Having once appeared in a school play, I decided to explore a career in acting. The audition went smoothly, and then …
The ad was simple enough. A production company was auditioning English-speaking actors (no experience necessary) to appear in a promotional video for an international financial firm.
Announced on a website directed at expatriates who were living in Ho Chi Minh City, it promised to pay US$100 for the day — not a sheik’s ransom, but in Vietnam a competitive wage for people like me, who were waiting to start a new job but not yet officially employed.
I passed an initial audition (a 30-minute interview) with flying colors. A few days later, an agent emailed instructions to dress in a conservative suit and arrive on the sixth floor of an office block at 9 on a Sunday morning in mid-December.
The main entrance was locked. A security guard pointed to the parking garage. I wondered if I were being followed as I cautiously stepped into the elevator. Upon disembarking, I read the words FVP Holdings in new lettering on a glass door. I knocked.
My hosts greeted me warmly. They described FVP as a Taiwanese brokerage firm expanding into Vietnam, but wanting a “Western” image to establish credibility in the cosmopolitan marketplace.
I was asked to wait among a couple of dozen other people, most of them in their 20s and 30s. Besides native English speakers, I introduced myself to people from France, Greece, Russia, Romania, Morocco, Israel, China, Japan and Mexico. All spoke English with reasonable facility.
The office space had been designed for a brokerage. Desks were carefully grouped into workplace pods with computers and other office equipment. Whiteboards and oversized monitors, displaying up-to-the-second financial reports from around the world, stood at the head of the room.
Soon the film crew was ready to go. The director, a small man with a floppy hat, kept his cast laughing with a rubbery face that betrayed his every mood. Younger actors were assigned roles as enthusiastic interns and new employees. As an elder statesman of the group (I prefer to think of my appearance as “distinguished”), I was one of three men singled out for a senior role.
I had no script. My lines were extemporaneous. My job was to make several walk-throughs as the CEO evaluating his charges. When I paused to address my employees, I was on my own. So I congratulated one and all for the outstanding job they had done in the past year, and promised everyone a substantial Christmas bonus, to be reflected in their next paychecks. The room erupted in applause.
The shoot turned into an all-day event, including a series of individual and group shots for use as FVP Holdings saw fit. But it was all good. I made new friends. I was even paid a little extra: 2.5 million Vietnam dong (about US$115), along with an indication that additional work might be forthcoming. “We’ll be in touch,” the company said.
And that evening, about a dozen of us gathered at a brewpub to toast the day’s activity.
The rest of the story
Not long after the Christmas holidays had ended — upon my return from Chiang Mai and my signing of my teaching contract — I did indeed hear again from FVP Holdings
Indeed, the principals made me one of those proverbial “too good to be true” offers.
I was offered a position apprenticing in commodities trading (in which I have absolutely no experience) while writing and editing English-language financial documents. I would be paid (not handsomely, but more than I am to teach) to do so.
Moreover, I would be expected to attend conferences in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Moscow and other cities — all expenses paid, with an additional stipend — as I pretended to be a partner in the holdings company, using the same alias that I did while filming the promotional video.
“Have you ever been to Shanghai?” they asked me. “To Moscow? We want to send you there!”
I was tempted. Oh, man, was I tempted. But something didn’t smell right.
I floated the proposal past eight separate people, all of them expats like myself, and each one raised two curious eyebrows, as had I.
The most incisive and realistic comments came from my brother, who has spent most of his adult life in Japan. He wrote, in small part: “There are a lot of things that can happen in third-world Asia under the radar. And it might be that you are just a convenient fool, the new guy in town who is single, getting up in years, does not have close relatives in the area and is easy to lure away.
“Really, why would they want to hire you for a semi-full-time job on the basis of one short performance in a promotional video? The fact that they want to create a new alias for you is especially worrying.”
But wait: There’s more!
Clearly, he underestimated my brilliance in front of a camera. But I was warned by another friend that, the previous year, just such an opportunity had been afforded an American living in Thailand. The company had disappeared overnight and the expat was charged with stealing millions from investors. He is still in jail.
Suffice to say, I didn’t quit my day job. But I occasionally wondered what happened to FVP Holdings. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic would have quickly squelched the travel opportunities.
There are two postscripts to this story. The first came in an email from a fellow actor, Dasha Zhezherun. She had discovered that the photographs of several of us had been used on the FVP website: You’ll find me here as “Nick Williamson, partner.” You’ll find my friend Alex Pilgrim as “Arman Lankarani, head of finance.” Dasha herself is “Stacy Wright, head of marketing.” How’s that going for you, Dasha?
The second postscript followed several months later in a conversation with a woman I was dating at the time. She was surprised that I had not considered the FVP offer more seriously. “Why not?” she asked. “Everyone does it here!”
That was a real-life reminder that standards of morality differ widely between cultures. My friend herself acknowledged that she was more than willing to bend rules and leapfrog laws in her real-estate dealings if it meant saving money to get a project accomplished more quickly.
I’ll be returning to the subject of morality in a future blog. I promise.
Next: Hem sweet hem