Bit Parts for Expats

bit parts for expats

Martin Cooke

There are a surprising number of opportunities for expats on terrible Russian TV shows. The TV shows I refer to are not terrible because they are Russian, the same story applies in the Japanese, British, Ozzie, Mongolian etc., soaps, dramas and sit-coms industry. Television is the best of worlds and the worst of worlds, all over the world.

The 1,000 yard stare I saw exhibited by some of the leading actors on the expat-glutted STS drama ‘Londongrad’ told me all I needed to know but was afraid to ask about the joys of being locked on a film set for 14 hours a day, every day of your life, for all eternity, or until the final wrap, whichever ends the horrible misery soonest.

The woeful Londongrad series testifies to the fact that the quality of bona fide acting opportunities in Russian soap operas are necessarily limited, but the quantity of opportunities to turn your way into people’s living rooms is undoubtedly favourable and the good news is that Russian casting directors are so desperate for foreigner faces, (as my esteemed colleague who shall remain nameless, Peter, an otherwise talented and epicurean man, who couldn’t out-act a coat hanger, can testify), that they will take literally anybody with a foreign passport. Well, almost.

Peter is actually in high demand as the ‘mad foreign professor’ type but when the offers came flooding in after his premiere role as ‘highly eccentric foreigner’ he became star-struck and demanded diva-esque conditions be inserted into his contract negotiations. “Cups of hot cocoa on demand and a body double for speaking actual words”, that kind of thing. The unreasonable wannabe actors who merely give you a hard time and expect you to iron and pack their underpants for them and give them a little peck on the cheek as you pack them off into the film company limo are positive charmers next to the sleazy buggers who outright rip you off and cheat you and your family by refusing to pay your commission once they get their tawdry paws on the bulging pay packet you negotiated for them. Grrrr, gnash.

The main role you will be expected to play is: ‘foreigner.’  This role is not very exacting in that it usually requires you to exactly live up to a very mundane stereotype which you mustn’t deviate from. Acting talent per se, is a positive obstacle or impediment to success in Russian TV. Having a big nose is much more important. Fortunately, there are lots of big noses with no acting ability who are perfectly willing to take on one of these ‘drivelling foreign businessman’ type roles. Roles which I have been asked to play do indeed include, ‘foreign businessman’, ‘foreign rapist’, ‘foreign spy’, ‘criminal foreigner’, ‘general purpose foreign idiot’, ‘lying foreign journalist’, ‘foreigner with big nose’ (yes!) and the ubiquitous, ‘foreign lover whose girlfriend’s dad hates his guts.’ In fairness I would have to sympathize with the dad here.

Even if the TV show is verging on the credible, your part in it will assuredly be inane. And you won’t get paid much either.

“But we could get Sophia Loren for that kind of money in Tarkovski’s day!” They protest, genuinely alarmed about your scandalous demands for 200 euros a day.

“And besides, Todorovski is directing this one!!”

Ah, yes. The old; legendary master, the new Carl Theodore Dreyer, the one who did that epic movie about a train crash, you’ll be working with him and he wants you personally for this part, ploy.

“Really? He wants to work with me does he?” Puffs chest out. “ He must have heard about my legendary bit part as “stupid foreigner with big nose” in Pavel Ruminov’s award winning docudrama, “Flurry of happenings” Ok, what’s the role?”

“That’s right! He wants you! The role is…” (Rustle of paper…) “Foreigner!”

“Does the character have a name?”

“Yes, ‘Foreigner’.”

“Sounds great. What does he do?”

“He orders a pizza whilst something important happens, then a policeman beats him up and saves the girl.”

“Fantastic. Are there any lines?”

“Let me see.” Rustle of paper again. “Two scenes, pizza scene, you can improvise the dialogue there, ‘margarita’ for example, and the beating scene, where you have to say ‘Ouch’ and ‘Grnf.’”


“You’ll do it?”

“What’s the pay?”

“Pay? You want pay?” She picks up the phone. “He wants pay!”

“Yeah, ‘pay’, exchange of payment in return for services rendered.”

“But it’s for Todorovski! He was the scriptwriter on Stalker!”

And so it goes.

Sir Ralph Richardson advised a young actor playing a part whose character is killed in the second act, not to get so drunk during the third act that he would fall into the orchestra pit during the bow. My advice would be this: if you have two or three scenes playing ‘idiot foreign business man who gets caught with his pants down in a compromising act with a lady of ill repute’ in a stinking wretched film, which had its 6 million dollar budget largely stolen by its producers; then please don’t accept an invitation to the premiere, lest you find yourself invited on stage at the Moscow film festival only to be roundly laughed at by 1,200 cheated film fans who will easily recognize your big nose thereafter and accidentally on purpose splash your shiny film premiere shoes, in revenge, when they recognize you in the toilet, ‘cos that’s what happened to me.’ I wouldn’t wish this humiliation on anyone, except that is for one or two unscrupulous expat bit partists I can think of.