Life as a film extra in Italy: From a cardinal to a Carabinieri, my new part-time gig is not all “ACTION!”

I play a Carabinieri in “Blood & Treasure,” NBC’s new series premiering May 21.


What was your fantasy job?

We all had one. I certainly did. When I was younger, like any red-blooded American boy into sports, I wanted to be a famous pro athlete. When I realized my athletic ability would barely get me into my high school baseball team’s dugout, I wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize. As I traveled the world, I dreamed of ending a war or starvation or something that would put me on the cover of Time.

But of all the dreams I had, of all the fantasies that crossed my mind during long flights and nights of insomnia, I never dreamed of one famous profession.

Acting.

Never have I thought about an Oscar or Emmy, of dating starlets, of getting standing ovations from a packed theater. I didn’t even want to work in the film or TV industry. I wanted to watch movies and TV, not work in them. Give me popcorn, not parts.

So here I am, at 63 years old, after 45 years as a journalist, reinventing myself. Here in Rome I have found a new part-time gig, one that’s given me a new outlook on myself.

I’m a film extra.

Keep in mind this is not acting. Calling me an actor is like calling Sherwin-Williams painters. I am part of that background of humanity you see in every film and show. I am human furniture.

And anyone can do it. You, dear reader, can do it. Any member of your family can do it. Look outside. Everyone you see can do it. You are paid to stand there. Sometimes they make you walk. Occasionally they’ll have you express emotion. Many times you’ll mime conversations. And rarely, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a line or two.

You don’t even have to be attractive. In fact, it helps if you aren’t. Films want ordinary people filling scenes. They don’t want anyone so beautiful they become a distraction from the beautiful people making the big bucks.

I guess, that’s where I step in.

This past winter, I appeared in four shows that will be aired this year: I play an Italian cop in a CBS series called “Blood & Treasure,” a German banker in a Sky TV series called “Devils” starring Patrick Dempsey, an American cardinal in the HBO sequel series “The New Pope” starring John Malkovich and an American admiral in an indy Italian film entitled “In Buona Compagnia” (“In Good Company”).

As the productions approach their premieres — most don’t have a date — I’ll blog my experiences with them. What I’ve taken away is a completely different way of looking at film and myself. In the theater or on TV, you may concentrate on the stars. I’m now looking over their shoulders. I’m scanning the crowd, seeing who is really an insurance agent or a mechanic or an English teacher. Who’s overacting? Who’s walking as if on eggshells?

The extras, while having arguably the easiest job in world society, are an underrated component in filmmaking. It’s easy to be good; it’s also easy to be bad. Take the 1959 production of “Ben Hur.” It won 11 Oscars that year. Yet if you look in the background of the chariot race, an extra who blew the trumpet also blew the scene.

“Ben Hur” is a story from the 1st Century A.D., and the extra forgot to take off his watch.

Extras are important enough to have their own PC label. We are now called “supporting artists.” It sounds great, but here in Italy it sounds like some guy fetching Caravaggio’s paints. Here I am known as a comparsa. My girlfriend, Marina, scolded me when I told people I was a freelance writer and a comparsa. Apparently on the Italian occupation scale, it’s what immigrants do to get by.

Well, that’s exactly what I am.

No wonder immigrants apply for these roles. As I said, anyone can do it, it’s easy and knowledge of Italian is helpful but not necessary. And the money isn’t bad. Depending on the studio, I received 85-105 euros a day. More if I have some lines which I had — even some in Latin.

Along the way I’ve learned three easy rules to follow as a comparsa:

1. Do NOT, ever, look at the camera. Have you ever seen an actor look at one? Think about it. Yet it’s harder than you think. In one solo scene I had in “The New Pope,” where we vote for the next pope, I had to walk toward a camera in a makeshift Sistine Chapel, then around it and drop a ballot in a box. Trying to not peek at the camera is like trying not to think of the word, well, “camera.”

