The story appears on

Page B1 - B2

February 24, 2011

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Breaking into show biz - bit parts or casting couch

THEY are nobodies. The audience doesn't notice them and their colleagues don't appreciate them. Their names are lost in a long list of anonymous credits at the end of a film.

They are extras, walk-ons, actors with the most inconsequential of bit parts. They are faces in a crowd, or if they're lucky, they are dead bodies, servants, waiters, neighbors, passengers, prostitutes, neighbors and others with fleeting moments on screen or simply a background presence.

It's a hard life, a tough way to get started in cut-throat entertainment world where who you know is often more important than how well, or whether, you can act.

But many young people keep at it, they have a dream of acting and they keep the faith, at least for a while.

For aspiring actors and actresses, this is an important season - spring is the time for the annual entrance examinations and auditions for the Central Academy of Drama, the Shanghai Theater Academy, the Beijing Film Academy and many acting schools across China.

But an acting diploma doesn't mean too much - both those with and without them are struggling.

"I'm an actor actually. I'm filming for TV dramas," acting school graduate Luke Shen keeps repeating when he introduces himself. It seems as though he's trying to reassure himself.

He isn't brimming with confidence.

"I'm not sure if it's my problem, but I always feel as though people are skeptical and wonder if I'm really an extra," he says with a bitter smile. "I guess I'm a little sensitive."

He's tall and conventionally handsome, his hair carefully tousled.

Shen graduated from the Acting Department of Shanghai Normal University in 2006. There were 30 students in his class but only Shen and two others chose to pursue acting after graduation. The other two are women working with the Shanghai People's Art Theater of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center.

"Some graduates get office jobs, some start their own business - few act," Shen says.

During the past four years, Shen has appeared in more than 200 productions, mostly TV dramas - and almost all the hot TV dramas. But he has had only bit parts, maybe a grounds keeper, a driver, a bodyguard, an office worker, a cook.

"My parts are small and my lines are few," he says, but he is still proud that he appeared on camera.

In "Shanghai Bund," the 2007 remake of a popular Hong Kong TV drama shot 30 years ago, Shen played a courier for Feng Jingyao, the mob boss in 1930s Shanghai.

His one line: "Boss Feng, the task you assigned has been accomplished. Don't worry." In fact, Shen originally had a few more lines, but they were cut in the final version.

He used to dream of becoming a star, or at least a recognized actor. This was not what he had in mind, but after struggling for around four years, Shen has become pragmatic and cynical.

"Actors like me will always be so-called extras, who only play small roles unless you pay sums of money to buy a role," he says, but declines to elaborate.

Rumor and other actors say that in quite a few cases roles are for sale. It is said that a supporting role in a small TV drama is priced at a minimum of 100,000 yuan (US$15,230). A leading role might cost 1 million yuan.

"There are many hidden, unwritten rules in show business. Some are dirty," says Shen.

Hidden rules

Eric Xiang quit acting two years ago. "In fact, I never actually entered acting," says the 27 year old.

Xiang graduated from an acting class in Shanghai three years ago and never found a part in any TV drama.

"I've been employed by several crews, but only did odds and ends, no acting," he says. He got and handed out lunch, moved camera equipment and ran errands for the director, actors and actresses. "Most of the time I stood there all day long and my legs got numb," he recalls.

A friend introduced Xiang to a TV crew filming a love story set in the old Republic of China (1912-1949). He got a walk-on role as a heroic member of the Communist Party of China.

"I played a Communist who was shot dead, giving his life to shield a leader. I earned 300 yuan."

But when the drama was aired, only his back appeared.

Xiang was born into a wealthy family and his parents have bought him several apartments in Shanghai, so he is not hunting for money. Since he was a boy he loved singing and dancing and wanted to go to acting school. His parents didn't object.

"I just wanted to try my luck in the industry but it turned out to be a mistake," he says with a shrug.

He quit a year later and his parents helped him start a media company that mostly makes TV commercials; he uses his contacts to place commercials.

"After directing commercials, I came to realize it's not hard to find actors and actresses at a cheap price. Young people are flocking in - to get them is just as easy as snapping your fingers," says Xiang.

Another big reason he gave up on acting is the rigid "intolerable" hierarchy in crews, and Xiang since childhood had been accustomed to being noticed and getting his way.

"The director is the king, the big boss on the team and he has the right to be late. Everyone from the top stars to the errand boys have to listen to the director, 100 percent," Xiang says.

He remembers that a director once put his legs up on the steering wheel in a van and had a smoke. His assistant reminded him that it was time to start and the director replied, "Let me take a nap first." And the whole team had to wait for him to wake up.

Every day Xiang and his fellow acting school grads could receive dozens of audition messages. The auditions were often held in hotel rooms.

One way to get a part is to get on well with the vice director, who usually conducts the audition. "Frankly, you have to accompany him to wine, dine and party and, of course, you have to pick up the tab for him," says Xiang.

"For young women, the price could be higher and they might sacrifice more."

The casting couch. It's universal and there are always younger and prettier young women out there. So if one has scruples, many other will be happy to oblige.

"But young girls with less experience can be conned, so they must be careful," Xiang says. He recalls that two men who claimed to be directors came to his acting class to find actresses for an "underwear commercial."

They said they needed exact body measurements. "But after measuring bust, waist and hips, they wanted to measure the girls' crotches. What kind of an underwear commercial is that?" he says. "I warned my classmates - some dropped out of the measurements, but some wouldn't listen."

The commercial was never aired.

Success stories

But there are success stories.

Tall, slim and pretty, 25-year-old Zhang Wen has not only survived but managed to get supporting roles, not bit parts, in many big TV dramas.

The Anhui Province native graduated with top honors from the Shanghai Theater Academy and easily got a Shanghai hukou (permanent residence certificate).

She appeared in "On the Songhua River" (2010) broadcast on CCTV in prime time, "Tennis Princes" (2008) adapted from a famous Japanese comic book and dozens of TV commercials for food, beverages and accessories.

"I just love acting. It's my lifelong pursuit," Zhang says with a brilliant smile. "Acting is my job and I love it. It's just like another occupation."

She's very energetic and says she's lucky she can earn a living doing what she loves, though she admits the income is meager.

Zhang says she earns only 800-1,000 yuan a day, or 2,000 yuan for three days, for a small role in a TV drama in Shanghai or Beijing.

"Roles are small and can be painful, like a maid slapped in the face," she says.

It's a good thing she lives with her mother and doesn't have to pay rent. Since high school Zhang has supported herself with the money she earned from commercials and magazine photos, around 1,000 yuan a month.

Her first commercial was for Pepsi that paid 500 yuan. "That's when I realized I could live by doing what I love and am good at," she says.

Zhang says some of her classmates have gotten roles via the casting couch, but says she has not. "I know the rules but I also have my own principles," she says.

Some of her drama classmates became mistresses or girlfriends of entertainment entrepreneurs.

"I always saw a line of fancy cars waiting in front of our dorm. Some girls showed up with expensive bags and shoes overnight. We all knew what was going on."

But Zhang is more than a pretty actress: She makes a pretty good living, saves her money and last year she and a partner started a yogurt business with stores in shopping malls.

Doing business is hard, but also satisfying - Zhang doesn't need to be anybody's mistress. Her yogurt business is on track and will provide security for the young actress.

Yogurt income also gives her freedom as an actress. "I will act until I die," says Zhang, "but I also want to be able to choose the roles I like and have the right to say no to unfair treatment."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend