Red Star Rising?
The call for stardom came quickly and unexpectedly as do most things in China – like earthquakes and cultural revolutions.
In this case it was a panicked last-minute Friday evening plea from a Chinese friend whose film and videocasting pal needed an “old foreigner” on Sunday to play a part in a promotional video pushing China exports, presumably not toxic dog food or baby formula.
“The first ‘old foreigner’ cannot do it,” she told me. “He has a sudden sensitive situation with the Public Security Bureau … but I told my friend that you are old and talented. Can you help?”
Indeed, despite the fact that I was shocked to learn I was old, I’ve relished playing the token westerner in China. I once had brief previous live experience as a “bamboo businessman” in Shenzhen where, supplied with a phony name and business card my only duties were to wear a suit and extol what was being sold as the inexhaustible American demand for bamboo products through a translator to unwitting officials from a neighboring province. That gig netted me the equivalent of $150 and a hangover following the baiju-soaked bamboo business banquet.
This job paid slightly less than my stint as a businessman, but included a delivery pizza lunch. I agreed and after sending them three photos and some clothing sizes was hired for the Sunday shoot and was e-mailed a story board of my silent role.
Scene one: “Old friends. An elegant old man is reading a newspaper in his fancy living room. He sits in front of the heating stove. Someone knocks (sic) his door. The steward leads guest into living room. The two old men are so happy to see each other. Then they hug.”
Scene two: “The guest brings a mysterious present with cloth on it. The man is very eager and to know what it is (sic). The guest moves the cloth like magic. The gift is a beautiful delicate porcelain dish. The old man takes the dish and examines it very carefully.”
Also attached were two photos of foreigners. The “elegant old man” looked awfully like Santa Claus but was dressed in a long velour smoking jacket, white shirt, silk cravat a la Hugh Hefner circa 1970. He was improbably seated in a large carved wooden chair hundreds of yards away from a garish mansion on a manicured lawn the size of Rhode Island.
His “friend” was separately pictured sporting a thick head of pompadour white hair, clean shaven, with an enormous bow tie and was grinning so broadly one couldn’t tell if he was in severe agony or had just fleeced a wealthy widow out of her life savings.
I lack a beard and white hair though my eventual “friend” had a goatee and was a 50-something long-haired American I’ll call Stephen. Like me, he had been called at the last minute and his Chinese film experience was zilch.
Our 28-year-old handler, a lively English fluent Chinese woman who told us to call her “Road” -- “Because life is a journey!” she explained with cheery zest that belied the bleary eyes of her foreign talent during the 7 a.m. cab ride to the set.
We had no clue where we were bound, though I initially and ignorantly assumed it would be an enormous government run film studio I’d heard was somewhere in the western Beijing hinterlands.
“That’d be cool,” Stephen said. “Maybe we’ll see guys walking around like in an old Paramount or Warner Bros lot, except instead of cowboys and musketeers and space men they’ll be Manchu warriors, revolutionary youth and Shanghai gangsters.”
Alas, no. Our “set” was in Beijing’s western outlands but it turned out to be show home condo (complete with fake books and the obligatory wrought iron rococo chandeliers that went out of style more than a century ago in the West) in a 98 percent or so unoccupied virtual ghost town of “The Devine Bello Luxury Romance Civilized Fragrant Heaven” development.
During our six hours there I saw not one resident, although there were a sprinkling of mostly-dusty high-end cars parked in front of a few units and the usual doleful slow-motion migrant maintenance workers for homes they can clean, but never occupy. Kind of like a Florida retirement community, but without the palm trees.
Inside the “mansion” it was all business. Cables, cameras, lights, a dolly track in the living room and a busy crew were at work as we were quickly made up, hair carefully fluffed and grayed a bit and given our costumes.
Stephen emerged looking debonair, though he and I both were issued bedroom slippers as footwear. “He’s visiting me to give me a present,” I told Road. “Why would he be wearing bedroom slippers? Foreigners don’t wear them outside the home. And what’s with the plate? Foreigners are usually bad people in Chinese films. Was it looted from the old Summer Palace?”
“It’s a Chinese audience,” she said. “They don’t care about the slippers. And some people in Shanghai wear pajamas to shop. So it is okay. No. The plate is a quality Chinese made product from Shanghai. A gift, not looted.”
My outfit proved troublesome. The pants appeared to have been looted from a Calvin Klein knockoff factory and were several sizes too small, despite the “40” waist tag and after a quick consultation with the director my black Levis were deemed suitable. A white long-sleeved undershirt was also undersized but I managed to squeeze into it before trying to casually arrange the silk cravat and don the Hef smoking jacket.
“Hi, I’m Hugh Hefner. Welcome to the party,” I told Road, who was puzzled, though Stephen was old enough to recall Hefner’s opening line for the short-lived 1969 Playboy After Dark TV show and laughed.
“Hef, man. Where’s Barbi Benton?”
Like all accounts I’ve heard and read of film shoots this one involved a lot of waiting and multiple takes. There was no “steward” to let my friend in so he just appeared and the “magical cloth” morphed into a large light blue box with a purple ribbon on the top that lifted right off, just like all presents in Hollywood and television movies where no one has to tear it open.
Since there were no microphones Stephen and I improvised dialogue to stay in character. “Wow! A plate from the Dalai Lama!” I enthused at one point. “Or does it contain cocaine?”
“Careful,” he said. “SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) probably has lip readers.”
The most challenging moments came for a close-up in which I was instructed to look up from a February 1 USA Today and slowly smile admiringly at the plate – which by the way was designed in pseudo classical Chinese style by a foreigner, but made in Shanghai – for a period that seemed endless.
“Action!” the assistant director shouted, which I discovered didn’t mean me. Just the cameras, though it took me several takes to comprehend.
Road told him my name, which he repeated several times. “Like Justin Timberlake,” I added. “He’s a hot actor.”
So then it was “Action!” (Pause). “Justin Timberlake!”
But holding a sincere looking smile for longer than about 10 seconds is not an easy task, especially when one is “admiring” an object that he can’t really see because his glasses have been replaced by ones with fake lenses, due to glare issues.
After multiple takes where I’d stretched my smile into a ghastly rictus grin while admiring, not specifically the plate, but what I imagined to be Hef’s old Playmate, Barbi Benton’s breasts, my China film debut was over.
“Congratulations,” said Road. “You are a natural actor. Maybe too old for Justin Timberlake, but maybe you can be his father.”
“Cool,” I said. “Are you going to work with him?”
“You never know,” she replied. “Life is a journey.”