ENTERTAINMENT

Stuntman-turned-actor spills the beans on real ‘Secret Garden’

By Jean Oh
  • Published : Jan 10, 2011 - 19:51
  • Updated : Jan 10, 2011 - 19:51

Kwon tells about life of stunt performers

Less than a week remains until the final episode of SBS’ smash hit series “Secret Garden” airs.

For the past 18 episodes, the weekend drama has amassed a broad fan base and more buzz than it can handle.

Everything from the sequin encrusted track suits worn by heartthrob Hyun Bin’s winsome hero to co-star Ha Ji-won’s enthralling portrayal of stuntwoman Gil Ra-im has received extensive coverage.

Actress Ha’s character, in particular, has piqued interest in the daredevil vocation and in the action school where “Secret Garden” is being filmed.

Yet, just how accurate is the popular drama’s depiction of a stunt performer’s career?

According to stunt actor-turned-thespian Kwon Moon-cheol, certain aspects, namely when Gil endured the diva behavior of the actress whose stunt double she played, have been “somewhat exaggerated.”

“In reality, it is not like that,” Kwon said in an interview with The Korea Herald. “If an actor or actress actually treated a stunt double like that, they would be ruining their reputations and who would risk that? In fact, stunt doubles help perfect an awesome scene, so instead they would like them more.”

An SBS representative acknowledged that the stunt profession does, in a small sense, act as a vehicle for the plot, but that there was no intent to belittle anyone.

“It is not real,” the representative said over the phone. “It is more or less fantasy.”

“We feel optimistic about the increased interest in stuntwomen,” the representative continued. “We would, however, like the drama to be seen as just that, a drama.”

“Secret Garden” action co-director Kim Min-soo, however, believes that “the drama is about 99 percent in sync” with what real life as an action actor or actress is like. 
Clad in a pair of “Secret Garden”-inspired sequin-striped gym pants, stuntman-turned-actor
Kwon Moon-cheol a.k.a. Kwon Hyeok showcases the moves that earned him a series of action stints, including one as Jung Woosung’s stunt double in “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” (Kim Myung-sub/ The Korea Herald)

Regarding the series’ portrayal of the action school, Kwon ― who attended the institute where “Secret Garden” is being filmed ― says that it is even more hierarchical in real life.

Kwon’s own experiences shed light on what he meant.

“I have only considered quitting once,” he said. “It was when I was the youngest one in my action school class.”

According to Kwon, he was supposed to be ready to go and film at 8 a.m. but he was late.

“I was so scared,” he recalled when he got a phone call at 8:10 a.m. telling him to come out. “I thought, ‘I’m dead meat. I should quit now.’ When I got there, no one scolded me, but I still wanted to die.”

With regard to the actual number of stuntwomen in the profession, Kwon said that they are few and far between, and that his class only had one female student, which is similar, indeed, to “Secret Garden,” where Gil is the only girl in a group full of guys.

“I don’t feel like the drama is fake or anything,” the 26-year-old clarified of his take on the series. “I just think it is fun to watch, and when they use stunt jargon, I can really relate to it.”

Kwon, in fact, may relate to the series’ heroine even more than he lets on.

As a kid who grew up adoring Jackie Chan, the Busan native learned wushu ― the Chinese martial art practiced by Chan and other famed action stars like Jet Li ― while dreaming of following in his hero’s footsteps.

When Kwon heard about the Seoul Action School ― the academy headed by famed action director-and-actor Jung Du-hong ― he packed his bags, pocketed what little money he had (a mere 200,000 won) and headed to Seoul.

After enrolling in the school, he attended classes, worked part-time, and lived in a small one-room space until he could afford to move to a rooftop room, a living arrangement that recalls Gil Ra-im’s own fictional abode.

According to “Action Boys” (2008) ― a documentary about stunt performers ― though Kwon was the youngest to pass auditions for his class, he scored the highest.

Footage from the documentary showed the fledging actor executing a series of back flips with fluid ease, a mere preview of the skills that would land him a series of stints including one in KBS’ historical drama “Immortal Admiral Yi Sun Shin” (2004).

An appearance on the SBS variety show “Starking,” which highlighted his role as “ATHENA” actor Jung Woo-sung’s stunt double in the action flick “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” (2008), earned him a great deal of publicity.

Stunt work, however, is far from glamorous, according to Kwon, who lists physical stamina and mental strength as two key assets for becoming an action actor.

“You could be filming all day in a river in December,” he elaborated. “You can’t even imagine what that’s like.”

Kwon, who had his own brush with death while filming a horse-stunt scene, says that despite all that he does not feel scared when performing stunts.

“Stunts are very scientific and calculated,” he said.

Wary to discuss concrete figures for salaries, Kwon said, “Stunts are very dangerous and potentially life threatening so the pay is not low.”

Kwon also said that there is always plenty of work in a variety of mediums including commercials, dramas and movies.

“Even daily soaps have action scenes,” he said.

In case a fellow stunt performer got injured and could not work, Kwon says he and his colleagues pooled a certain percentage of their wages together to create an emergency fund.

“Then we could give it to whoever got injured,” he explained.

Though Kwon has transitioned into the world of acting under the moniker Kwon Hyeok, his last two roles ― one in the OCN cable drama “The Detective Jung Yack-yong” (2009-2010) and the other as a lead in E channel’s current cable series “Secret House Ang Sim Jung” ― included and includes action.

“He has a lot of action scenes,” “Secret House Ang Sim Jung” producer Lee Ju-ha said over the phone. “While there is a separate action director, Kwon choreographs his own stunts.”

While Kwon is open to non-action roles, he seems to have no intention of abandoning the diverse array of action-related skills he has accumulated over the years.

Still holding onto his childhood dreams, Kwon believes that he can forge a career for himself as an action-and-acting double threat.

“I want to be like Jackie Chan,” the ambitious actor said, still holding up the stuntman-turned-acting and directing impresario as his source of inspiration.

Not one to be daunted by a domestic industry that has yet to produce someone like the internationally-famed Chan, Jet Li or Bruce Lee, Kwon leaned forward, repeating his dreams in earnest: “I believe I can be like him.”

By Jean Oh (oh_jean@heraldcorp.com)