Vithaya Pansringarm is truly exceptional success story. At 54 years old, he started his acting career only five years ago. Armed with an exceptional scene presence and strong work ethic, Pansringarm landed top billing opposite Ryan Gosling in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest project.’Only God Forgives’ is a gritty thriller set in the seedy underbelly of Bangkok. Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American fugitive from justice, runs a Thai boxing club as a front for his drug business. His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), the head of a vast criminal organization, arrives from the US to collect the body of her favorite son, Billy. Julian’s brother has just been killed after having savagely murdered a young prostitute. Crazy with rage and thirsty for vengeance she demands the heads of the murderers from Julian. But first, Julian must confront Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a mysterious policeman—and figurehead of a divine justice—who has resolved to scourge the corrupt underworld of brothels and fight clubs. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Vithaya Pansringarm to discuss how he got his start in the movie business, his role in ‘Only God Forgives,’ his evolution as an actor and much more!
You have a very interesting story when it comes to how you got involved with the film industry. What can you tell us about how you got started on your journey as an actor?
It all happened by accident! [laughs] Actually, my wife and I have our own business. We own a dance school in Bangkok. I am married to a lovely American lady who happened to be a ballerina in New York. We met in New York and we came to Thailand, where we opened a small dance school. Today, the school has over two hundred students! We had been very successful in running the ballet school. What happened was, one night, I went out with a friend and I met a cameraman. He saw me and he invited me to act in a short film. That is how it happened! After I did the short film with him, this cameraman got a job working on an American movie in Thailand. In that movie, they couldn’t find a particular character for the film. My friend the cameraman said “Why don’t you call Vithaya?” I got cast in the film with Nu Image. It happened six years ago and that is how it happened.
Who are some of your biggest influences as an actor?
As an actor, I love Jack Nicholson, Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Walken. I have seen a lot of their work and I am always quite impressed. Sir Anthony Hopkins is another. I like all of these actors because I too am in my fifties, you see?
Your latest film is Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives.” How did you get involved with this project?
After I worked on several overseas productions that had come to shoot movies in Thailand, the casting director in Thailand started to know me. When the casting director received the script from Nicolas, she called me! She said “This Danish director is doing this movie and I have read the script. I think you would be perfect for this project.” She asked me to audition for “Only God Forgives.” That was about three years back. At the time, she said Nicolas liked me but he was doing “Drive,” so the whole project was put aside. After “Drive,” Nic decided to do the film and I had to re-audition for the character. He decided he was going to use me for the film and that is how it happened.
What can you tell us about the role and what intrigued you about the character?
After I read the script, I said “My goodness! This character is very unique!” It is not a typical character you see in many projects. The title is “Only God Forgives,” and when I read the script, I said “Wow! Nic wants this guy to be God! What type of God are we talking about?” I think Nic understood when he moved the movie to Thailand; it was involved with the Thai society, culture and beliefs. I became God in terms of the God that people in my country believe in, which is almost like and angel has someone in a trance. He can be a human being but there is a spiritual power inside of him – energy. When Nic said to me at one point “This character is powerful but he has to have energy inside.” I knew exactly what he was trying to say. you are almost like a statue. People see a statue and they can respect it because the stature represents something. Little by little, we tried to create the character of Chang. In the script, after executes somebody or kills somebody, he goes into a karaoke bar. He does that to purify himself of the power that has come out of his hands. We created this character during the pre-production and as we shot the movie, we tried to also fine tune his personality and have it come out in a unique way. We created Chang, in a way you cannot duplicate. It is so original and could only be in “Only God Forgives.”
I know you have been involved with the martial arts for many years. How did your training affect the creation of this character?
It had a big impact, very much so! When Nicolas said, “You have to be like a statue.” I immediately thought of my martial arts field. I have been involved with the Japanese fencing called Kendo for the past 28 years. In Kendo, when we fight, it is almost you hold the sword in a way where you become one. You hardly move and you focus your energy on your opponents. I said to myself, “That is what I am going to do in this film.” I am going to focus my energy to the camera, the lens and the character I am with. You don’t know what the expression is on my face but you can feel what is in my heart. That is my key. The whole time I act in this film, it is more than just acting because I have to use Chi, which is the inside energy. It is all about martial arts in this movie.
What do you consider the biggest challenge you encountered with this role?
First of all, when I first received this opportunity to meet Nic for the first time, I just finished a Thai movie where I played a Buddhist monk. Even though I am an Asian man, I’m a big guy! At the time I met Nic for the first time, I was 103 kg. Nic said to the casting director “I like Poo but I think he is too big.” Poo is my nickname. The character is an ex-boxer, you see. As soon as the casting director told me that, the next day I started going to the gym without even knowing if I was going to get the role or not. I just put in 100%! I went to the day almost every day for eight months. I dropped 20 kilos with physical exercise! Then when Nic saw me again, we didn’t say anything but he know I had committed to the project. They provided me with a personal trainer and a Thai boxing coach for another three months. For me, at 53, doing these things is very challenging! [laughs]
Nicolas Winding Refn is making quite a name for himself. What did you learn from him while working together?
One time is not enough when it comes to learning from Nicolas! [laughs] When you work with Nicolas, you discover he really does his homework! He knows exactly what he needs to do on the set but at the same time he is very flexible. He is not a director who comes in and tells you this is how to do something. He asks you how you feel, what you want to do and what you want to create with him. That is one thing I really loved about working with him! In technical terms, he knows his camera work. All you need to do is use your own imagination and try to understand what is in his mind and what he wants. Also, when he works and it is perfect, it is not enough. He would always say on set “It’s perfect! Let’s do it again.” He would say that for the next 15 to 20 takes! [laughs] I learned that from him. Even if you think something is perfect, you can be even more perfect than you think! That is what I learned from Nicolas.
How do you feel you have evolved as an actor since you first started out?
Oh, wow! First of all, it is really wonderful. At this point, my wife and I have the successful dance school and it is doing well but acting is like a new chapter in my life. Some of my friends are now retiring or some have started caring for their grandchildren. I have found a whole new career! It is almost a new life for me with mew opportunities and new friends. I feel I have become more creative and I enjoy it, very much so!
Your story is one many people will find inspirational. What do you think is the best lesson that can be learned for your extraordinary journey?
I try to do my best in everything I have the opportunity to do. I work hard and do my homework. I would tell people to never give up. I started acting at 50, as I said. I didn’t dream big, it just happened. In situations like that, you just have to keep doing it and doing your best. To people who want to have the same opportunity, keep doing it and one day it will happen! For me, I am very grateful for the opportunity of working with Nicolas, Ryan [Gosling] and Kristen Scott Thomas. I could never ask for any better project than this one!
Is there a particular type of role you are anxious to tackle in the future?
You know, you have seen me on the scene becoming more of a symbol of violence but I would love to do drama! I think comedy is hard, as is making people laugh! If I had the opportunity to do drama, I would very much look forward to a challenging role! I think it would be interesting for me!
Thank you so much for your time today! You were fantastic in this film and we look forward to your future work!
Thank you very much, Jason! Thank you!
Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” hits Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013.