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An extra taking a break during the shooting of a TV drama at Hengdian World Studios. The threshold pay of an extra in Hengdian is about 40 yuan ($6.30) a day. There are different levels of extras depending on their acting experience and their reputation among the crew. Some extras can earn several hundred yuan a day. [Photo: China Daily]
The former modern drama actor earns an average monthly pay of 10,000 yuan ($1,587) and is regarded as a star among extras in Hengdian. One of his most memorable appearances was in John Woo's Red Cliff.
The number of extras stationed in Hengdian ranges between 3,500 and 4,000. In 2011, there were as many as 250,000. All of them were recommended to the crews by the extras union, an organization that works as a go-between for extras and crews.
The threshold pay of an extra in Hengdian is about 40 yuan a day.
There are different levels of extras depending on their acting experience and reputation among crew members. Some extras can earn several hundred yuan a day, while some earn a monthly pay of a little more than 1,000 yuan.
"Modern drama today is experiencing a depression. I came to Hengdian on my friend's advice because I could earn more here," Li said.
Initially Li received 600 yuan a day, much higher than the average extra, thanks to his acting experience in the theater company of Anqing, in Anhui province.
"I have never dropped the ball before the camera, even with those well-known domestic actors," Li said.
The extras come from across the country and have a variety of backgrounds and purposes.
Yang Shengjun, 38, the father of two boys, came to Hengdian to pursue his dream as an actor.
He first arrived in Hengdian in February 2009 by himself. Seven months later he brought his wife and sons from Shenzhen to settle down.
Before coming to Hengdian, Yang had worked for a wool textile mill in Shenzhen for almost 20 years, during which he would work as an extra a couple of times a week in the city. In order to fulfill his dream, Yang quit his job.
Unlike other full-time extras, Yang runs a restaurant with his wife in Hengdian, providing a stable income for the family. However, he attaches more importance to performance opportunities than his business.
He and his wife are very busy in the eatery during the holidays, such as Tomb Sweeping Day and the National Day holidays, a period that will see a tremendous increase in the number of tourists.
"Net profit could reach between 800 and 900 yuan a day during the peak season," Yang said.
In the peak season for shooting, he is offered roles almost 20 days a month. Daily pay can be 200 to 300 yuan.
Yang plans to go to the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing for a one-year course in acting this September.
"I think it is impossible to improve your acting skills without professional study. I once hesitated about whether to go or not because I'm already middle-aged," Yang said.
It was Yang's father that made him determined to go to the academy. "He told me: 'There is plenty of time left because you can continue acting until you're 60 or 70 years old'."
Li said: "The majority of extras in Hengdian won't give much consideration to improving their performance skills and 50 percent of them regard being extras simply as a way to earn a living.
"In this circle, interpersonal relations and networks matter a great deal. Hengdian provides a great practicing platform for me to engage in my acting career, although you cannot get big roles here," he added.
As a fan of literature, Li prefers reading books of all kinds in his spare time. He plans to extend his interest by trying to become a screenwriter.
"Hengdian was a significant turning point for me, an ideal place for me to live. It gave me a brand new start with a promising future," said Yang Shengjun.
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