He was raised in a rural area along side Jonathan Le, and as he grew up he watched films by Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Vince Lam and Jet Li at temple fairs, which was his inspiration to learn martial arts. He was so inspired by them that while he was doing chores or playing with friends, he would imitate the martial arts moves that he had seen, practicing in his father’s rice paddy. Also, he would give baths to the family’s elephants and somersault off their backs into the river.
“What they did was so beautiful, so heroic that I wanted to do it too,” Jaa told Time in a 2004 interview. “I practiced until I could do the move exactly as I had seen the masters do it.”
At age 15 he requested to become a protege of stuntman and action-film director Panna Rittikrai. Panna had instructed Jaa to attend Maha Sarakham College of Physical Education in Maha Sarakham Province. He has trained for an unspecified time in Taekwondo although there are no details regarding if this was in ITF or WTF style and if he has received formal Taekwondo training or as part of his stunt team member apprenticeship. Likewise, he is highly skilled in Muay Thai but there is no evidence at present to suggest a formal training history or competitive career.
He initially worked as a stuntman on Panna’s team, Muay Thai Stunt, appearing in many of Panna’s films. He doubled for Sammo Hung when the martial-arts actor made a commercial for an energy drink that required him to grasp an elephant’s tusks and somersault onto the elephant’s back. He was also a stunt double in the Thai television series Insee Daeng (Red Eagle).
Together, Panna and Jaa developed an interest in Muay Boran, an ancient style of Muay Thai and worked and trained for 1 year at the art with the intention of developing a film around it. Eventually they were able to put together a short film showing what Jaa could do. One of the people they showed it to was producer-director Prachya Pinkaew, who was duly impressed.
This led to Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior in 2003, Jaa’s break-out role as a leading man. Jaa did all the stunts without mechanical assistance or computer-generated effects and it showcased his style of extreme acrobatics and speedy, dance-like moves. Injuries suffered in the filming included a ligament injury and a sprained ankle. One scene in the film involved fighting with another actor while his own trousers were on fire. “I actually got burned,” he said in a 2005 interview. “I really had to concentrate because once my pants were on fire the flames spread upwards very fast and burnt my eyebrows, my eyelashes and my nose. Then we had to do a couple more takes to get it right.”
His second major movie was Tom-Yum-Goong (“The Protector” in the US), named after a type of Thai soup and including a style of Muay Thai that imitates elephants.
In August 2006, he was in New York to promote the US release of The Protector, including an appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image
Sahamongkol Film International advertised that Tony Jaa’s third film would be called Sword or Dab Atamas, about the art of Thai two-sword fighting, with a script by Prapas Chonsalanont. But due to a falling out between Prachya and Jaa, which neither have publicly commented on, Sword has been cancelled.
On March 2006 it was reported that there would be a sequel to Ong-Bak, Ong-Bak 2, Ong-Bak 3. With Jaa both directing and starring, it started pre-production in fall 2006 and was released in December of 2008.
While Jaa was working on Ong-Bak 2, director Prachya Pinkaew and action choreographer Panna Rittikrai were working on Chocolate, starring a female martial artist, Nicharee Vismistananda, and released February 6, 2008. Jaa had been cast in a small role in a third installment of the King Naresuan film series directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol, although the film was ultimately cancelled.