In Los Angeles they line up for Hollywood cattle calls. In New York they attend countless auditions in the theater district. Here, they linger on the sidewalk outside Beijing Film Studios as traffic rushes by on the Third Ring Road. They come from all over China hoping to make it in the movies. Few will succeed. And just like everywhere else, there’s no shortage of people ready to take advantage of their dreams.
Those in the know arrive at 5am for a better chance of getting picked for a full day of filming, but there’s a crowd milling about all day. Once one of the nation’s top production houses, Beijing Film Studios became part of state-run China Film Group Corporation in 1999. CFGC is China’s biggest cinema and television producer and the only company with rights to distribute foreign films. The entrance arch to the studio is topped with a bronze camera crew statue. Just beyond it, people squat on the sidewalk and play cards or checkers, waiting for someone responsible for picking extras to emerge.
The most cinematic-looking are the old men. You’ve seen the part that these guys play: long white beard, opium pipe, straw hat, maybe perched outside a teahouse or slouched in a mahjong parlor in old-timey China. Wang Liqing, a 60-year-old art model from Tianjin, is one such old man. Wang says painters like him because he has good skin coloring and he dresses like he’s from early 20th-century China. Three years ago a painter suggested Wang try his luck in Beijing. Since then he’s played many roles-a monastery abbot, a traditional medicine doctor, an artist.
“Of course some people want to imitate my appearance and steal my ideas. However, one important thing they aren’t able to steal is my accumulated experience,” Wang says smiling.
Wang makes RMB300-500 for a day’s work, 10 times what unspecialized extras earn. Not only is the pay low for most, but the casting middlemen who come out to collect people often take a cut.
Yao Yongkung, a 23-year-old barber from Henan Province with boyish good looks, received RMB50 for a full day working on a wine commercial. Only the back of his head was filmed, but he was chosen to sit next to the leading actor, which he took as a good sign.
Yao came to Beijing with his friend Jiang Chengdeng, a 25-year-old construction worker who is classically handsome, with a tall nose and big eyes. Both say they have a bit of talent, and they used to excel in performances put on at school. In a week’s time, they both were chosen twice for jobs. But at RMB50 per gig and with a hotel room that costs RMB80 a night, it won’t be sustainable for long. Yao thinks if he had nicer clothes, instead of just t-shirts and jeans, he might get picked more.
“Of course I want those clothes, but there’s the money problem,” he says.
Others are less forthcoming about their aspirations. They laugh it off or say it’s “just a vacation” from real life. “A lot of people here say they’re just playing, but most are trying to get rich and famous,” says a 63-year-old Beijinger who asked to be identified as Lao Zhutou (old guy Zhu), the name he’s credited under in the 100 or so movies he’s appeared in. His most prominent part was one line (“Who’s that guy!?”) in Chen Kaige’s 2005 epic-romance The Promise.
Bored with his retirement, Zhu started cycling the entire Third Ring Road on a daily basis. He did that for almost a year. One day he happened upon the movie lot and he’s been coming back ever since for almost a decade.
“I don’t like to stay gossiping in the hutongs with the old people,” he says.
He doles out advice to the young upstarts. He tells them they need natural talent, life experience and training, but dreams flame out quickly for most. Zhu says usually over a five-day stretch outside of the studio most of the people give up and after 10 days pass, the group is almost 100 percent new.
The group is also mostly male. Zhu says that’s because it’s an unsavory environment for women. He forbade his own daughter from trying it out.
“It’s a little dangerous here for girls. Some guys are not very nice. Some girls get harassed,” says 24-year-old Chen Fei, who left her home in Chongqing three years ago. Chen rents a 12 sqm room for RMB100 per month in a suburb. “If I get back from the film crew too late and can’t find a bus, I just sleep in the KFC, where it’s very safe,” she says. Her parents don’t know that she’s acting. She’s embarrassed since it’s next to impossible to save any money to send to them. But since there are fewer women, it’s also easier to find work. Chen has five or six gigs a month and supplements her wages with a part-time clerical position. Her total income is about RMB1,500 a month, and the film business is her main job, an achievement that would be counted as entertainment-industry success in other parts of the world. Chen certainly doesn’t claim to have made it, but the fact she’s lasted three years on this hardscrabble stretch of concrete is a tremendous feat of perseverance.
That’s Beijing, 2012
Photos by Noemi Cassanelli