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Underneath all the superstar hype, Tony Jaa's just a home-loving boy : On July 4, 2005
Underneath all the superstar hype, Tony Jaa's just a home-loving boy
On screen, the world knows him as hot action hero Tony Jaa. But at heart Phanom "Jaa" Yeerum is a humble, affable guy from Surin province who's crazy about kung fu.
His teeth are still in braces, albeit carefully hidden from sight, and today he's dressed casually in Diesel jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt being made-up for a photo shoot.
Compared to the young man The Nation interviewed eight years back, when he was a stuntman under the direction of veteran actor Panna Ritthikrai, Jaa is confident and finds it easy to talk to the press.
"I'm doing okay," he says when asked how much he's earning now.
Jaa may be famous, but he's not yet in the Hollywood league. While he wears designer clothes that are often chosen by his assistant (he's too busy to go shopping) and he's bought an Bt8 million house for his folks in Surin (he has a place in Bangkok), he's content driving a Honda CR-V rather than a Ferrari or Porsche.
Since the success of "Ong Bak", he's been kept extremely busy. Quite apart from the tough physical training for the upcoming "Tom Yum Goong", he spends time designing new muay thai (kick-boxing) moves and helping his mentor Panna choreograph action scenes for other movies.
Often he feels so exhausted that he's tempted to quit.
"Sometimes I just want to be alone somewhere quiet."
At those time his thoughts stray to home. His eyes sparkle with happiness when he talks of his childhood friends, of riding buffaloes and seeing elephants in the forest. It's a paradise he dreams of revisiting.
But all he manages are the occasional two-day trips.
"I always think positively and I don't let anything kill my confidence. My life has been perfect so far."
The golden boy of Thai cinema is thoroughly enjoying the prosperous life.
"What I want is to see is my loved ones be happy. My reward will probably be a peaceful life with money to spend when I retire. Right now I'm happy making movies and taking care of my parents."
He was born in a remote village in Surin. Jaa's father belongs to the ancient Kui tribe, which has traditionally taken care of elephants.
As a child, the kung fu-mad Jaa imitated his heroes by jumping off the roof.
He walked back and forth in the dark for more than 10 kilometres to catch the free movies at the open-air cinema in the neighbouring village, remembered all action scenes and practised alone.
While such behaviour is fairly common in kids, most grow out of it. Jaa didn't, and at one stage threatened to kill himself unless his father took him to Khon Kaen to practise with his hero, Panna.
The trainer took him on and soon Jaa was picked as a stand-in for singer-actor "James" Ruangsak Loychoosak in the action flick film "Gaeng Krataek Kuan Kao Kuanmuang".
Not long after, he was taken on as a stuntman for the Hollywood production "Mortal Combat II", shot on location in Thailand.
In his acting debut, "Ong Bak", Jaa thrilled audiences with his no-wires, high-risk action scenes. The film achieved blockbuster status throughout Asia and was a major hit in France.
Jaa has never stopped learning. Discipline, he says, is vital in helping him avoid accidents. While preparing for "Ong Bak", he meditated, trained eight hours a day and studied acting.
"Everywhere can be a place to practise - even the bedroom. I walk on my hands to the bathroom just to warm up," says Jaa, who also spent hours learning English.
He's also searching for the secret of muay thai in different places, and trying to develop it to suit his style.
He says many gestures imitated from elephants and tigers remain to be discovered from the Thai martial art.
He has identified others from the traditional dance khon and ancient books.
Audiences will have a chance to see some muay thai moves next month when "Tom Yum Goong" comes to the big screen.
"We showed some classic moves in 'Ong Bak' but there are some fresh ideas adapted from books and dance in the new movie," he says.
Jaa's embarrassed at being compared with Jackie Chan or Jet Li.
"They are my inspiration. I don't want to be compared with those I respect as my teachers. I'm not as good as they are - I'm just a beginner."
He also points out that while the Hong Kong martial-arts greats have influenced his muay thai style, he is not a kung fu action hero.
"I combine Bruce Lee's swiftness with Jackie Chan's agility and Jet Li's beautiful movements. All become part of muay thai and then it becomes me, Tony Jaa."
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