Bell Township family living the life of movie stars… sorta |
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JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
Lois and Norman Cardaro (from left), Larry Johnson and Lisa Johnson pose with some of the movies and shows they've appeared in as extras. The family members from Bell Township have been working behind the scenes in local productions since 2010.

They’ve sat at a bar next to Matt Damon, been within earshot as Tom Cruise praises Pittsburgh, gotten an embrace by Maggie Gyllenhaal and shared a laugh with Will Smith. They’ve even waited in the buffet line with Robert Duvall, kept secret where Taylor Lautner was staying and got hit with the bathroom door when Bruce Davis walked in.

“They” are members of this Bell Township family, who aren’t stars, but they are actors and actresses who have appeared in more than two dozen movies, television shows and commercials for productions filmed in Western Pennsylvania. They are extras, background people, principals, stand-ins — whatever you want to call them — which are all essential pieces in productions,

They don’t have speaking roles, but what they contribute to the finished production speaks volumes for the fact they have been called back many times by casting directors because they are so reliable and accepting of the not-so-glorious spots they might find themselves in.

Lois Cardaro, husband Norman Cardaro, sister Lisa Johnson and the women’s father, Larry Johnson, often give up entire days waiting to get the call to be on set.

How it all started

Lois Cardaro spotted an ad in the newspaper for extras for the film “I Am Number Four,” an action, adventure, science-fiction movie.

The year was 2010.

The rest is history, as they say.

Filming for this movie included Murrysville, Beaver Falls, Monaca, McKeesport and Vandergrift.

The main agencies they use to find opportunities are Mosser Casting and Movie Casting PGH, which have Facebook pages sharing information about the type of scene, ages needed and how many people they want for the shoot.

“I wanted to wait until my husband retired and thought this might make a fun part-time job,” says Lois Cardaro, who recruited even more family members to be in a commercial for Range Resources. “It was so fun to work all together. A lot of people think it’s glamorous, but you sit around a lot. And sometimes you will be there for days, and they won’t use any of the footage.”

Finding a niche

Each member of the quartet has a niche. Larry Johnson is often used in the senior citizen role. He can be seen in a wheelchair in a UPMC commercial .

Lois and Norman Cardaro are the perfect couple for scenes such as funerals, Norman says. They’ve often been requested to be mourners. He wears his $7.50 dark suit he purchased from a thrift store — they buy a lot of clothes from these shops — and she carries a white handkerchief to wipe those fake tears. Her gray hair and motherly face open up a lot of roles for her as the grieving family member, friend or neighbor.

The couple became regulars on the show “Outsiders” for its two seasons. “We told them we would be available 24/7,” says Norman Cardaro, who drank carbonated iced tea while he and Lois Cardaro sat at the bar while Damon drank “what was really water” in “Promised Land.” Damon took time to talk to everyone at the end of the day. “They all know us now and they know they can count on us … didn’t matter what time or how long they needed us for, we would do whatever they wanted us to do. We have done it so, much we do it naturally.”

Lisa Johnson’s favorite role is being a stand-in where you actually “stand-in” for the actor or actress and so the crew can get the proper lighting or positioning of the scene. It’s an opportunity to be part of the set up of the shot.

“I got to stand next to the assistant director and director, and it was pretty cool,” she says. “I am always in the background anyway and (Lois, Norman and Larry) are always up front. I am usually blurred in the background anyway. Being a stand-in works better for me.”

A learning experience

Every shoot brings to light what happens on set. From not talking, but mouthing words, to how many takes it requires to get a scene just right. You might just get that one shining moment to be on film. For the “Jack Reacher,” movie they spent four days and 50 hours on set.

“It was worth it, just to watch Tom Cruise work,” Norman Cardaro says. “I didn’t even care if I got paid. I was so impressed by his work ethic. He would be there when we got there and still be there when we were leaving.”

He overheard the actor talking about Pittsburgh and saying that this city has everything you would want or need to make movies.

When they watch the finished product they look at it differently because they know some of the background having been behind the scenes, Larry Johnson says. Even though they aren’t allowed to take photos with the talent or talk with them, there are times the stars interact with the extras.

“You get a totally different perspective when you get to go behind the scenes,” Larry Johnson says. “We didn’t realize how much was filmed in Pittsburgh until we started doing this”

Looking at it differently

Larry Johnson says he really enjoys watching the actors and actresses work, and it’s changed his perception of movies.

“When I watch a movie I am thinking about what’s going on in the background,” he says. “I think about the behind-the-scenes stuff. Once you are part of something like this, it changes your idea of how movies are made. When I see a close up, I think about how close the camera was in that scene, and that there are 20 workers behind that camera.”

The going rate is $8-$10 an hour. A movie shoot for an extra averages 12-14 hours, while it’s about eight hours for a television show and four for a commercial. They sign confidentiality documents to not disclose information. The four especially enjoyed being part of “Promised Land” because it was filmed so close to home.

“It is so interesting to see how close the cameras are to the actors and actresses,” Norman Cardaro says. “There are cables and lights and wires all around them … just inches away. We always look and try to see ourselves in the finished product,” Norman Cardaro says. “When you do, it makes you feel good. There are times people come to see what movie is filming and they look at us, trying to figure out who we are and if we are anyone famous.”

It’s impressive

“When that moment comes and they call, you need to be ready,” Lois Cardaro says. “Everyone of them has been a lot of fun.You never know where you are going to be or what you are going to be doing. I also do it because when my grandson sits down to watch a movie or television show or commercial he can say, ‘Hey, that’s my grandma or grandpap, great grandpap or aunt.’”

“We get treated so nice that we will keep going back,” Norman Cardaro says. “I think everyone should do at least one background acting gig and see what they go through.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-853-5062 or [email protected] or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.

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