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Tony Jaa

by Martin Cleary

Born Panom Worawit on 5 January 1976 in the Surin Province, North-East Thailand near the Cambodian border, Tony Jaa had humble beginnings. His parents were rice farmers and elephant herders. His father changed his sons name from Worawit to Yeerum after having a ‘premonition’ in his dreams. As a young boy, Jaa enjoyed watching the Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films which were occasionally shown in his village on a make-shift cinema screen. These two screen icons were to become major influences on his work. Jaa recognised the way the actors represented not only themselves and their amazing martial arts abilities on the screen, but also the way in the actors represented their cultural backgrounds and traditions.

Jaa’s father was a Muay Thai Boxer and – after being harassed by his enthusiastic son – agreed to train him from a young age. Muay Thai was important to the family because of the specifically Thai identity and history of the martial art. Although Jaa had watched and loved the Chinese fighting styles on the big screen, he felt this personal connection with Muay Thai culturally.

At the age of ten Jaa attended the Koke Klang Wittayakok School in Surin and then at the age of about thirteen, he befriended a Thai stuntman and director by the name of Panna Rittikrai. Rittikrai had directed a film called Born To Fight which Jaa had seen and loved. It was the first time that he had seen a Thai film which was full of the type of action that he loved to watch. He began to work for Rittikrai on film sets doing odd-jobs, and slowly managed to begin some training with him. At the age of fifteen Rittikrai agreed to teach Jaa more seriously. Jaa then moved to Khon Kaen where Rittikrai lived. After a few years of this training and learning, Jaa enroled at the University of Mahamarakam. This was a university which specialised in various fighting skills and gymnastics. Jaa was enthusiastic about his University studies and did well in such a sporting environment – and yet he still found time to be taught by Rittikrai at weekends and during holidays. While still at the University Jaa became President of the Swordplay Club. He was chosen to represent Thai fighting skills on a tour in China – which he found to be a great honour. He entered different competitions and tournaments around this time, and often came home with gold medals.

Towards the end of his time at University, Jaa started to work as a stunt-double on films and television series. His relationship with Rittikrai combined with his obvious martial arts abilities got him work performing stunts in nearly a dozen films, including stunt-doubling for Robin Shue in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation which was being filmed in Thailand. Also at this time, Jaa filmed a ‘stunt reel’ with some of his friends. This was passed around to local filmmakers in the hope that he may be offered a project, but unfortunately none surfaced. His big break was to come from closer to home – from his teacher and mentor Rittikrai who had began thinking about what would be an ideal project for him. Between 1995 and 1997, Rittikrai began to develop his ideas for a film which would show some of the powerful Thai martial arts. The idea took about eight years to finalize. This film was to become Ong Bak. The film Ong Bak was a very localised Thai production. The Thai film industry had in the past few years had a small resurgence, although nothing like the Ong Bak project had ever been tried before. Ong Bak was to be a Muay Thai action film with no reliance on computer generated effects or wire-work. This was the type of film that Jaa had watched and loved growing up. He was not only to star in the film, but also to help choreograph many of the films breath-taking action scenes. Jaa says that it was important to him to have a reliance on physical ability rather than special effects. When writing the script for Ong Bak, the filmmakers wanted to make sure that people outside of Thailand would understand it. The film would be the first time that Muay Thai styles had been shown so explicitly on screen and they felt that they should be representing the traditions and Thai identity through the film.


On its release Ong Bak was a massive hit across Asia. Overnight Tony Jaa became the leading action actor in Thailand. One of the people who noticed the films impact on the Asian film industry was the French producer and director Luc Besson. He quickly bought the films distribution rights and suddenly the film started to be distributed worldwide. Although the film was re-edited in some territories (and in the US the film slightly renamed to Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior) the film of course retains it’s Thai martial arts centrepieces. The film is only about two years old, and yet already Ong Bak is considered by many action fans to be a classic. Following on from Ong Bak’s massive success, Jaa’s next role was a cameo appearance in the Thai movie The Bodyguard ( nothing to do with Kevin Costner / Whitney Houston!) After this he didn’t waste anytime in starting filming for a new project with the Ong Bak team – the film Tom Yum Goong. Tom Yum Goong is similar in plot to Ong Bak. In Ong Bak Jaa played a simple village boy who has to recover the head of his villages’ Buddha – the Ong Bak. In Tom Yum Goong Jaa plays Kham, a country boy who must retrieve two elephants stolen from his village from Australia. Like Ong Bak the film seems to have several influences from Jaa’s real background – with his parents working as elephant herders the animals must be very familiar! Tom Yum Goong has had a fantastic reception on it’s Thai release and is set to do the same as it is released across the rest of the world over the next year.

Tony Jaa’s next role is another cameo appearance – this time in The Bodyguard 2. Other projects lined up include a currently untitled project which is to be filmed and released around the end of 2006. In this film Tony will play a character who travels across Asia learning different martial arts styles – such as Shaolin Kung-fu and Taekwando. Following this should be a project called ‘Sword’ which tells the true story of King Naresuan The Great, a Siamese warrior-king who fought in over twenty-seven major battles. If this project goes ahead it will probably have a 2007 release.


It seems that the future is bright for Tony Jaa. He’s the biggest newcomer to the action scene in recent memory and may be the best new action star since Jet Li. For all of his success he seems to have remained fairly down-to-earth – not so far from the village boy he plays so well on the screen. Jaa says that he would consider making films in America if they still allow him to keep his Thai identity and control of the action scenes. If he did lead a film in the US he would be the first Thai actor to ever do so. For the time being it seems that Jaa has more than enough projects to work on in the Thai film industry. Hopefully, with some good projects which allow him to develop his acting skills and create a strong on-screen persona, Tony Jaa will continue to be a breath of fresh air to martial-arts / action cinema.

The End.

Buy Tony Jaa’s movies at  YesAsia

Comments (3 comments)

Nicely done!
All details are well presented and in detailed, all fact!

Glad to read something concise and straight forward rather than reading unreliable source like Wikipedia:/

Anyway for updates, that movie “Swords”, guess it might or might not be released this Dec 2008, or next year

David Oso / September 17th, 2008, 3:09 am

oh yea, one thing that got me so confused when reading this:

“t the age of ten Jaa attended the Koke Klang Wittayakok School in Surin and then at the age of about thirteen, he befriended a Thai stuntman and director by the name of Panna Rittikrai. Rittikrai had directed a film called Born To Fight which Jaa had seen and loved.”

It doesn’t make sense, because Born to Fight was released 2004, and I am sure Tony Jaa is older by now. If you were referring Rittikrai as the director of Born to Fight, you said it was Tony Jaa’s first Thai movie, which doesn’t make sense.

This isn’t a big deal, just pointing this out, because I got confused and I though you must have written it wrong.

David Oso / September 17th, 2008, 3:12 am

thanks tony jaa
and happy new year

surya shrestha / December 24th, 2009, 12:12 pm

What do you think?