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Cultural Nuances Of The U.S. & Italy

Navigating Hollywood: Insights from Producer and Actor James Tumminia

Meet James Tumminia, Producer and Actor

We were lucky enough to be able to ask James Tumminia, Producer and Actor, some questions on his background and career.

James Tumminia started his career as a line producer. He rose the ranks becoming a prolific producer of TV shows, features, short films and feature documentaries such as LOVE, GILDA for which he received a 2019 Emmy nomination. As a producer, Tumminia has worked on TV projects such as Only Night Only: Back to Broadway (NBC), Betty White’s 90th Birthday (NBC), Disney 100: A Century of Dreams (ABC), Hollywood Walks/Hollywood Walk of Fame (AMC) and the streaming series Vendetta (YouTube). He has also produced feature films like 1ST STRIKE starring Danny Trejo, THREE DAYS IN AUGUST, and ALL SHE WROTE starring Gary Dourdan.

Aside from producing, Tumminia is also an actor. He has appeared in TV shows such as Parenthood (NBC), Criminal Minds (CBS), Las Vegas (NBC), Charmed (Spelling/Paramount), Melissa & Joey (Disney Channel), and The Young and The Restless (CBS). He feature film credits include: SOMEBODY’S MOTHER (streaming on Amazon Prime), ANGELS & DEMONS and RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION, both for Sony Pictures.  And the list goes on.

James Tumminia
James Tumminia – Producer and Actor


James, can you share with us your journey into the entertainment industry? What sparked your interest in becoming a producer and actor?

My journey began when I was a young child, completely mesmerized by the little box in the living room that would come to life with people in it who made me laugh, scared and cry!  From that early age, I knew I wanted to do what those people in the box were doing.  After I went to my first movie, I found out films and TV shows were made in a place called Hollywood; my suitcase was packed…at least in my mind.  I graduated from university and spent about 3 years working for a TV network in New York City, but I was always planning the big move across the US to California.

I knew no one in entertainment industry in Los Angeles, but three days after I arrived, I found my first job by pure luck and determination on an indie movie set.  I “networked” and made friends with the property master who recommended me for another production job.  That referral connected me to a successful producer who gave me an amazing opportunity to work hard, grow and land my first producer credit on a Jerry Seinfeld TV special.

Were there any particular experiences or influences in your early life that shaped your career path?

As I mentioned, the fuse that lit my professional desires ignited in my childhood living room.  Filmed content and the people, at least in front of the camera, intrigued me immensely.  Making me believe what they were doing (telling stories and entertaining others) was very real to me; it felt like it was in my DNA.  Getting hooked on theater in New York transfixed me too because I was seeing it done live and extraordinarily well.  The mind can be very powerful, persuasive, and unrelenting; and mine just kept trying to figure out how to unravel the mystery of working in entertainment.

As a producer, what are the key elements you consider when selecting projects to work on?

That has changed over time.  In the early days of my career, I needed to work to get experience and establish a body of work.  Now it’s about working on projects I believe in but also collaborating with people I respect and admire, and with whom I want to spend a lot of time and energy.  I also want to learn from others to be a better producer – stealing their secrets to success.  And a strong component is also the existence of a positive message to promote and share in the project.

Could you walk us through your process from concept to production for one of your recent projects?

Sometimes it can be a quick process, especially if financing or another important element has already been secured like a name actor or director.  But often, it starts when I fall in love with a script I’ve received.  Discussions about next steps begin with the team of one or more already in: where to find financing, attaching other talent such as director, actor, producer, etc. as applicable, preparing a budget, and creating a presentation (such as a look-book or sizzle reel, etc.), all to get others on board to make the package desirable.

In broad strokes, once the financing is secured, pre-production (casting, hiring crew, location scouting, set building, etc.) starts weeks before photography.  On a recent film, the package for financiers was ready to go – major roles were cast, the director was set and locations were chosen.  When the US actors strike hit in 2023, we had to pause and pivot.  With the strike over, producers are back in financing mode, targeting photography in the Fall.

What challenges have you encountered in the production process, and how have you overcome them?

I think the biggest challenge is managing expectations and people.  For expectations, at the beginning it seems like everyone is on the same page, but once you’re in the thick of filming or editing, what was actually “expected” is not what is being “realized.” And with many voices in the mix – from the studio, director, talent, producers – the creative vision line can blur and challenges emerge.  That’s when my people-management skills kick-in even stronger, requiring a lot of time, diplomacy and patience…and sometimes compromise.  At the end of the day, it’s the director’s vision that must be upheld but even that can be challenged.

How do you approach character development and preparation for roles as an actor?

