There is no shortage of foreign actors in China. All you need is to look foreign, understand a tiny bit of Chinese, and you’ll get your script tomorrow. And demand for these actors is high, with most TV series and films needing at least one to fill the diversity quota and make the production seem more “global”.
But not every foreigner with dreams of making it into Chinese cinema can hop straight into a starring role opposite Chief Inspector Lee. Sometimes you have to do the hard graft. Get your breaks doing the small roles that are tailor-made to suit your face.
We take a look at the roles that are up for grabs, including any particular skills that are needed, and the long term goals for each path taken.
“Stop. Making. Bad. Films.”
One of the aspects that make Chinese cinema stand out is its inclusion of martial arts—specifically kung fu. The hero of the film will often need to fight his way through numerous foes before facing off with the mastermind behind it all. You can be one of these numerous foes. Maybe the hero’s ex-girlfriend, who is an alcoholic and has a gambling problem, was late on her rent, so her landlord decides to send you and ten other men to collect.
Required Skills: enhanced agility, thick skin, durability, regeneration
Career Goal: Henchman #1
MAN ON STREET
Location: Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province
China’s history is littered with instances of foreign occupation, whether it’s the Japanese, British, or French. Movies therefore utilize characters of these nationalities to help inform the viewer of which period the film is set in. It also acts as a cost-efficient way of simulating being in a different country.
You’ll be in the background just strolling down the street, a seemingly unimportant role, but absolutely vital to the movie’s storytelling device. Without you, how will the audience be able to tell where and when the action is taking place? Answer: they won’t.
Required Skills: endurance, internal GPS
Career Goal: Store owner
Thoughtful pose 273
Missionaries, doctors, journalists, scholars. What do they all have in common (apart from the obvious)? They were all professions held by people who played vital parts in Chinese history. Period TV shows and movies make up 90 percent of China’s moving picture content—unconfirmed—and so there are always roles for actors to portray real characters from history.
Required Skills: executive-level posture, mimicry
Career Goal: Edgar Snow
It is well known that “face” is an important consideration when dealing in Chinese communities. How you are perceived by those unfamiliar with you is often more important than behaving in a respectable manner around your close friends and family. Because of this, many Chinese films will have scenes set in foreign establishments. This could be, for example, eating in a fancy French restaurant, chatting in an Italian cafe, or just perusing the aisles of a Dutch Red Light District. You could be hired to “pretend” to work at these establishments and could potentially get more screen time by being the extra chosen to service the main characters in the scene.
Required Skills: superhuman patience, ability to spot small details, persuasion
Career Goal: Maitre D’
“My parents don’t approve, but I don’t care. Let’s dinner.”
For the same reason as above, Chinese films generally include an important—but not usually the main—character, that at some point is involved with a foreign lover. They could be friends with bennies, in a serious relationship, or even married. It doesn’t matter. In this global community, you could be the next one to break through the shackles of Chinese interracial relationship stigmas.
Required Skills: capable of love, enhanced seduction, dish washing lethargy
Career Goal: Main love interest
“Over here is our prayer room”
Movies that revolve around employment is popular in China, due to their relatability, accessibility, and dispensability. With droves of foreign companies setting up bases around China, it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone working in one of them. And what foreign company would be complete without foreign employees. In you step. Sitting quietly in meetings, sipping coffee in the break room, attending office parties; these will be the kinds of scenes asked of you.
Require Skills: ability to disappear in plain sight, proficiency in Microsoft Office
Career Goal: Boss of company
BONUS: TOKEN CHINESE-SPEAKING MATE
Who else but Mike
None of the previously listed roles have any requirement for you to meet any Chinese language standards. However, you can improve your chances of grabbing bigger roles with a good grasp of Chinese vocab. Even now, in a China with so many foreigners, there is nothing more entertaining and surprising than a full blooded foreigner opening their mouth, spewing out the most local of local Chinese. You’ll get to play the role of the only foreigner in a circle of Chinese friends. If you’re really lucky, the writers may even carve out a small sub-story for your character to go through.
Required Skills: self-deprecating humor, local dialects, genius-level wit
Career Goal: Main character’s best friend
If you’ve decided that acting isn’t for you, then you can check out the Top 10 Jobs in China Besides Teaching English.
Images courtesy of Baidu, Douban