Life as an extra is as dull as a cardinal’s but working with actor Jude Law makes it worth it

Viewers won't notice us individually but tourists sure did one day as we walked to work.
Viewers won’t notice us individually but tourists sure did one day as we walked to work.

(This is the last of a three-part blog on my participation as an extra in “The Young Pope,” the 10-part cable TV series starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton. It opened Oct. 21 in Italy on Sky Atlantic and around Europe the following week. It begins in the United States on HBO Jan. 15.)

My film debut is over and I walked off my final set without shedding a tear. When you’re an extra, the novelty of being in a big production soon gives way to mind-numbing boredom. I started to feel normal in my roasting, four-layer cardinal outfit with the frilly white shirt. I no longer looked like a gay baker. I actually looked like a cardinal. I nearly blessed a beggar.

My last two days of filming HBO’s “The Young Pope” consisted of 11-hour days, all to film three scenes that lasted no more than 60 seconds each. My range of acting consisted of standing still and slowly moving my head as Jude Law walked by me. Once, I walked down a staircase. Another I clapped as Jude Law entered a ballroom. The rest of the time I sat on plastic chairs, talked to other cardinals on subjects ranging from Rome rent to British racism and contemplated the depths of the film business’ unglamorous underbelly.

My last shooting, near Vittoriano (Mussolini's Typewriter)  on Piazza Venezia.
My last shooting, near Vittoriano (Mussolini’s Typewriter) on Piazza Venezia.

Being an extra is like being a bird. You do nothing for hours and then must provide a few moments of window dressing before flying away without being noticed. Sometimes you are. Take the cardinal whose cell phone went off twice during one of Law’s speeches. Or the cardinal who wouldn’t stop talking after “ACTION!”

Or me blowing a scene with one turn.

That’s right. We did about 10 takes of Law walking through us in a ballroom. During the five rehearsal takes, we had to all turn around as he passed us and watch him walk at the end of the room. During the real take, we were told to just turn our heads. That’s it. Me? I turned completely around and stared as if watching a taxi leave me in the rain.

“CUT!” director Paolo Sorrentino yelled.

Davide, his kind and patient assistant, came over and I told him my error before he did.

“Sorry,” I said. “I forgot.”

“You’re nervous,” Davide said. “Be calm.”

Palazzo Venezia
Palazzo Venezia
Palazzo Venezia and Piazza Venezia during one of Mussolini's speeches.
Palazzo Venezia and Piazza Venezia during one of Mussolini’s speeches.

At least the venue was nice. We filmed my last two days in Palazzo Venezia, the 15th century palace where Benito Mussolini would tell his throng about the next third world African nation he’d invade. Mussolini’s balcony is on the second floor of the huge brown stone facade facing sprawling Piazza Venezia. The balcony sits out from the building like Mussolini’s jaw. I regularly walk under it on my way to the bus stop that takes me from Centro Storico to home. I always imagine how Mussolini’s outsized image, cloaked in a taut army uniform and his bill-less hat, would stand on that balcony and whip Italians into a frenzy.
The cardinals' parade to the set .
The cardinals’ parade to the set .

Modern frenzy at the Palazzo Venezia consisted of 125 cardinals, after getting dressed in a nearby theater, walking up Via Tribuna di Tor de’ Specchi, a busy street lined with camera-toting tourists. Suddenly, we were Jude Law. Hell, we were Diane Keaton. I heard so many cell phone cameras clicking I thought Rome was invaded by crickets. People stopped cars and leaned out their windows. Japanese hurried in front of us to get video. Cute women grabbed 70-year-old men to get pictures with them. One old woman came up to a cardinal about her age and said, “Bless me, father! She thought he was real! I will forever more live in infamy in the cell phone camera roll of a curly haired woman from Bologna. I would’ve felt like a dancing bear but there were 125 of us. The old men never had this much attention.
Fountain in the Palazzo Venezia courtyard.
Fountain in the Palazzo Venezia courtyard.

