Korean stuntman finds success in America

By GABRIEL RAMOS

Dante Ha is all about taking risks. He is, after all, a stuntman.

Walking into a Starbucks, he wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary except for the bandage around his right wrist.

Ha, 35, explains that the injury didn’t happen on set due to a fall or fight scene; rather, it happened while he was training with another stuntman.

Ha was holding a kicking shield for his training partner when a misplaced kick bent his wrist too far. It happens, though, and he takes it in stride.

Dante Ha demonstrates his skill as a martial arts stuntman. Photo by Gabriel Ramos.
Dante Ha demonstrates his skill as a martial arts stuntman. Photo by Gabriel Ramos.

Martial arts is the foundation of Ha’s skill set. Born Won Ha in Ahnyang, South Korea, he was enrolled in the Korean method of Hapkido at an early age, and took up the Thai sport of Muay Thai in high school. He added the flashy kicks of the world’s most practiced martial art, Tae Kwon Do, further down the road, but in an unorthodox way.

“Ever since I started stunts, everybody assumed I did Tae Kwon Do. I did Tae Kwon Do for three months when I was a little kid,” he says. “I learned all the Tae Kwon Do kicks through YouTube. Tae Kwon Do kicks are very flashy and controlled, accurate, so it’s perfect for a movie because you have so much control and speed, so you can do anything without actually hurting other people.”

It’s this drive and willingness to learn in any way he can that makes Ha extremely valuable as a stuntman, and it shows to family and friends.

“He pushes himself like crazy, and what makes him so awesome is that he maintains that humble attitude,” his wife, Mik Chari, says.

She further explains that he is happiest when he’s around people who have the same work ethic, and frustrated when not.

It’s easy to think that Ha had found his calling from the get-go, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I got started when I was 15, 16, when I was in high school in Korea. Friends of mine were doing all this extra work, and they were looking for some double for an actor,” he says.

Eventually, he found out the hard way what the nature of the business was in Korea. His only job was to get hit by a car, but as he explains it, there were no unions for actors, which meant no regulations for safety or set wages.

Getting hit by a car now seems simple enough, especially since he’s been through it a handful of times. In Korea, however, he lacked the things he’s now become used to as a standard: things as simple as padding and safety meetings.

Even more important was the pay. Ha received $20 for the work, but when he factored in how much he had to pay for travel, water, and food, he was left with barely anything at all. Short of travel, these things are standard on a Hollywood film set.

“I was just done. I was like, ‘This is not human.’ I don’t wanna kill myself to make a living.”

Eventually, he moved to the United States for college, where he attended the former Central Missouri University, majoring in journalism. After school he ended up editing short films and radio advertisements.

It was in editing a short film that he discovered the Hollywood way of doing films. He went to a set to get an idea of how they were filming, because, as he puts it, the footage was bad.

Arriving on set revealed things he didn’t see in Korea, which provided for a severe case of culture shock. He saw men dragging crash mats around and putting on pads, and felt extremely confused.

“I was like, ‘What are they doing?’ They were like, ‘They’re stunt guys!’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, exactly, stunt guys don’t wear pads!’” Ha says laughingly.

After some time and research, he discovered that stuntmen and women were treated well in Hollywood. Given his background, he decided to go after a career he swore years ago that he’d never do again, changing his name to Dante.

It’s been fruitful. He’s doubled for actor Steven Yeun on The Walking Dead, performed for Leonardo’s fights in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and played multiple paranormal creatures between The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf.

It may seem easy for somebody with such a prolific résumé, but getting work is hard work in itself, and not guaranteed.

“In the industry we call it ‘hustling.’ Basically, you have to figure out what movies are shooting, and in what location. You find out who the coordinator is, and bring your headshot and resume to submit,” Ha says. “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.”

Hustling is active networking, which involves a lot of digging, travel, and communications. He flies frequently to New York City and Los Angeles, and keeps a close eye on Facebook.

In the meantime, he frequents such gyms for training as Atlanta Judo Midtown and Unit 2 Fitness and MMA for keeping up the martial arts skills. SMASH (short for Southeast Movie and Stunt House) and Champion Kids, a gymnastics school, help round things out.

Overall, he sees the effort and money spent as an investment.

Ha hopes it will help him stay busy with such high-profile projects as Marvel’s Ant-Man coming up in Atlanta’s burgeoning film industry.

It’s all in the name of doing things the right way, which is also the safe way. Ha has taken big falls, been hit by vehicles, gotten in fights, and been set on fire.

He says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s fun. It’s an adrenaline rush that you wouldn’t get with a desk job.”

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