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Wannabe extras dream of stardom|
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-05-08 05:29
Playing wallflowers on the big or small screen seems to be an enjoyable way of making some money, but those wanting to be extras must be prepared for more intense competition and exploitation than in most jobs.
Yao Haidong sports a haircut that makes him stand out in a throng of about 100 people in front of the Beijing Film Studio (Beiying). Nobody would mistake him for a rock'n'roller, but anyone with an inkling about this group would know that Yao had probably been in a recent production of a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)-related movie or television show.
Yao is an extra on the constant prowl for work. He is one of hundreds who mill around the Beiying entrance waiting to be cast in walk-on roles that will help sustain a hand-to-mouth living and may open up a fancy world of glittering stardom.
Extras are actors with no speaking part, but they fill up crowd scenes by standing around or walking about. It requires minimal acting skill. In the pecking order of the entertainment business, extras constitute the absolute bottom of the food chain.
In 2005, China produced a total of 260 films and 12,447 episodes of television drama. Nationwide there may be thousands like Yao, mostly in Beijing, the undisputed nucleus of China's film-and-TV-making industry, but also in Shanghai and the mini-Hollywood of Hengdian in central Zhejiang Province. In the 100 million-plus army of migrant workers they are negligible in number, but they have a system that is an inimitable microcosm of the economy in general, with its upwardly mobile possibilities and dashed hopes.
Since the weather turned warmer and entertainment production swung into full gear, the hordes of wannabe extras has been a staple on the two sidewalks that lead up to Beiying's main gate. Some show up as early as 5 or 6 am. Late-comers may miss the day's casting calls, but they stay until 8 or 9 pm to catch the next day's work.
Directors are not usually involved in casting extras. Even casting directors, called associate directors in China, do not often come out to pick who gets to play Soldier A or Maid B. They send out assistants who manage the extras for them. They are nicknamed xitou, or head of a cast, and form the conduit between the real power players and the milling crowd outside the giant gate. They also function as agents for the many wannabe extras.
The dark side
Xitou are courted and hated at the same time. They can get you work, unless their choice is vetoed by the director or the casting director, but they will exploit you so relentlessly that you may feel worse than a slave. For example, a production crew pays an extra the average daily salary of 50 yuan (US$6.2), but the rate on the street is 20 yuan (US$2.5) because xitou usually pocket 60 per cent, much higher than the 10 per cent that Hollywood agents charge.
Meals are paid for by the crew, but if it is more than a day's work extras have no place to sleep. They have to huddle in corners on the set. Sometimes an extra may not even get the 20 yuan that is promised. Several complained that after two weeks' work they found themselves owing money to the crews due to devious accounting methods.
The crowd on the North Third Ring Road outside Beiying is predominantly male. There are a few women and they don't look as desperate. "Women have a much better chance of being picked. All those costume dramas need maids and servants. But young and beautiful women can easily fall prey to temptation from the casting couch," revealed some on the sidewalk.
Scams are rampant. On a late April morning, a young woman came out and said she was to cast any male below the age of 30. About 50 people lined up and handed in contact information before they were led away to a photo session. Those who did not jump at the opportunity divulged that the process smacked of deceitfulness.
"They'll take your photo and phone number and then sell the information to producers. If you are selected, they'll come around and charge a hefty fee for getting you into a production, often higher than what you can make from the gig. But most probably you won't even have this chance. You'll find my photo on many walls in nearby shops, but I've never got a single call out of it," said a 70-year-old with a striking face and flowing beard, who said he had been in the extras business for several years.
But most people are new arrivals and gullible. They shell out hundreds of yuan for a photo shoot or a special work permit that is "guaranteed" to bring them gigs and higher pay.
Clinging to a dream
Yao Haidong, the 28-year-old with a Qing Dynasty haircut, used to drive a truck for a construction company in Shijiazhuang. His boss often defaulted on his salary and treated him badly. He decided to come to Beijing to try his luck.
During a two-week period in April, Yao got four single-day gigs playing small roles. The latest was a documentary about the author of the literary masterpiece "Dream of the Red Mansion." He played Cao Xueqin's drinking buddy in a location shoot in the northwestern suburb of Fragrant Hills. He was paid 50 yuan for a 12-hour shoot. The producer was happy with him and gave him another 10 yuan (US$1.2) as a bonus.
Many of Yao's peers hope to be selected directly by a director or casting director, which usually means they will be paid more than 20 yuan. If the role has a line or two, it'll also pay a little better. And if the part is a stunt double that requires martial arts skills, the pay can be as high as 300-500 yuan (US$38-63).
Most people who linger outside Beiying do not last two weeks. After satisfying their curiosity about life under the bright lights or a waiting-for-Godot period of fruitlessness, they will leave and seek employment in less glamorous walks of life.
Zhao Jun, a 19-year-old from Shandong Province, said he would persist for 10 years. "I'm still young and I'm here to pursue a dream," he said.
However, both Zhao and Yao admitted that they have no special talent. Zhao does not even speak good Mandarin. He is eager for casting calls that require "a voice with a strong Shandong accent."
There are three types of extras wannabes. The majority turn up to get a job that does not require backbreaking labour because extras generally stand around and wait for the lighting and cameras to be set up most of the time.
Then there are the dreamers, who see being an extra as the first step to stardom. They are the ones who fall for scams that promise the sky. And they may dress in the latest fashion and have haircuts that you'll never see on a construction site.
A few are in it for the fun. Two middle-aged ladies spent 40 yuan (US$5) on a taxi fare to come to Beiying. "We have nothing to do at home. So we put on our best and got here. Maybe we'll get into the production of our favourite soap opera," they told China Daily, giving their names only as Zhang and Gong.
The three types are not exclusive of one another. And the line between perception and reality may also blur. Yao Haidong did not have the money to buy lunch, yet he refused to see himself as a desperate migrant worker rather as a potential actor with a vision. "It is this dream that is sustaining me. Without the dream, I cannot hang around here 14 hours a day."
During the tedious hours of waiting, extras chat about which xitou are rotten and which crews would cheat on payment. They also talk about appearing in a hit show or with a big star. "Hey, there goes Chow Yun-Fat!" Someone pointed out a passing SUV with tinted windows. "I was in a scene with him last time and he was driven in a vehicle like this."
Most extras know they'll never become another Chow Yun-Fat. Their guiding light is Wang Baoqiang, the young actor who plays the simpleton in "Blind Shaft" and "A World Without Thieves."
"He used to be an extra and would bide his time outside the gate just like us. Then he got lucky," said some of the waiting extras.
In spite of his "burning passion for an acting career," Yao Haidong knows that he may not even be the next Wang Baoqiang. "I communicate with people from every province, every background. I think I'll strive for the position of xitou," he said.
(China Daily 05/08/2006 page1)