We eventually made our way into the palace’s shockingly quiet courtyard and stared at a fountain that had long since gone to seed. Palazzo Venezia, built between 1455-1464, was one of Rome’s first Renaissance palaces. Originally a modest medieval house, it was first used as a residential papal palace and later became the Venetian Republic’s embassy. Today, the fountain hasn’t seen water in generations. The leaves around it may never be removed. The parakeets chirping in the tall pine trees only add a little to the sad state of one of Italy’s grandest periods.
Jude Law in "The Young Pope."
Jude Law in “The Young Pope.”

One day we arrived at the courtyard at 6 a.m. and didn’t start filming until 11. However, without sounding like one of the camera-clicking tourists, Jude Law is worth the wait. In the seven days shooting eight scenes, I found watching him work up close was an experience you can not buy. Theater doesn’t do real actors justice. Yes, on stage they work without a net. But you don’t see how fast real actors can turn it on. Jude Law went from a jovial, smiling, proper English gentleman, chatting off camera with Sorrentino and cardinal actors he knew, to a brooding, scowling pope with a Jersey accent.

I won’t give away any of the plot. In fact, I don’t know much about the plot. None of us received a script. We didn’t even know our scenes until moments before cameras started rolling. Anyway, you’ll want to be surprised. Trust me. But Law nails every single scene. I heard him give riveting five-minute-long speeches — one with the love of a grandfather and the other with the intense diction of a tyrant — without missing a single word. Sometimes he did 10 takes, each one as identical as the other.

Sorrentino filmed every scene from every angle with every one of his four or five cameras. It was exhausting for me standing there. Watching Law speak with emphasis on, not only the same words, but the same syllables, time after time after time, had me babbling in pure unadulterated admiration.

He also did it with a Jersey accent so subtle it needed intense concentration not to be over the top. I watched him play a wealthy ex-Ivy League playboy in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” so he had experience with American accents. But in “The Young Pope,” he moved me to do something I never do: approach a public figure. One time I climbed the stairs of a makeshift St. Peter’s Basilica on one of Cinecitta’s outer lots. At the top of the stairs I found Law. He was in his long white pope robe. He was smoking a cigarette. I didn’t want to ask him a question. He hears too many. So I just said, “Great American accent, Jude.”

He seemed remarkably touched.

“THANK YOU!” he said and patted me on the chest. “It’s the work of that man.” And he pointed to a tall, lumpy, balding guy who was his dialogue coach.

Dealing with pro athletes much of my sportswriting career, they tell me they most appreciate fans who come up and compliment them and keep moving. No autographs. No pictures. Just a small droplet of appreciation and it’s over. You don’t do what my fellow cardinal did later. An Indian man who plays an Indian Catholic with a long black robe and an enormous round black — and, from what he said, broiling — hat, wanted to chat with Sorrentino. He wanted to tell him that a famous director in India is one of his biggest fans and has seen all of his movies. Between takes in the palace ballroom, he walked up to Sorrentino, who was standing alone, his face wrinkled in concentration, and said, “Can I have two words with you?”

Sorrentino looked at him as if he was a homeless beggar asking for a spare room.

“No,” he said and walked off.

Only once did I see Diane Keaton, who plays a nun and is the pope’s supporter from New Jersey. She was in one scene in the ballroom with no lines. She stood off to the side with her hands in prayer. She looked very diminutive. Then again, all nuns look diminutive. After the shoot, she came over to all of us and, curiously, took our picture, just like one of the tourists in sunglasses outside.

“HI!” she said to us with a smile as big as the Hollywood sign.

My next connection with the film wasn’t until this fall when I’ve sat on my couch in Rome watching it on Sky, a subscription of which I bought just for this series. The European soccer it carries will be a distant second. It’s not just that I’m in it. It’s because after shooting some scenes, I have come to one inescapable conclusion.

This series will be a HUGE hit.

It has all the factors that intrigue American viewers. Religious conflict. International upheaval. Edgy personalities. Forbidden sex. Law plays a right-wing pope from New Jersey, for crying out loud. It came to Rome in the middle of the Jubilee when an estimated 8 million pilgrims will descend on the Vatican this year. And Jude Law will carry this thing into every news and entertainment magazine in the Northern Hemisphere. He will not only give the world a new world vision but a new vision of what a pope could look like in the future. It will be upsetting for Catholics, unsettling for the rest and entertaining for all. I am glad I am part of it.

In fact, I feel blessed.