Initially, the development of a character is based on my gut reaction to the character after I read the sides (pages from the script) when auditioning or the script which is the complete map of the story.  The writer has created characters “doing actions” and “saying words” to tell a specific story.  It’s not my function to interfere with that.  I understand the character is there to move the story forward. However, the choices I make or consider to show the director – that in my opinion help tell the story through my “lens” to create a three-dimensional person – is what I aim to do as long as it doesn’t deviate from the story or derail the scene.

The work must be or feel organic to the story but also original and expressive…and uniquely me since I’m auditioning for or playing the role.  I also pull from the training I’ve done, using what’s important or helpful to create the character I want the director or casting director to see.

What do you find most rewarding about the acting profession?

I find creating a person I’ve met on the pages of a script with parts of myself that I know or have discovered to be most exciting.  And if the character is not familiar to me or remotely who I am, my research can add to those layers of this person I’m creating – that makes the process creatively rewarding for me. I’m also grateful to work with actors who realize we don’t act in a vacuum and are at different levels in their careers.  They are always giving to another actor or crew member to make them feel safe to express their creativity.

Are there any roles or genres you particularly enjoy working in, and if so, why?

I’m happy to have an acting job!  It’s a very tough business that keeps on changing as we have seen in the past few years. However, I’d like to work more in the historical or “period piece” genre, films shot and that take place outside the US and those that uplift and inspire us all to be better and kinder.

Managing both producing and acting roles can be demanding. How do you find balance between these two aspects of your career?

Balance is essential in life and in a career.  One must work on finding balance daily.  It’s not always easy but I separate myself from both – producing and acting – by meditating, exploring nature, doing hobbies that I enjoy, and finding joy outside my career.  And often I find that separation or detachment to inform me as a producer and actor; it opens up channels in a freeing or cleansing way.  Acting and producing are very difficult professions to pursue in many ways but I do try to focus on finding the deep value in both and know that hard work, perseverance and determination are key for success in both, and balance too!

Do you find that your experience as a producer informs your approach to acting, and vice versa?

Yes, they absolutely inform each other.  There are many types of producers with the word “producer” in the title, with a vast difference in each type; they range from managing the budget and physical production, raising financing to the overseeing the project’s creative vision.  I have been fortunate to have several different producer titles (producer, supervising producer, executive producer, etc.) and each one has given me tremendous insight on how to connect with my work as an actor.  And, as an actor, I understand that producer-title distinction very clearly and profoundly.

I appreciate the producer’s job.  For example, I can step back until we’re ready to roll, and not feel the level of frustration some actors feel because they haven’t functioned as a producer experience.  Being ready despite what’s going on in the interim is key and finding out how to do that – staying out of the way, staying focused, etc. – helps the goal and job of the producers who manage the production schedule, budget and director’s vision.  There are many variables that are not necessarily and immediately known to the actor.  I’m part of a big machine.  As a producer, I can see how an actor might have different needs, one of the most being a safe environment to create or express the character, and it’s part of a producer’s job to provide that.

What advice would you give to aspiring producers and actors looking to break into the industry?

I’m asked this question a lot and one of the most important pieces of advice I follow and share is to tell everyone what you’re doing.  In other words, make sure the person with whom you are talking knows what you are pursuing – if you’re a writer, an actor, a make-up artist, etc.  Be clear about your professional intention and definitely not annoying; be able to read the room and know when to stop talking.  Generally, I have found that it’s important to realize that if you make a good connection or impression, perceive a “no” response you may receive as a “not now” (as I have experienced).

The pendulum swings often in this business.  There’s also the potential to get a referral or introduction to someone who can say “yes.”  And be prepared to do the work – commit to it every day but also have a life outside what you’re doing.  Oscar-nominated Christine Vachon (PAST LIVES) said at a 2024 Producers Guild of America nominees event (and I’m paraphrasing), “…to never take anything personally.”  That’s very important advice; there could be a ton of reasons for a no or no reply, for example, that have nothing do with you.  Stay sane and focused; don’t take things personally.  Move on and keep telling others!

Looking back on your career thus far, is there anything you wish you had known when starting out?

I don’t live with regrets, but because you asked, I would encourage the younger me to stay more assertive and active in career development, and practice and network more.  There is tremendous value in those.  It’s nearly impossible to be discovered alone in your room, obviously!   It’s very unlikely something will be handed to you.  You have to go out and get it.  Turn off any negative voices emanating from fear or self-doubts and say “Yes!” to opportunities that have a lot of potential to make connections.

Can you share a particularly memorable or rewarding moment from your career that has stayed with you?

I would like to share two moments.

