"He's really an artist" is how Tony Award–winning director Bartlett Sher describes casting director Bernie Telsey. "An artist is a person who looks at the world differently than other people, and Bernie does that through casting. He's able to see what other people don't see. He's able to collect and put together and arrange things in an artful way. He's put together an extraordinary staff and a whole life around that casting office—which is an extension of being a great artist—just in the way he's made it a joyful and creative experience."
That casting office, Telsey + Company, is responsible for finding the actors for many of the shows currently on Broadway, including 9 to 5, Next to Normal, Rock of Ages, Blithe Spirit, In the Heights, Wicked, and South Pacific—which Sher directed for Lincoln Center Theater—as well as the recently closed Reasons to Be Pretty, which Telsey produced as artistic director of MCC Theater, where it opened. If you're a serious Broadway actor, at one time or another you've auditioned for Telsey or a member of his staff. In addition, he has cast numerous Off-Broadway and regional productions and such films as Rachel Getting Married, Sex and the City, Dan in Real Life, Across the Universe, and Pieces of April.
Among the many new projects Telsey is working on is the highly anticipated musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, directed by Julie Taymor of Lion King fame. "Bernie understands the kind of actors that I am looking for and is tireless in seeking them out," writes Taymor in an email. "When we were casting Across the Universe, and now with Spider-Man, we tried to discover young, unknown performers, and that is a specialty that he has developed…and he's the best at it."
"Even though he's been doing it over 20 years," says Sher, "he seems to love it just as much as when he started."
Telsey got into the casting business indirectly. While majoring in theater management and acting at NYU, he met another student, Robert LuPone (Patti's brother), and the two hatched the idea of starting a theater company. After graduating, Telsey didn't want to work for a producer full time, because it would conflict with his acting ambitions and building his theater. His producing teachers introduced him to Meg Simon and Fran Kumin, one of the most active casting teams on Broadway in the 1980s; they cast most of the decade's hit plays, including Neil Simon's Broadway Bound and Biloxi Blues and the early work of August Wilson, as well as productions for Yale Repertory Theatre.
"I started working for them part time literally right when I graduated in '82," Telsey recalls. "I was working as a casting assistant and doing all their bookkeeping, because I was also a business major. I worked for them for six years. I just loved it. I would go to the theater all the time with Meg. I saw an incredible number of actors who I was just gaga over. They were so good, I thought, 'I can't do that, but how can I help them?' Casting seemed to be the perfect kind of place to do that."
Telsey left Simon and Kumin to run his fledgling Manhattan Class Company, which would become better known as MCC Theater, among Off-Broadway's most prominent companies. While he and LuPone were getting it on its feet, Telsey worked on a freelance basis with Risa Bramon and Billy Hopkins, who were casting artistic director Gregory Mosher's first season at Lincoln Center Theater as well as several movies.
Out There on His Own
After two years with Bramon and Hopkins, Telsey opened his own office: "While I was working with Risa and Billy, I did a freelance project—a commercial that Richard Avedon directed, this big IBM spot. It was his first on-camera commercial. We had this incredible cast of stage actors—Bob Joy, Robert LuPone, Ron Vawter from the Wooster Group, Larry Bryggman—these wonderful stage actors who were really new to commercials. The ad really took off. Everybody started calling Risa and Billy to do commercials. Risa and Billy were like, 'We do plays and movies. We did this one commercial because it was Richard Avedon. Bernie, you do them!' That sort of became the launching pad. It made me open up space and start this little business casting commercials, which seemed to be the perfect way to support running MCC. Then that took off in the advertising world so much that I had to get a little staff and a little more space."
Gradually that little business grew. Telsey began casting for Connecticut's Hartford Stage and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. This led to the New York Theatre Workshop, where he cast Quills and Rent. The latter—a rock version of La Bohème by a then-unknown author, the late Jonathan Larsen—became a surprise hit, first Off-Broadway, then on.
Rent put Telsey's office on the map as a caster of high-profile Broadway shows, but it wasn't an easy assignment. "That was probably the hardest thing to work on," he says, "because that was before there was a generation of 20-year-olds doing rock musicals. Back then there wasn't anything on Broadway to pull from, and even pulling from the agents, nobody had anybody that was authentically rock. Now, even though they might not be as good as Adam [Pascal], you could find lots of kids. Plus, it was Off-Broadway, so it was hard enough to get agent submissions. Off-Broadway? They don't want to do that. They'd rather go on tour, where they can make twice as much money. But it was still, to this day, one of the most collaborative projects I've ever done. It was a dream."
Rent director Michael Grief agrees and praises Telsey's gifts: "Bernie can recognize raw talent. He can recognize someone who has a yen for acting even if they're not an experienced actor. He understands that they understand truth and character and behavior. He has a good notion of who can figure out a scene. He'll be able to see an actor in a fresh light as well—someone who's known for one thing and he'll have an instinct that they can do another thing."
Stock Market or E.R.?
