Lights, Camera, Dissatisfaction
Many Westerners come to Thailand with stars in their eyes, hoping to break into TV or film, but a look into the industry reveals a seamy world of unscrupulous agents, low pay and fame either fleeting or only for a select few
So, you're a farang and want to break into the glamorous _ at least from the outside _ world of Thai showbiz. What can you expect? Well according to the industry insiders Brunch spoke to, a world of shark-like agents, visa hassles, low pay, heavy competition and backstabbing for what few jobs there are. But some farang do find work in TV and movies. These usually break down into two categories: those who have found success and are able to act or present full-time, a relative rarity, and part-time actors just looking for cash or hoping to hit it big.
IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU (OR NOT)
Nicholas Snow is one of the Kingdom's farang success stories. He hit it big in 2011 when he scored a role starring alongside pin-up Mario Maurer in the blockbuster Channel 3 soap Plerng Toranong (Arrogant Flame).
Before that he made a name for himself as perhaps Asia's best known openly HIV-positive actor. He started "The Power to Be Strong" HIV testing/safe sex awareness campaign with a music video that aired in 2010 as the finale for a telethon for the Thai Red Cross Aids Research Centre. "Interestingly, my acting opportunities never dried up when I went public with my HIV status. I went on to land some of my biggest roles," said Snow.
He echoed the sentiments of others in the industry when he said that the two most important factors determining an actor's long-term success in Thailand are having formal training and being able to speak the language.
Snow studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and he said it was his acting ability that landed him a role in in 2009's The Marine 2, filmed on location in Phuket, following a competitive casting.
"Most people who land speaking roles have legitimate acting experience or are legitimately talented," Snow said. "But if you have a good look there is no end to extra work, though the pay is crappy and the conditions nowhere near what they would be in Hollywood."
There are a few other farang who have achieved superstardom in Thailand.
Brunch's own Andrew Biggs, though not an actor, has made a name for himself almost exclusively through his TV appearances and Thai fluency, and he certainly has a "look".
Another Australian, Valerie McKenzie, has hosted Morning Talk for 20 years now, interviewing prominent people from Thailand's business, society and charity spheres. The majority of the show's viewers are Thais trying to practise their English, and although she has interviewed some prominent foreign faces, including Margaret Thatcher, most of her chats are with Thais, sometimes government leaders.
But despite the prominent people on the show, the channel that broadcasts the programme is government-owned, meaning part of Morning Talk's mandate is to ensure that none of the Thai guests come off looking bad. (Only one person has walked off, simply because he refused to speak English). That means that more often than not McKenzie spends time with her guests practising their answers in English, once for up to three hours with one poor soul, so that they can be understood on air.
AGENTS OF CONTEMPT
While there are rare success stories, for most showbiz-oriented farang in Thailand stardom remains elusive. For those who do find work, the conditions are poor and because many are here on visas that do not expressly state acting as their occupation, some actors feel they have little recourse.
But by far the most common complaint among farang entertainment hopefuls in Thailand is the role of agents, which is different here than in Hollywood. Agents here often take 30% or more for a role if an actor is cast, sometimes for doing no more than sending an SMS alerting an actor to an audition.
Many question the chunk taken out by agents, whether they truly represent the actors' interests and whether one might be better off alone.
Cameron Pearson, who has appeared in Hollywood productions including 2008's Rambo and Shanghai from 2010, believes there is no need for farang actors to bother with local agencies.
"Many actors represent themselves now in Thailand and are still able to get jobs," he said. "Thirty-five percent is the standard rip-off cut by Thai agencies, plus the money designated for the actor they skim off the top. But more veteran farang actors have developed relationships with casting agents based on having worked with them before."
Pearson said it is well known in the industry that Thai talent agencies and casting directors will not show actors' resumes and auditions unless they represent them or can in some way benefit from doing so. He said many directors learn what is going on after casting starts and allow actors to approach them without representation, a practice that would be frowned upon in the West.
"Thai agents won't show your picture/resume and filmed audition to the casting director if they know you are wise to the scam or are not willing to be exploited. The same then goes for casting directors," he said. "So even if you get past the agent and go directly to the casting director, they can hold back your audition and info for the same reasons as the agent. There is no point in having an agent in Thailand if you can avoid it."
Veteran casting director Non Jungmeier posts roles on Facebook, allowing both agents and actors to respond.
''I don't want to depend on agents who sometimes are busy with other jobs, and respond to my request very slowly,'' she said. ''Also when I make appointments with actors for auditions, it's faster and more efficient than waiting for agents to relay the message.
''Most actors are registered with all the agents to enhance their chance of getting a job, so it makes almost no difference to the candidates they send.''
