How ‘Ong Bak’ Star Tony Jaa Stays in Fighting Shape

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Magnolia Pictures

Thai martial artist-turned-stuntman-turned action movie star Tony Jaa is riding a global career high these days. After recently facing-off against Paul Walker in one of film history's biggest action scenes for Furious 7, which has already earned over $1.3 billion globally, Jaa can next be seen on the big screen in Skin Trade, opening May 8. This time he's on the right side of the law, operating as a Thai agent who teams up with American detective Dolph Lundgren to track down human trafficker Ron Pearlman. We recently sat down to talk with Jaa to talk about his love of martial arts, how his experience as a monk helped focus him, and the details of an intense workout routine that keeps him in fighting shape.

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What did you learn from working with actors Michael Jai White and Dolph Lundgren when it comes to the physical training they put into the movie?
Both Michael and Dolph are in great shape and train regularly as do I. All of us have a training schedule when we are not shooting that's somewhat more intensive than during a shoot. When you are shooting a film, at least in my case, you can't train four to six hours at the same time. I trained often with Michael. It was not so much a matter of what I learned, as recognizing that we all had our own workout schedules that were unique to each of our styles and requirements.

What role did you have in orchestrating the action in Skin Trade?
I had a lot of input in the action scenes I was involved in. What I was looking for was to keep it raw and relatively real. I am much smaller than Dolph and Michael. It would have looked very unreal if I didn't get manhandled by them and banged up quite a bit, and on screen I did.

How did your training with Panna Rittikrai impact your film career?
As a child I learned at the village temple school, from my father and from several local teachers. I met Panna as a teenager. I had already learned a wide range of martial arts and had developed many of the moves that were later seen in Ong Bak. Panna was a brilliant choreographer with a lot of fresh ideas and a great sense of on-screen action composition. He helped to take many of my moves and natural movements and translate them into a more fluid and presentable form that became my on-screen style. I initially worked on a couple of Panna's movies and later had a very good working relationship with him on Ong Bak and The Protector, and very much appreciated the opportunity to learn from him. I think it helped me to grow a lot.

Can you walk us through your training leading up to a movie like Skin Trade?
I don't have a specialized routine leading up to a movie shoot. My normal routine when not shooting is probably about four to six hours a day. I practice a wide variety of Muay moves, and incorporate other styles into them. I do a lot of calisthenics, speed bag work, acrobatic practice, rhythm practice, which includes traditional Muay Thai pre-fight movements and dance, practice with my stunt team, light weight-training, and regular endurance training, which includes either running or bike. This has become a regular lifestyle for me. When shooting a film, by necessity, I go to a shorter routine.

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What do you eat and drink in tandem with training for a movie?
I don't change my diet in any special way. I eat mostly fish, chicken, and vegetables. This remains quite consistent.

Which martial arts did you draw from for Skin Trade and how did that impact the action sequences?
I really operate with a mixed style, but with Muay Thai and Muay Boran moves as the foundation. The idea was to adjust my movements in a way that appeared realistic given my size and the size and power of Michael and Dolph. Most of my movements were Muay Boran-based with some acrobatics thrown in. Michael and Dolph are well-grounded in Kyokushin. Michael has 26 title belts in seven styles of martial arts. The idea was to have each person operate within a style he was comfortable with, and that contrasted well with his opponent. We realized we were doing fight choreography, and that in itself is stylized, but we wanted the fight to have a realistic feel and pace. I hope we accomplished that.

How did your athletic background in free-running, fencing, and gymnastics help you with martial arts?
It allows me to be flexible in what I do and to mix styles for effect and effectiveness. This includes some acrobatics, which I think on-screen help to make things more interesting. I hope this presented well in films like Ong Bak, The Protector and my scenes in Furious 7.

How did learning Muay Boran, Muay Thai, and other disciplines help when you self-trained in krabi krabong, lethwei, and kino mutai?
The more you learn, the more you develop a foundation to continue learning. Each new style or movement gives you something with which to build on towards something else that is new. I love mixing styles and trying to find movements that are natural to me, but look fresh and new. I hope I will be able to continue to learn and develop, that is very important to me.

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How did becoming a Buddhist monk that helps you as a martial artist?
The Buddhist Monk stories have been a bit misunderstood. Most Thai men enter the Monkhood for a brief period at least once in their life. This was picked up in some of the press without context and stories were written that I had quit acting and become a Monk. This was not quite true. This was a period of personal reflection for me, which was important. The lifestyle of a Monk was very simple, and it gave me time to consider life, who I was, and how I related to others. It was not about martial arts. 

What advice would you give to someone interested in the Muay disciplines?
Focus, practice, work past your frustration, define your goals, know who you are and what you can do, and never give up.

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