes. I think they are more than well equipped to deal with any scenario.
FCSyndicate: Fast And Furious 7 is actually the first of a new trilogy for the franchise. If the powers that be at Universal Pictures were willing, could Fast And Furious 8 and 9 be in the cards for you?
TJ: Lets take life one step at a time, I am so pleased to be in FF7. Let's see how the producers and the audience like my performance.
FCSyndicate: A few years ago, rumors began swirling that you were going to star in the sequel to Wilson Yip's 2005 film, Sha Po Lang which starred Donnie Yen. Things have picked up since then-China's censorship board officially greenlit the production of the sequel, and Twitch also reports that you have definitely shown interest in it. What drew you towards working on this movie?
TJ: China is a major market and should never be ignored. Being asked to star in a major production geared towards China is a great honor for a non Chinese Star. The people who produced SPL are very professional, and SPL was a seriously well done film. This represents a good mix and should be a lot of fun.
FCSyndicate: Having recently started your official Facebook page, it came as a surprise to a lot of people who are just now learning that you are quite proficient in English. At what point did you start learning English? And was it something you always intended to learn prior to being an actor, or even a Hollywood actor for that matter?
TJ: When my relationship with Sahamongkol was coming to an end I realized that if I really wanted to be in international films I would need to speak English. Some of my written English is still edited for grammar and syntax. However I started taking very intensive private English classes 4 times a week for 3 hours a session around 4 months ago. I have a ways to go, but I am now conversational. Another important facet is that I am becoming comfortable acting in English. There is a real distinction between just remembering lines in a foreign language and learning how to give the correct nuance and inflection. This requires a good understanding of not only what you are saying but the framework and mood of the scene. I try to speak only English with my friends these days so that I can continue to improve my fluency. I think in a year or so I will be where I need to be.
FCSyndicate: What are some of the things you currently enjoy most about interacting with fans on Facebook?
TJ: To be frank for a long time I was rather over sheltered by the studio, and my lack of English also contributed to being fairly isolated from broad social contact. I find that I really enjoy people and the chance to communicate with them. Facebook is a great forum for this. I know there have been other Tony Jaa pages on Facebook, but they never had anything to do with me. This is my chance to reach out to people, to thank them for the interest and support they have given me.
FCSyndicate: Aside from movies and entertainment, how big of impact has martial arts had in your life?
TJ: I could not overstate how meaningful martial arts has been to me. I started with Muay Thai when I was 8. I enjoy the exercise, the concentration, the development of new moves as well as the improvement of old moves. Martial arts has so many forms it is impossible to get bored. I am fortunate that physically I have always been able to keep up with the demands of the different forms I have learned. Of course it is also good to remember that without martial arts I might be in my village riding elephants for a living.
FCSyndicate: What motivates you the most to stay so disciplined in your training?
TJ: Pure enjoyment.
FCSyndicate: What are some of your favorite movie titles nowadays? And are there any films you are looking forward to seeing?
TJ: I enjoy a wide range of films including foreign action films. There are so many it would take pages to name them. I enjoyed the Matrix very much, I enjoyed the Dark Knight series (Batman), Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li films never get old for me. The more I watch films of different styles and genres the more I learn.
FCSyndicate: Now that you're branching out into Hollywood, who else do you want to work with?
TJ: This is a really tough question. It is not just the issue of working with other action stars, there are quite a few who are amazing and I would love to work with. If they are fun to work with and interesting people then I want to work with them.
FCSyndicate: One of my contributors, Martin Wan of the UK stunt team, SG Action, has an interesting animal question he wanted to ask: Which is better: African or Indian Elephants?
TJ: My experience is with the Asian elephant, that is what we have here in Thailand. I really have very little exposure to African elephants so I can't really say which type is easier. I can say, I really do like elephants and have two of my own.
FCSyndicate: Aside from TYG2, Fast & Furious, Skin Trade and SPL 2, what lies next for Tony Jaa?
TJ: What lies next ?.........I have several more projects under serious discussion, but it is not quite the time to let them out of the bag. 
Thanks for giving me a chance to answer your questions. I appreciate your interest and the time taken to put the questions together. 
Best Wishes,
Tony
The prospects of seeing Tony Jaa take a giant leap forward in his career and working with other actors is an amazing thing to think about. That said, when I finished my own list of inquiries, I briefly gave followers on my Facebook page a chance to offer some questions they would like. Some were silly and a few were pretty good, but I could only pick a few since I did not want to take up too much of Tony's time.

I do have to mention one small error on my part, which is the transcription of a question from one of my newest contributors, Martin Wan, who actually wanted to know what was "fiercest" between African or Indian elephants, as opposed to "better". I should have double checked, but by then I was already triple checking my questions and too excited for this interview that I did not notice that small detail. So on that note, I do apologize, and hope that my mention of him will suffice regardless.

Being able to share Tony's story on my site has been a great thing for me after celebrating my first year moderating my Facebook page and my subsequent blogspot. I can only hope that one day when I can fully pursue writing as a profession that I may one day shake his hand, and maybe even ride an elephant with him.

Well... I'm a bit chunky, and I would hate to be rude to the elephant, so maybe not. ;-)

On a slightly more serious note, I think Tony Jaa in a Fast And Furious movie will be a heck of a theatrical experience, whether it is in 7, or all three of the Fast And Furious enealogy. That said, in my opinon, it is very unfortunate that conditions aren't suitable for more open dialogue given the recent happenings with Tony's parting of ways with Sahamongkol Film International, while I would certainly love to learn more about such a noteworthy title as A Man Will Rise. Meanwhile, I do wish all the best for both parties in following updates from here on.

Tony Jaa is an incredible athlete, and his evolution as an actor makes him even more outstanding. And I am as sure as almost anyone about who I would love to see him work with next, independent or mainstream, wherever in the world there is an action movie waiting to happen. There is still lots of hype out there with all the starpower there is, which often tells me (and particularly now more than ever as things stand) that here is no limit to what Tony can accomplish with his will. And with the likelihood of Fast 7, A Man Will Rise and SPL 2, I stick by that notion.

I want to send my best wishes to Tony and his family, and a special thank you to Tony's manager, Mike Selby for being patient with me and helping make this happen. And I look forward to more adventures and discussions on future projects. And more importantly, I hope you all enjoyed this interview and found it useful.



Subscribe to Tony Jaa's official Facebook page, as well as Michael Selby's vimeo channel in the contact links above.

Comments

  1. thanks very much for this deep detailed interview.
    so glad he's picking up on his feet. I even ridiculed Wise Kwai when he reported Jaa is fluent in English.
    I guess to Jaa is all about making a name for himself and getting bigger in his career, but to us is all about Jaa starring in a great movie.
    And to see him in Hollywood is good but we are sad Hollywood would hold him back on his potential, all we'll see of him is 40% real stunt and 60% CG:/

    so glad you asked the question about the time he became a monk. Now it puts Todd Brown of Twitch to shame, as he talks nonsense about Jaa and always backing up Sahamongkol on the whole Ong Bak 2 incident.

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