A Working podcast transcript: Bernie Telsey, casting director.

Casting Director Bernie Telsey on Talent, From the Stage to the Silver Screen

Casting Director Bernie Telsey on Talent, From the Stage to the Silver Screen

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Oct. 15 2015 11:47 AM

How Does a Casting Director Work? 

Read what host Arun Venugopal asked Bernie Telsey about discovering talent in the world of theater, television, and film.

Casting director Bernie Telsey.
Casting director Bernie Telsey.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images.

We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 4, Episode 5.

Bernie Telsey has been casting hit musicals, films, and TV shows for more than 20 years. In this week’s episode of Working, Slate’s Arun Venugopal, host of WNYC’s Micropolis series, talks with Telsey about what he’s looking for in an audition, how diversity has changed on the stage and screen during his time in the business, and how finding talent isn’t necessarily the hardest part of the job.

In a Slate Plus extra, Bernie and Arun talk about casting Ricki and the Flash with Meryl Streep.

We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.

Arun Venugopal: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Arun Venugopal, host of WNYC’s Micropolis series, which looks at issues of race and identity. On today’s episode, we talk with someone who can turn mere commoners into fabulous stars of the stage and screen. What’s your name and what do you do?

Bernie Telsey: My name is Bernie Telsey, and I’m a casting director.

Venugopal: And how long have you done this?

Telsey: Let’s say almost 30 years.

Venugopal: So, had you spent much of your childhood being exposed to the industry?

Telsey: Yeah. I sort of fell in love with it in high school, and I knew I wanted to go into the theater. At first, it was to act, until I started quickly seeing other aspects of the theater. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, whether it was to run a theater, be backstage, work on props, stage management. But I sort of knew that I wanted to pursue it as a career.

Venugopal: Were there certain productions that really made the difference, that really clicked for you? Did you have a eureka moment at any point in your life?

Telsey: Probably working on the high school variety show. I was in the theater club at that time, and I was a senior. I was in charge of directing and producing and putting the whole show together. I think at that moment, getting the whole 12th grade—not only the theater geeks but the jocks and all the other departments to be involved in this school production, because it’s our big fundraiser (it was that kind of a thing)—was probably one of those eureka moments where it was like, “I can do this, and I really can help change people’s lives.” You know, as corny as that sounds.

Venugopal: It’s not a small thing for somebody who’s in their teens to be able to actually get the jocks and various constituencies involved in something like that, to persuade them. But you actually had that sort of like, that force.

Telsey: Yeah. I didn’t think I did, but yes. I feel like it’s the same thing I have now. It’s a lot of chutzpah and a lot of conniving, convincing, and selling. Which is all part of casting: selling, convincing, and conniving. So, I think it all started back then.

Venugopal: And here you are with this view of Times Square, the theater district. How long have you been here?

Telsey: I’ve been in this space 10 years this spring. Before that, we used to be on a space on 28th Street. It’s great because we have all of our casting studios here. We have six casting studios. So, at any given moment you might have Wicked in one room, or a Jonathan Demme movie in the next, or an NBC television show in the next room, or commercials.

Venugopal: Yeah. I saw Captain Morgan, some sort of drink. I guess a casting call, right?

Telsey: Yeah, that’s a commercial that’s going on now. There’s always something going on here, and it’s wonderful because the lobby is filled with 20 actors or 200 actors—it’s a really great environment. At the same, I think it’s comfortable for the actors because we try to make it really relaxed. And then, back here is where the 20-some-odd staff members sit. We’re all casting something.

Venugopal: What is it that you really like about this job, and what do you hate about it?

Telsey: Finding the right actor for the right role, or finding the right artist to work with the right time, is a thrill. It’s sort of like winning the lotto every day. Our job is to know the talent, and we’re watching theater, movies, television every night of the week looking for new talent, looking for actors who can fit a certain role.

And when you find that right match, based on what the creative team told you they were looking for, it’s a great thrill. It’s like really being a matchmaker.

Venugopal: So, you’re constantly having to be out there, going to plays, going to musicals, sitting at home on your sofa watching TV. Is that right?

Telsey: Oh, yeah. You’re always looking for actors. You’re always people-watching. You feel like whenever there’s an actor you don’t know you’re missing something, because there’s another brilliant person who could maybe be right for something that I’m casting.