Unlike in the West, actors are not required to sign exclusivity contracts with agents and can sign with multiple agencies if they choose.
Non says that she knows most of the actors here, so contacting them directly actually makes her work more efficient.
''Once in a while there are new faces in town that agents recommend, so then I'll go through that particular agent when contacting that actor until the actor says he or she wants me to contact them directly.''
Amour Setter, a South African director and producer of commercials, films and music videos based in Bangkok, says that while ''there are quite a lot of sharks out there as agents'', the situation is improving. ''Actors have started to form an association to protect themselves, have a say in their working conditions and negotiate. It is my hope the film office in Thailand takes the issue seriously because there will always be a place for farang actors here. Productions aren't going to start flying in day players from other countries.''
Peter Scott Mossman, the casting director at Cool Bananas, says that farang actors are quick to pass the buck when the reason for the blame is clear _ ego overwhelming a lack of real skills. ''In my experience, there are very few real actors here and a lot of people with huge egos who call themselves actors,'' said Mossman. ''These people always blame casting, agents, directors, etc. for not getting a role.''
Non is more diplomatic in her assessment of the farang acting community, but does agree that there is a dearth of professionally trained foreign actors here.
''If we look at the whole picture, trained actors are the minority, as most farang actors here are without conventional training, but they do have interesting life experiences,'' she said.
However, this has its advantages. Despite low pay compared to other countries (there are no pay standards, but a lump sum for a major role in a smaller Thai production could be as little as 5,000 baht), most Thai productions are still able to cast farang who lack professional qualifications and thus willing to work for less. And a less polished, more natural approach is often what directors are looking for, Non said.
''I find movie directors these days tend to go realistic and prefer a minimal style of acting,'' she said. ''So some trained actors who are eager to show their craft dramatically normally don't get the parts, and some self-trained natural actors have become favourites.''
However, even Non has the same advice for actors who aren't rooted to Thailand: Seek more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.
BITS AND PIECEWORK
Of course, there are many people for whom film or TV work means little more than getting paid for a few days off work.
Tony Waltham, long-time Bangkok Post sub-editor, lucked into a small part of film history when the James Bond flick The Man With The Golden Gun was shooting boat chase scenes outside of Bangkok. The film-makers were looking for a stand-in for Roger Moore who also owned a long-tail boat. Word that Waltham owned one passed to the casting director through a friend. The directors thought Waltham looked enough like Moore, leading to eight days on set.
''I wore a wig and make-up and had to shave my mustache,'' said Waltham. ''We'd film scenes racing up and down the canals, and we had to overpower the engine, so it was a little bit dicey to navigate, though I didn't have to do any of the stunts. It was good fun at the time.''
Stunt work is one area often recommended to farang looking for work who can handle the beating, as many action films are shot here.
Teaching and modelling are also common occupations for those waiting for a showbiz break.
NOT A HOLLYWOOD ENDING
Despite appearing in Rambo, Shanghai and other foreign films here, Cameron Pearson has a dour outlook for the prospects of farang in search of showbiz success.
''You cannot make a living in Thailand as a farang actor. Period,'' he said. ''There are not enough foreign productions and the Thai productions pay farangs peanuts.''
He says that the best roles for films shot in Thailand are cast abroad, ''leaving only crap roles for local hires'', calling Rambo ''an exception to the rule''.
''Commercials sometimes pay well, but that money does not make it into the actors' hands.''
He also blamed a lack of professionalism among the farang acting community.
''Furthermore, the lack of jobs and the unprofessional demeanour of most self-proclaimed farang actors have led to ugly threats being made between actors and agents over the internet,'' he said. ''One agent received death threats and was shaken down at his house, likely because he exposed unethical casting practices.''
He said that Thai casting directors also routinely cheat actors and foreign productions and that Hollywood has gotten wind of these practices, which is why fewer films are coming to Thailand.
''Actors have spoken out and been blacklisted by Thai casting agents, but not before the international productions have found themselves in the middle of an ugly situation,'' Pearson said. ''I have turned down roles I have been cast for after they changed my fee at the last minute, hoping I was desperate to be in front of the camera, then seemed shocked when I walked.''
He said that actors often complain to foreign production companies while on set. ''Hollywood does not need the headache. Actors complaining, Thai film companies ripping them off, even individuals in the Thai government coming along for their piece of the pie.''
Agents and casting directors cheating farang and foreign productions, he said, are ultimately dooming what could be a lucrative industry, saying Hollywood now views the Bangkok film establishment, both Thai and farang, as ''a pesky fly that is not worth the irritation''.
