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From fighting to forgiveness

Actor Vithaya Parnsringarm |prepares for the Cannes spotlight as |one of the stars of 'Only God Forgives'

He made his name as a former cop turned Buddhist monk in Tom Waller's 2011 mystery "Sop Mai Ngiab" ("Mindfulness and Murder"), played a minister at a wedding in the Hollywood hit "The Hangover Part II" and now Vithaya Parnsringarm is preparing to take his first steps on the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival as one of the stars of "Only God Forgives".

In Cannes, Vithaya will be joining co-stars Ryan Gosling and Kristen Scott Thomas for Nicolas Winding Refn's latest thriller, which is premieres in the festival's main competition.

Refn, who directed Gosling in the 2011 crime drama "Drive", has this time cast him as Julian, a man living in exile in Bangkok where he runs a boxing gym as a front for the family's drug-smuggling business.

When his brother Billy is killed, Julian's mother Jenna (Thomas) demands that he avenges the death and this leads to Julian's involvement with Chang, the Angel of Vengeance (Vithaya), a retired police officer who acts as judge and punisher. Also starring in the film are Ratha "Yaya Ying" Pho-ngam, who plays Julian's girlfriend, and Kowit Wattanankul.

"My character is like a person who believes that he has god inside his soul and that authorises him to punish the bad guys," says Vithaya.

In the three movie trailers released last month, each portraying one of the main characters, Chang comes across as a superhero in an old man's body - a guy with an emotionless face but bursting with superstitious power.

Vithaya spent a whole year in the gym and lost 23 kilograms for the role, which he describes as physical challenge even for someone as adept at the Japanese martial art of kendo as he.

He also had to learn muay thai - he fights Gosling in the film - how to shoot a gun and wield a Thai sword.

The founder of the Kendo Club in Thailand and holder of the fifth dan (black belt) says his skills with the shinai (bamboo sword) were very helpful in getting into character for Chang.

"My skill in kendo was a benefit for the choreography of the sword fights. But it was the focus on body, mind and soul that the martial art demands that really propelled me into the Angel of Vengeance's character," he says.

"The angel of vengeance is a spiritual character, rather like the gods in Greek methology," he continues, adding that while the film contains more violence than "Drive", it is unexpected and artistic.

Vithaya's film career kicked off four years ago when Australian cinematographer Wade Muller asked him to appear in the short film "Second Chance". Small roles in foreign productions being filmed in Thailand followed. Then came the chance to play Father Ananda in "Mindfulness and Murder", for which he received nominations for best actor and best screenwriter at last year's Subhannahongsa Awards.

He credits his English-language skills for getting him the work on foreign productions but says he continues to work hard as he considers himself still a novice in the acting world.

"I've never taken classes so my acting is drawn from my life experiences. I think it was lucky that I didn't start acting until I turned 50, as maturity and experience have definitely helped me getting into character," says the actor who also works with his family's Rising Star Dance Studio, which is run by his American ballerina wife Fay.

His age and experience also mean that he isn't fazed by working alongside Hollywood A-listers.

"They're people like the rest of us. They still sweat on the set. I do think, though, that A-list actors would be upset if forced to work with unprofessional people who lack preparation. But we do prepare and so they respect us," he says.

A graduate in graphic design from the New York Institute of Technology, Vithaya has worked in different fields including a stint as an Amway distributor in the '80s. After opening the ballet school, he and his wife were regularly engaged to organise events and choreograph shows. They served as personality consultants for the Miss Thailand World pageants in the '90s.

"Becoming an actor has given me a new life and I'm grateful for that. I'm looking for interesting roles and don't mind whether they are small or big, portraying a good guy or bad guy," says Vithaya, who admits with a smile that he's rarely recognised by Thais.

After Cannes is done and dusted, Vithaya will return to work with Waller on "Chavoret: The Last Executioner", a biopic of the rock 'n' roll musician turned prison officer who became the last Thai to execute inmates by rifle. Vithaya is also co-writing the script.

FLICKERING LIGHTS

- The Cannes Film Festival runs from next Wednesday until May 26.

- "Only God Forgives" will be released in Thailand on June 27.


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