Newcomer Tony Jaa (actually Panom Yeerum), the Thai kick-boxing hero of “Ong Bak,” is a man of few words, even when filtered through the friendly translation of a Thai interpreter. Trained in both Muay Thai and Buddhism, Jaa makes such an impression that he’s being hailed as the Bruce Lee of kick-boxing. using the story of a martial arts-trained student of the local Buddhist master sent by his village to recover the head of their scared Buddha statuette stolen by a member of a criminal gang based in Bangkok. Fans of this film are already pumping for a sequel of this created by director Prachya Pinkaew to showcase his talents,
Brad Balfour: Are you surprised by the reaction of the Americans to your film?
Tony Jaa: Very surprised. I never thought it would come this far.
BB: What philosophical elements did you bring to the film?
TJ: Well “Ong-Bak” deals with the way of life of the Thai people and we wanted to provide a variety of flavors for the audience as well as depict the traditions of the way of life of the Thai people.
BB: What are your thoughts about Buddhism?
TJ: Muay Thai is highly involved with religion and Buddhism because it’s tied to Thai religion and Thai culture. And with that it teaches the humanity and humility that is offered in the sport and a lot of the traditions involved in Muay Thai are in a lot of Buddhist traditions like the Y cu ceremony that begins before you go to fight which pays respect to the elders and the master. It’s also important to have the inner strength within you and the meditation, which comes from the practice.
BB: Have you studied other forms of Buddhism besides the Buddhism of Thailand?
TJ: I’ve only been able to study the Buddhism that is in Thailand. My family has a strong belief in Buddhism. No matter what religion you are they all teach you to be a good person.
BB: You are already a skilled kick boxer but are you going to learn any other forms of martial arts?
TJ: I love every type of martial arts no matter what country it’s from and if I do have an opportunity I would love to go study those arts. When you study martial arts you want to be able to present it to the rest of the world and I’ve developed a philosophy when I studied the martial arts. I study martial arts not to win over my opponent but to win over my own heart. So when you study martial arts no matter what kind and you go deep into it you’ll learn this love. And love for others no matter what country your from.
BB: Would you like to do a movie with other famous martial artists like Jackie Chan or Jet Li?
TJ: Definitely if I had the opportunity I would. I want to present every type of art.
BB: Who is your favorite?
TJ: I would love to work with anybody especially Jet Li because Jet Li studies Buddhism as well.
BB: If you could what would you say to Jet Li?
TJ: I’d ask him “What are you working on now for the world to seer” And “What are you thinking now?” Jet Li is my inspiration.
BB: In your spare time, are you always training or do you take time off?
TJ: I do take breaks but there will be some times I want to have fun so I’ll walk to the balcony on my hand. (Laughs)
BB: Do you have places that you want to travel to?
TJ: Actually I haven’t traveled all across Thailand yet. I would like to go to Tibet and to India.
BB: Have you ever seen the Dalai Lama?
TJ: I’ve never met him but I’ve read his book.
BB: Did you ever want to become a monk?
TJ: Actually as I was at home, my family farms and we didn’t have enough to eat, but the reason why I came into this field is because I wanted to do something greater for humanity.
BB: Do you feel your movie will help people have more of an awareness of Thailand?
TJ: Definitely I wanted to present another perspective of the good way of life of Thai people and Muay Thai as a form of art and actually what makes us really proud is I believe that before Muay Thai was a very steady sport in Thailand after “Ong-Bak” was released more people wanted to study Muay Thai. And that was our goal. And one of out other goals is to make the world know more about Muay Thai. And what makes me more proud is people can hear more of the Thai language. Another thing that I’ve learned from touring with “Ong-Bak,” you see the reaction of the fans when they watch the movie and its just a heartwarming feeling you receive no matter what language or race you are you feel the same feeling.
BB: Does this make you excited to make movies in more places than just Thailand?
TJ: It’s very exciting. But right now I want to establish my roots in Thailand and make quality films there right now. I”m in production of my second film right now, “Tom Yum Goong.” And I want to make great films for the world to see.
BB: Are you brining in your own ideas other than work with a director’s or writer?
TJ: It’ll be worth the wait definitely and of course it’ll be something new for the viewers. But it will be something about Muay Thai. You’ll have to wait and see.
BB: Are you going to do any writing or other mediums other than film?
TJ: You have to wait and see what I have planned. There will definitely be something through spreading the word of martial arts.
BB: Do you feel that the people understand your movie beyond the fight scenes?
TJ: The movie has a message in store for you. You can see the good and the bad and the black and the white beyond the characters in the film. You’ll see that people who do bad things will receive bad things in return.
BB: I’m sad George [a former villager and his reluctant sidekick] is killed off. Can you bring him back?
TJ: No, there’s no way to bring George back. Actually when we filmed the movie we had two versions: One where George dies and on where he doesn’t die. But the reason we chose the one that he did die is to depict that he is a selfless person. Once he was a person that can live on his own and is able to survive but now you see he is selfless and that is a good characteristic.
BB: Will you work with some of these actors again and bring back their characters?
TJ: You’ll have to wait and see.
BB: How did Luc Besson get involved in the film?
TJ: Luc Besson [the executive producer and famed director of “La Femme Nikita” and “The Fifth Element”] saw the film and loved it. So he bought it for distribution in Europe and America.
BB: Are there other genres you are interested in doing?
TJ: I’d love to do anything that has to do with martial arts and for the world to see and feel a love for each other and for all human beings, through film and martial arts.
BB: What did you learned from this experience?
TJ: Since I was a child I would watch these films by my heroes. And to actually do and see these things it’s like, if I didn’t have the determination I had as a child I wouldn’t be here today. And to look back and reflect on that I realize it takes a lot of experience.
BB: Have you seen a lot of the Thai films?
TJ: Yes I’ve had the opportunity to watch a lot of Thai films.
BB: Are you learning more about filmmaking?
TJ: Definitely I love to watch films no matter where it’s from. You can get something out of a film and present it in a new way in the form of art of film.
BB: What’s been the strangest experience you’ve had here while doing these interviews?
TJ: Something that I probably never dreamt of happening was that when we went to play at the NBA half time play in Dallas and we went to the box seats I looked down and said, “What am I doing here?” (Laughs)
BB: Where in Thailand would you recommend going to learn Muay Thai?
TJ: There are many wonderful places to go in Thai land. My home is also very nice. We’re very well known for elephants.
BB: Do you have any favorite restaurants?
TJ: I have a lot of favorite restaurants.
BB: Do you have any advice for others looking to study Buddhism?
TJ: Buddhism is something that is positive and good in carrying out our way of life. You may know when you were born but you don’t know when you’re going to die so now you should do every good deed you can do. And most importantly you should give back to your parents.
BB: Does it help with girlfriends?
TJ: It doesn’t matter [laughs].