Seeking their ‘5 minutes of fame’If you’ve ever wondered how the foreign actors you see on television got into the entertainment business in Korea, here’s the answer: by chance.
After leaving his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee in 1995, Scott Phillips spent several years teaching English in Korea and Saudi Arabia. When he returned to Korea in 2002, he hoped to get a job in the country’s budding film industry.
One night when two friends, a hotel nightclub manager and a DJ, were entertaining a group of Korean TV producers, Phillips joined them. The casual meeting led him to visit a Korean TV station the following week and watch a show being recorded.
“They needed one foreign man for a one-liner. All I needed to say was, ‘Is she pretty?’” Phillips, 36, recalls with a loud chuckle. “I got the job on the spot. The way I said it was so funny, and everyone liked it actually, so they kept on asking me to work on the show.”
For the next five months, he played various roles in short skits, although he admits that his acting work in Korea has never been truly substantial. Phillips says opportunities for foreigners to make it big in the Korean entertainment industry are virtually nil, for it remains an exclusively Korean preserve. On Korean television programs, the parts available to non-Korean actors have been limited to skits for variety shows or as guests on quiz programs, even if the actors can speak nearly flawless Korean.
After appearing on a dozen TV programs and in a mainstream movie called “Two Guys” released earlier this year, Phillips is a recognizable face, and he owes that largely to one of MBC TV’s longest running programs called “Surprise,” which airs on Sunday evenings.
His biggest break so far has been a five-minute spot as a sleazy homosexual spy in “Two Guys.” He admits his natural appearance had a lot to do with getting the role. “They wanted me to be fat and ugly. They brought a polyester satin gown that was too tight on me, and that’s how they liked it. I was supposed to be a big, fat, ugly guy who seduces the leading Korean actor,” says the 6 foot, 5 inch Phillips, patting his paunch.
A changing scene
Phillips still goes to auditions at least once a week but spends most of his time working on a deal for a movie script he has written. In fact, he says he always wanted to work behind the camera, and working in front of the camera was a way to get into the industry. But, the scene has changed a lot since he came to Korea. Now, similar kinds of TV programs, which allow foreign actors to take minor roles, come and go on a regular basis.
Phillips says he was among the first group of foreigners to work in the Korean entertainment industry. While the number is small, there are “more than a handful” of non-Korean faces who have gained popularity here.
Sam Hammington, a native of Melbourne, Australia, is a regular guest on an SBS TV program called “Oegugin Daeseoljeon” [roughly translated as “Foreigners’ Grand Debate”] that is broadcast every Sunday. If one were to only hear his voice, he could easily pass for a Korean. Hammington, 27, says he was chosen, along with three other foreigners, because of his excellent knowledge of local street language. At a recent recording session, when the Korean host and panel were groping for vocabulary, Hammington suggested a popular slang term that surprised the Korean staff and won him applause.
The only drawbacks, Hammington says, are that the roles are limited because of his non-Korean face and the income is sporadic. The average rate for an episode is about $200. Even so, he says he would rather work on television than elsewhere to earn extra cash. Since he has an entertainer’s visa, working in another field could get him into immigration trouble, including possible deportation.
Kim Yun-dae, the chief producer of “Surprise,” shudders remembering the time he and other crew members used to get into legal trouble because of the foreigners they hired. When Kim started the weekly program two and a half years ago, he decided to cast foreigners to emphasize the show’s realistic element. To cast more than a few dozen foreigners on the spot, he had to rely on a couple of small agencies specializing in foreign actors or models in Korea. But they did not follow the complex legal procedures involved in hiring foreigners for television. “We weren’t aware of such complexities at all in the beginning, so some of us, including myself, ended up writing ‘statements of confession’ at the police station and even paid penalties for hiring foreigners who had illegal visa status,” Kim says.
Foreigners often stumble into entertainment by chance when they come to Korea to work as English teachers or to visit as tourists. But Korean law strictly regulates who can work where, and monitors all temporary residents. The Korean Ministry of Justice, for example, issues an E-6 visa to those who enter as entertainers, an E-2 for teaching English, and a B-1 or B-2 visa for tourism.