Rent allowed Telsey's company to do more than pay the rent on its midtown Manhattan office. Projects poured in and haven't stopped in the 13 years since. A typical day "feels like the stock market," says Telsey, who works with 11 senior casting directors. "It's like the phone is always ringing with the crisis of the day: 'So-and-so just left,' or there's the injury. There's always a casting crisis that needs to be settled in minutes. Then there's the race of 'How fast can we get it done before that actor is no longer available?'… Then there's the typical day of auditioning. There's always the project with the one role that can't be cast, whether it's a musical or a play at Hartford Stage. Today it's the older gentleman in the Horton Foote cycle of plays for Hartford Stage and later Signature Theatre Off-Broadway. Or there's the one ensemble role in The Addams Family, but she's got to be the No. 2 kick-ass singer and dancer but also cover the principal. It's always one role."
"There is no typical day," says Bethany Knox, a casting director with Telsey + Company. "You can be at a dance call for 600 people one day, and the next day you're doing a Staples commercial. There is such a huge range of what we do that it keeps us on our toes."
"It's like an emergency room, and you're doing triage," jokes colleague Tiffany Little Canfield. The office contains five studios, and auditions are going on constantly. On the day Back Stage visited, breakdowns were being written and calls to agents made for the new Sex and the City movie; prescreens were taking place for the role of Liat in the national tour of South Pacific; replacements were being seen for In the Heights and Wicked; and a new-play reading was being cast. "It's really eclectic," says Telsey, "and that's what I love about it."
"We have a big staff meeting every week where we review every project," says CD Will Cantler. "Everybody sits in, and it's amazing how much of that pays off even in the projects that you don't think you have any connection to. You hear about somebody who's right for something you're working on, or the musical people might say someone they saw would be good for a commercial. Bernie's always encouraged that kind of collaboration and communication. It makes it really fun to work here."
The rest of the senior staff consists of Abby Brady-Dalton, Craig Burns, Patrick Goodwin, Bess Fifer, Justin Huff, Rachel Hoffman, Carrie Rosson, and David Vaccari.
No Small Parts
So what are the differences between casting a film and a play? "In some ways it's the same, but the wants are different," says Telsey. "On the movie you have more options, because everybody wants to do a movie and it's a short-term commitment. It's in and out and it's over, so you have more choice and people. Looks also count. You don't have to be gorgeous, but how you look on camera is a big part of it. We film all the movie auditions. It's also sometimes about who's hot and a name and who means something. Not that it's not about the talent—of course it is—but there are so many other elements that go into the film. Whereas in theater, it's really about the extent of someone's instrument and how they fit into the ensemble. There are less choices in the theater always, because it's such a time commitment and it's so hard. Not everyone can do that. It's hard to do film, but it is easier than theater."
Smaller roles in film are also difficult to cast, he adds: "The actor who actually gets the part is the one who does that one line as if it's 50 lines and somehow finds seven different colors within the one sentence. They fill it out, and their role starts when the camera goes on, not when they start to speak."
An example of someone making the most of a tiny part is Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who had one line in Rachel Getting Married. After she'd been working as a reader at the office, Telsey cast her as a receptionist at the rehab clinic where Anne Hathaway's character attends a meeting. Later Bernstine won an Obie and a Clarence Derwent Award for the play Ruined. Telsey emphasizes the importance of taking every opportunity to be seen by casting directors, no matter how insignificant it may seem. "Being a reader is a great exercise and great way to explore your instrument," he says. "You just learn so much from watching."
There's an art to auditioning, Telsey notes, and one of the most common mistakes actors make is "not being available to what's going on in the moment in the room, because they're so worried about the nerves and all of that that they're missing what I call the 'blind date' that they're having with the casting staff. You can easily tell when someone is not present. Another common mistake is not fulfilling the material by making a choice and being incredibly prepared. The audition process is 10 people or 200 people coming in for the same role, and it's about who's best in the audition. It's no different than an Olympic race. They're all great runners; that's how they got there. But the one who wins is the one who finishes first. How do you finish first? Preparation and being available to what's in the room."
Training is also a vital element. "People have got to train," Telsey says. "Because of the huge success stories from the reality shows, people think they can just become an actor by saying, 'I want to be an actor.' I think training is what gives you stability and longevity in this business, because it's not just about immediacy. To get in the loop for young actors, be available; do everything and anything. We cast a million readings, and it always surprises me when actors turn them down. But if you did that reading, nine months later when the show got green-lit, the theater would have just offered it to you, because often they don't have time to cast it with someone else.
"I feel that an actor's job is to say yes. I don't care if it's doing it in the hellhole of Vermont. Sure, finances are an issue and you have to be able to afford to do a low-paying job. But if you're in this business to be an actor and you're not a working actor yet, you've got to take anything. I feel like the actor who doesn't take an understudy job in a road tour and says, 'I want to wait,' I say, 'Wait for what?' By doing that job in the regions, you've gotten better. That's only going to show in the next time you audition. Sometimes actors forget that."
Bernie Telsey accepts headshots and résumés. They can be sent to:
Telsey + Company,
311 W. 43rd St., 10th fl.,