Because we’re an office that casts so many different kinds of things, even if they’re working on another job, they can still be maybe available for what we’re doing which doesn’t start until another two months. It’s a constant Rubik’s Cube or finding the right puzzle piece. Just like for an artist, all the different paint colors are their tools. For us, it’s actors.

Venugopal: Hasn’t your job gotten a lot harder when there’s just so much programming product?

Telsey: Oh, yeah. There’s so much product and there’s so much work out there. So, everyone is employed. I mean, I know the statistics and there’s still so many unemployed actors, but everybody’s working because there’s so much more activity happening, not just in film and TV but theater as well. So, that’s what’s made the job really hard. At the same time, the Internet and the accessibility has made it so much easier, because now we can see actors in Australia and London within five minutes.

It’s not the days of even FedEx where it took two days. Everything is accessible to us, which means, we need to know who those actors are in Asia now. We need to know who those actors are in Australia.

Venugopal: So, tell me, in terms of the openness, in terms of the cultural openness and how you and the industry have shifted from, say, the 1980s or ’90s to now. Recently we see The King and I, or different kind of casting decisions. On TV you see Priyanka Chopra, this Bollywood actress who’s now going to be the star of Quantico, which is—

Telsey: Huge.

Venugopal: It’s huge.

Telsey: Oh, yeah. The whole diverse issue. It’s always been on the forefront of casting directors because even when I started this in the ’80s, they were seeing diverse actors all the time for plays they were doing up at Yale Rep. But the casting directors can only go so far. For us, we always were into it, because guess what? It just meant we had that many more actors to choose from. The way you like a crayon box of 64 colors more than the 32 colors when you were a kid, because you had more choices.

So, we were always doing that. But we’re only part of the situation. We know the actors, we bring them in, but we don’t actually do the final, final hiring. Now the directors, and the writers, and more importantly the producers, want it—not only as a P.C. It’s who your audience is. It’s no longer like in the ’80s and ’90s.

It was cool to have a nonwhite person in your project. Now you’re crazy if you’re not doing it. Because who’s your audience? The whole population is crossed now. You know what I mean? It’s no longer white America, so.

Venugopal: But the audience in Broadway is still relatively white, correct? I mean, the statistics have not gotten a lot better in the last five or 10 years.

Telsey: Oh, I think they’ve gotten better. I don’t follow the statistics of the audience. God knows the audience of movies and television is not just white anymore, which is why film and TV, especially television, have broadened their base.

Venugopal: But Broadway, I mean.

Telsey: Broadway was always ahead of the game as far as the diversity issues go, because it was live theater and people in the theater were always ahead of the time. Unfortunately, it’s so damn expensive that I think it’s still primarily a white audience that is going. But I don’t know. It just seems like more and more of recent shows like Hamilton, and shows like The Color Purple, and shows that are much more diverse are bringing in those audiences.

I feel like it’s changed. It just needs to change more in the audience. But on stage, it’s been completely successful.

Venugopal: Hamilton, I guess, it’s not just to the people I know who are raving about it and who are really excited about it. I feel like this is something that’s a game changer, but it’s also in the industry, right?

Telsey: Oh, yeah. Our office cast that show and it’s been great to work with. But that’s credit to Lin and Tommy, the creators, because that’s not about the casting office being smart and clever and bringing in diverse actors.

That’s about them as writers and authors and directors demanding it, saying, “We want to tell that story.” And now everybody is like, “Oh, why am I not doing that?” It’s a real game changer as far as broadening other productions—whether it be film, television, or theater—to do the same thing.

Venugopal: Over the course of your career, have you seen a change in terms of the audience, the energy that’s in there with just changing demographics and the like? Or is it pretty much Broadway has been Broadway? Maybe that’s a very subtle question.

Telsey: Yeah, it is a subtle question. I do feel like with each audience I’m working with on Broadway, the audiences are getting younger. Sure. They’re incredibly older than other mediums like film and television, but they are getting younger. I think shows that started 15 years ago like Rent that segued into Fun Home of today, or the Hamiltons of today, they’re bringing in the younger audiences. There are much cooler things on Broadway.

Venugopal: Rent was one of your early major—

Telsey: Yeah. That was our first Broadway show.

Venugopal: That was your big deal, right?

Telsey: Yeah. That was our first Broadway show that really sort of put our office on the map.

