Never a battle-shy country, Vietnam takes particular pride in taking on their neighbors as well as countries mightier than them like Japan, France, and America. That pride shows in a continuous production of war films that has also proven lucrative for white expats, as it provides them with opportunities to work as extras—particularly soldiers. After all, wouldn't want to "star" in a low-budget Vietnamese version of Full Metal Jacket?
Because the pool of white people with plenty of time and not enough money in Saigon is relatively small—mostly hippie English teachers and Russians in exile—many of these guys end up being seen on Vietnamese screens again and again. While dating one of the Russians, I got hold of a part as a background nurse and thus, entered the industry.
I instantly found that it's fairly typical to be bundled into a car at 4 AM and taken to a faraway swampland where multiple war scenes for different films are being filmed at the same time. Actors and extras-in-waiting slump in hammocks strung between vehicles. Since the weather is too hot to do anything but chase flies, all the extras are left to torpidly watch a weird amalgamation of Vietnam's history of warfare.
To one side, ninja types (presumably Cambodians) get faux-boxed by a Vietnamese militia. In the other direction, Caucasian soldiers in French uniforms dart between clumps of elephant grass. AK-47s sound in the distance, where the Viet Cong slaughter Americans and their Southern Vietnamese allies. Camera ops are everywhere. Occasionally, a bossy woman will shove me into either a French or American nurse outfit, depending on whom I am aiding at the time.
My fellow extras are also interchangeable as French and American soldiers. I suppose squeezing one extra into two or three films a day is a cost-effective strategy for production companies. It also seems to increase an extra's exposure—Kris Wilkins, a British expat who's been living in Vietnam since 2007, claims to be regularly recognized in the streets.
Wilkins has climbed the extra-ing ladder to become the main casting agent of foreigners for Vietnamese productions. We made friends at work and he agreed to speak to me about his role in the industry over a plate of fried silkworms.
Apparently, a friend who used to work in a sitcom got him into the game. Wilkins simply buddied up with the production crew, who started calling on him to play more and more white parts, and eventually supply more foreigners to fill the remaining roles.
In Wilkins' words, that sitcom was about "these two girls from the countryside who come to Saigon to make money through being naughty, no-good skanks." It was his introduction to playing the bad boyfriend—another type-casted role for expats: the wealthy yet immoral American who almost succeeds in getting a naive Mekong girl to have sex before marriage before a virtuous peasant sweeps her off to the altar.
Wilkins says that when he's not playing a bad boyfriend or a soldier, he's usually in the guise of a good American businessman: "If they don't involve the rejection of a foreign lover or the defeat of a foreign army, happy endings in Vietnamese films most often require the signing of a contract with a foreign company."
These rather incongruous motifs are good reflections of the communist government's somewhat odd blend of nationalism and free market economics. Of course, it's they who pick what gets aired.
Wilkins gets paid varying sums for signing up expats—from less than 50 bucks for a small local production, to several grand for something like Australian blockbuster The Sapphires (in which I play a nurse again!). He, in turn, pays extras according to their attitude. Apparently enthusiasm gets you less, as Wilkins figures such people are either a) in it for a wacky experience rather than to pay bills, or b) more likely to make friends with the production crew and poach his job.
Such scenarios have also made Wilkins bitter and suspicious. "I've never in my life had to deal with so many two-faced, backstabbing double-crossers as in the film industry," he says vehemently, recounting the so-called friends who've wound up as competition.
"Nowadays, if someone is really excited and says they've always wanted to work in TV, I might think, Hmm, maybe you're not the guy for it. Maybe I'll go find someone who's not very keen at all."
Hippie English teachers are Wilkins's biggest headache: "They're either massively ambitious and want to steal my job, or they flake out at the last minute because it's too hot, they're too stoned, or they don't fancy an early morning after all."
Sometimes he needs to hunt talent more exotic than teachers. Wilkins's first assignment was to find an elderly German couple "who could speak really good German." He found the male easily, because aged Germans are rife in Saigon's seedy backpacker zone, but struggled with the female. Another time he was asked to find "ten Turks." He got the producers with a group of Pakistanis, which was apparently fine
According to Wilkins, the toughest extras to get are white children. He puts this down to parents having "a sort of responsibility to not let their offspring get exploited like this," resentfully adding that "Western parents tend to want their kids in school and getting a good night's sleep."
Wilkins says that the actors he most likes to hire are Nigerian ones. Why? Because they "work hard and keep their word," he tells me. Luckily for Wilkins, Nigerians happen to make up the bulk of Vietnam's black expats. "Also, Vietnamese actresses love them," he notes with admiration.
Has extra-ing enhanced his own love life? "Are you asking whether girls recognize me, get all star struck and go to bed with me? Well, yes," he says.
We leave the silkworm place and head to a convenience store. Wilkins points out a fetching actress/model on one of the pages. "Scored her," he notes nonchalantly. I'd find it hard to believe, if I didn't vaguely remember seeing them together. Wilkins describes the way their characters met on set—she crashed her motorbike into the taxi he was riding in. "It was a very realistic scene because it was real," he recalls. "She was genuinely hurt but the director made her do it again... and again."