2. Do not take photos. In this age of selfies and social media, where you can make yourself news with the click of a button, extras off the street are tempted to shoot everything from themselves in cardinal robes to John Malkovich adjusting his. It’s not just that the production companies don’t want to disturb the actors. They don’t want any sneak previews of the shows on social media. The studios are cracking down. Shortly after beginning production for the current season of “Game of Thrones,” a group was fired for taking photos of the set. Some people, who were mostly studio assistants, had been with the blockbuster series since the first season and were marched right off the grounds.

3. Don’t write about the plots on social media. Some of the contracts I’ve signed include confidentiality agreements. This is why I am not blogging until shortly before the shows appear and pre-airing buzz begins. It’s also why none of the directors, assistant directors or actors who’ve read the script share any details with us selfie-addicting drones. I was in four films and I barely have any earthly idea what any of them are about.

Take the first one. “Blood & Treasure,” which premiers May 21, is an action-adventure series about a terrorist who finances his terrorism by stealing art. An art historian and art dealer chase him around the world trying to stop him. That’s all I know. How do I even know this?

I read the description when I Googled the show title.

How I stumbled into this sidelight isn’t nearly as sexy as a starlet in a tight sweater getting discovered in a malt shop. I played an American cardinal in the 2016 production of “The Young Pope” with Jude Law and Diane Keaton. I wrote a number of blogs about the experience and how I landed the part. I’m 6-foot-3 and always said being tall only helps in parades.

Well, it also helps in film.

Because Jude Law played the first American pope, Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino wanted American cardinals. One of his assistants at Wildside, a Rome-based production company, went to the International Meetup group, Internations, and asked if they had any tall Americans as members. They recommended me.

I appeared in Episode 1 Scene 1 when Jude Law walks past his cardinals on his way to addressing the masses for the first time — and I was never seen again. However, I stayed in Wildside’s extras pool and when roles become available and they need a tall, aging — ah, hell, old — American guy, they call me.

So on a cool October morning I’m told to be at Hotel Delle Nazioni near Trevi Fountain just before dawn to start shooting the Rome scenes for “Blood & Treasure.” (Teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxWOhuBSYIk) The Nazioni is a tony four-star, 200-euro-a-night hotel with glass-blown chandeliers in the lobby. I’m greeted with cornettos and coffee outside and taken into wardrobe, the start of every day for an extra or actor.

My initial role as a tourist is as simple as it sounds. Dress like you would walking around Rome. In other words, be myself. They see my blue jeans, casual sweater and Merrell shoes and send me straight to makeup. I see a row of women in front of mirrors with more lights than Wembley Stadium getting their hair and makeup done by a string of professionals. I meet two American expats from Texas and a Swedish fitness instructor, all of whom are veteran extras. They all worked together in “Come un Gatto sul Tangenziale” (“Like a Cat on a Ring Road”), a 2017 comedy about a father-daughter and mother-son from different social classes dating each other. I ask Amy, a part-time English teacher, what she likes most about being an extra.

“I like the part that extras being from all over the world,” she says. “You get to share your experiences and how long you’ve lived here. Because generally the extras are people who are not typical Italian.”

It’s before 7 a.m. and a group of about 20 of us walk the one block to Trevi Fountain. I’ve lived in Rome more than five years and have a new travel tip: When you go see this Baroque masterpiece from 1732, go before sunup, before the tourists arrive. The massive, foaming, 20-meter-wide, 26-meter-high fountain is remarkably peaceful. It’s backlit, making it look more like a giant statue than a mere fountain. And without the hordes pushing in around it, all you can hear is the splashing water. I was mesmerized in my own city. That happens a lot in Rome.

But as the sun came up, so did the tourists. Soon Trevi Fountain was surrounded by people three or four deep. Loud chatter in half a dozen languages drowned out the cascading water. It was time to shoot.

We are all paired up in couples. Attached to my arm is Cristina, a local lawyer and gym junkie. Our job: Walk toward the fountain, wave our arms in amazement and talk about the fountain.

Not exactly pretending to hang off a skyscraper in Dubai. Tom Cruise’s job is safe.

