Other Foreign Actors in Beijing
Most of my blogs so far have been about me me me me. And that's okay, because there's a lot going on with me... or rather, when element A (me) meets element B (China) there has been some rather explosive chemical reactions.
However, I have run into a brief low work period, and I would like to take the time to talk about some of the other "sea devil" actors in China, their trials and tribulations, what makes them tick. And believe me, they have more than one wild story to tell themselves.
There are various categories of foreign actors in China. Some hang around the small "Chinese Hollywood" town: Hengdian. This is usually a group of oft used Eastern European study abroad students, filling in those blue-eyed, blond-haired extra roles that many TV shows call for. Their shiny white faces twinkle in the background of an overseas romantic scene, or they fall to the bullet of a Japanese spy in a secret agent caper.
Then there are the up-and-coming "I wanna make a living doing this" actors with some chops, or perhaps just a little more experience. These can range from bad actors with really good Chinese to decent actors with terrible Chinese, and perhaps some other mixtures of the two. In Beijing, I know most of these guys. There are less than a dozen white males in the 20 to 40 age range and less than half a dozen in the 40 to 50 range.
There are a handful of white females, with Russians and Eastern Europeans leading the forefront. Then there are maybe two or three black males that are constantly looking for acting work. There are no black female actors in Beijing that I know of. If there was a need for a black female role, I'm almost positive Chinese crews would do what they did for all foreigners only a decade ago, and that's pull one off the street (or the nearest foreign language center). There is also a close-nit group of Shanghai-based whiteboy guns-for-hire in the acting world... but we don't talk to them.
Lastly, there are the old boys. The guys that have done this half a generation before us, perhaps 8 to 10 years of acting experience in the Middle Kingdom (and not always at the calibre you'd think, with that much experience). They are trailblazers in the industry, and have opened the doors for a second generation to earn some clout and sticking power with the casting agents, even at higher prices. Before them, any foreign face was good enough. Now Chinese film crews appreciate the value of a western actor who can memorize his/her lines on time and doesn't gripe about the crew's guerrilla shooting schedules, say nothing of actually being able to act.
These guys are not quite legends though (they are still here, after all), except for one: a man who I mentioned in my first blog on Back Stage, a Canadian who goes by the Chinese name of Dashan (or "big mountain"). He arrived in China over 20 years ago, and blew the socks off Chinese audiences by strutting into variety shows spouting tongue twisters and limericks in Chinese. He has moved back to Canada by now, with his Chinese wife, but continues to make visits as a kind of goodwill ambassador. Yet he kind of predates acting. He was just famous for being "that white guy who speaks really, really good Chinese."
I'm told there is also an Australian who plays pretty much every token white guy role in Hong Kong and speaks flawless Cantonese. For Dashan and him, things have worked out quite well. But it's not always an easy road for western actors here in China...
Another foreign friend of mine recently was granted a role as the second male lead on a Chinese TV show filming in Yunnan. He signed a contract to work for three months with good pay! Though I was envious, I was also happy for him. He's one of my better friends here, so I rid myself of jealously rather quickly and congratulated him earnestly. All was said and done---including that he had bought tickets to leave, picked out an apartment in Yunnan, made arrangements for flying his dog over, and even asked his parents to fly out from his home country to visit him there---but then the agent suddenly called and told him that he'd been switched for someone else cheaper! This all happened just days before he was supposed to leave Beijing to start filming! He had looked at his lines for weeks in preparation. Now they told him that he could keep the down-payment... and get lost. This kind of thing is enough for any Western actor to lose faith in the industry here and start to ponder if it's even worth it to stay. He, for one, is planning his immediate departure... but not before finding a lawyer.
Stories vary in their fortune. Coincidentally, the father of one of my old classmates at Hollywood High also lives in China, albeit Sichuan, not Beijing. In Sichuan, there is barely any film/TV industry at all, say nothing of a foreign talent pool. Yet my pal's pop has found his niche. He has taken his love for teaching English and combined it for his love for country music, and made himself into a small local celebrity. Though he speaks very little Chinese, he tours bars and lounges around Sichuan strumming and stamping those good ol' cowboy tunes with his two cute Chinese backup singers. Recently, he's even debuted for a major actress/singer, Fan Bing Bing, in Beijing. So his fame is rising and the scope of his tours is broadening. To top it off, he got a leading role in a movie about a Chinese scientist who brings the formula for nuclear weapons to China. During filming, he was so liked by the crew that he was taken to all the press conferences, premiere ceremonies and award banquets surrounding the movie. His dazzled family and friends have been fanatically following his "China movie adventure" on Facebook.
There are tons of stories like these that come out of the Wild East's manic movie market every day, but I'll save some for next time. Part 2, TBD!
(For privacy reasons: the photos in this blog are in no way directly related to the content of this blog, except for the fact that they show foreign actors working in China.)
Photos by Nathaniel Boyd
--- Nathaniel Boyd