“The Young Pope” will be major smash hit in U.S. — whether I’m seen in it or not

Jude Law plays a smoking, right-wing conservative pope.

Jude Law plays a smoking, right-wing conservative pope.

Hey, America, if you think Donald Trump is conservative, wait’ll you get a load of “The Young Pope.”

HBO’s 10-part series opens Jan. 15 in the U.S., and I have watched the entire series, both from outside on Sky and within as a pseudo actor. If you followed three previous blogs, I was an extra in the film. I play an American cardinal, someone in demand as history’s first American pope takes up residence. If you’re a fan of me, don’t get excited. My entire contribution to the series is a distant shot of the side of my face off in the distance in Episode 5. No one will recognize me. I barely did. Too bad. It’s an important scene. It’s when the young pope, played by Jude Law, addresses our College of Cardinals for the first time. But in all six other scenes I filmed, I was left, with the leftover piazza bianca, on the cutting room floor.

However, if you’re a fan of Jude Law and Diane Keaton, if you’re a fan of Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”), if you’re a fan of twisting sacred institutions such as the Catholic Church, do not miss this series.

Paolo Sorrentino

Paolo Sorrentino

Sorrentino, a native of Naples, turns the church inside out. As the real, modern Catholic Church makes major strides toward the modern world under current Pope Francis, Sorrentino’s pope wants the church to revert practically back to the Inquisition.

Basically, Law plays the first pope who is a complete, 100 percent dick.

All of us in the College of Cardinals could tell the church was going the way of the Italian economy just by the name he chose: Pope Pius XIII. Pope Pius XI (1922-39) reigned under Benito Mussolini who signed the Lateran Accord that gave Vatican City sovereignty as an independent state. Law’s pope is just to the left of a total fascist. He launches a campaign to not only drive all pedophiles from the church but all homosexuals as well. He cuts off communication from the outside world. In his opening speech to us — a five-minute speech he taped approximately 10 times without missing a beat — he starts with, “Knock knock. Knock. KNOCK! Who’s there? Nobody.” He then launches into a speech about how the Vatican will close its doors to all outsiders. No press conferences. No interviews. No merchandise sold in Vatican gift shops.

He won’t even allow himself to be photographed. In one scene we shot on a back lot behind Cinecitta, Italy’s revered studio on the south end of Rome (The Vatican did not give Sorrentino one minute of help, nor has it commented on the series), he speaks to a packed makeshift St. Peter’s Square with his face hidden from light. It doesn’t go over well with the public and neither does his reaction.

To Pius XIII, the only important point of the Catholic Church is to love God. If you don’t love God, you can not be Catholic. If you don’t believe in God, as he tells us, “Prove he doesn’t exist.” Inside his colorfully flowing robes of gold and red, this pope is totally black and white.

One look at Pius XIII, you’d think the Catholic Church had gone hip. Here is this 40ish, fit, American so arrogant he tells an ogling female representative from Iceland’s government, “I know I am incredibly handsome.” The opening of each episode shows him walking in slow motion past masterpieces in the Vatican Museum while Labrinth’s hard rock “Watchtower” plays in the background. Then he turns to the camera and, still in slow motion, winks as if to say, “World, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

And we haven’t. This pope doesn’t have a normal background. He didn’t grow up as an altar boy in Italy or impoverished in an Eastern Europe prison state. He grew up Lenny Belardo, in Brooklyn. His hippy parents abandoned him when he was 8, leaving him to be raised by Sister Mary, the toughest nun you’ve ever seen, played by Diane Keaton. His abandonment is a major thread throughout the series. At the core, the pope is a Brooklyn street kid. He smokes. He curses. His accent is just this side of Flatbush, a remarkable feat considering Law was raised in Greenwich, England, and speaks off camera like a polished English literature professor.

But this pope has more conflicts than A.S. Roma’s soccer schedule:

* Pope vs. College of Cardinals. We cardinals, a conservative lot that we are, remain stunned as he lays down laws last seen during the Crusades. He banishes the Vatican’s traveling secretary to Ketchikan, Alaska, after he tells him, “I am not going to travel and you are no longer needed.”

Silvio Orlando

Silvio Orlando

* Pope vs. Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican Secretary of State. As a de facto spokesman for the cardinals, Voiello, played by Naples actor Silvio Orlando, tries unsuccessfully to rein in the new pope. Warnings don’t work. Insults don’t work. Blackmail doesn’t work. The pope always stays one step ahead of him, like a star attacker for Juventus against Voiello’s beloved but second-tier Napoli soccer team.

* Pope vs. Mentor. Played by towering James Cromwell, Cardinal Spencer was his mentor through the pope’s rise through the Vatican. However, Spencer always had eyes on the pope’s throne. Who knew he’d teach little Lenny so well, he’d pass him in the dust? Spencer remains bitter and is one of the few in the Vatican who isn’t afraid to say it.

James Cromwell

James Cromwell

* Pope vs. the Italian government. In one memorable scene, the pope takes an audience with Italy’s new prime minister. The PM threatens the pope with something highly personal and potentially humiliating if the Vatican doesn’t start paying more taxes; the pope doesn’t blink and counters with the simple boast that he’ll tell all the Catholics in Italy, where there are a few, never to vote for him again. Guess who wins.

*Pope vs., well, the world. After six months, the pope is told the number of visitors to St. Peter’s is dwindling to critical numbers. The Vatican is losing money. The pope smiles. How can anyone care about money? The only thing that matters, as he so often says in the series, is God. Even we cardinals, as celibate as we’re supposed to be, rolled our eyes.

The cast at the Venice Film Festival.

The cast at the Venice Film Festival.

Speaking of failed celibacy, no TV series can survive without sex. Including it in a 10-part series about the Vatican is a challenge. Sorrentino, however, pulls it off tastefully as possible. There is a sordid, almost stomach-turning threeway involving Lenny’s boyhood friend, a missionary played by Scott Shepherd, during his time as priest in Guatemala. The pope tackles the church’s pedophilia issue head on by sending his closest advisor, Monsignor Bernardo Gutierrez, played by Spanish actor Javier Camara, to New York to chase down one of the accused priests.

The fact that Gutierrez admits to being homosexual himself and the pope doesn’t burn him at the stake in St. Peter’s Square goes to Sorrentino’s point: This pope evolves. You’ll hate him in the beginning; you might like him in the end. The final scene in the final episode leaves a major maw in the story line which Sorrentino is currently exploiting as he writes Season 2.

If the subject of the Catholic Church doesn’t interest you, watch merely for the photography. I’ve never seen Rome so beautiful. And I live here. Sorrentino managed to shoot aerial scenes of the Vatican on the most brilliant Italian days, when the sky is the blue of the South Pacific and the sun bounces off Bernini’s white marble statues like flickering confetti. The night view of a bridge spanning the Tiber River with the towering dome of St. Peter’s Basilica glowing like a giant Christmas ornament in the background makes you want to convert just for the architecture. The grass in Vatican City, the world’s’ smallest independent state where the public is rarely allowed, looks like fairways at Augusta with nuns playing soccer and the pope walking with friends, silently plotting.

My life as an extra in "The Young Pope."

My life as an extra in “The Young Pope.”

This series will be massive in the U.S. The first episode receive the highest rating ever for a Sky TV drama in Europe. It has a religion at a crossroads. It has vicious, hidden plots. It has a handsome star. It has illicit sex. It has a star cast. It has vivid scenery. I didn’t get paid a dime for my long days filming in August and September 2015. My visa wouldn’t allow it. However, I do know a hit when I see one.

I’ve already called to be included as an extra in Season 2.

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.