''The Thai film industry is rife with maggots feeding on rotten flesh and nobody wants to make a movie here unless the script absolutely cannot be altered,'' he said. ''Thai film production teams and casting agencies cannot see the long-term picture and have shot themselves in the foot by blatantly ripping off farangs.''
A STAR IS SCORNED: MISADVENTURES ON THE ROAD TO THAI TELEVISION
This writer is no newbie when it comes to traversing the strange path to farang stardom. I tried my luck several years ago, sent for an audition for the lead in a commercial when the agent knew all I wanted was extra work. The ad was for a car battery and featured the actors standing around a vehicle in the middle of nowhere, growing increasingly agitated. The casting director kept saying, ''Play it like Jim Carrey,'' not specifying Ace Ventura or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it didn't matter much either way because I can't act. In my enthusiasm I broke the bonnet prop, which the producers wanted me to pay for. Needless to say, I didn't get the part.
Not one to be deterred, I was recently once again given the opportunity to shine when Brunch sent me to answer an ad in the Bangkok Post calling for TV presenters. What the job entailed was something of a mystery. All that was said was that a new English-language channel starting on TrueVisions cable needed some presenters. No other info was given and just a gmail account provided as a contact.
The ad said to bring a CV and ''jumbo''-sized glossy photos. I wasn't sure what jumbo denoted _ the larger the photo, the greater one's interest in the job, perhaps? Sandwich-board-sized for success? Budget concerns led me to take ones that were slightly less noticeable on the BTS.
Auditions were held at the auditorium at Bangkok Airways headquarters on Vibhavadi Road. In the lobby, the mystery deepened _ the notice board read simply ''The Audition''.
I had figured that the lack of any required qualifications whatsoever in the ad would have brought in a huge motley group of star-seeking expats, but I arrived at noon, halfway through the session, and was only the 13th person to interview.
Travel, health and lifestyle were given as the focus of the new channel, but I was asked mostly news questions, presumably because of my journalism background.
But before I had the interview I had to wait an hour while staff had lunch. This gave me time to see who else had joined me for the auditions. It wasn't exactly the large group of expats I had envisioned, but they did run the gamut of human experience and the atmosphere was akin to auditions for commercials I've attended.
There was the old guy, Grant from Australia, an unlikely choice in the youth-centred TV world, but he had experience, which he was more than happy to share. He gave the rest of us rubes tips, like that the brief, the one sentence introduction to the story, is supposed to be read while looking at the camera, while the details are read over footage of the event so you can read from notes then. The only problem was this was in a conference room, there was no background footage, and you were supposed to read everything while looking to the camera.
There was also a Sideshow Bob Terwilliger doppelganger and a few Thais as well, who I thought stood the best chance since part of the test involved translation.
But my money was on the dude rocking the ripped jeans, Rolling Stones T-shirt, wallet chain, white Velcro high-tops, gelled hair and wrist bandanna and looking like a cross between Corey Haim and Joan Jett. Announce your presence with authority, the saying goes, and that's certainly what Wrist Bandanna did, even arriving with a mate who looked like his stunt double. It now seemed we were casting for a reprise of Def Leppard's Hysteria, not a TV news gig.
And finally there was the young naive expat, Melissa from South Africa, who invited me to sit at her table. She was a nervous talker and quickly informed me that her and Grant's rapid-fire questions had scared away the previous occupants.
She asked me if I was nervous.
I wasn't, really. Even though I had no TV experience, I felt I could fake my way through it and that my Midwestern patois _ proven to be the most easily understood of all American accents _ would see me through.
She was hunting for tips, anything that could help her, which is why she gravitated towards Grant. Melissa was No12, right before me, and when No11 came out after his audition, she raced over to him, hoping to mine any detail that might help. Of course, it seemed there were no secrets here _ either they like your look and voice or they don't. When Grant approached me after my turn, I wasn't much help either.
Once my number was called, I was miked up and escorted into the interview room. A group of three women asked the questions, while a phalanx of men hovered around a monitor scrutinising my delivery. I introduced myself and chatted a bit before launching into a one-minute script looking at the camera. Finally, I had to improvise live coverage of the Bangkok launch of the latest iPad.
The banter stopped once I started presenting, and I didn't receive any feedback.
I'm going to assume they were overwhelmed.
After my audition, the mystery over the TV channel remains, though Capital TV founder Raine Grady said that Bangkok Airways is likely involved along with Bangkok Hospital and Thai-Asean News Network. The channel used to be the Thai Outlook Channel.
When it will air remains as uncertain as my future on television.
It's been weeks since my audition, but my phone has yet to ring.
At least I didn't break anything.