After victory in the six month long battle for a work permit in Italy, the real work began. From ground zero I had to inquire and then discover how the Italian system worked. They used agents, and thank God, I knew that system, so began by asking around to find the best agent.
Everything is all in the Italian language, of course, but fellow English speaking actors helped me. An agent is the actor’s open door to available work. There are always plenty of agents in every market, but only a couple that are really the best of the lot. In Roma, I also had to deal with the fact that only a few of the agents dealt with English speakers.
It’s important to get one of the best agents because when a big job comes in, especially from another city, like Milano, or from out of the country like Paris or Berlin, those people are going to find the top agents first and might stop the search there.
In a short time I found out that Top Floor was an important agency with top talent, some English speaking talent and the connections I needed to get work. I called and made an appointment for a meeting with Alessa and Ulla, the two women running the agency.
When we met they liked my credentials and I determined that I could work with them, so I signed on with them. We didn’t have contracts, it was more of a shake of hands and nod of heads that put us together. So, it had begun, they’d try me, I’d try them.
I recall the first on-camera commercial audition about a week after our first meeting, when I wasn’t fluent in Italian. Hell, I wasn’t even close. People even looked funny at me when I ordered coffee. I could say hello and goodbye and a few other words. But the call came for me to audition at Video Plus. Never heard of the studio, but I learned this was one of the big audition studios and it would all become familiar.
I figured out the address of the place. First I had to make sure I wrote it down correctly. I wasn’t dealing in Italian with my agent, but English was a new thing for them so what they gave me was always half-English.
Then I got out the map called Tutti Citta, that’s the one that came with every new phone book. I found the location, figured out my route and the morning of the audition left an hour or more early for a twenty minute bus ride. I wasn’t gong to mess up. Years before I learned that this is very serious business. The difference between those that do and those that drop away is measured in the amount of effort used to do everything right. No exceptions.
My agent told me there was no dialogue to learn, just some stuff to do, and I forgot what the commercial was for. It wasn’t important to me. I was to dress upscale sporty casual. That’s all I needed. I’d worked with the big boys in Los Angeles and San Francisco and knew I could do it here, and as agents pick up new faces everyday, I knew there wasn’t any special hope for me. But, my mojo was working.
I arrived at the appointment before the studio opened at nine a.m. and went to the coffee bar across the street to kill some time with the Italian worker’s breakfast, a coffee and cornetto, like a croissant.
When the doors to the studio opened at nine a.m. about five of us were there. While the others all went in and sat down, I went in and stood on the far end, near the door that led back into the interior of the building, and waited there.
In a few minutes someone walked in with a sheet of paper and a pen. The guy said something in Italian and although I didn’t understand a word, I knew what he had was the sign-in sheet. He walked it over to the table near me and I had it in my hands before he set it down.
While he kept talking I signed my name in the first blank cause I couldn't undestand him anyway, and then I sat down on one of the chairs along the wall as he quit talking about the commercials and was explaining to the others that this piece of paper was the sign-in sheet and they were supposed to put their name on it. When he went back to the studio the others slowly began to get up and sign their names on the sheet.
There was a place on the sheet for agent’s name and our measurements. When the signing was complete there were more people waiting and I went around and asked someone about my size how tall he was, another how much he weighed. That way I could fill in approximately how tall and how much I weighed in centimeters and kilos. My agent’s name I already had written down.
There was also a script for the audition. Well, not a script, just a description of the audition. There was no dialogue, as I’d already heard. There was some action to do, that was it. I couldn’t read a word of it.
The name of the product was written there, but Italian product names didn’t mean anything to me. I had no idea what the commercial was for. When my agent told me what the commercial was for and said the name, as if it was a common product, I had no idea what it was. I didn’t ask her to repeat the name. I was green, but even though my agent was my best buddy in this, I didn’t want to remind her what a novice I was to Italy. I was right for the commercial and that’s why she sent me. That’s all I needed to know.
I unfolded the detailed city map from the phone book again and thought about how I was gong to backtrack and get home from here. I had no trouble, or little trouble, finding the location, and then finding a bus. I sat with the other actors, talking my pigeon Italian to whomever I could. I had to change seats a few times to find someone I could converse with. That’s how I learned Italian anyway - talking to people. There were about a dozen of us waiting by then.
