5 Hard Lessons I Learned as a Foreign Actor
5 Hard Lessons I Learned as a Foreign Actor
I moved to South Korea in 2009. My intention was to stay for one year and then move back to America and pursue an acting career. Eight years later, 34 IMDb credits, three awards, and a featured segment on BBC News, I had to be thankful and reflect on everything I learned while overseas.
****Erebus Films 'Midway Round,' a short film written and directed by Paul Stafford.
First off, I don’t like the term “selling” when it comes to actors. We need to be “engaging,” but I digress.
What is the product?
You are the product.
I am the product.
We are the product that we are “selling.” I find that actors, myself included, find it difficult to sell ourselves. The reason for this is because we keep comparing our product to that Android or Apple smartphone in your pocket. You think that your intangible product should be sold in a tangible way. This isn't the case. Whereas Android and Apple have to concern themselves with how the product feels in the consumer's hands, the actor has to concern themselves with how we make people feel.
Remember this, the casting director will cast the actor but they hire the person. A lot of you will disagree here and that's fine, but hear me out. Have you ever gotten a call to audition, got the role, and after the film was over you NEVER got another call from that casting agent?
When that happened to me the first time, I felt like a temp-hire. They needed me for that part but when another role came up that I was a match for, I wasn’t on their mind. Foreigners that were my type were called in to audition, but not me. I was pissed, frustrated, and confused. This is why auditioning is not about getting the role, but about building a fan-base. I didn't understand this until I lived in Korea.
My product is me and how I interact with people. How I present myself at film festivals, industry networking events, online in social media, through volunteer work, an other means. Learning how to “sell” an “intangible product" is extremely difficult. It's a lesson that is ongoing. I learned how to sell myself by fine-tuning my instrument, working out diligently, paying attention to how I dress, and so on.
On a side note, I used to dress horribly. My jeans were always too big, shirts too droopy, and my beard occasionally trimmed. None of this changed for me until one of my students started laughing at the holes in my jeans. I felt like S#@%. From the mouth of a 4th grader, my life was changed.
If you aren't attending monthly networking events, you're not selling your product.
If you aren't attending film festivals to meet new directors, you're not selling your product.
If you refuse to use social media because you want to be the "protesting voice" against Hollywood's need for the social media sphere, guess what? You're not selling your product.
You feel icky because walking up to a director and saying you’re an actor makes you think you're being desperate.
Well, if you knew how to say, "Hello, my name is (your name here), and I'm a working actor here in (your city name here). Please tell me more about the artistic vision of your next project." Those words come across a lot better than, “Oh I'm an actor, can you PLEASE put me in your project?" The lesson? In order to sell my product, I had to learn how to engage with people.
Seoul Player’s 10 Minute Plays Production of 'The Family.'
All this talk about the product and tangible vs. intangible, you would think I was a business major. I wasn't. However, I strongly believe in utilizing business in this artistic career. Which brings me to my next lesson learned, the lesson of analysis.
I went online and started learning about business and business jargon to which I learned the term SWOT i.e. Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. I didn't really connect with the acronym so I switched SWOT for CAST i.e. Clout, Achilles Heel, Scope, Threats. I thought this was a cute ‘business of acting technique,’ but this cute technique taught me why acting is a journey of self-discovery.
As an actor, we are affected differently by everything. Our emotions are strongly connected to our work and in turn our work to our vulnerabilities. So when I did my C.A.S.T. analysis, (Clout, Achilles Heel, Scope, Threats) this was hands down the scariest experience of my life. I want to be a good actor but understanding how much about my inner self affects my career was nerve wracking and empowering. Realizing how much was NOT in my control was nerve wracking and empowering. You can't be a great actor without becoming vulnerable, without facing your own inner demons, or without talking about the issues that bothered you as a kid. The blog post on C.A.S.T analysis that was written awhile back was very superficial. As I look back on that post I realize I barely touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to analyzing myself.
