Wanted: Bangkok actor. Must be patient, modest, and willing to work for peanuts
Foreign actors who hope to appear in movies shot in Thailand often find themselves in sleazy thrillers fraught with deception, wild goose chases and despair -- and that's before they even get a job.
"In Thailand, there are no more than perhaps five real professional [foreign] film actors, in a sea of aging psychotic steroid-junkie gym rats, towering old queens in love with Judy Garland, out-of-work English teachers who acted a bit in high school and other assorted human oddities," says American actor Geoffrey Giuliano, 56, who works in Bangkok.
And because Thailand's film world is tiny, it is easy to alienate colleagues and be sidelined from future work, he says.
"If you do go along to auditions in Bangkok, dress well, be modest, don't show off," he suggests. "If you are ever perceived as being difficult in any way, you will be shunned like the plague."
The good news is that some foreign actors are able to break into Bangkok's film industry, hone their craft, make contacts and gain confidence toward building a career either here or in Hollywood movies.
"Because there aren't that many actors here, there's less competition, thus more opportunity for roles," says John Marengo, a 53-year-old American actor who has worked in Thailand for 10 years doing movies, voice-over work, commercials, teaching and coaching actors and other projects.
"Many countries come here to shoot movies, it is quite the international community. It gives an actor the opportunity to work on diverse movies with international casts," Marengo says.
No unions, few rules and low pay"The worst aspects of being an actor here would be the lack of a union. There are, for the most part, few set rules or guidelines. It's pretty much 'anything goes' much of the time. Most of the problems for actors come from agents and casting directors," Marengo warns. He adds that foreign actors are often shocked upon "finding out later that the actor's salary was supposed to be double, sometimes triple, what they got."
An extra might earn 1,500 baht or more per day, while a featured extra could hit 5,000 baht daily, Marengo says.
"A speaking role can be anywhere from 5,000 baht to 40,000 baht." Meanwhile, most casting directors in Thailand "take 30-35 percent commission" from an actor's salary, compared to the 10-15 percent commissions typical in America and the United Kingdom.
Some so-called 'casting directors' do not hustle enough to get their actors into films, and simply act as booking agents who lazily slot clients into seemingly random auditions, according to some disgruntled actors.
A newly arrived actor, however, may need a casting director simply to find out what films are being made, and who's who.
After learning the ropes, some actors try to work on their own, relying on word-of-mouth updates about where work can be found in Bangkok.
But Thai and foreign films shot in Thailand often concentrate on how an actor looks, or the stereotype role the person can play, rather than the actual experience or method a performer has developed.
Competition in the wingsFortunately, the film industry in Thailand has expanded in recent years, with some Thai directors experimenting with bigger productions and controversial themes.
International filmmakers are also attracted to the exotic production values offered by this Southeast Asian country's vivid urban and rural scenes.
Other countries in the region, however, are also developing their film industries, attracting foreign actors who hope to work in Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere.
A British actor, Stephen Thomas, 40, says he has been working in Thailand for almost one year, mostly with Thai productions, and enjoys the experience.
His first role was in a Thai horror film called "Who Are You?" and his next two films were for Thailand's TV Channel 3 and other television work.
"Major films here in Thailand -- I'm talking about Thai studio productions -- can have that same feel as a small independent film, with everyone working to create something special, rather than just doing a job," Thomas says.
"Foreign productions don't know what the pool of Western actors here is like, so they often don't consider casting in Thailand. Then when they do, they tend to want to take advantage of the lower pay scale.
"A low-budget Thai film might only pay you 1,500 baht per day, or even less. A foreign production can pay 20,000 baht or even more. It's a wide range," Thomas says.
Know the language and don't limit yourself to acting alone
Erich Fleshman, from California, says he has been acting in Thailand for 13 years in Thai and foreign productions, and also works as a "private drama and dialect coach" and on other film-related tasks.
Fluent in Thai, he says "you have to learn the language" to increase your chances of appearing in Thai films.
"There are a lot more action-driven [Thai] films here now. Ever since the film 'Ong Bak', Thailand has become attractive for action guys and stunt guys."
To supplement an actor's low income, "one must diversify" and try doing "voice-overs for animation and film, teaching film and acting" and other jobs, Fleshman, 38, says.
"Money is hard to come by, and political conflicts have sabotaged foreign film shoots," laments Hispanic-American actor Antonio Pineda, referring to Bangkok's recent political violence and opaque, sensational feuds.
To earn enough cash to survive, "actors eventually get into other aspects of the creative process such as writing scripts, directing or producing," he says.
"Actors who are local can, however, have a breakout motion picture that will ensure them work in hard currency markets, or make a film on the cheap that brings them to the attention of high-end film makers," Pineda says.
For contacts, jobs and fascinating trash-talk, check out The Actors Association of Thailand on Facebook.