One thing I appreciate about living in China is getting job opportunities that wouldn’t be available back home. On top of teaching and freelance writing, I can now add actor to my list of skills.
I was sitting at home one weekend watching a DVD when I got a wechat message from one of the local staff in my office. A company specialising in baby wipes and nappies were looking for someone to play a professor in a new ad campaign and would I be interested in the part? Now, I’m the first to admit that my looks are better suited for radio than film and my voice is nothing special to listen to. Still, it was a fantastic opportunity to try something new and as a bonus, had nothing whatsoever to do with teaching English. I quickly texted back that I’d take the part and she wasted no time making the arrangements.
It was to take place at a factory in Nanhai, about 30 minutes drive from Guangzhou. I was excited about the role but as she and her husband picked me up a few days later, I started feeling nervous. What if I’m rubbish and we have to do take after take? What if I make it through the process but my acting is laughable? What if I make a complete fool of myself? All these thoughts and many more were racing through my mind as we drove over dusty roads, past piles of bricks and building materials and dark shops carved into buildings that should have been demolished decades ago until we came to a factory at the end of town.
We were greeted by one of the managers outside the factory and inside by the director – a friendly, likeable man in his 40s, a young, quietly spoken cameraman with a shy smile and about 20 other crew members. They spoke barely a lick of English between them so my workmate would have to translate what the director asked me to do. We went to a small meeting room near the entrance, putting our bags next to a long wooden table with small plants down the middle and a shelf full of nappies at the end of the room. I had time to change into a white coat, get make-up done and have a quick drink of water before they called me over.
The first scene was in a small laboratory, with two of the factory’s workers standing either side of me. The woman standing on my right would pour a blue liquid onto an open nappy and we’d then have a friendly discussion (even though it was technically a non speaking role) while I occasionally glanced at and pointed to the product. In the first take, I kept my finger pointed towards the nappy while grinning at her like a demented idiot. The director wisely decided that this was not a good look and suggested that communicating with each other would work much better.
The problem there was that she couldn’t speak any English beyond hello and my Chinese is only slightly better than my 7-month-old son’s. Fortunately by this time I was starting to relax a little and tried to help others relax as well by pulling faces and making exaggerated gestures between scenes. I think it worked because we eventually got the scene right and made it look like we were having a riveting discussion about this exciting product. In actual fact, we were introducing ourselves and asking where the bathroom was in elementary Chinese, just to keep our mouths moving. Once we finished there, we did a few more scenes where I walked up to different workers in various labs and talked to them about the machines they were using. Each time I spoke English and they spoke Chinese, both of us looking as happy and relaxed as we possibly could.
After a while we moved out of the labs and onto the factory floor where I met the manager, Ken. The plan was to shoot scenes in different areas of the factory – mainly side-on shots where he’d ask me if the products were up to standard and I would smile and say of course. For the next shot we had to open the double doors and walk up to a conveyor belt inspecting packs of nappies.
While the crew were setting up, we were joined by five women wearing similar suits to him but most likely ranked just below him. We started getting ourselves into position and I immediately stood on Ken’s foot, quickly apologising while the managers behind us stood giggling nervously – not a good start. As the director called ‘action’ we pulled back the doors and strode inside like we owned the place - the type of scene where you might expect us to instantly whip out machine guns and start mowing people down. The reality was a lot more mundane though, as we made our way around the factory – from rooms with huge rolls of wet cloths to the final products being bagged and packed. For most of the scenes, he would pick something up, ask me if it was ok and I would smile and nod approval.
The final scene was the special effects part at the very end. Now I’m sure you’ve all seen TV ads for baby formula where someone touches something on a screen and they pop, change colour or whatever. Well, that was the most difficult part for me. While shooting, I simply had a green curtain behind me and I had to make weird hand movements, pointing and holding things I couldn’t see and getting it miserably wrong. I either used the wrong gestures or my hands were too fast, too slow, too high, too low, wrong angle etc. The cameraman would show me how to do it, and then the director, my workmate and her husband recommended different ways that left me hopelessly confused. We needed a lot of takes and an endless amount of patience until I finally got it right, to the relief and applause of the crew. After that, we had a quick lunch and then headed home.
My experience with acting was that it was a lot of fun but also very tiring. When you act, you spend most of your time waiting for everything to get set up and when you finally nail a scene, you then have to do it many times over for close-ups, widescreen shots and other different angles. I especially admire the actors who work on movies like the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings who spend so much of their time in front of blue screens, talking to and fighting creatures that aren’t even there. I also look at TV ads in a completely different way now, much more appreciative of the time and effort put in to make them.
I can’t help but wonder: Will this be a once-off or could it become a regular side-earner? I’ll have to judge the finished product later this month to be sure.
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