First, YES! You can watch it here. If that's all you're here for then scroll down.
While I was between jobs I begrudgingly began working for a company called TOPICA. This company employed teachers to do classes online. It didn’t pay the best but it was easy money, had no commute, and they could make international direct deposits. And once the summer heat came back to Hanoi there was the added pro of never having to leave the air conditioning. It was an unexpectedly good thing to work for them.
One day I got an email from them telling me that I was a “cool teacher” and asking if I would be interested in being in their upcoming commercial, which was to be filmed from 7am to 11pm on the 4th of July. I figured that it was a mass email, so I was in no hurry to respond. I went out that afternoon and that night when I returned I had received another email saying, “we’ll pay you 100 USD.” That was more than I would have been making that day so why not? It might be interesting.
July 4th (Filming Day) Arrives
The night before the filming I got an email saying to arrive at 6:30am for costume and makeup and that the address had been changed. I arrived at the new address around 6:30 to discover that we were filming in what seemed to be an abandoned office building in an industrial park on the outskirts of Hanoi. In front of the building sat 7 confused-looking white people.
Inside the building a Vietnamese film crew hammered nails and carried things back and forth. We were given our free breakfast, as promised: rice. As we were eating a short bald man came out of the building, pointed at me and said something in loud Vietnamese.
One of the English-speaking Vietnamese crew members hurried over to me and said, “That is the director. He says that you are the most handsome man here so you will shoot first. Okay?”
“Hah okay” I responded. These sorts of compliment are a dime a dozen in Vietnam if you are tall, skinny, and white. I still felt smug though for having been chosen over the beautiful French man sitting next to me.
By the time 7:00am arrived more “teachers” had arrived for the commercial. I was the only person who actually worked for TOPICA. Some sort of agency had found the rest them. In total we numbered 16. Hailing from everywhere from America to Kazakhstan, we all had one thing in common: white skin. Indeed, despite our diversity, we were a pretty homogenous looking bunch.
Before I could start filming my ‘special part’ in the commercial I had to get in costume & have my hair done. I put on my “costume” of office clothes: shoes, shirt, tie, and pants. They had asked me for my measurements via email a few days ago but they had clearly reversed the numbers for my waist and length. My pants were way too tight and way to long. My sleeves however were far too short for me. As a former Division 1 swimmer in the U.S. my wingspan is pretty substantial so I can understand I might be difficult for them to fit. No matter - I rolled my sleeves up and reported to set.
It was… an experience. But why explain it when I can show you? Have you ever seen the movie Lost In Translation with Bill Murray? Getting instructions from the director was almost exactly like this:
My translator (and maybe assistant director?) was a younger, guy with a pony tail, Air Jordans and pants that, on one side were somehow both shorts and pants at the same time, and on the other had a fanny pack wrapped around the thigh.
The Commercial's Plot:
They showed me the story board. The commercial was to open with a clip of the Golden Gate Bridge. The scene would then shift to a clip of Silicon Valley. That was apparently where this was supposed to be set.
And then scene would cut to my face. My job was to pick the telemarketer headset up off the desk (as if it was the beginning of my work day), put it on as I turned to the camera, and smile. And I did it over and over and over again.
One minor detail here is that it was about 107 degrees Fahrenheit that day... with 90% humidity. Another minor detail is that this giant, abandoned office building has NO AIR CONDITIONING! It didn't even have decent ventilation. The air was thick, and in my business-formal wear, I was living my business-school presentation-day nightmare. Between every shot the makeup guy would run over and blot the sweat off my forehead with a tissue. He tried to adjust the pin on my shirt but in doing so he accidentally pressed the shirt against my sweaty chest we both watched as the resulting sweat stain spread like a spill eats the tissue used to soak it up.
They wheeled over an industrial strength fan and had me sit down in front of it until my stains went away. Once I looked normal again we did the scene some more until the director was satisfied.
When I finally finished my takes it turned out that they had actually chosen another teacher for this special role as well. When I finished, he began a slightly abridged version of the filming process I had just gone through. Apparently I wasn't as special as I had thought for those magical 30 minutes between being chosen and meeting my costar. This other 'actor' that had been chosen was also American. Since the filming the 2 of us have actually become friends, but when we finally saw the commercial, it turned out that they had chosen his takes over mine for the opening scene. I'm not gonna lie... I was a little bummed.
After that the 2 of us rejoined the group. They stood us in lines in front of a giant green screen like we were a dance troupe for a Michael Jackson video. From there we proceeded to alternate walking to the front of the group to silently mouth words while looking up at the camera. The heat was almost intolerable but we didn't stop until it caused a French girl to faint for a brief moment. She fell over but somebody caught her.
"Okay, time for lunch everyone!"
For lunch they served airplane food with juice boxes that weren't filled with juice, rather, with strawberry flavored warm milk.
Yeah, gross right? Especially in that heat, and those clothes. Well it get's worse... I drank it!
From there we continued filming the hours away. Many of our stomachs were turning unhappily in the beginning from the boxes of milk we had drank, but it went away eventually. There was a lot of down time so there wasn't much else to do but talk to each other. Before long we had all gotten really comfortable with each other and I daresay that were all having a good time, in spite of the heat.
Things got pretty goofy for a while, but by 6pm I was slumped in a chair, sleeping sitting up. The heat had done a number on me. The Russian girl next to me tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up. Oops, I was just asleep on film.
The Finished Product
In the end we all said our goodbyes, took a few pictures, and went our separate ways. I ended up getting paid 105 USD instead of 100 USD, which was nice I guess. Sadly the camera on my phone was broken so I have no pictures of the set to share with you... but I do have the actual to the commercial. It took them a while to edit it together. I only found out that it was finished because a Vietnamese friend of mine saw it on TV finally. The next time she saw me she said "Peter! I saw you on TV! You looked RETARDED!"
Well here you go :(
I'm not sure whether to cringe or laugh. One thing is for sure though -- for the rest of my life, when I need to answer the common "what is one interesting thing about you" question, this commercial will always be the answer.
Is this the big break in my budding career as an actor? You know guys, I really think it could be!