So Cristina and I spend the morning walking 10 steps to the fountain. Each time we point to Oceanus’ chariot, the giant seahorses. I say the word “Unbelievable” about 100 times, to where it has the same meaning as, say, “elephant.” We do 12 takes for a one-minute scene.

We have the easy part. Behind us, the two stars are actually working. Matt Barr, 35, is a Texas actor who appeared in “One Tree Hill” and with Kevin Costner in “Commander in Chief.” His co-star, Sofia Pernas, 29, is a Moroccan-Spanish actress raised in Orange County, California, who was in the soap opera “The Young and the Restless” and NBC’s short-lived “The Brave.”

Both are beautiful and beautifully dressed and interact beautifully with the mob around them. They pose for selfies. They chat with tourists. They smile and laugh. Assistants shoo away the tourists as they shoot the scene which has them walking by the fountain, Pernas turning and looking perturbed at Barr, her hair flying as if filming a shampoo commercial. He’s wearing a designer suit sans tie; she’s wearing skin-tight white pants and boots, both looking like they hopped off one of the fashion ads from the display windows near Trevi.

Meanwhile, I think the camera gets a great shot of my ass.

We later return to the hotel where an assistant tells me I have a new role. Go to wardrobe and get your new outfit.

Do I look like an Italian cop?


I’m a Carabinieri.

The Carabinieri are the national military police, and many Carabinieri are Sicilian. Unfortunately, I look about as much Sicilian as I do Hmong.

But who am I to complain that I’ve been horribly miscast?

Here is where a trip to wardrobe is fabulous. The Carabinieri are famous for having arguably the most beautiful police uniform in the world. Valentino designed it. It’s a dark blue turtleneck, blue jacket and blue pants with the trademark red stripe down the side. They give me the big pointy hat with the eagle on the front. I feel pretty elegant until I remember watching “On My Skin” the 2018 Italian film about the Roman youth whom the Carabinieri beat to death.

About a dozen of us go into a van and are taken to a Carabinieri station nearby. As we’re standing around outside the door, we’re told to take off our hats. Only actual Carabinieri allowed to wear them.

I am paired with a short, older Neapolitan man and we must walk down a small set of stairs, around the corner and continue past two supporting actors. We have to make conversation. About what? Anything. Just make sure it’s in Italian in case the camera catches our lips moving.

I ask him in Italian if he likes soccer. Yes. AS Roma fan? Yes. Good. Let’s talk about their win last night.

On the first take, we walk around the corner and I say, softly, “Hai visto la partita ieri sera?” (Did you see the game last night?)

“Si. Bella partita.” (Yes. Great game.)

As he says that, I nearly deck the two actors we walk by. The two assistants talk in some heated terms and they tell us to start our walk a couple steps higher. An actor asks me which side I’m walking on.

“Sinistra” (Left), I say, flattered a real actor is acknowledging my existence.

“Buono,” he replies.

We do the scene without a hitch and I walk outside to a throng of tourists who start snapping my picture. They think I’m real. Sorry, folks. I’m not a real Carabinieri. I’m not a real actor.

I’m just a comparsa.

***

Day 2 starts with total chaos. Rome’s Metro subway breaks down near the Colosseum and I have to take a bus to another station, then another subway to the Termini train station and race the three blocks to the cheap Hotel Fenicia where we all meet. I’m 20 minutes late. As an extra, this isn’t a problem. One line best represents our lives, similar to my past life as a sportswriter seeking interviews.

Hurry up and wait.

As an extra, I probably averaged about three hours between the time I arrived and shot a scene. But this day is different. I’m getting attacked on all sides. A pretty assistant hands me a form and I ask what “capacita” means. Her mouth is agape.

“You did this yesterday,” she says in Italian.

“Um, no I didn’t. I just signed some sheets.” Apparently, I should’ve filled out the form yesterday. She looks toward the sky in exasperation, a permanent look for many overworked, frantic production assistants.

