Interview: Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee

Part-time actor, full-time soldier and all-around good guy Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee returns to the silver screen—as an outlaw.
Sereechai Putees/Time Out Bangkok
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If there's an actor who's best known for playing the part of the patriotic hero, that would be Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee. The occasional actor is best known for his role as King Naresuan, the beloved warrior ruler of Ayutthaya during the late 16th century, in MC Chatrichalerm Yukol’s Legend of King Naresuan film series. For a span of eight years, Wanchana reprised this lead role in five of the franchise’s six movies. Off-screen, Wanchana is a full-time soldier who currently serves as an assistant spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence. At home, he’s a loving husband and a devoted father to his son Win. Wanchana is a man’s man, a decent sort through and through. So you can imagine our surprise when he shook things up a bit by taking on the role of Suea Fai, a Robin Hood-type Thai outlaw in the 1940s, in Khun Pan 2, the sequel to the 2016 blockbuster Khun Pan. The sometime actor sits down with Time Out to discuss the challenges of taking on a role that’s so dissimilar to his personality, and his grand ambitions for his son.

Playing a thief and an outlaw? That doesn’t seem like you. What made you decide to take on this role?

I was interested in taking on this role as it is very different from King Naresuan. In the movie, I play Suea Fai, the infamous outlaw who commanded a large bandit group in the central region of Thailand. History has it that his people were exploited by the government so they decided to make money in their own way, which included robbing from the rich to help the poor, kind of like Robin Hood. Still, they were thieves and they were punished by the law in the end.

This is the first movie where you didn’t work with MC Chatrichalerm Yukol. What is it like to work with a new director?

How they work and the scale of the crew are very different. King Naresuan had a huge crew with lots of people involved. Most parts of the movies filmed in one location so everyone just lived there, literally. Khun Phan, in contrast, was filmed in various locations. Khom (Kongkiat Khomsiri; director of Khun Pan) also worked very fast and he could spontaneously adapt to any situation. Sometimes there were natural obstacles during filming, such as rain or noise which he handled very well.

 

“My life now is about passing knowledge and finding experiences for the next generation.”

 

This is the first time you play a role that’s very different from your real character. What did you learn from taking on this role?

The audience is familiar with me playing a king, a hero. Suea Fai is also a hero in a way. He was a hero to his people as they called him “father,” “teacher” or “brother.” Playing an outlaw is very challenging. Outlaws use many tricks to steal, but at the same time they are gentlemen. They are armed with weapons, yet Suea Fai had to give them a principle of living and honor among thieves so they could live together in peace.

You usually appear in historic or war movies. Are there any plans to explore other film genres in the future? Is there any role you’d like to play in particular?

I do, but it depends on the role. I think the challenge for an actor is to play different roles. Some will be similar to who you are, some won’t. If I had the chance to change my character, I would love to do it. I don’t know what role though. I can only think of roles that are similar to me. But I really want to play something completely different. I’m looking for a director that would cast me for something else, too. Suea Fai may be an outlaw, but there is still something in him that I can relate to.

If you were given a chance to play a super villain, would you do it?

Of course. I believe a hero would only look good if he/she has to fight against a great villain. I mean if the hero comes into the scene and kills them all, it wouldn’t be fun. Great villains make the movie much more interesting.

Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee

Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee

Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

 

Did you have to learn anything new in your role as Suea Fai?

Not at all. I already know how to ride a horse, fire a gun and use a weapon. These are all things I’m familiar with. These are not new to me. What I needed to do was learn more about Khun Pan and the other outlaws of Suphan Buri province from the locals or the police to see how they lived that time, which was around World War II. It wasn’t hard to do research and I like reading about history.

Suea Fai is said to have had superpowers…

He had a yantra tattoo of the Airavata elephant, which is a symbol of strength, on his chest. On his back, it was Vaisravana, who is also a symbol of strength. He had bullet immunity and was able to freeze people—that’s how he got away from enemy. My favorite would be the latter one. I think it can easily help you out of any bad situation.

How do you think this movie would be received by the modern Thai society?

I like how gentlemen in the past were loyal to their word. I think the male audience would love this movie because of how it portrays manliness. It talks about the gentleman’s agreement and what could happen if it’s broken. On the other hand, it also reflects police honesty and its benefits, which have been an issue in Thai society for a long time.

 

Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee

Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a soldier who is also an actor?

