From Russia, with a new loveThe set was anything but quiet. “Don’t pan the camera to the side!” yelled a producer wearing a puffy, red overcoat. “I want to fix the shot on Alex and pull it backward from there.”
“Do you want it to be a full torso shot or a close-up on her face?” asked a cameraman.
“I want those book shelves moved to the right so they fit into the shot,” screamed the producer once again. “And what’s going on with the lights? Why is there a spotlight on Sergey? I want it darker. And Kevin, you’re sitting too close to the next guy!”
The entire staff of “Mystery TV Surprise,” an entertainment show that re-enacts unusual or extraordinary stories, was shuffling around the set, making final changes as they followed the producer’s rat-a-tat-tat commands. On the plate this day was the story of the founding of the Oxford Dictionary. However, a pile of dictionaries would be needed to interview each of the show’s actors: They were all non-Koreans, and communication wasn’t easy, even when a Russian, who spoke fluent Korean, was translating for someone who hailed from Eastern Europe and Africa.
During breaks, the actors traded pointers on how to deliver their lines. “You’re a professor, so I think it’d be better to say ‘We have the first volume,’ instead of ‘We got the first volume,’” offered a Nigerian actor who had no lines in this particular scene.
Only a few years ago it was rare to see foreigners on Korean television. In the past, especially in the 1980s, it was either Korean actors in curly blonde or brunette wigs. Or, Koreans of biracial parents played the roles of foreigners. Even if foreigners appeared on television shows, the roles were mostly limited to television dramas or soap operas with serious plots.
In recent years, however, the presence of foreigners on Korean television has become frequent and has caused growing curiosity among viewers.
“I think they’re great,” says Lee Ho-yeong, a steady viewer of Mystery TV Surprise. “Sure they’re not Al Pacino or Meryl Streep, and their English accents sound different from the ones we hear in Hollywood movies, but everyone enjoys seeing them on-screen.”
“There’s a demand for foreign actors because the demands of the entertainment shows have gotten larger and more diverse,” says Oh Hak-geun, the president of Dobe Entertainment. “Viewers have an interest in seeing foreigners on television.”
Dobe Entertainment, a talent management agency, represents 15 foreign actors from 10 different countries. Their clients includes performers from the Ukraine, Britain, Canada and the United States.
Three management agencies in Korea currently provide foreign actors with entertainment visas, which are valid for six months.
Alex Zhalnin, 37, Sergey Makarov, 31, and Ida Karpych, 28, who were shooting “Mystery TV Surprise,” are three of the approximately 50 foreign actors working in television on the peninsula.
Zhalnin and Makarov never considered being actors when they arrived in Seoul. Their priority was to continue their academic studies. The two Russians knew each other since attending Moscow State University together in the early 1990s. Three years ago they decided to move to Seoul to attend Sogang University here.
“We had a lot of Korean friends in Russia who told us a lot of good stories about Seoul,” Zhalnin says. “Sergey and I moved around in Europe ― England, Switzerland, France, Germany, you name it ― but when we arrived in Seoul we knew this was the place for us.”
Says Sergey: “Europe is boring.”
The two participated in Korean television part-time as a way to earn their tuition. They had seen a classified ad from the Hwarang Portal Agency in a Russian newspaper published here.
Soon the two found acting a life that they liked and they became full-time employees of Hwarang.
“The days are sometimes long and hard and we’re not well paid, but we’re still having a great time,” says Zhalnin.
Though the Russians did not start as actors, they had an indirect connection to the theatrical world. “I was in an acting group in high school, and learned the Stanislavski techniques, a physical acting method,” Makarov says.
For Zhalnin, acting was in his blood. His father is an actor in the Russian theater and played the role of a KGB agent in the 1991 film, “The Russia House,” starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfieffer. Zhalnin’s father also played a Russian professor in a Korean drama, “White Night 3.98,” in 1999.
“I really didn’t want to become an actor at first because I knew how long it takes to film a scene and how difficult it is overall to be an actor,” Zhalnin says. “But all that changed when I started acting here myself.”
Karpych, with no acting experience, arrived in Seoul with a different purpose than her two Russian friends. Three years ago Karpych, then a Korean language major at a university in Khabarovsk, a city that lies in Russia’s far east, made a short stop on the peninsula on her way to Los Angeles to be a translator for two Russian musicians.
During the stopover, Karpych was introduced by a Russian friend to one of the Korean managers of Hwarang, and she quickly took on a few catalog jobs before landing a role as, not surprisingly, a Russian in “White Night 3.98.”
The Hwarang manager asked her to stay and pursue her acting career here, but she wanted to finish her studies. She promised she would come back after she finished her degree. Three years ago, Karpych kept her promise and shortly after returning began life as an actress in Korean shows. Because she was fluent in Korean, her roles were not limited. She has since appeared on talk shows and in comedies. To learn more about acting, Karpych is attending graduate school in drama at Danguk University.
All three Russians now put great importance in their acting careers and practice and rehearse during any spare moments. “It’s a really trying job,” Karpych says. “We don’t get enough sleep, so when we’re not shooting we take a quick nap on the staff bus. Each shoot takes nearly all day, even for a 10-minute segment.”
The longest shooting Karpych recalls came when the crew had to work 26 hours straight. Karpych says the staff practically collapsed when the producers finally quit for the day.
Zhalnin remembers a recent shooting of a Korean TV remake of the 1995 Hugh Grant movie “The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain.”
“I was playing the town’s priest, and there was a scene where several actors including myself had to hold on to the muddy mountainside to prevent the mud from sliding down. And it was actually pouring rain when we were shooting the scene. It wasn’t easy holding on, but we had a great time getting messy.”
Makarov, whose roles have ranged from mobster in the Gambino Family to a lawyer, a foreign correspondent, a priest and a swindler, says he had the most fun playing a cool FBI agent on the trail of the infamous 1930s gangster John Dillinger. The movie and his part were filled with a lot of action.
“I did all my own stunts,” he reports.
The three miss their homeland, but they have set their minds on becoming respected actors in another land. For them, Korea has been a place of unlikely opportunity.
“We have no plans to go back to Russia,” Zhalnin says. “We’re going to make it here.”
by Lee Ho-jeong