I go upstairs to costume and the wardrobe lady picks up where the assistant left off. She’s appalled. She’s shocked. She’s borderline furious. I made the cardinal sin of wearing the same dark green windbreaker I wore the day before.

“You’re supposed to bring a complete change of clothes!” she says.

“I did.” I open my little backpack to show two different shirts, both the apropos dark colors.

“No!” she says. “You wore that same jacket yesterday!”

“Antonio (assistant who communicated instructions to the extras) didn’t say anything about changing my jacket,” I say, unaware that tourists bring different jackets to Rome. “He sent the same message he sent the day before.”

The woman shakes her head and mutters something I fortunately don’t understand and tells me she must give me a different jacket.

“You’ll need it tonight,” she says.

“I never get cold,” I say.

Days like today are when filmmaking becomes as glamorous as reading a zip code directory. We’re herded onto a nearby street where we stand for four hours as a couple get out of a car and race toward the huge Termini Roma sign on the station wall. We’re being made available in case the director needs us. We’re like animals in a pen.

In the meantime, I start conversations with everyone around me. As Amy says, it’s like an Internations Meetup social. I meet a Nigerian student. A Brazilian raised in American schools with no Brazilian accent tells me he was an extra in “Everest” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin. He can now put on his resume that he walked out of a threadbare mountain outhouse holding some toilet paper. A veteran extra, he says some people in Rome make a living doing this. Some even have agents. They go to movies not for the plot or the stars. They go to see who hired their competition. That’s like going to a sports event and only watching the crowd.

After four hours, we get a lunch break. We extras often judge studios by how we’re fed. This one receives a unanimous thumbs up with a spread of mini pizzas, sandwiches, cut up cold vegetables, fudge brownies and big liter bottles of cold Coca-Cola.

It’s 4:30 p.m. and we haven’t done a thing. The two Texans, the Swede and I discuss everything from relationships in Rome (bad) to Donald Trump (worse) to restaurants in Rome (best). Soon it’s time to eat again: box lunches of rigatoni ragu and baked chicken with potatoes. I could get used to this: getting paid to stand around and then eat.

One of about 200 pretend photos I took of my pretend partner at the Trevi Fountain.


Finally, at 6 p.m., 10 hours after we arrived, we’re herded onto buses and head to Trevi Fountain. Now Trevi is cheek to jowl. The 20 of us can barely get to the fountain. A small area is cordoned off inside to fit a small gelato stand where Barr and Pernas do their scene. We do nothing for an hour as the directors try to organize among the chaos of snap-happy tourists getting in the way.

It’s like herding hungry cats.

At last we are lined up as if on a diving board and sent one by one, or two by two, walking in the background of their gelato scene. I later get paired with a Polish woman near the fountain and we spend about 10 takes taking selfies and photos of us, of us and the fountain, of the fountain. I now have 200 garbage photos in my cell waiting to get deleted. Meanwhile, Barr has eaten so much gelato I think he’s going to blow.

Life of an extra: Hurry up and wait. My fellow extras, from left, Holly Grabow, Jenna Volmerson and Amy Marie Coggins.


We finish at 9 p.m. and are told to wait. The director may need us again. Four of us go around the corner and find a closed souvenir stand to lean against and chat. We’re not needed. At 11 p.m. we’re told to leave.

We spent 13 ½ hours shooting three 60-second scenes. This life is not worth fantasizing about. It’s not even insight into one’s true self. However, it gets better.

Stay tuned.

9 thoughts on “Life as a film extra in Italy: From a cardinal to a Carabinieri, my new part-time gig is not all “ACTION!”

  1. That’s so interesting! Who knew the film industry had so many people. Now I get why, when I lived in Budapest near the Opera, the streets were getting absolutely mobbed with people when a film was being shot. I think BP stood pretty well for most European cities so they turned it into Moscow, Berlin, Prague… a comparsa city?

  2. Blood and Treasure: I just read that Antonio Cupo, a well-known Canadian actor from Vancouver, BC, is in this series and then I remembered your write up. I’ll have to watch this to see if I recognize you.

