I was rubbing the bump on the side of my head. I was thinking about how lucky I am. A little bit to one side and it could’ve hit my temple! – possibly turning me into a mumbling vegetable! I didn’t feel any stupider than I normally do, so I figured I was fine. The extra that was holding the gun was super apologetic about accidentally hitting me -“So sorry. So sorry”. But that’s what happens when you are holding back a pack of oncoming Japanese soldiers with guns and bayonets.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from the same Chinese agent I had worked with to get the wonderful Pat Nixon part in China. In this email, she was telling me there was another part for me – so I went back to China for 2 weeks to play a character in a mini-series called “49 Days” . It is a Chinese TV show about the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking (which was the capitol of China back then). This invasion is also known as “The Rape of Nanking “ because there was a documentary about it with that same name and also because there was a lot of that going on. I played Minnie Vautrin – a real-life hero who risked her life and later her sanity to help protect the Chinese from the Japanese. She was a missionary who ran a school in Nanking for 15 years and then helped to run the International Safety Zone during the invasion.
The TV show was directed by Zhang Li – a tireless director who had been filming the show every single day since February. He told me he once did a show where he shot continuously for 10 months. But, he added emphatically, he loved the work, so he worked around whatever schedule the producers could give. I couldn’t help but compare every step of this production with an American TV shoot I had worked on before going to China. (I’ll let ya know when it airs.) At that shoot, I remembered getting extra pay (a ‘meal penalty”) because they broke us a little late for lunch. In China, they work through continuously, until they are done. Generally they are either filming or moving to the next location (with a few 18 hour days thrown in there). Sometimes the crew had to get some rest when it could
These were some of the toughest people I have ever worked with. I watched them shoot a scene outside where that abnormal blue Beijing sky had suddenly given way to a torrential downpour. There were no rain jackets or umbrellas pulled out- just a well-worn tarp to cover the cameras, as everyone got drenched. I actually saw the film crew cleverly saran-wrap a camera to protect it from the rain.
When I first touched ground in China , the first thing they had me do was to fit me for my costume in the hotel . We were all staying at a hotel in Mantoaguo – a ‘town’ of a few million people about 15 minutes from Beijing. When you drove into the town at night, the rims of buildings, the edges of the bridges and the sides of the river walk, were all lit up in bright colored neon, giving you a warm, trusting feeling that Tinkerbell might arch the skyline at any minute to remind you how magic is made. The costume fitting in the hotel went fast because the dress they made (from the measurements I sent them), fit like a glove …. a glove, that is, that is made out of two layers of the thickest wool ever to shield a Chinese winter. Beijing was experiencing a heat wave and we were going to be shooting in an old factory with no electricity, much less AC, so I was fearing my fear of discomfort.
Again, I thought back to that American TV show fitting. I tried on a Hugo Boss suit and Christian Dior shoes in a Bloomingdales fitting room, where the attendant brought us coffee and cookies from Magnolia bakery. To change into that outfit on that set, I had an air-conditioned trailer that included my own bathroom and a small bed — just in case I wanted to nap between takes and breaks.
For the “49 Days” fitting; I climbed into the back of a utility truck stuffed with racks of costumes. The costume designer held up a blanket so I could change behind it into my long wool dress without being watched by the extras – who were standing below, sifting through piles of costumes.
But oh, was it oddly fun. I got to do heroic things in this show that I have always fantasized about doing. Bombs were going off around me – cascades of soot and dirt raining down – as I frantically directed screaming refugees out of harm’s way. First by preventing a stampede when I see one of them fall and almost get trampled to death and second by rescuing a child who is crying over her dead mother. Cut to a shot of me. Close up of me running to the child – a bomb explodes overhead, I grab the crying child and shelter her with my body, protecting us both as another bomb goes off. I carry the crying, frail child in my arms, safely and securely away to safety and then I go back to save more refugees.
After the second take, I found out that the frail little girl from the first take got scared and didn’t want to do it again. On the second take, that little girl had been replaced with another, less traumatized, but much heavier kid. When I went to pick her up, it was like trying to lift a bank vault and my inner hero went soft. I tried to fake it as best I could, heaving dramatically, but in the end I had to lower my heroic standards and ask someone else, who I figured had a stronger back, to carry her away. Here’s a ‘behind the scenes” look:
The set was fantastic. It had been built in an old factory, just outside of Beijing. It looked like a bombed out shelter with its vintage hospital beds, red cross flags and a make-shift office area cleverly constructed out of bookshelves and filing cabinets.