Venugopal: So, tell me about that. That’s considered a landmark, not just in terms of—

Telsey: Well, it was the Hamilton of its time, so to speak, because it was diverse. It was watching all these different nationalities and ethnicities, and it was telling a story that you didn’t necessarily ever see on Broadway.

It was the Lower East Side. Oh, people were dying, but it’s a musical, so it really was the game changer of its time in ’96.

Venugopal: How does a particular casting assignment begin?

Telsey: We first get a script, if there is one, or a draft. We try to spend as much time with the authors, the director, and the producer so we can get inside their head and find out: “Okay, tell me about what you’re looking for.” Whether it was talking to Jonathan Larson and Michael Greif on Rent or talking to Jonathan Demme on Ricki and the Flash movie.

You try to get inside. “Tell me about this. Are you open to all nationalities? Is this a man? Is this a girl? What kind of person is this? What do they have to sing? What do they have to act?” You try to read the material and find out how important is this part. Is it a lead? Is it a small part? All those kind of things, whether it be a film, television, or theater. And then you start making lists.

Whether it’s making star lists that might actually do the project, or it’s a star list for prototypes to try to get inside the head of the creative team. Depending on what the project is, you have a sense of who the kinds of people are that are going to do this. Is it nonstars? Is it discoveries? Is it stars? Then you start doing lists, and you start trying to narrow down who you might want to make an offer to. Or if it’s something we’re going to do auditions for, and it’s not about lists?

It’s not about just doing days and days of auditions and bringing in your favorite 20-year-olds or your favorite 40-year-olds. You sit around with your staff and your team of casting directors on each project, and you start sussing out who to audition. Part of the joy is doing auditions of people we don’t know, because it was an idea that an agent suggested. Or it was an idea of: “Oh, I saw this person in a class,” or, “I saw this person on Blacklist last week. They might be right for this.”

As much as we want to have the idea ahead of time, we have to use the audition process and the casting process to find out who that is. We need our time. I can’t always tell the director, “This is who should play your part.” Sure, you always have that idea. But then again, we know so many good ideas. So how do you determine who should get the part? You’ve got to do the audition process. You’ve got to have that time, creatively, to sift through who it might be.

Venugopal: Are there times where, either out here in your lobby or out on the street, there’s a line of actors lined up and you’re just walking by that on your way into the casting, into auditions, and you just sense something? Is there something ever ephemeral that you feel like there’s something here?

Telsey: Yeah. I mean, it’s hard to describe and people have asked that before. We just did all these open calls for The Wiz, the live television show. We were looking for an 18-, 19-year-old girl, and we’d already seen all the girls we knew, and it wasn’t going to be one of them.

So we were doing open calls. Someone walks in a room and just starts talking to you or just starts singing and you have that “Aha!” moment of “Oh my God, it’s her. I feel it.” Then you’re job becomes how to help make them better and how to get the whole creative team behind them. You’ve got to get the director to fall in love, you’ve got to get the producer to fall in love, you’ve got to get the network to fall in love.

That’s the hard process. We’re constantly having actors come in fulfilling that “Aha!” moment. Even though there are, many times, more than one choice. But most of the time, there’s not—there’s just something about the right match of the right person.

Venugopal: Just wondering, when it comes to that idea of immersing in a character, is the craft regarded in a different way than it might have been 30 years ago?

Telsey: I don’t know about that. I feel like because information is so accessible and there’s so many avenues, I think it’s only introduced the younger generations to what performing can really be.

Because at the same time, I feel like I know this for a fact: The universities and the training school programs are vast now. There’s so many more, and they’re all filled. So it isn’t like all these young kids are walking down the street thinking they’re going to be discovered like Marilyn Monroe. They are going to school. They are being trained. As much as there might be hundreds and hundreds going to reality television shows to try to be famous, they’re also studying.

People know that if you want to have a lasting career as an actor, you have to train.

Venugopal: Do you have advice for people who are about to audition? Are there certain things that you think that they need to do or avoid?

Telsey: Oh, yeah. I always say to an actor starting out, “Be prepared.” And you might think, well, what does that mean? Know what it is you’re auditioning for. Know the material. Be a detective. Find out as much as you possibly can about it.

Learn it, read it. Don’t just wing it. I feel like so many times actors take for granted that it is a job interview, the audition process. It is a business. And everybody wants you to be professional. If you’re not going to be prepared, if you’re not going to really pay attention—whether it’s two pages of dialogue or 20 pages of dialogue—there will be another actor who will be.

