All the Right Moves
Hollywood stuntman Ilram Choi likes to defy the laws of physics. In his latest project, he gets to do just that while donning the Spider-Man outfit.
story by CHELSEA HAWKINS
photographs by YANN BEAN
This story originally published in KoreAm Journal August 2012.
When asked what superhero he’d most like to be, stuntman Ilram Choi answers: Superman.
“Why not? Why not be superhuman? You wouldn’t have to rely on a utility belt or webs,” Choi quipped.
Of course, the 38-year-old Korean American was poking fun at his most recent stint playing a different superhero. One of three stunt doubles for Andrew Garfield in the blockbuster The Amazing Spider-Man, he donned the iconic red-and-blue mask and suit, and swung on lines, mimicking the Marvel Comic wall-crawler’s movements.
“You’re in the [Spiderman] suit, out there on set, and people are taking pictures of you,” described Choi, while nursing a strawberry-banana smoothie at the Novel Cafe in Los Angeles. “That’s definitely a reality check.”
But how does the dark-haired stuntman double for sandy-haired Peter Parker?
“Since you can’t see a face, since I’m in the suit, I didn’t have to be white or look like Andrew [Garfield],” Choi said. He acknowledged that, if there are “not a lot of Asian actors [in roles], there’s not going to be a lot of Asian stunt guys,” but the 5-foot-11, sinewy Choi says he’s fortunately been able to find steady work because of his height and skill.
Since moving to Los Angeles eight years ago, Choi has worked on numerous blockbusters and hit television shows. His resume includes both Transformers films (2007, 2009), Avatar (2009) and TRON: Legacy (2010).
Formally trained in taekwondo, Choi has also experimented with various other martial arts, including capoeira, aikido and jiujitsu. Largely self-taught, Choi dabbles in what interests him, bypassing traditional martial arts classes, which he finds to be limiting.
“I was only interested in the coolest movement. I didn’t want to go to martial arts to learn the basics, to block a punch or dodge a bullet,” he said. “It becomes a performance art, you can’t apply it. I’m not going to do a back-flip kick to protect myself.”
For Choi, it has always been about movement. Inspired by the out-of-this-world physics of Street Fighter, he wanted to recreate what he saw in the classic Japanese arcade game.
“These were animated characters that were doing unrealistic movements, that defied the laws of physics, and that’s what intrigued me,” he said. “Can [I] do that? How can I manipulate the moves that I have now to do something similar?”
For the Kentucky native, performing stunts for his camera-savvy friends never really seemed like a viable career option, so Choi found himself in Savannah, Ga., pursuing digital art. He eventually took a 9-to-5 post-production job in Dallas, Texas, while working side stunt gigs for low-budget films and independent projects.
Then, when the company he was working for was reorganizing, a 29-year-old Choi faced a major crossroads. “I [was] comfortable, but [did] I want to keep doing this?” Choi recalled thinking. If there were ever a right time to pursue his passion for stunt work full-time, it was then. “I read somewhere to do something you’re scared of every day, so I decided to just risk it.”
He moved to Hollywood and landed his first big-budget film job in 2005, with a small role in the The New World, starring Colin Farrell and Christian Bale. From that point on, the roles kept coming. He will appear in the upcoming Red Dawn remake, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and the sequel to 2009’s Star Trek reboot.
Despite his long resume of big studio films, it was notably a part he landed for the small screen that signaled to Choi he had “made it.” In 2005, he was called back to Dallas to work on Walker, Texas Ranger: Trial by Fire, a made-for-TV reunion special and the final installment of the Texas Ranger series. Years earlier, he had tried to break into the stunt industry by getting cast on the long-running CBS series, but was unsuccessful.
“It’s kind of like a big eff-you in the face to everyone in Dallas who didn’t give me a chance or doubted me,” Choi said, laughing.
To make victory all the sweeter, he had a piece of dialogue that referenced stuntman and actor Al Leong, one of Choi’s inspirations. Leong has had memorable roles in Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.
“I want to be that dude. He’s in every action film, and he doesn’t have one line. He doesn’t have to say anything, he’s just presence,” Choi said. “That’s what I want to be: just a badass presence.”
His advice for young people is to find work they would gladly do for free. “You have to do what you want to do, unless…,” Choi said, then paused. Smirking, he continued, “Well, I was going to say ‘unless it kills you.’ But I do stunts, and [they] could kill me.”