      • I watched it on TV and also PVR’d it. I unfortunately didn’t spot you, but I’ll watch it again later to see if I missed you. I’m assuming that you’re somewhere close to Antonio Cupo, as he plays the lead carabinieri. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re in later episodes rather than the first two that aired.

  3. Hey John,

    Great story. I’m an L.A. native and work as background there, but here in Italy at the moment, as I come almost every year and once lived here in Bologna many moons ago, and have done bg here in the past, too. It’s not that much different in Hollywood with the struggles, as well as the fun with some great folks. Some principals, big names, in fact, A List actors, have told us that we make the movie, so please, always remember that we bg are not just movable props. They tell us often to remain in character while rolling, and it’s best to do so. Enjoy and continue to break a leg!

      • Hi John,

        In Hollywood, we like to refer to ourselves as “Background Actors” or “Background Performers.” Sometimes we’re called “Background” as well as “Extras.” I’m a firm believer that everybody must grease the wheel and we all have a part to play, as if we’re not there and there should be some movement or shadows, it doesn’t look right, depending on scenes, of course. You can claim on your US tax return, too, “Background Actor” and there are some deductions. Some people don’t consider it acting. It is. It really is, even if we’re just a blur in some scenes. Naturally, memorizing lines and actions takes more talent, but bg acting is acting, IMO. Some agents want their talent to NOT do any bg work and if you talk about it, it’s a no no. They want your auditions to take precedence and I need the work, and only if I’m off or I can make it after set will I try to go to one. Thankfully, many auditions are self-tape offers at times, though. I knew someone who was a steady bg on a show. It’s like you see the same nurses all the time on episodes or ER, or The Rookie with the station detectives bg, that’s a regular gig for a season and soe are pulled to be stand ins later, some will even be given a line with a principal, and when that happens, it’s a union voucher if on show that follows under SAG (most do on regular daytime and night time tv, I believe), it’s like a $1,000 day because you were thrown that line to deliver. It’s rare, but it can happen. Anyway, this guy who I knew, his agent told him to absolutely leave the consistent bg gig, but that
        gig was paying his rent and all, but he did leave it after the season, and now has nothing, back in normal bg again like the rest of us who have to fish for work constantly, and auditioning. When I’ve had featured parts, I’ve in fact defied this rule while on set, and I’ve said verbatim that most of what I’ve done is bg. I don’t care what they think because it’s the truth, and a director told me even better, as you’re fresh and you did well with my guidance, and I was called back, in fact, for another featured gig. Not that I’ve been featured that much, but I’m not going to hide from any of this, as every set we learn on, what first team is, second team, action, bg action, back to your ones. And you generally know when you get to set how the day may be, as if the crew is treating each other well, they’ll likely treat you well. If they’re snappy at each other, they’ll likely pass it on down to you. I know many things aren’t going to be the same in Italy as in L.A., but many concepts will be. Anyway, some don’t consider this to be acting. I for one do and like I said, I’ve been told verbatim that we’re in it together, and last Summer in 108 degrees (like 43 Celcius) in the dry heat a bg actor gave way and moved for the principal actor to join us under a finta/prop umbrella and he pulled him back in and introduced himself, shook hands with a few, and said come right back in, we’re in this together and you guys make the movie. Some are indeed very cool and it’s best to remain professional always, as the etiquette is don’t speak to them unless spoken to first. Of course, we’re there to work with them and not make friends, but if it has to do with a scene and they speak with you, it’s cool to talk about the scene as needed. Some are very well known for not wanting to be looked at while in character, as they want to remain in character and can be distracted. Not always so easy if you’re trying to do a scene, and some don’t wan to be looked at at all. I can’t say who in this particular case, as the movie isn’t out yet, but you would know him if you heard his name. Many stars started out as bg actors with Central Casting, Brad Pitt being one of them. Google Central Casting Los Angeles and there is a lot of history on that page. Have a look if you use facebook and join us at Background Artist if you wish. It’s a good resource specifically for bg actors, made especially for us, and admins are all bg themselves. I posted your blog, this article on my wall and would like to post it there on the BG page if it’s cool with you. It’s very well-written as first hand and would be appreciated.

