I never had this item on my Bucket list, but now I can write it in and cross it out. I played in a movie. Played piano that is. For four days and one night, I lived in a fascinating and unfamiliar world.
I was on set for 14-15 hours a day, leaving at dawn and coming back late at night. I would fall on the bed, sleep for a few uneasy hours, get up in the morning, feeling awful (I am a girl who needs eight hours of beauty sleep). I would take a shower and dress like a robot, with eyes half closed, and went to the Long Island Castle in a far away district 9 of Saigon.
This pseudo-castle, built in the middle of nowhere, just across the river from a local, very poor neighborhood, is a very popular place for events, weddings, photography and film shoots. It is big, pretentious and somewhat tasteless. There was a small swimming pool, gazebos, and the garden was abundantly sprinkled with statues of all sorts and styles. Apart from statues, there were groups of standing stones, groups of ceramic toads and along the wall leading from the massive main gate – a long row of ceramic swans, which I believe served as bizarre flower pots. Аn addition to all this there were groups of free-roaming mangy sheep, dogs and even a solitary horse randomly neighing at the visitors. Every morning vehicles approached the huge gate, and at the sound of klakson, a guard jumped out from the dark bowels of the front room, moved the huge polished log, which kept two folds of the gate together, and then slowly pushed them open for cars, buses, and trucks carrying filming equipment.
In the middle of the castle was a two-story-high main hall, surrounded by guest rooms for overnight visitors. At the moment of filming, there were camera equipment, makeup stations, dressing racks, and other accoutrements of the trade. All the chandeliers in this big hall were lit and powerful spotlights were on. That made this usually cool airy space hot as hell.
Every morning started the same way – in the dressing room I was handed my very own long black dress, which they have taken from me at the end of the first day to avoid me forgetting it at home and breaking “continuity”. Then, I was made up, and, since my hair didn’t need any attention, thanks to my ultra-short haircut, they let me go and started working on other girls, girls on highest possible heels and in cocktail dresses. They were in for elaborate hairdos and heavy makeup. I felt pity for them, especially those, wearing heavy sequined dresses, the ones which scratch you and make you itchy. They played wives of millionaires, walking around arm-in-arm with their rich husbands, mingling, sipping false champagne and watching the underground fight.
Everybody was sweating and every minute when the camera was off or looked the other direction, actors were dаbbing themselves with tissues, fanning themselves with palms, fans or any other flat objects they could find.
Peter Hein, a charismatic and eccentric action director from Bollywood, on the other hand, didn’t sweat. Every day he arrived on set in a new extravagant outfit, sporting an endless row of suits, (some of them were embroidered and reminded me of uniforms of a hussars or a circus animal-tamers), with unusual long-sleeve shirts peeping from underneath, and cowboy boots or colorful shoes with sharp turned up toes. All of his clothes was unthinkable in this heat but didn’t seem to bother him. His hair was always styled into a hard black glossy wave and his teeth were so bright, they blinded. Every time he smiled I had a secret suspicion that he had more than 32. And he had an endless amount of energy. We all took breaks, he almost never did, he just kept going. All day long, in this infernal heat, in his perfect outfit. Every night very late when all of us were exhausted and could not think of anything, except our beds, he was still full of pep, his perfect hairstyle as fresh as 10 hours ago and his energetic yelling: “Take!” “Take!” “Take!” “Cut!” were echoing in the corners of the big hall.
The scenes in the “castle” were the last scenes of the movie “Sám Hối” which will be screened in Vietnam, India, and China in the end of this year. We’ve got to participate in its culmination – the crowd of hungry for blood millionaires watching the final fight.
Nobody told me what I had to play. I arrived with a bunch of music and find out that my Chopin Nocturnes somehow would not do for a boxing match. And that I have to play the cheesy “Eye of the Tiger”. I didn’t have the music and an assistant was sent away on а bike, pedaling hard. He returned with printed pages, I start playing and didn’t stop for four days and one night.
On a third day, the camera zoomed in on my face and hands. An assistant was returning to the grand piano, again and again, polishing it from top to bottom to a state of a perfect mirror. Under the instruction of the Director and the eye of the camera, I was to roll up my eyes to heaven, closing them in overwhelming passion, which was not easy to feel for the Eye of the Tiger, but I have managed it after a few takes. The director was standing next to me, showing me exactly how I had to roll up my eyes and encouraging me with the words: “It doesn’t matter what you play, it doesn’t matter if you press the wrong keys, it will all be covered later in the recording studio anyway”.
We had a special room with a powerful air conditioner where we could rest between the takes. This room had a big bed and an extra perk – our personal toilet. We were 10 in this room, and that was pure luxury, as all other extras were stuffed into two remaining rooms, like sardines in a can. I was lucky to share this room with the director, the producer, two actors (local celebrities), and few other small role actors. Plus, occasionally random people would come in and out, such as handsome makeup artist who did push-ups in the corner under our curious stares, or assistant of the director, who boiled а kettle to make endless cups of tea and coffee.
Every free moment, when I didn’t play, I would remove my shoes and run back to the coolness and calm of our room. I would sit down, close my eyes and thought: Oh, the bliss!
After each break, when I returned to the grand piano, I would find five or six Vietnamese extras lying on the floor, under the piano and around it, like sea lions on a pier. In their evening dresses and suits. The Vietnamese ability of total relaxation, anywhere and anytime.
I have heard before (and I can confirm it now), that there is a lot of hanging around and waiting on every movie set. Sometimes you wait for long periods of time and it gets really boring. One of the actors, a middle-aged local celebrity, act in around 300 movies and was well prepared for the occasion. He brought this art of waiting to perfection. Every morning he arrived with his own folded chair, neck pillow, eye mask, camp-bed and even his wife, who was laying on it all day. He made himself at home, but, surprisingly, didn’t take much space.
I have made a friend there, a big Australian, who played Master of Ceremony during the fight. He was good-natured and funny and helped me pass the time. He was a big guy and every time after he has been on the boxing ring under powerful lights for 10 minutes, he would come back with the shirt completely soaked, like if somebody hosed him down. They would remove his shirt, dry it with a hairdryer (there was a special person for that purpose), readjust sliding microphone on his chest, put back his shirt and send him out on the ring again, under the hot and bright lights.
The main actor and his opponent for the final scenes, a black boxer who came all the way from Sweden, were fighting violently on set, but during breaks were peacefully sharing the big bed in our room. One was listening to music in his earphones, another was staring into his phone while being made up. On the last day, he was lying on the pillows and makeup artist painted on him fresh bruises and abrasions. The closer we got to the end of filming, the more of those appeared.
On the final day of filming, which continued into the night and stretched till the early hours of the morning, when the sun came up we have at last heard the words we have been waiting for, the most beautiful, the best magical words: “It’ s a wrap!”
On the way home in the bus, full or deadly tired, quiet extras, I was looking out of the bus window at Saigon which was waking up and felt like crying with relief. Oh, the life of an actor!:)
Probably in the end, after all the cutting and editing I will see on the screen only my hands touching the keys of the piano for 5 seconds (if I am lucky), but I don’t care, I had a blast and I am getting my popcorn ready!