Life as a struggling actor inside China’s Hengdian, the world’s largest film studio

May 29, 2020

Every day, aspiring actors from across China make their way to Hengdian in pursuit of fame. But competition is so fierce that many quit after a few months.

Spanning an area roughly the size of 70 soccer fields, Hengdian World Studios in China’s Zhejiang Province is among the largest outdoor film studios in the world.

Home to replicas of the Forbidden City, imperial palaces, and old Hong Kong, this is where many Chinese period dramas are produced. The chart-topping Story of Yanxi Palace and Zhang Yimou’s Hero were all shot here.

Hengdian World Studios is home to a replica of the Forbidden City.
Hengdian World Studios is home to a replica of the Forbidden City. / Photo: Thomas Yau/SCMP

Aspiring actors from across the country come in hopes of making it big. An estimated 30,000 people live and work in Hengdian.

But many of them leave after a few months, frustrated by the competition and difficulty of landing a big role.

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Despite the poor outlook, Yu Peng is unfazed and still eagerly awaiting his big break.

“As long as you’re alive, healthy, and an adult, you can be an actor here.”

Yu Peng

He moved to Hengdian two years ago in pursuit of his acting dream. “The bar in Hengdian is really low,” he says. “As long as you’re alive, healthy, and an adult, you can be an actor here.”

Yu Peng, left, during a break on a shoot. He says anyone can be in actor in Hengdian as long as they’re a healthy adult.
Yu Peng, left, during a break on a shoot. He says anyone can be in actor in Hengdian as long as they’re a healthy adult. / Photo: Thomas Yau/SCMP

Competition is fierce. The chances of ever landing a lead—or even supporting—role are slim. Still, there are plenty of opportunities.

“There are what we call ‘familiar face’ roles,” Yu says. “You know what that means? You know their face and the characters they play, but you don’t remember their names. We call those ‘familiar faces.’”

Such roles can earn actors a couple hundred dollars a day, Yu says.

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With his lack of formal training, Yu couldn’t even start as a “familiar face.” He had to work his way up, starting as an extra.

The daily rate was $10 yuan for 10 hours with an extra $1.50 for every hour of overtime. Recently, that rate increased to $14.

“If you’re better-looking, you might get the chance to stand in front of a crowd scene and get better pay.”

Yu Peng

“If you’re better-looking, you might get the chance to stand in front of a crowd scene and get better pay,” Yu says. “From there, you move on to becoming an extra or walk-on, playing a eunuch, servant, or soldier.”

If they’re lucky, they might get a few lines and then someday land a bit role interacting with the principal actors.

Yu Peng preparing for a shoot. He says most actors start at Hengdian as extras.
Yu Peng preparing for a shoot. He says most actors start at Hengdian as extras. / Photo: Thomas Yau/SCMP

The turnover rate at Hengdian is so high that there’s even a term for actors who come and leave soon after: Hengdian drifters.

To stay focused, Yu signed a two-year lease on a small apartment in town and decorated the walls with slogans to encourage himself. Above his bed is a sign that reads, “Behind every badass is a tough underdog, and behind that tough underdog is a fool who never gives up.”

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To ensure he is making progress, Yu now only takes roles where his character has a name and place in the credits, earning $500 to $850 for 15 days of work.

Fortunately, the living expenses in Hengdian are relatively low—his monthly rent is $80—and during shoots, the production company provides food as well as accommodations.

Yu Peng speaks to a casting director over the phone at his apartment in Hengdian.
Yu Peng speaks to a casting director over the phone at his apartment in Hengdian. / Photo: Thomas Yau/SCMP

Yu remains hopeful, but sometimes, the long wait between acting gigs and audition rejections get him down, leaving him doubting himself.

“People always say congratulations when the shooting wraps up, but I always feel a pang of sadness, having to return my costume and props,” Yu says. “It also means you’re going back to unemployment.”

Above all, the clock is ticking. For the sake of a role, Yu might tell a casting director that he is in his 20s, even though he is turning 40 this year.

But for now, it’s back to work. Yu has landed a role playing a Ming Dynasty emperor in a web film, which will be distributed online rather than in theaters.

Yu Peng dressed as a Ming Dynasty emperor for a shoot.
Yu Peng dressed as a Ming Dynasty emperor for a shoot. / Photo: Thomas Yau/SCMP

Compared to theatrical releases, they receive less scrutiny from Chinese authorities and often cost less to make, so many Chinese entertainment companies have turned to the medium.

Without the budget to hire A-list actors, they also present new opportunities for people like Yu.

The shoot goes well, until near its end, when the videographer realizes the memory card is damaged and announces: “Retake!”

Yu is not complaining, though. He is happy just to be working at all.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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Credit

Producer: Thomas Yau

Script and Narration: Jessica Novia

Editor and Mastering: Joel Roche