        You speak about that Ben Hur scene and that guy who ruined it with the watch. It’s surely happened in other films, and period pieces, for instances from the 80s or before, they want no smartphones in pockets, as they didn’t exist, but they can still see the impression of them at times on camera. Some don’t want any of them at all on set for risk of pics, so they have to stay in holding areas. Some don’t want them because in Hollywood, paparazzi are among us and take pics at times, even of scripts to sell to TMZ. A big no no, and even if it’s a big city, many are known and someone knows someone else and they’ll find them. I was allowed to have a flip phone in a shirt pocket, which didn’t take pics and could look like a pack of cigarettes, as I folded it up with a large napkin, so it looked thick. Either way, indeed, it’s a lot of hurry up and wait, but directors, ADs, PAs and the rest will always appreciate if you remain in character while rolling. I’ve broken character before because someone made me laugh or being paired up with friends and all, or “set wives” and have laughed and it didn’t make the final cut, thankfully. It tests our skills for sure.

        As for films, not so many, but more commercials and tv shows over the years. That Denzel Washington movie Roman J. Israel, but the working title was City Attorney or something like that. Birdbox on Netflix recently, with Sandra Bullock, a film about Dick Cheney called Vice, but I didn’t make the final cut. I stopped for many years in 1990 after doing a Home Depot commercial with my Mom and the pilot episode of Beverly Hills 90210, and returned in 2017 because I wanted to this time, as I was kind of thrown into it as a child by my Mom, who worked in makeup and later started acting. It’s been grand most of the time, a lot of learning, I am happy with it most days, and I can come to Italy most every year lately during May and June, as it’s hiatus for many shows, so there is little work. L.A. has a lost a lot of work to other States and Canada, as more tax incentives exist there. Netflix and other streaming channels have helped us a lot with some work, but I’m still waiting to get on Curb Your Enthusiasm, as we all have a dream show that we want to work on. The Walking Dead is filmed in Georgia and Central casts from their office there. So many shows, This Is Us, Criminal Minds, Lethal Weapon, The Ranch, Shooter, Grey’s Anatomy, Seal Team, so many others, some pilots that never go very far to air and be picked up by networks, low budget stuff, Geico, Nike, Kelly Blue Book and other commercials, some you make the final cut, many you don’t. These are all shows that we get cast on filmed in L.A. and many are cast by Central, while others are not. I’m not union, but eligible, but won’t ever join. Some of us have older cars, as for period piece or flashback scenes, and they pay an extra amount for them, some very well, some low, but it gets you the gig. And as you’re in middle age, it’s the same in L.A., as many retirees do this in Hollywood and anybody can do it. Most of it is following directions and some have limited English ability, but they get assistance. The worst one can do is hide in your car or try only to stay in holding and not work. The weather can be difficult, as you can end up as a cowboy on Westworld during Summer in the hot sun and costume, or on the beach at sunrise in shorts in January, or doing Christmas shopping scenes in August with a heavy coat on, as you know, but where else can you get paid to eat and socialize or read all day, even study your own script for another part, as you see some doing? To supplement, some will turn on the Uber app after work and drive on the way home and pay for gas. We have overtime and double time, some other pay bumps at times, but I know that here in Italy it doesn’t exist and there is no minimum wage. Maybe if it’s a SAG production being filmed with crew from the USA, they pay the principals their bumps, but non-union generally doesn’t have this. It’s not an easy gig to make a living on, as more and more are doing it, as you say, all can do it, but the majority of the parts are for the younger folks, and this is why some of us have an extra car to get work, as the car gets us booked. Many roles, from father, to church goer, very rarely a prisoner, as I don’t have that look and I never get cast as Italian or Jewish, as Hollywood often has an idea that is very inaccurate with this when they cast with this lol!

        If this is something that you enjoy, keep at it. How many out there will ever have the chance to do this? We’re fortunate for sure.

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