There are so many people auditioning for every role that you’ve got to stand out. How you stand out is if you’re really prepared so that you can do what it is that you do, which is act, and have an emotional connection, and have a vulnerability, and make choices. It’s not just about being present.

Venugopal: When you’re watching movies, or TV, or anything else, are you constantly thinking, “Hmm, is this how I would have cast it?”

Telsey: I’m always at the positive end, like, “Oh my God, there’s someone else I don’t know, and I could know, and I should know. What can I put them in?” I’m always sort of falling love, whether it be with someone who’s got five lines or someone who’s a lead. Of course, we’re all human. There are times where you watch something and go, really? That’s who was chosen? But not having worked on their project, there could have been a hundred different reasons why.

Venugopal: For instance, there’s always a debate about, say, James Bond. The next James Bond. Oh, Idris Elba, too street or whatever. Do you ever think you know who would be perfect for James Bond?

Telsey: I haven’t done that one yet. My son keeps doing that, because he’s a huge James Bond fan. I keep giving him the task of who would you cast?

Venugopal: Who would he?

Telsey: He hasn’t really said, but he was open to an African-American. I was just testing him because I actually think Idris would be amazing, just knowing the body of work that he has done. He’s not too street and too urban. He’s so good.

Venugopal: He’s supersophisticated, right?

Telsey: Yeah. He’d be great, and it would be really exciting.

Venugopal: How do you think it would change our sense of somebody that iconic, 50 or 60 years of that? What would it do for that character?

Telsey: I feel like James Bond has so much identity as those two words that whoever you put in the clothes and you put in the situation, after 10 minutes, you’re going to be fine.

You know what I mean? I feel like that character is larger than life. I don’t think there’s been a character that’s lasted as long, right? From the novels to the, what, 50 years of movies?

Venugopal: Easily.

Telsey: Twenty-five movies over 50 years. I’ve watched them all, because I have a 26-year-old and a 15-year-old. They all might have their favorites, but they don’t even really have a favorite Bond as they have a favorite Bond movie.

As good as all those guys are, that’s not fair to say it doesn’t matter. But I feel like you would adapt if they were a good actor, rather than thinking is he Bond-like? You could look at all the different Bonds, and they’re all so different. But yet, they worked.

Venugopal: When it comes to all these kids coming into the business, do you think that there’s a particular risk or challenge when it comes to getting children into acting, like in terms of exposing them at a very young age to this business?

Telsey: Listen. If there’s a family that has an 8-year-old, 10-year-old, 12-year-old that really wants to be in this business, go for it.

As I always talk to those parents, it’s not just about, “I want to make my kid famous.” Start having that kid trained and start having that kid take classes. Go to those auditions and go to all those things. There are amazing young actors out there. This young girl that we cast in The Intern movie. I just saw the premiere the other night. She’s unreal. So, good for you, you know?

But I’m very supportive of the parents that have to be available to show up at the drop of a hat at the audition. There’s a whole lifestyle that changes. But I think if you have a kid and you’re game to do it, why not? The kid wants to do it. You can’t make a kid do it. It’s really hard work, and it’s really long hours. It’s a lot of sitting around. But if there are kids who like doing that, God bless.

Venugopal: Do you ever have people who say, “Bernie, please tell my kid not to do this. This is crazy. They’re going to be starving. I don’t want this to happen”?

Telsey: No, because I’m not getting into that politics of that family. I have had parents say, “Please tell my kid what it’s like.” I’m not going to sit here and make it flowery, and I’m not going to make it negative. But I want them to know, this is what you have to be used to. When I do these classes at the universities and the schools, there’s nothing better—it’s a wonderful opportunity, career, and environment—but you’re choosing a profession where all day long, part of your job is to get rejected.

And rejection doesn’t mean you’re bad. Sure, if you’re rejected for six years in a row, maybe you’re not good. But I know a million Tony Award–winning, Oscar-winning actors who are still rejected. Just like when you go to the dentist every day, it’s going to hurt. Whether you take gas, whether you take Novocaine, whether you do it bare, it’s not pleasant.

There’s nothing, you know, joyful about having your teeth drilled. That’s what I say to actors. It’s like you are being rejected every day. What you have to do is not take it personally and not let it sink in. You have to just go, “I didn’t get that job.” I didn’t reject you. I didn’t reject your soul, your talent. I just didn’t cast you. You just didn’t get cast.

