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Star Struck in Beijing
By Isabel Schwartz | NO. 04 JANUARY 25, 2018

It was in Beijing that I was bitten by the acting bug, with my serious, intellectual look inviting offers to play researchers, scientists and even a doctor in a commercial for a weight loss product. I love acting gigs because they are a wonderful opportunity to engage in creative projects, practice one's Chinese and make new friends.

My most recent gig involved playing a middle-aged woman for a TV series starring the famous Chinese actor and teen idol Li Yifeng. When I auditioned for the role, I had to play a woman who was arguing with her lawyer, who would be played by Li, about her son's death sentence. After channeling all my anger over my father's passing and my divorce into the role, the agent asked me, "Do you have a white T-shirt?"

"Do you mean I got the part?" I answered.

I would visit the film set twice for this role. The first time I came, they suddenly changed my part to that of a middle-aged New Yorker trying to trick a lawyer, again played by Li, into believing she had recognized a lost golden retriever called Cookie in order to claim money. Well versed in human nature, the lawyer exposes her and she leaves angry and empty-handed. I had to prepare the lines ad hoc in both English and Chinese, which wasn't that hard as I only had a few sentences of dialogue.

While they were applying my makeup, I chatted with a Beijing actor who was also starring in the TV series. He had studied acting at the Beijing Film Academy, the "Yale" of film schools in China as he proudly described it. The vice director later told me that he usually plays leading roles, but had to step back a bit in this series in favor of superstar Li.

Although we didn't get around to shooting my scene that day, which is a common scenario when making movies, I did get to see Li in person, wearing a knit cobalt blue sweater and jeans. What struck me most about him were his prominent thick eyebrows and aloof air. I saw him either sitting in the studio on a camp chair next to the director or speeding around the film lot on a white scooter. About a dozen or so excited young women were waiting for hours outside the gate of the studio in the cold to catch a glimpse of Li and snap pictures of him with their phones.

After the production got back from filming in New York City for six weeks, I was asked back on set to film my scene in the same studio as last time.

This time, we used heat patches and baijiu (liquor) to keep warm; the big space heaters being reserved for the directors. I was given a mint cream coat to wear and an artificial diamond ring. I was supposed to use my own purse and clutch it nervously when trying to trick the lawyer. My unruly hair was straightened and blow dried, and I was given mascara and lipstick. I waited in a fake bedroom of the film studio for several hours, rehearsing my lines or napping. Indeed, waiting is a big and far less glamorous part of filming!

To kill time, I engaged in some small talk with a young Chinese American woman who was Li's English coach. She was from Rockville, Maryland, not far from my hometown, and was refreshingly natural in an industry that is obsessed with appearances and make-believe.

Eventually I was told the director had, for some reasons unbeknownst to me, decided to do my part with a Chinese actor instead. A seasoned actor told me that this happens in the film industry all the time; actors are replaced or parts are written out or changed. Of course, the actor still gets paid for their time.

That's the way the cookie crumbles. Although I was disappointed my time on set did not yield any creative results, and my character didn't get the money offered for Cookie, my acting stint did have a silver lining: I met a real life Cookie on the set, a wonderful big dog which comforted me with a lick on the face!

The author is an American living in Beijing

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to baishi@bjreview.com

Related:
Transitions: An Art Form
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