Tony Jaa rapidly became an international martial arts star after the release of Thai action thriller ‘Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior’. He would go on to star in two sequels as well as ‘The Bodyguard 1 & 2’ and ‘The Protector 1 & 2’.
This year he has several projects in development including ‘Fast & Furious 7’ and ‘Skin Trade’, starring Dolph Lundgren and Michael Jai White.
Today, Tony chats exclusively with The Action Elite about ‘Skin Trade’ and ‘Fast 7’.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.
We’re really looking forward to your upcoming film ‘Skin Trade’; what can you tell us about the film and your character Tony?
I am very excited about ‘Skin Trade’, for many reasons. This is the first movie shot by an Asia based organization (outside of China/Hong Kong) in English for international theatrical release. The movie was shot 90 percent on location in Thailand which I was quite proud of, and has a large well known international cast that includes Dolph Lundgren, Ron Perlman, Michael Jai White, Celina Jade, Peter Weller and Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa.
I play a Thai detective. My character has certain personal reasons for wanting to end human trafficking. At the same time the story line within the movie twists and turns where it takes a while until you realize who is good and who is bad, and there are some very grey areas. Dolph plays a Newark detective and his family is killed by a Serbian Gangster involved in Human Trafficking.
Dolph basically becomes half crazed with revenge, but along the way he realizes that he can make a difference in other ways. Anymore than this and I will give away too much of the story.
The story of human trafficking is also a big problem in real life; is that partly what drew you to the story?
Human trafficking is something that many Thai’s are concerned about and our government has made great progress in stopping this. I have particular personal concerns about the maintenance of human dignity for everyone as well as not taking advantage of people unfairly. The story was very resonant for me.
Because of the dark subject matter, did you find the film had any scenes that were emotionally challenging?
This is an interesting and complicated question for me. Until the middle of last year I did not speak English. I have taken intensive English since then and am now reasonably fluent in conversational English. Acting and conveying emotion in English is something I need to practice and be very mindful of in different scenes. It means going beyond just memorizing lines. I also speak with a Thai accent and need to pay attention to diction and inflection, I suppose that is why I lost the leading role in ‘The King’s Speech’ to Colin Firth. 🙂
In the Thai movies that I have been in, my character often tended to be rather narrow and not very emotional. Many Asian movies often concentrate more on action than story and there is often a tendency for a character to be either flat or to over act.
In ‘Skin Trade’ I needed to portray a wide dramatic and emotional range and to do so in a realistic manner. At the same time there are some scenes in the film that are disturbing because they show a degree of human suffering that is heart breaking. I think you could say I had my hands full in this role.
I still got to do quite a number of action scenes, but you will see me in a role that you have not seen me in before. I also need to thank my friend and co-star Celina Jade. She is a truly outstanding actress, and in some dramatic scenes she spent considerable time rehearsing with me in our free time until I had my performance “just right”.
‘The Protector’ & ‘Ong Bak’ movies also dealt with issues like animal trafficking and the ivory trade; is it important to you to have not just action but a genuine message in your movies?
I did not have much say in the development of the story lines of ‘TYG’ and ‘Ong Bak’. On the original ‘Ong Bak’ I was very involved with the action choreography, but not the plot. These films dealt somewhat with animal trafficking but really as a side plot to a straight Asian style action film. I don’t think the studio was looking for a social message.
I have always been concerned about elephants, growing up they were a major part of my life, so for me there was a message point. I like the idea of a film with a message if it is a message I believe in. I am an actor, and that means I also like a film that tells a good story even if it is not a “message” type of film.
As this is one of your first English language films, did you feel there was extra pressure on you?
As I touched on earlier. I had a taste of what was to come in ‘Fast and Furious 7’ which was my first English speaking role. It took me a while to learn to convey emotion correctly in English, but I like challenges and I think I can handle this one with continued work and practice.
Some great photos appeared on the ‘Skin Trade’ Facebook page with you and Michael Jai White sparring. You both have different fighting styles. Did you teach him any moves or vice versa?
Michael Jai White is simply amazing. He is an expert in 7 styles of martial arts. Our styles are very different. We are also close personal friends and often workout together. We have certainly picked up ideas from each other. We are in touch quite regularly so I imagine that our collaboration will continue.
Do you have any fight scenes together in the movie?
Can you tell us anything about the relationship between your character Tony and Dolph’s character Nick?
Like they say in the relationship status on Facebook “It’s complicated”. Let us say we do not start out as friends but things might change over time.
Is it still important to you to do as many of your own stunts as possible in a film?
Yes, I prefer to do my own stunts, otherwise you are not really watching me.
You’re known for such physical roles, did you face any major challenges or injuries during the filming of ‘Skin Trade’?
The attention to safety was key in this production and the amount of practice before any heavy action scenes insured that we were safe. Diyan Hristov was in charge of action and stunts along with Top, one of my choreographers. Diyan handled ‘Expendables 2 and 3’ and the sequel to ‘300’. With a professional like that there is little risk.
Has your training schedule changed for this movie and if so, in what ways?
Regardless of shooting schedule I get in at least 4 hours a day of workout and practice 6 days a week, this is a routine for me and it doesn’t change.
How have you found the differences in the film-making processes of Thai cinema compared to a Hollywood feature?
Yes there are big differences in terms of resources, management, technology and approach to story telling and acting. That is why ‘Skin Trade’ was so unique. A Thai production for the International market shot Hollywood style with a mixed crew. We had Ekachai, a Thai as Director, Ben Nott as Director of Photography and he is brilliant (Day Breakers) and Victor Dubois as editor (Last Samurai, Brave Heart).
Gloey who was Ben’s main camera operator was the Director of Photography in Ong Bak and has real talent. Over 90 percent of our crew was Thai; they did great and learned a lot. We also showed we could make a genuine Hollywood style movie in Thailand.
You play Louie Tran in ‘Fast & Furious 7’; after the tragic passing of Paul Walker last year, production resumes next month. Had you shot any scenes with Paul and has the story been drastically changed?
I saw the name Louie Tran on IMDB, but that is not the name my character had during shooting so I am unsure about that. I had quite a few scenes with Paul Walker. He was a genuinely nice person and his passing was a real shock to me. I will be back in June to finish my scenes. As for the story, I will leave that to the people at Universal to tell you about it, but it is going to be quite a film.
There was a video of you teaching Vin Diesel some fighting moves last year; will he be using some Muay Thai in the film?
Vin and I are friends, and he was very very kind to me when I arrived on the set of ‘FF7’. This was my first exposure to an international film and I was nervous. He and his family took me in as one of their own and I will never forget this. We worked out together for fun a number of times. Vin learned some moves, and I can tell you he is a real action hero.
With the huge success of ‘The Raid’ and upcoming ‘The Raid 2’; is this a series you would like to be a part of?
Questions like this are always hard to answer. I saw ‘The Raid’ and Iko was nothing short of outstanding, he is a great talent. Participation in films is often schedule driven and career driven depending on where you are and what you are planning for yourself. Besides, when you see a great martial artist like Iko, you don’t really need me, just watching him will keep you quite occupied.
Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with the Action Elite and all the very best with your upcoming projects.
I want to thank you for taking the time and interest to ask me these questions.