The props were as vintage looking as the set. In one scene, I made coffee using this contraption. It looked like something you’d see in a scene from Breaking Bad, but it actually made coffee. I like to think that when the Chinese people watch it on TV they will be amazed at how authentic the middle-aged “Laowai” looks making coffee with a chemistry set.
After a few hours, the first day I was there, I looked around for something to snack on. I realized there were no craft services. There was no cart of pita chips, organic dried fruit and chocolate covered what-nots to graze on before we went to a lunch of free range salmon, grass fed chicken, intricate salads, and ethnic-sounding grains that were rounded off with an entire table of deserts and fresh smoothies made by a guy wearing an apron and chef’s hat with a smiling sun on it. I realized I would not be finding any of that on this shoot. I made a mental note to bring snacks and water with me the next day. But there are deep, sweet memories of the times they brought us bags of ice cream bars that were incredibly delicious and bizarre – green tea lychee stuffed with red bean paste.. It suddenly took me back to family reunions where I sat anxiously waiting for the ice cream to be ready while feeling like I was completely where I was supposed to be.
Although it was much simpler, lunch on the China set was delicious. Each day the meal would be served in 3 large pots
There were dishes with mushrooms that tasted like a cross between fish and beef and vegetables that were a cross between baby corn and califlower. After a few days, all of the honkeys – or the “Laowai” as we are called there – started to sit at the table on the make-shift office set and it began to have the feel of a family meal.
There was a gal who had come back to China with her husband, because he had gotten a full scholarship to get his PHD in accounting at a university there. There was a guy who worked at an International School that had done enough roles there to get recognized on the street There was an ex-Marine who had gone to China, become fluent in Chinese and was now going to an International Medical school that cost a small fraction of what it would in the states. There was a gluten-free, martial arts, holistic health practitioner from Dallas who had moved to China to become an actor 8 months ago. There was a Californian hot-Chinese-chick loving guy with impeccable Chinese that lived the acting life of hustling multiple jobs, but he was soon leaving because he had been accepted to UCLA for screenwriting. They were all fascinating and adventurous and had terrific stories about China. This experience was certainly one they would be adding. We were all getting to play out the heroic fantasy thing – the script was very generous to us!
But the true heroes of the shoot were the crew and the extras. They weren’t tough in a “I can bench press 300” kind of way, but they were tough in a “I have to run around in 90 degree weather, carrying a camera that weighs half as much as I do, while letting my rain soaked clothes air dry to my body, which is beginning to shut down from hunger pains and still be civil, fun-loving and professional after 12 hours of work “ kind of way. The extras ran back and forth under layers of sticky fake blood and quilted wool clothing, carrying real bodies in stretchers while running from Japanese soldiers. They didn’t strip down to a hidden sundress, the minute they heard “cut” – like I did. They didn’t curse the sweat dripping down their crevices while lying under a canopy bed fanning themselves with their script. After a long days work, they dug their own shoes out from a huge pile of shoes dumped out of a plastic bag and then lined up to get paid the Chinese way – in cash.
I never heard any of them complain. Now, I know you’re saying “Well, Laura, that might be because you don’t speak Chinese, idiot!” And Ok, yeah – point well taken there – that is certainly something I need to learn. Still, I saw them joking around and although I had no idea what they were saying, it didn’t feel like complaining. Nothing seemed taken for granted. I don’t know. Some people would just rather be part of a story being told – no matter what level of discomfort
It reinforces to me, once again, that there is a human need to do that – to hear stories and tell them. I don’t know that I’ll ever figure out why I feel like it is something I am supposed to be doing – especially considering the highly potentially uncomfortable livelihood it can afford. But I do know that when I see it, I feel like that is where I am supposed to be. Running among the bombs, telling my part of a story and having a blast – every step of the way.
These are some of the Chinese stars that were in the TV show. At the end of this leg of the shoot, the producers threw us a spectacular party with copious amounts of gastronomical delights, stacked on top of each other because we ran out of room on the table. Afterwards, there was sort of a ‘come on up and do something’ time. I actually had enough “Great Wall” Cabernet to sing an a capella version of Tammy Wynette’s “Because Your Good Girl Is Gonna Go Bad” in full florescent lighting with iPhone cameras being held steady. The next day that ‘Great Wall’ gave me a ‘Great Depthsofhell’ hangover that had me moaning in a Beijing supermarket over a punctured gallon of orange juice… but that’s a different story.
Thanks for listening to this one!
I also want to say BIG BIG BIG thanks to Lisa, my agent In China. she’s the one that got me the Pat Nixon gig too – this gal is fierce!!