As China’s film industry booms, expats compete for a chance to go down in celluloid history

By Li Ying Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-20 18:58:01

Since coming to China, Kevin Lee, who hails from the UK, has switched careers from financial accounting to full-time acting. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee, 35, had a feeling that his unexpected encounter at a visa center in Beijing might lead to something dramatic - and he was right.

It was two years ago when Lee, a Brit who then worked as a financial consultant, was standing in line, waiting to renew his visa, when he spotted a man who he instantly recognized - Chinese martial artist and action star Wu Jing.

Lee approached him and asked, "Hi, you're Wu Jing right?" Surprised, the man replied "Yes."

"Wu started asking me questions about what I do, and how long have I been here and could I act," recounted Lee. He left his contact information with Wu, and within a few days, he got the call - an offer to play a role in Wu's upcoming movie Wolf Warrior (2014).

Lee is among a growing number of expats in China who are pursuing careers acting in Chinese movies, TV dramas and commercials. Over the past few years, demand for foreign faces and roles has seen an increase in China's entertainment industry, as it works to target a wider audience and reflect an increasingly diverse society.

Lyle Peters at his home in Beijing Photo:Cui Meng/GT

Realizing a long-held dream

Though it may have come about in a serendipitous way, the offer to play a role in the action film Wolf Warrior wasn't a total fluke - in addition to studying acting at the London School of Dramatic Art in his 20s, Lee traveled to northern China at the age of 22 to study wushu (martial arts) for a year. In 2010, he returned to China to work as a financial consultant.

As it so happened, he was exactly what Wu was looking for: a big foreign guy who could fight (Lee is 1.98 meters tall) and had practiced wushu. "Then he asked me if I had ever fired a gun, and I said no but I could learn," said Lee. 

Months later, Lee "was all geared up in military wear" performing as "Crazy Bull," a former American soldier-turned-member of a criminal syndicate in his very first movie.

This turned out to just be the beginning. Following Wolf Warrior, Lee went on to act in other Chinese action movies including Dragon Blade (2015), Old Boys: Way of the Dragon (2014), and Kung Fu Yoga (to be released).

"I have worked with my idols growing up as well as other famous stars such as Jackie Chan," he said. "Of course I quit my job and took a leap of faith. And now I'm a full time actor."

French actress Emilie Ohana, who has appeared in several Chinese TV dramas Photo:Courtesy of Wang Xiting

Grassroots actors 

Of course not all foreigners with acting aspirations are so lucky; most start out as extras, or with walk-on roles that don't have any lines.

A case in point is Lyle Peters, a retired contractor from the US who now lives in Beijing and over the past few years has been making his way up the ladder through a number of bit parts in Chinese films.

For Peters, it's become a serious occupation; on the day he met with Metropolitan, he was waiting for phone calls from several agents.

His WeChat moments, meanwhile, are filled with photos of him shooting scenes for commercials, movies and TV dramas. Despite his dedication, it's been an unexpected career change for Peters, who said back in the US, he never would have imagined that he would one day end up as an actor in China.

"I started acting two and a half years ago in Shanghai, when a classmate in my Chinese language class sent everybody messages asking if we wanted to act in China," said Peters. So he got some head shots together and started scoring various walk-on roles.

In the film A Tale of Three Cities (2015), for example, Peters plays a foreign waiter. His role consisted of standing in the background of scene focused on the protagonist, holding a bottle of wine. In the upcoming movie The Last Race (2016), he will play a former noble-turned-beggar who has escaped Europe to China's Shandong Province during World War II.

Peters said he has enjoyed his small roles, although some are harder than others - for example, when he was asked to play a Nazi general in a film. "You can see, I have problems with Nazis."

Peters said these roles usually complete filming within a day. The payment, however, isn't very good, ranging from a few hundred yuan per day, to 1,000 yuan ($154.7)-2,000 yuan for those with acting experience.

"There is a lot of competition for what I do," he said. "A lot of foreigners." 

The demand in China's entertainment industry for foreign actors has grown in recent years, as an increasing number of Chinese movies and dramas feature more international casts. Photo: IC

Origin of the industry

This is a far cry from the situation just a decade ago, when there were few foreign actors in China's entertainment industry, except for successful figures like Canadian TV personality Da Shan and American actor Jonathan Kos-Read, known in China by his Chinese name Cao Cao.

Yet the past few years have seen rapid growth in the number of foreign actors working in China.

"In the beginning, the threshold for entering the industry was quite low and a lot of foreigners who didn't want to become English teachers chose acting instead," said Wang Xiting, a Beijing-based manager who specializes in foreign talent, explaining how the industry for foreign actors in China developed. 

After that came quntou, or agents who specialized in finding foreigners for walk-on roles.

After receiving specific requirements for height, coloring and appearance, these agents would go hunting for foreigners who fit the bill. Some agents even went to universities to find foreign students to participate in films, according to Wang.

"A lot of part-time actors started out with small, not very well-paid roles in commercials," Wang said, "like having a black guy posing as a basketball player or a white man playing a foreign expert or scientist." Many foreigners have also found small roles in TV dramas, and videos for streaming websites such as iQiyi and Youku.

Full-time actors with more solid acting experience usually hold out for movies of higher quality, according to Wang, who manages 10 foreign actors, including Lee, Marc Goodman and Emilie Ohana.

"The quality of a lot of Chinese TV shows suffers because the acting is just terrible," said Lee. "[Sometimes] you feel you cannot grow as an actor in China, as if you do get chosen for a role, it's mainly because of your looks, recommendations and relationship with the director or assistant director rather than your acting ability."

Breaking down stereotypes 

Most Chinese directors look for white people when it comes to foreign roles, said Wang. "There are opportunities for white people to get rather big roles, but people of other ethnicities rarely get the same opportunities," he said. 

"A lot of Chinese directors have this rigid idea that 'I need a foreign face with typical yellow hair and blue eyes.'"

Although Lee has the advantage of being Caucasian, he's also experienced in the negative side of being a foreigner in Chinese movies - for instance, he always ends up losing in on-screen fights.

"I am 198 cm, 115 kg, strong and reasonably skilled. I have had my ass kicked by Chinese actors half my size, and half my weight in most of the movies I have played in," he said.

"This is just the norm in any country, not just China. But I would like to see the opposite happen, as anytime you go see a movie these days, you already know the outcome."

Beijing-based director Rogan Roberts, who comes from the UK, said one reason more and more directors are casting foreigners is that they hope it will make their film or TV show appear more cosmopolitan.

"That doesn't necessarily mean it's foreign, and that it will be better. It means a new way of looking at the world, less closed and less insecure," said Roberts.

"This is why a growing number of directors and writers are writing works that contain more international parts." 

Roberts predicted that as more foreigners come to China, roles for expats will become more three-dimensional, although he still thinks it will be awhile before China sees a major change in that department. "Like Europe and America are mixed societies and their films reflect that," he said. "But China has a long way to go before it reaches that point."

In Wang's opinion, it's the younger generations of Chinese directors and producers who are most likely to lead this transformation. "For example, there's a movie that will be released next year in which a Hollywood actor portrays the No.1 villain, who leads a team of five people, including a white man, a black man and a woman of mixed blood. It is no longer the case that all foreign characters are white."

But Lee is looking forward to even bigger changes.

"Unfortunately, the rules for foreigners in Chinese shows and movies are quite strict," he said, referencing limits on foreigners' ability to play lead roles.

"Of course, this can hold actors like myself back, as the bigger opportunities don't really exist as much as they would in the West, where roles are open to people of any nationality."

Newspaper headline: Aiming for the silver screen

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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