That morning I was first the first to sign in. I should have been called in first to audition, but when the director finally came into our waiting room about fifteen minutes later, he first apologized for the delay, said a few hello’s, talked about the commercial and then checked the list of talent and called number one on the sign-in list. That was me.
An Italian actor that came in after me and was pacing the floor, ran over to him and moaned extensively, appealing to him because there was heavy traffic, he had a job to get to and was second on the list. He was in a hurry.
So the director called my name. When I raised my hand and stood up to go in, then Director asked me if I minded if this other guy went first. I indicated with expressions and gestures, all perfectly normal and well done for an actor of my ability that of course the panicked guy should go first. So the director signaled for both of us to come in at the same time.
This is special. It rarely happens that two actors are called into the studio for the same audition at the same time. I knew in a nanosecond that it was a break for me. We talked all the way down the hall. Well, he and the other actor spoke and I acted as if I were participating.
The studo was fairly large and there were quite a few people. Maybe two from the casting agency handling the set and props, keeping the coffee hot and running as gophers. There were techs for the camera, lights and cables, the agency people were present and the directors lackies were nearby. I don't think the client had anyone there, but there were enough around for the direcor to be the center of attention.
I didn’t have to say anything in this commercial. I just had to do whatever action it was they wanted. I’d been doing that sort of work all of my adult life, so I wasn’t worried about what to do, just really curious as to what it was. Now it looked as if that question would be answered. The other guy in a hurry was going first. I stood off to the side and watched as the director explained everything to the other actor. Then the camera rolled and the guy did the action. It was simple, kind of walked back and forth with whatever product it was, and then they did a second take. I watched it like a circling hawk over a baby chicken. This was all I had to go on. It was what I needed to know.
It seemed to be a piece of cake. All he did was look worried and walk over to get the box of whatever and bring it over and set it somewhere, then look satisfied. They did two takes so I got to see him do it twice. That actor finished and tore out of there. Then the director called me to the stage.
The director explained the action to me, pointing here and pointing there. I acted like I was paying attention. Well, I was paying attention, just couldn't understand him. Then he asked if I had any questions. I could have asked if there were someone there who spoke English and could tell me what he said. But I knew it was better to just get on with it. I shook my head, smiled and said “no.” He went to his place behind the camera. I saw the X on the floor and knew what that was for. I stood there and the director called “azione”. I’d never heard that before when it was directed to me. It had a nice ring to it, and I got the show on the road.
What I did was what I remembered the first actor had done. Carefully here, carefully there, then satisfied.
The director rushed up after he cut at the end of the first take and said, “no, no,” waving his arms, and stuff like that, speaking in Italian. He went on to explain in detail the reasons for all of the action, pointing here, then there. All the while I was following him around, looking intently and nodding my head and agreeing passionately, as if what he said was the only way it could be done correctly. Of course, how could I have been so stupid, I pantomimed, slapped my head as if awakened, as if he explained it all so well even a kid would know how to do it now.
I knew what his speech was about. The lack of language skills doesn’t mean a lack of a brain. I’d seen it all before. The guy was doing his director thing. He was doing it for me and everyone present in the studio, the camera man, the assistant, the secretary, the lighting people, perhaps the client, everyone watching. Then he finished almost in a sweat and asked me if I understood everything and if I was ready, and I said “Si, certo.” Yes, certainly. Which were two of the words I could say really well. I took my place standing on the X and after a pause the director called “actione.”
I began the second take not knowing if he was going to stop and correct me or just throw me out of there and tell me never to come back, or ask me a direct question and find out I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying, and then my agent would get in trouble for sending me over there in the first place. So instead of wetting my pants and running out crying, what I did was exactly the same thing I had done the first time. Maybe more relaxed because I had already done it once. That’s exactly what an actor does even when you can understand the language. Besides, I only knew what I saw the other actor do. I am actor – hear me roar, even if there are no words in the script. Walk here, walk there, look satisfied.
At the end when the Director called cut my heart paused in mid beat as he immediately came running up to me to shake my hand saying it was perfect, just what he wanted. I took his words as calmly as possible, not showing anything out of the ordinary. I was happy, of course. Evidently I was a tribute to his fine powers of explanation and directing. I left the studio with everyone content, waving and wishing me well.
A day or two later, my agent called to check my availability for such and such a date, and told me the director was very impressed. I had won my first audition in Roma.