Darren Bryans, an Australian English teacher, worked on TV and became famous. When the immigration authorities caught him working under an English-teaching visa, Bryans was immediately deported.
No guarantee of legal status
But, Kim says that’s not the only problem foreign entertainers might face. Because broadcasting companies do not guarantee or protect foreigners’ legal status, they often have relied on local agents, so-called “brokers,” who operated in the shade. “Quick deals came and went because official legal procedures usually took too long for a small-time job on TV. Also, foreigners can get cheated because [brokers] have to arrange everything,” he says.
All foreigners who have worked in the Korean entertainment industry agree that they have either had or heard about problems in the past with local agents who failed to arrange the necessary legalities. Many recalled Bruno Bruni, an Italian TV personality, who was deported in 2002 after becoming embroiled in immigration issues.
But Phillips and Hammington are not at all concerned about their working status, saying that their agency, Dobe, one of the better known entertainment agencies, backs up their legal status in Korea.
“A few years back, the situation used to be a real big mess, but it’s been cleaned up now, and we work with one designated agency that continues to supply foreigners with no legal problems,” Kim says. “The problem today seems to appear bigger than it actually is because it involves famous guys.”
The deportation of illegal residents in Korea has been rising, but the number of cases involving entertainers is miniscule, says Yim Chae-yim, assistant manager of the residence control division of the Justice Ministry.
Yim says enforcing immigration laws is hard because Koreans typically do not have a habit of reporting illegal residents in their neighborhood, and ferreting out those in the entertainment industry is even harder because few actually obtain permanent positions. Yim says those who became well-known often were the target of investigation.
Do Korean TV producers ever hire professional actors from abroad? “That would be too expensive,” Kim replies. “In Korean entertainment, we’re only interested in foreigners who can speak fluent Korean and see them as something of a novelty. So they basically play ‘idiots’ or extras or are minor reporters.”
“Maybe some amateur actors have used their experience on Korean TV on their resume,” Kim says. “But, in reality, no foreigners would come to Korea to pursue acting as a serious career.”
‘Just temporary workers’
He agrees that the fundamental cause of legal abuse of non-Korean entertainers is that a foreign cast is “just temporary” in the Korean entertainment industry.
Yet there are performers, such as Veyis Neo Toprak, a Turkish national currently working on various Korean TV programs, who don’t mind being temporary at all. Toprak has never considered his TV stint, including a weekly appearance on “Oegugin,” as his real job.
He came to Korea after winning a scholarship from his university in Turkey, and he stumbled into the TV industry five years ago while he was studying industrial engineering at Seoul National University. He says he was chosen among classmates in the university’s Korean language program by a casting team because of his sense of humor, noting there were foreign students who could speak better Korean. After a few morning programs and quiz shows, he got to join a small circle of non-Korean celebrities on TV.
More importantly, though, as a young Turkish man who can speak fluent Korean, Toprak, 28, realized the importance of his diplomatic role between the cultures of Turkey and Korea. After working as an engineer for two years, he became a freelance business consultant. He now works as a consultant on business deals between Korean and Turkish businessmen. When visitors from his country find out Toprak is a celebrity, they are impressed, he says. “My TV appearance pumps up business.”
That might be the real merit for foreigners appearing on Korean television, says Kim Yun-dae, the MBC chief producer. “That’s probably why I’ve had not only some guys looking for ‘five minutes of fame’ but also a company CEO and even a university professor volunteering for a spot on TV,” Kim says. “Because of the immigration scare, no one would openly admit that they give private English lessons, but the hourly rate for English lessons given by ‘that guy on TV’ can easily skyrocket.”
While he joined the entertainment industry by chance, Toprak doesn’t seem to take his luck or opportunities for granted. He would like to start a union of foreign entertainers like himself, who speak perfect Korean and have lived in Korea for many years. “I know there are some foreign entertainers who complain about Korea, but there’s a reason why they continue to come back and live in Korea,” he says. “I think it’s because we love Korea, and we feel we’re Koreans too. We want to have a voice and protection in Korean society, just like the rest of the Koreans here.”
by Ines Cho
More in Features
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument
ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?
A war wages on online over Korea's most-loved heritages