May 31, 2004
LETTER FROM NEW YORK; Pg. 11
By Mauro Suttora
article on Newsweek
"I had dinner with Nicole Kidman." Hmm... I hadn't known my friend Christian, an Italian journalist, was a celebrity hound. Like most New Yorkers, we make a point of ignoring such people. "Where?" I asked. "At the Mercer Kitchen." What did you talk about, I wanted to know. And how did a poor schmuck like Christian meet Nicole? Well, he explained, "we weren't at the same table. Just next to each other. But I was as close as possible."
Christian's boast came to mind when I received this e-mail from another friend, a casting agent: "Looking for protesters on Sunday. Movie: The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Location: the United Nations. All ethnicities welcome. Pay: $75. Bring photo I.D."
Why not? It was my day off. I was curious. And for the rest of my life I'd be able to say I acted with Nicole Kidman. Besides, "The Interpreter" would be an international blockbuster. My mother in Italy would love it, and Christian would die of envy.
That Saturday night I could hardly sleep. Nicole! I rose before dawn, showered, shaved and headed out into the rainy darkness of my new career. Outside a rundown building on 44th Street, not far from the United Nations, a van was unloading doughnuts, and a queue of several hundred would-be extras wound out the front door. We were ushered into a huge room on the third floor, overlighted and full of grubby plastic chairs. Sadly, this was not going to be an intimate thing between Nicole and me. I spent the morning filling out forms.
Around midday, a chorus of less-than-courteous young men and women began shouting that it was time for "the talent" (meaning us) to get out on the set. It had stopped raining, so they herded us into Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. We were issued signs to wave around and told to demonstrate. Nearby, a little group of real demonstrators huddled in a tent, campaigning for a free Tibet. Tourists glared, furious that because of us they couldn't visit the United Nations. "You are the only ones who get TV coverage, huh?" one muttered, eyeing the microphones and the cameras focused on us instead of the soggy Tibetans. "Be professional," a fierce little assistant director barked. The problem was that Sean Penn had shown up, along with legendary director Sydney Pollack. In the movie Penn plays a secret agent, incognito in our midst. Right. Who wouldn't crane their necks to look at him?
After a couple of hours, we were ordered back to our holding pen, where we were again scolded--this time for jumping too enthusiastically on the buffet of turkey sandwiches. Extras may be artists, I learned, but it takes sharp elbows to get your share of free food. During the afternoon shoots, I was selected as a passerby who refuses the leaflets handed out by the protesters. I hope Pollack didn't notice; otherwise, my face will be edited out of close-ups of the demo itself. Either I protest, or I don't give a damn, but I shouldn't be permitted to switch sides so swiftly. I mean, this is not Italian politics--nor Italian B-movies of the '50s, in which Roman slaves could be seen wearing wristwatches.
At 7 p.m. we queued to get our pay. But instead of money we got another form to fill out: "No signature, no pay!" Two weeks later I received a check for $62, after federal, state and city taxes. I calculated that Nicole and Sean every day make 20 times more than all 600 extras combined. My pay amounted to $4 an hour. My maid makes $15. And I got only a glimpse of Nicole. Don't tell Christian.
© 2004 Newsweek