My producing partner and I pitched an idea to a TV network, and we got a “No.” In time, I would learn it actually turned out to be a “Not now.”  Months later, the same network was scheduling a night of programming dedicated to comedian Gilda Radner (America’s 1970/80s’ sweetheart) and reached out to order a one-hour special on Gilda.  That experience led me to raise the sponsor fee to get Gilda her posthumous Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, years later, the opportunity to be a producer on a feature documentary about Gilda that eventually garnered my first Emmy nomination a long with a group of talented filmmakers.

The second moment: I almost didn’t attend a film festival in Italy where I’ve wanted to work as an actor and producer since I can remember.  I said, “Yes” and went, met a talent manager who now represents me in Italy.  I shot an upcoming and much anticipated streaming series at Cinecittà last year, another bucket-list moment.  The seed was planted at the film festival.

Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations you’re particularly excited about that you can share with us?

One of them is the feature documentary, VIVA VERDI! that I’m executive-producing.  The film focuses on Casa Verdi, the retirement home Giuseppe Verdi built for aging musicians, composers, singers, dancers, etc. that opened in 1902 in Milan, Italy.  The residents will steal your heart as they reveal their passion for life, music and mentorships of young music students who live among them.  It’s quite amazing to witness the power of music and its direct and proven benefits to our health.  I can’t wait for audiences to meet these artists in their third act.

What aspirations or goals do you have for your career in the coming years?

I primarily want to tell stories that impact people, but I’m also interested in entertaining audiences as a distraction from daily life – I’m an advocate for escapism.  I also seek collaborations with filmmakers who are as passionate about telling impactful stories as I…or even a little more so that their passion amplifies mine.  Working with filmmakers outside the US is also one of my goals. For me, it’s a perfect way to immerse in another culture and see the world through a different lens.

Outside of your professional life, what are some of your hobbies or interests that people may not know about?
I love photography, especially focusing on subjects that have a powerful or subtle message, and that can move people. It’s my visceral response to images that I want to capture and share. Travel has afforded me those opportunities which is another passion of mine.  While I’ve always loved to cook, the pandemic forced me step up my A game in the kitchen.  Thanks to Instagram, there are many inspiring cooks and chefs to advance that passion that brings me joy and connects me to my Italian heritage.

Is there a mantra or philosophy that you live by, either personally or professionally?

That’s a great question.  For me, the mantra changes, shifts and is fine-tuned.  These days it’s saying, “Yes.”  It eliminates fear and doubt because “Yes” automatically commits me.  I also believe in the importance of kindness.  Some see it as a weakness.  For me, it’s another color to use in your professional toolbox or arsenal. I believe you can always respond with other colors as the situation requires; colors such as integrity, authenticity, clarity of intention, informed reply…you get the idea.

We know you have Italian heritage. Has it been a positive influence in your personal and/or professional life?
My Italian heritage has been hugely influential in both my personal and professional lives.  Italy’s enormous and distinct contributions to the world have led to my personal development, exposing me to cooking, music and cinema appreciation to maintaining important cultural traditions.  As a young child, I felt very connected to my roots.  I believe the journey of my immigrant grandparents to the US from Italy inspired me to dream globally.  As I learned more about Italian culture. Even while they were assimilating to life in America, there was a force pulling me closer to Italy both personally and professionally.  I wanted to speak Italian and work in Italy as a filmmaker, or, at the very least, tells stories about the Italian American experience deeply connected to Italy because that’s where my family journey began.

How do you hope your work as a producer and actor will impact audiences and fellow industry professionals?

I hope my legacy as either or both will have positive messages and impact – from making people laugh, think, cry to wanting to change themselves or even the world. It sounds lofty but I hope in some way, the work gives focus to the potential to live the best life and help others live theirs.  I would be honored to know that this type of advocacy will make a difference and propel others to do the same.

When people look back on your career in the future, what would you like them to remember or take away from it?

One of the personal and professional joys of working a films like VIVA VERDI! and being involved in the Producers Guild is passing the torch.  I hope others see the enormous value of mentorship so that future artists can benefit from it and pay it forward.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience, whether it’s about your current projects, the industry, or life in general?

Dream big and work hard, practice your craft, educate yourself and seek like-minded people who have the gift to lift you up.  Follow success stories of people who inspire you.  If you have the opportunity to meet or work with them, that’s great.  If not, in the meantime, study their journeys and see what works for you.  Don’t wait for or expect handouts.  Go for it. You’re in the driver’s seat.  Be fearless about taking control of your destiny and making mistakes; there are lessons in mistakes.  And enjoy the journey!

by Severino Ricci

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