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Background actors leave their marks on film

| Sunday, March 25, 2012

He may never win an Oscar. But Tony Amen feels that he's achieved a kind of immortality through his brief appearances in at least 50 movies shot in Pittsburgh.

"When you're on film, you live forever," says Amen, 70, of Penn Hills.

That's him in the trailer for "The Dark Knight Rises," as one of a mob of convicts in orange jump suits who burst through a prison door. Rent the action drama "The Next Three Days," and you might spot him onscreen with Russell Crowe in a scene that was shot at the Allegheny County Jail. The two pass each other in the corridor.

His specialty is playing mobsters. His first role was as part of a crew in the film "Dead and Alive: The Race for Gus Farace," a TV movie starring Tony Danza and Samuel L. Jackson that was shot here in 1991. He played a wiseguy in 1992's "Innocent Blood."

"I do have that look," he says. "Some guys are strictly policemen or FBI."

Technically, Amen is an extra, although he disdains the term. "Background artists," as they prefer to be called, say their craft is more specialized and specific.

A featured extra role can pay up to $200 a day as opposed to the minimum wage that extras usually make. A speaking role is rare. Mention in the film's credits• Not likely.

And fame is fleeting: a featured extra's onscreen time usually is measured in seconds.

But like any electrician or location scout who works in Pittsburgh's film industry, Amen prides himself on his professionalism. He shows up on time and knows to bring three changes of clothes. (Red or white clothing usually is discouraged.) He doesn't gawk or play to the camera.

"I'm not star struck," he says. "A lot of people come with cameras, try to take pictures, and bitch because it's a long day. We get our clothes ready, we know what to bring, we're on time, and, at the end of the day, we're gratified. At the end of the day, you feel like you're part of Hollywood.'"

Pittsburgh casting director Nancy Mosser casts extras and actors for film, television, commercials, voiceovers, corporate videos and promotional events.

"The people that get a lot of work are the people that play a role well," Mosser says. "They look great as a police officer. They look great as a businessman, and they have the suit to go with it."

They're also reliable, she says. They know that the work is more grueling than glamorous. When the director calls "background action!" they hit their mark the first, second or 23rd time.

Sharyn Kmieciak, a retired elementary school teacher from Everson in Fayette County, made her debut as an extra in 2009 with "Love and Other Drugs," starring Anne Hathaway and Jake Glyllenhaal. She's had featured extra roles as well.

"From the time I was a young girl, I would sit all the way through the film," she says. "We would watch all the credits. 'What do these people do• What's a gaffer• What's a grip• What do the lighting people do• What's a stand-in?' "

In "Abduction," filmed here in 2010, Kmieciak had a "walk-by" in the background as stars Taylor Lautner and Lily Collins kissed in a parking lot near PNC Park. "That was a reshoot," she says. "Originally, it was filmed in 90-some degree heat. There we were, filming in 40 degrees. We had to dress in summer clothes. It was misty rain."

During six days of shooting in PNC Park on the same film, she couldn't wash the T-shirt she wore because she didn't want it to shrink or fade. Each night, she would spray it with Febreze, hang it up to dry and put it back on again the next day.

"You don't do it for notoriety," Kmieciak says. "There I am, but I'm out of focus. There I am, with my back to the camera."

Jackson Nunn can rattle off a list of the roles he's played in a career that spans 30 movies: "Prisoner, thug, minister, photographer, criminal, 'Viagra guy,' cowboy, convict, construction worker, crazy uncle, drug buyer, insane inmate, dancer, pool player, perpetrator."

A stage hand and former football player, he's got a burly build, a scruffy Fu Manchu and a salt-and-pepper afro.

"I don't think I ever left the '70s," he says. "Not very many people have afros now."

When the cameras roll, Nunn prides himself on hiding in plain sight.

In his first role, in the 1998 miniseries "The Temptations," he played a chef in a kitchen scene in which the band decided to fire singer David Ruffin. He says he did his own stunt work as a thug in a fight scene for "The Dark Knight Rises," which features Christian Bale as Batman battling the evil Bane, played by Tom Hardy. The scene was shot in August at Carnegie Mellon University and featured blasts of artificial snow.

"When you're background, you can't call too much attention to yourself, because they're featuring the main actor," says Nunn, who lives in Trafford. "Sometimes, they blur you out. Sometimes, you don't make the cut."

He hopes to see himself in "One Shot" as a bar patron who drinks a beer in the background as star Tom Cruise conducts a heated telephone conversation. The crime drama is set for release in December.

As for calling him an extra?

"That's a cuss word," he says.

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