I know what you’re thinking. "This is silly." But watch how this works. I grew up with a severe inferiority complex, mostly it was masked by years of temporary fixes within my former religion, family, and friends. Thankful as I was for those fixes, they were band aids on bullet wounds. Bullet wounds that included lots of alcohol and tons of solicitation. I got the alcohol out of my system in about 3 months but I solicited hookers, every month, for a little over 5 years. Why? Because I was wanting something from the prostitute that I had convinced myself I couldn’t get in real life.
It wasn’t until I got to Korea and started going to therapy that I realized my issues. Now I’m able to connect better with those “boy-next-door” characters who are tired of being in the friend zone or those business men who are suffering with childhood trauma, or the man hiding a dark secret from his family. Self-analysis did all that. There are two people you should never lie to; your lawyer and yourself. Find your truth, come in to your own and become the better artist.
Korean Blogger for Naver Entertainment expresses how Kahlid Elijah Tapia and Afia Agyemang are the “scene stealers” in the film Fabricated City,
directed by Kwang-Hyun-Park.
I was an ignorant American. But I don’t mean that I was absolutely oblivious to the troubles of life. I mean, I took things for granted like the typical American.
Living as an expat, I felt certain experiences for the first time and looking back I wouldn’t change anything. I grew up in the south, North Carolina specifically, but I never experienced racism until I lived overseas. Don’t get me wrong, my life in Seoul was AMAZING and racism exists everywhere, but my blatant racist experiences just so happened to be in Korea.
There was an advertisement seeking English teachers to apply to a school. The requirements were Bachelor’s degree, two years of teaching experience, TESOL/TEFL certification and in big bold black letters --- NO BLACKS ALLOWED. It hit home real quick. A few years later I got a call from a recruiter asking about my race and when he found out that I was African-American, he quickly hung up the phone.
When I found out that the Korean teachers who went to school for four years to receive a degree in teaching, took a test to become certified, usually knew English grammar better than me, and were all paid at least $300 less than I was, I learned how ignorant I was of privilege. I was a native English speak, I was obviously better. I was walking around in blissful ignorance and these experiences culminated my lesson of ignorance. Just because you’re aware racism exists, if you haven’t experienced it, then you don’t know it. I can’t truly fight against privilege if I’ve never experienced privilege.
I truly believe every American should go overseas and see life from a different perspective. Live in a country for a month or two and experience the infrastructure. Not a hotel. Maybe an apartment or guest house. Anywhere you aren’t served on hand and foot. You will learn to appreciate what you have a whole lot more.
First Inaugural Korean WEB FEST, now known as Seoul WEBFEST.
If I had left Korea after my first year I would have missed out on so much. People told me time and again that I should leave, that the Korean industry isn't made for foreigners, especially an African American man. I learned to change my perspective, that glass ceilings are more like the surface of water when you're underneath swimming, looking at coral. They aren’t there to block you. You have but to swim up, break through the surface, then take that deep breath and breathe.
The lesson of the glass ceilings was this --- It’s only a barrier if you make it out to be one. This lesson was hard because it was people I respected and cared for who told me to leave Korea. They were friends, family, random Mexican restaurant owners asking me, “Why the hell are you in Korea and not L.A.?”
The reason glass ceilings can seem hard to break through is because they are built by the people you love and the people who instill fear. Overcoming the people that instill fear is easy. Mustering courage over dissenting voices…hmph---we’re actors, that’s what we do! Overcoming the people you love and respect is a different story. When you look into the eyes of a person who cares for you and they’re saying that you should leave, give up your dream, walk away… that’s when you have to believe in your work, that’s when all your passion is tested.
Corporate work is from sun to sun, but an actor's work is never done! I always know when I meet a “working actor.” How? They’re never bored. They always have something to do. Working actors keep themselves busy because we understand the complexity and competition of this business. You see, I’m an extreme linear thinker. I like structure, form, and a visible pattern that I can follow. So, why the hell did I become an actor? God only knows! I stepped into acting thinking it was A-B-C. The truth is, acting is usually Z-Q-G.