I can’t find any disadvantage, actually. First of all, when I go to a movie set, I step into a world that’s different from the army, and I step into a persona that I’m still comfortable with. In the military, there are senior officers or commanders, and I work very hard under pressure. In the acting world, I’m happy as I’m able to step into someone else’s shoes. Being an actor supports my military career as I gain media attention, I have a chance to convey military news to the audience. For example, people don’t usually leave their homes in disputed border areas, but they would move if I asked them because they look at me as the colonel who portrayed King Naresuan in the movies. The military has always been my main career path. After the military academy, I worked in the armed forces. I was in the calvary regimen and with the Fort Surasi (paramilitary at borders) dealing with illegal logging, drugs and human trafficking. I was an ordinary soldier carrying guns, doing patrol and practice in the jungle. I was still with the Fort Surasi when I started acting as the film unit was actually located next to the barracks. I had a lot of military training going on, so Than Mui (MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, the director of King Naresuan) had to ask for permission from the Royal Thai Army to “borrow” me for rehearsals.

After King Naresuan, did you think you’d continue working as an actor?

I did, because, in the end, it was beneficial to the army. At first, I needed to tell my commander what roles I would play, but now I’m free to take on any role as long as I can maintain the positive image of the army. I can play any role now, I mean I can portray an outlaw because everyone knows I’m acting. I’ll be more careful if I have to portray a soldier or policeman because some of the scripts try to create negativity around these professions. I look at the movie overall, like Khun Pan is about a good cop so it’s totally ok.

The military has been heavily criticized over the last few years. Is it hard being military personnel at the moment?

It’s not hard because the military still works like it has always worked. Time will prove the truth even though there are many negative criticism directed at the military at the moment. Of course, there are some issues—but only a few—that should be clarified to the public. However, in practice, the military never changes. We only have four missions—support the cores which are nation, religion and king; maintain peace in the country; maintain sovereignty; and help citizens—which we still do as usual.

 

Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee

Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

 

What have you learned from being a father?

I think my life now is all about passing knowledge and finding experiences for the next generation. I want my son to be able to adapt in the fastgrowing society by giving him a good start in the sense of critical thinking. I want him to be strong because I dream of him becoming a Wimbledon champion. I want to see him in four Grand Slams as a representative of Thailand. I don’t actually focus a lot on academics but more on rational thinking. So basically, I focus more on the physical and mental aspects.

Why tennis for your son?

It’s my personal favorite [laughs]. When I was young, I played lots of sports like volleyball. I was a represented Nakhon Pathom. I was also into track and field, triple jump, long jump and high jump. I also played tennis, and I think it requires a lot of energy, possibly the sport that uses energy the most, based on the size of the court and how you play under the sun. It’s a very physical sport, but without any injury from direct tackling like in rugby or football.

I remember watching Wimbledon matches where the camera would zoom in on Roger Federer’s father, or when John McEnroe or Andre Agassi would climb up the stadium to hug their dads. I think one day I will sit there and the camera will zoom in on me giving a signal to my son on how to play. What do you think about that [laughs]?

The truth is, we have actually never played tennis. I think he’s way too young to hold an adult racket. Now I only teach him for speed because I think it’s a big advantage. As he likes superheroes a lot, part of my technique is telling him, “You have to protect your dragon friend, you need to run and catch all of the balls before they hit your friend in the back.”

You participated in the reality show The Return of Superman where you had to take on mom duties for a short period of time. Did that experience change your perception of motherhood?

It didn’t change much, as I would always stay with my wife and help her with my kid. I did everything except breastfeed [laughs]. I don’t think it’s a woman’s job to do everything. My wife and kid spend a lot of time together because I work so he’s closer to his mom but he doesn’t listen to her as much. My kid is scared of me more but my wife says I spoil him too much. I have never used my hand to beat my kid because I believe the hand is for hugging. When I punish him, I might use some kind of paper but we’ll have an agreement prior to that. I don’t think harshly hitting a kid as punishment works. Not only does it inflict physical pain, but it also causes a mental pain that can never be erased.

Earlier this year, Cindy Bishop had a campaign called “Don’t Tell Me How to Dress” to respond to people who said women should wear appropriate clothes to avoid being sexually harassed. As a role model to many men in the country, what are your thoughts on this issue?

I don’t mind what they wear as long as it’s suitable for the occasion. I think it’s not about dressing provocatively. It’s about a guy’s control issues. If he can’t control himself, whatever dress a woman wears can still affect his actions. Most people that sexually harass other people have a bad intention, and studies show that sexual crimes are mostly committed by people you know, for example stepfathers or friends. Even if you dress ladylike, they will find an opportunity to do it anyway.

Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee

Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

 

Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee

Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

Wanchana “Colonel Bird” Sawasdee

Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

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