Otherwise, if you give it any meaning, that’s when it’s going to get in the way of you being the artist that you want to be.

Venugopal: Do you think that vulnerability, insecurity, whatever it is, is partly what makes them? That sensitivity, what makes them?

Telsey: Oh, yeah. Because they have to access that when they’re acting. There’s nothing better—that’s what blows me away when I see actors doing the acting and really transforming into a character in storytelling, and being vulnerable, and being emotional on the fly.

I can’t do that. I’m constantly thinking what I’m saying and ahead of the game. They’re allowed to be a little crazy. They’re allowed to be a little high-strung, because they’re so in tune all the time and they’re so accessible when they’re acting. That, I get it. You know, they deserve the grace. Give them a break.

Venugopal: Bernie, is there anything about you that I haven’t asked?

Telsey: I would say to anybody out there, casting is not just about young actors. But if there are people that want to go into casting and want to know more about what it is as a profession …

There’s the CSA, which is the Casting Society of America, our society of all casting directors for film, television, and theater. You should go on the website and find out more about it because it’s a really booming industry, and it’s a growing industry. Just in the last 10 years. Not to say that there’s a million jobs out there, but there is a place for someone who wants to do that.

It’s not just after you can’t act anymore or can’t direct anymore. I’ve seen so many more young people coming through our office that really want to do this. I’m always amazed at how they found out about it. What made you want to be a casting director? So I would just encourage people to realize that it’s a profession and there is a lot of good work there.

Venugopal: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. We would love to hear your thoughts about this podcast. You can email us at working@slate.com.

And dig through our first three seasons at slate.com/working. This episode was produced by Jayson De Leon. Our senior producer is Mike Vuolo. And our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Arun Venugopal. See you next time on Working.

* * *

This podcast extra is part of your Slate Plus membership.

Venugopal: A few weeks ago I saw the documentary about Marlon Brando. Did you see that?

Telsey: No, I did not, but someone in my office was talking about it. I hear it’s amazing.

Venugopal: Yeah. The fact that he’s just kind of sitting there talking about his childhood and what he went through. There’s all these tapes that he recorded of himself just talking. I guess he’s such an iconic figure in terms of the process and what brought him to fame, and also, of course, the way in which he suffered. It is amazing to see that this person who is such a legend is also so damaged in a certain way. It was almost like one wasn’t possible without the other, in a sense.

Telsey: Yeah.

Venugopal: I know that a lot of people think that the method and all that kind of a thing has become overemphasized and all that. Are there certain kind of iconic figures who you think still have a value in terms of talking about acting and that process?

Telsey: Oh, of course. I mean, Meryl Streep for one.

Venugopal: You’ve worked with her a lot.

Telsey: Yeah. We’ve done two films in the last year, but even before we got to know her. She’s unreal as far as her talent and as far as her humanity. I think she can do no wrong. Why wouldn’t you want to follow in those footsteps or be that kind of artist who can tap into so many different personalities, emotions, and can just tap into other people’s stories?

There are so many other actors like that, too. There are wonderful actors out there.

Venugopal: In terms of her or another person you’ve worked with closely. Say, Ricki and the Flash. Was that process of casting her—did it start with her? Did it start with the story?

Telsey: Yeah, she was already set. When Jonathan Demme, who we’ve done a few projects for, called us about casting that movie, she was, of course, already set. He had a history with her. The two of them and the playwright, and the screenwriter, they were doing this movie. And now, “Bernie, go cast with him,” of course, “the rest of the people.”

Venugopal: Do you think that the fact that she plays a star of this sort at her age is showing that there is a gradual change in terms of casting women at different ages in different kinds of roles? Is that receptivity also happening?

Telsey: Yeah, it’s slow. I mean, again, she can do no wrong. So, she can get movies made and people will take chances. I think she has the luxury that other women her age probably don’t have as much.

You know what I mean? Because people now go to see a Meryl Streep movie, so it’s okay if she’s playing a 50-year-old, a 55-year-old, or a 60-year-old, that other people don’t. But I feel like women’s roles, there does seem to be more of them in the last few years, especially on television. All of those women. That’s why the Joan Allens and the Viola Davises are all doing television now, because there are great roles for older women.