The best lesson I learned, in reference to an actor’s work, was when I read the book Acting: Make it Your Business by Paul Russell. On the opposite side of the contents page he wrote, and I quote, “Everything I say is right. Everything I say is wrong. There are many conflicting opinions in this industry. Don’t take one person’s words as gospel, including mine. Take what works for you.”
When I read it 8 years ago, that statement floored me. Today? That statement is the gospel truth about acting, the craft, and the business.
When I first started acting overseas there were questionable issues about my visa. The casting directors and production companies that would hire me knew the type of visa I had, but they wanted me so I took the risk. When you risk like that, that’s an actor’s work.
Scene from Fabricated City with lead actor Chang-Wook Ji.
Teaching was my bread winner when I wasn’t acting. There was one year I called in sick 7 times. In America, I would have been fired! Seven times between the months of Aug and May. What was so important? Networking events, attending film festivals, shooting independent and feature films, an traveling to Japan and the Philippines to train in acting. That’s an actor’s work. Freezing on set and burning up outside, eating processed cakes and convenient store food because there’s no budget catering, on set for 22 hours to only be used for 2, that’s an actor’s work.
When classes were over I humbly took the role of “internet scroll-troll,” seeking acting gigs and emails of directors who had posted months ago to make them aware of my product. Reading books, making phone calls to directors, studying Korean, hiring personal acting coaches, finding headshot photographers, memorizing lines for Korean features, for Seoul Shakespeare Company or a Seoul Players’ production, and learning social media and trying to find a way to stand out from the foreigner crowd, that’s an actor’s work.
It never ends with acting. There is always a book to read, auditions to find, an acting class to get to. Maybe a design school to be a part of, a certification to complete, or a social media class to take. I LOATHE THIS ABOUT ACTING!! The constant feeling of “I need to be doing something.” The light at the end of the tunnel is a damn freight train. We aren’t dentist who get decent hours. It is ever going, ever growing, ever a continuous uphill journey. Why? Because That’s. An. Actor’s. Work. Could I ever walk away? Yes, I could. Why? Because I know what I’ve done and I’m doing the work. I’ll have no regrets because I know I’ve given my all.
I know what you’re thinking. "You’re a linear thinker Kahlid, why was this lesson hard?" Because I had to learn, the hard way, that taking a break from all that work is part of an actor's work. A day off doesn’t mean that I’m going to miss an opportunity. I nearly stressed myself out my first year of film acting because I was so afraid to just stop. Every vehicle goes and every vehicle stops, stopping is part of an actor’s work. A hard lesson, but one I’m thankful for now.
I’m now living in Orlando, Florida. To date, the greatest achievement I received in Korea were not my awards, my IMDb credits, not even the BBC interview, but My learning how to be a working actor. And the best and worst of it is that I still have a long way to go.
Headshot by Antwon Maxwell
Kahlid Elijah Tapia built his award-winning acting career in Seoul, South Korea. He turned the aspect of the aspiring actor on its head by utilizing an overseas film industry as more than a stepping stone, but a staircase of opportunity.
By breaking through the proverbial "glass ceiling" with big-picture thinking, he connected with directors in the foreign film community, networked at Korean film festivals, received actor training in multiple Asian countries, studied Korean, secured the real-estate of his online presence, and created "The Actor's Guide To Overseas Success."
As an English teacher of 8 years, teaching Korean students from elementary to business levels, he used this avenue to subsidize his acting career. But opportunity knocked & sharing knowledge became a passion, so he weekly provides strategies for actors to train, network and thrive in an overseas film industry via #THESEOULBROTHA Blog - https://kahlidelijahtapia.com/blog.
He's known for Take Point (2018) Jojakdwen Doshi (2017), Gamgi (2013), & Spy: The Undercover Operation (2013).
The last three films hit #1 in the Korean Box Office.
Oh...and he's a speaker of Korean, who enjoys pasta, scuba diving and Muay Thai!
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About the Author
Film and television are my passion! I'm so passionate that I spent 8 years as a working actor in the South Korean Film Industry. I'm aggressively business-driven, a thespian who consistently trains and networks. While most actors enjoy the "show" of show business, I'm the actor that relishes the "...