Ever wonder how a young European or American person goes to China looking for work as a businessman or business consultant or English teacher, what have you, and ends up becoming an actor in Chinese movies and TV show with a nice résumé to boot?
Meet Georg Anton, a 29-year-old native of Austria who is now hitting his marks -- and making his mark -- in Beijing. And Hollywood might be his next stop.
"Did I come to China for acting? No. Not at all. I would have never thought that there could be a life as an actor in China. When I came to China, I had already put all my creative endeavors aside and I was all business: looking for business opportunities, work experience, and, well, adventure," he told this blogger in a recent email from Beijing.
His early background: "I had been creating, directing and acting in my own little films since I was 12 years old, shooting on my brother’s video camera. I pursued filmmaking throughout my teen years, shooting shorts, volunteering on indie sets, jobbing at an ad production agency and taking courses. I was thinking of maybe becoming a director. But then, when it came to decide about university studies, I just didn’t have the guts, dropped it completely because I thought there couldn’t be a decent future in creative work.
"So I studied business. It was only years later, far away in China, in a nightclub which we were allowed to use at a studio during day hours, at the Beijing Actors Workshop, that I discovered the true essence of all my past interest in filmmaking, in public speaking and in marketing team-building workshops: Acting! In its pure form. And I also discovered my great love for it," Anton told us.
So to make a long story short, how to Georg Anton get to Beijing and the acting life? The things always happen: luck, chance, destiny and fate -- and serendipity.
"It was late 2006, the last few months of my studies at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. Everybody seemed to be gearing up to scramble for bank jobs and accounting firm internships, and I just didn’t want to be a part of that. So, let’s go somewhere far away -- Asia sounds good, China sounds even better. Every other day there were some news on China, and nobody seemed to have a real clue, so let’s go and see for myself.
"I looked for internships (my mind was still set on business after all) and got one offer in Hunan Province and one offer in the city of Tianjin. An Austrian-Chinese friend in Vienna said Tianjin was a good bet, and that’s what I took. Just a quick one-month crash course in Mandarin at a community college in Vienna, collected my business degree (missed the ceremony), and two days later I arrived in Tianjin at a small Chinese import-export company. That was in February 2007," Anton shared.
"What followed were those crazy, funny, lovable, hateable, terrible and amazing experiences that feel so unique to each person yet are so common among all foreigners who arrive in China on their own – culture shock, standard procedure," Anton added.
"So, after that crazy internship and my decision to stay in China and move to Beijing my 'day jobs' developed as follows: Chinese PR company, freelance English teaching, freelance business report writing, small European business consulting company," he noted.
But let’s talk about his acting career and where he stands now.
"Once I got to Beijing I heard of the Beijing Actors Workshop (BAW) and joined right away -- mostly out of curiosity, in search of a creative outlet and to meet people. That was fall of 2007. At the same time, and for those same reasons, I also started going to Beijing Improv’s open workshops, which were (and still are) for free and bilingual (Chinese/English) and an amazing place to meet great people and make friends.
"Both the BAW and Beijing Improv had just been founded about a year before my arrival in very informal ways by a great bunch of pioneering creative-minded expats. Those two groups were to become the nucleus, home and incubator for so many of Beijing’s new performing arts projects of these years. The Founder of BAW, Canadian filmmaker Patrick Pearce, and his successor American theater director/producer Anna Grace Carter gathered the creative-minded -- foreigners and curious Chinese alike -- organized workshops, courses and put on show after show after show."
Anton continues his story: "I joined many English-language theater productions inside and outside BAW (drama, comedy, Shakespeare and new original works alike) and was able to grow with the community. The whole community theater scene was propelled and taken to the next level when Beijing’s first privately-run theater, Penghao Theatre, opened in mid-2008. Suddenly there was a proper venue. Again, BAW and Beijing Improv were at the forefront of these new developments and were among the first to breathe life into the new Penghao Theatre, which has now become an invaluable pillar of Beijing’s independent performing arts scene.
''I had auditioned and had been accepted into Beijing Improv’s English performance troupe in early 2008. That was at a time when it was fairly easy to get in, but fairly 'hard' to perform -- i.e., in bars, without stage, without much audience. Well, boy did that change! Co-founded and lead through all these years by New Zealander Lottie Dowling and American Jonathan Palley (who both have non-acting full-time jobs), Beijing Improv can truly pride itself to have brought a new art form to the city.
