It’s no easy task to sum up the extensive resume of the casting director behind The Telsey Office. From the original theater production of Rent to NBC’s This Is Us to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick… BOOM!, the work of Bernie Telsey is not limited to just one medium. In order to get a window into the person behind all the credits, Casting Networks virtually sat down with Telsey to talk about everything from how he works to how he recharges when off the clock.
It’s great to meet you via Zoom, Bernie, and I’d love to start off with the beginning of your career journey. When was the moment you knew that casting was the job for you?
It happened just a few weeks after I started as a casting assistant at the office of Meg Simon and Fran Kumin. I was hired to be their part-time assistant shortly after graduating from college, and as soon as I got to begin observing auditions, everything clicked for me. I had been on the other side of auditioning as an actor, but I didn’t really understand the casting process and how decisions were made. Once I got a window into that world, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I felt drawn to the idea of putting together a “people puzzle” with casting, which was more exciting to me than anything I’d studied as an actor. Being a part of the conversation of how people get cast just felt like the right fit for me, and I realized it was what I wanted to pursue.
And the rest is history! Amongst a very impressive list of titles you’ve worked on, I want to single out a recent series you cast. And Just Like That… delivered the strongest series debut on HBO Max to date, and after getting to talk with your partner Tiffany Little Canfield about the casting process, I’d love to hear what you can also tell us about assembling the cast for the highly-anticipated Sex and the City revival.
I’ll just say, “Michael Patrick King, Michael Patrick King … Michael Patrick King.” [Laughs] He’s the creator of the original Sex and the City series, the movies, and the revival. Michael was a part of the theater company that I started right out of college — while I was a casting assistant — so I’ve known him since we were in our twenties. We got back in touch when he asked me to cast the first Sex and the City film, and then we worked together on the sequel, as well. So, when it came to And Just Like That…, Michael involved Tiffany and me the minute he even started thinking about storylines. He began sharing information with us a good six months before we were even officially hired. There’s a big element of design in what we do, and I consider all casting directors to be artists. And having ample time is just so important with our work. It allows us to reach all different kinds of wonderful actors that exist.
So, it was wonderful to be a part of the process so early because of the relationship we have with Michael. Before the audition process even started, we were able to begin coming up with ideas and having discussions. Possessing that time — along with all the information Michael had shared with us — allowed Tiffany and me to go into the actual audition process feeling like we really knew who all the new characters were, like we’d had a chance to really live in the material.
It sounds like the ideal situation. Switching gears here, it’s time for my favorite question to ask casting. If someone made a film about your life story, which actor would you cast to play the role of Bernie Telsey?
Am I just supposed to throw out a name like George Clooney and move on? [Laughs] I honestly have no idea. This seems like something I would have been asked in the past, but it’s not. I’ve had people make the connection to Gene Wilder — God rest his soul — so I guess my answer would be a younger Gene Wilder. I like to think of myself as an accessible and happy person, which relates to his work in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, for example.
That’s a fantastic choice. Now, besides film and TV, your theater credits also run deep, including the original cast of Hamilton. Can you speak a bit to how you approach casting for the stage versus the screen, along with what happens when they intersect? The other projects you’ve worked on with Lin-Manuel Miranda come to mind in regard to the latter.
First, I’ll say that I love casting for the stage — that’s how I started in the profession. As far as an approach to that medium, there’s no getting around the fact that people need to be trained in order to work on the stage. With theater productions, actors are doing the same performance seven or eight times a week in front of a live audience, which generally requires training. When it comes to film and TV, we still love to see where actors have studied. But, the most important thing we’re looking for with that medium is the actor’s ability to really be truthful in front of the lens because the camera catches every moment, and it doesn’t lie. Acting for the screen and stage are both challenging in their own ways — they’re just different tracks of the same art form. And then working on a musical adds a whole other dimension to casting. Whether it’s the stage production or film adaptation of In the Heights, for example, we’re looking for actors who can also really sing. I’ll add that one of the joys of what I do is getting to work in theater, in film, and in TV so I can see the various elements that different actors bring to them. Just like thespians, casting directors don’t want to be pigeon-holed into doing just one thing.
That makes sense. And before we wrap, can you share how you recharge when you’re off the clock?
I’m obsessed with buying furniture and redecorating, which I’m just now realizing is kind of like casting the living space. You know, you’re looking for the right piece to fit the room. [Laughs] But yes, I would say that that’s how I recharge. My wife and I tend to do a lot of related shopping, and one of our sons even wrote about it when he was in middle school. He penned this whole paragraph about how every time he came home from school, the living room would look different. [Laughs]
From Telsey’s passion for his work as an artist to his passion for redecorating his home — and everything in between — this has been a look into the person behind the impressive casting resume. Those interested in learning more about all the film and TV titles included on the latter can find them listed on IMDb.
This interview has been edited and condensed.