China screen reaches out for more foreign actors
Demand for realism sparks rise in international castingsBEIJING -- Along with men in fedoras and 1930s cars, the costume drama "Grassroots King" has a feature that nearly every Chinese TV show seems to require these days — a Western character.
Kerry Brogan, an actress from Newton, Massachusetts, who plays the lead character's British girlfriend, is one of dozens of foreign performers on Chinese TV, recruited to appeal to increasingly worldly audiences.
"Our audiences are no longer satisfied to watch foreign characters played by Chinese in a wig," said Yan Hao, a producer of "Feng Yu," a TV spy thriller whose cast includes three Western actors.
Producers who used to hire exchange students and other foreign amateurs to supply a dash of non-speaking exotic color to TV shows now put out casting calls as far afield as the United States and Europe for professionals. They appear in productions ranging from war stories to romances and some host TV variety shows.
Brogan, a Mandarin speaker in her 20s, said she has appeared in 40 Chinese movies and TV productions. In "Grassroots King," a saga set in the turbulent years before World War II, she has a speaking role as a regularly appearing character.
"There's much greater desire to work together between Westerners and mainland Chinese people," Brogan said. "The market has a greater need."
Yan said Chinese audiences are looking for entertainment that reflects the world they see on the Internet and in China itself as society becomes more cosmopolitan.
"When I turn on the TV these days, sometimes even I myself am surprised that there are so many foreign faces in Chinese shows," said Zheng Feng, a casting agent who has been finding foreign performers for Chinese producers for 11 years.
Zheng said he is setting up an English-language Web site to advertise abroad for actors.
The trend sits awkwardly with the communist government's culture officials, who have issued directives limiting use of foreign programming on Chinese TV and ordering on-air personalities to limit use of foreign words.
China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television rules limit the number of major foreign actors or crew members to one-third of the total employment for a movie or TV program made in China.
There are no statistics on the number of non-Chinese actors working in China, but Zheng said he believed the number has risen by 20 to 30 percent a year over the past decade.
Zheng showed resumes of dozens American and European actors that he represents and said 20 to 30 talent agencies in China's major cities also represent foreign performers.
China's vast TV audience is the world's biggest, with a voracious demand for programming.
Chinese studios filmed 12,910 episodes of television programming last year and sales totaled 2.1 billion yuan ($307 million), according to the industry regulator, SARFT.
"China is more opened up. Every movie today somehow contains some Western-Chinese elements, so you have to get some foreigners," said film director Song Yeming, who has worked with many foreign actors.
Song said appearance alone is no longer enough to get the job, and the industry's financial resources and demand for skills have grown to the point that he sometimes contacts groups abroad to find the right person.
Producer Li Junyu regularly invites foreign actors or winners of Mandarin-speaking contests to co-host his show "Baike Quanshuo," or "Encyclopedic Talk," about health care and traditional Chinese medicine.
"We hope a foreign co-host on the show could offer a different way of thinking about our themes," said Li, whose weekday show is carried by a satellite TV channel from the central province of Hunan.
Volker Helfrich, a Mandarin-speaking stage actor from Germany who plays a spy in "Feng Yu," came to China four years ago and said he has gotten steadily more complex roles.
"I don't want to get dubbed. I try to get different roles in different kinds of movies and productions," he said.
Foreign actors usually are paid 50 percent more than their Chinese counterparts, but Helfrich said he could have made more money in Europe.
"This is one reason why I don't see there are too many very good, very well-known actors from foreign countries coming over here," he said.
Zhu Dake, a cultural critic at Tongji University in Shanghai, said many Chinese people simply love hearing compliments about Chinese culture from foreigners' mouths.
"Foreigners in China taking supporting roles actually serve the Chinese value, while the main players are still Chinese. Essentially it's a worship mentality," Zhu said.
Li, the TV producer, said he had no plans to give his foreign co-hosts a major role on the show because he believes his audience wouldn't accept it.
"The culture gap is too difficult to overcome," he said. "They are the icing on our cake."