"Beijing Improv today comprises an English language performance group, a bilingual Chinese-English performance group and two open and free weekly workshop groups and hosts the pan-Asian Beijing Improvisation Festival. Apart from that, multiple spinoff groups in various languages have formed around Beijing Improv and created a true improv community.
"I am honored to be part of the English performance group, which has now had several years of monthly sold-out shows with 200+ audience and is regularly featured in the media as Beijing’s number one comedy performance. We are constantly building on our own very international and multicultural improv style and have toured to Hong Kong and Seoul.
"Importantly, Beijing Improv has always been, and still is, completely not-for-profit and donates to local charity. Performers and organizers are all unpaid, all have “real” jobs, and as far as I know, no member except for me is actually pursuing an acting career in Chinese film and TV.''
So, let’s talk about film and TV.
''In 2008, I had my first just-for-fun one-line appearance in a Chinese TV series called 'Lost in LA' (迷失洛杉矶) in which I (very stiffly) played an American doctor.
"But really, from 2008 to 2010, acting was still just a hobby, albeit one that took up all of my free time, with late-night theater rehearsals and weekend gigs. During that period, I acted in twelve theater plays, in monthly improv shows and in three short films and participated in six commercials and corporate films. By 2010, my full-time office job had gotten more and more intense and stressful up to a point where I realized that I just couldn’t be happy working at a desk and forever fearing Mondays.
"At the same time I already knew that there were opportunities for white-faced foreigners in Chinese films and television. Then, a very successful and much-lauded theater performance in which I played multiple characters (including "Seinfeld"’s George Costanza) ignited my wish to act professionally, while troubles at the office helped me to make my decision to let the office life be and try acting full-time. There were Chinese agents who had wanted to arrange bigger acting jobs for me for some time already, and so I could finally tell them the good news that I was now available. Summer 2010.
''So, I was taken to an audition and got the part of American WWII officer in a 32-episode Sino-Japanese war TV serial. The series is called 'The Locked-Up American Envoy,' (锁定美军特使) and guess what -- I’m the American envoy. It’s a 'Saving Private Ryan' kind of story, where my character is the center of the story, while the real lead roles and heroes are the Chinese who save me and my secret documents from the hands of the Japanese. There is a little love story too … it was a good role. And I heard it was originally intended for a Chinese to play it as a Chinese-American, but then they went with me for the white-guy idea. That was September 2010.
''Well, from then onwards it was just acting, acting, acting. Guest-star gigs, principal roles, regular and lead roles, TV and films. Everything. I can count six TV series, three feature films for television, and four movies for the big screen. My most recent part was in a U.S. indie feature film production called 'Train Station' by CollabFeature. It was shot in 40 different countries in a collaborative way and I had the honor of being picked as their lead actor in the China segment.
''In late 2011, I also went to Los Angeles for my first time to check out the city and scene and take acting classes. During that short time, I was cast in three short films and was offered two more parts. One offer was even for a small part in a feature film, but by that time I had already departed for China again.
''Most of my Chinese projects are still in post-production, but 'The Locked-Up American Envoy' was already out on national television earlier this year, and another TV serial with me in a principal/regular role, called 'Final Hit' (绝杀) is being broadcast regionally in many parts of China at the moment. I really liked the 'Final Hit' production, because I had a good role from beginning to end (playing an American secret agent in 1940s Shanghai), because I could largely act in English and because I was acting opposite Luoyong Wang, a Chinese-American actor once called 'the first Chinese on Broadway.'
"A modern-day movie ('New Red River' 新红河谷) in which I play the romantic interest of Hong Kong-Canadian lead actress Theresa Lee is also about to be released, and I’m very excited about that. While TV series are great for gaining public exposure, I am happy to be developing towards film, because film is demanding more from me and pushes me to work on my craft as an actor.
''I am currently in discussions with a Chinese movie, a foreign independent production and a new theater project … let’s see what happens.''
''It’s going great here for me in China, but of course I also look towards Hollywood. And in a funny way, Hollywood is now looking towards China. But rather than 'Hollywood' I should say 'the international film scene.' My future as a Chinese-speaking western actor on the international stage will depend largely on the new Chinawood-Hollywood relationship, international co-productions and new local productions on an international level.
"The global film business is now targeting global audiences, creating more opportunities for Asians, Europeans, and internationally skilled folks like me. I have already achieved moving from television towards movies and towards working with both Chinese and western directors. My desire is to strive for top-notch acting and to work and learn in top-quality productions on an international level. In the years to come, this can happen in China as well as it can happen anywhere else.
"I didn’t come to China for acting," Anton told me. "Acting happened to me. And I realized that I love it."