Tannis Vallely is one half of the casting duo behind the hit CBS series Ghosts — you can check out our previous installment of Get to Know the Casting Director for more on her collaborator Elizabeth Barnes — and fans of the ’80s sitcom Head of the Class may recognize her as the actor who plays Janice Lazarotto on the series. Since finding a passion for working on the other side of the camera, Vallely has built up a stacked casting résumé that includes big-name films such as Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls — she tells us the director is one of the kindest people you could hope to meet — and star-studded series like Netflix’s Murderville. The casting director virtually sat down with Casting Networks to provide a window into the person behind all the credits, along with a peek into the process of navigating uncharted waters to find the Ghosts ensemble.
It’s great to virtually meet you, Tannis, and I’d love to kick things off with your route to casting. From acting in Head of the Class to earning a degree from Stanford University to running your own casting company, can you share how you ended up in the profession?
It’s fun because I really am working in my dream job. Reflecting on all the different parts of my life and how they got me here, each piece helped cover the various facets of casting in a different way. I grew up in Manhattan, where my mom was a theater director, an actor, and an acting teacher. Dad was a standup comic, and after their divorce, my weekends with him were largely spent in comedy clubs. I took in that type of performance from an early age and then found my way into acting. After Head of the Class ended, I wanted to try a little bit of real life for a while, off-camera. I went to high school and then Stanford.
Where you majored in psychology?
Yes, I was always drawn to people and what makes them tick — their emotions and motivations and all that — so psychology was a really natural fit for me. After graduating, I found myself back in LA and decided I would try something else in the industry. I was actually planning to write at first. My dad had made his way from standup to writing, and we started collaborating for a little while. While I tried to get my career in that profession going, I figured I’d need to find a groovy little day job. So, I spoke with a casting director I’d met through my dad, Angela Terry, and asked if she thought I might enjoy that type of work. Angela said “absolutely” and hooked me up with Brian Myers, who had just finished casting Seinfeld.
Wow. Talk about starting with a bang!
I went into working with him not really even knowing what the job was, but my mom had pointed out that casting is the bridge between TV writers and actors. Since my dad’s a writer, my mom’s an actor, and they’re divorced, I’ve basically been doing this my whole life! [Laughs] When I realized that casting was my passion and what I wanted to do, though, I became aware of how the different parts of my past experiences had really prepared me for it so well. I mean, a psychology degree helps you break down a character and understand the meat of what’s going on with them. My acting background equipped me to be a good scene partner for actors — I always prefer to read with them during sessions. Plus, hanging out in the back of the theater and watching my mom direct showed me how your words can effect change in an actor’s performance. But the piece of my past that I think plays most into my work as a casting director, especially now with working in the comedy space, was when I would sit in the audience of my dad’s shows. Watching the same act over and over again, I realized the reason why it would sometimes kill and sometimes fall flat.
What was that?
The deciding factor was the audience, the energy and feedback that the crowd gave. It’s a crucial component because comedy can’t exist in a vacuum — it’s a relationship between the performer and the audience. So, that lesson mixed with the rest of my life experience allows me to be the actor’s audience member, scene partner, and director all at once during an audition.
I love that you can look back at your journey into casting and see how the foundation of your career was being laid before you were even aware it was what you wanted to do — so cool! And now switching gears here, it’s time for my favorite question to ask. If someone made a film about your life, which actor would you cast to play the role of Tannis Vallely?
You know, I’ve always really respected Mara Wilson and love that she has a similar experience of having grown up as a child actor. So, she’s somebody who would be on that list, and then Sarah Paulson can do absolutely anything — I’d love to see her take on this hypothetical performance. And since you prepped me ahead of time on this question, I went ahead and asked Liz [Barnes] and my husband whom they’d pick. It’s so funny because she said Mae West and he said Amy Schumer, but the reason behind their selections was the same. Apparently, it’s because both actors can be dirty and funny. So that must just be how I’m perceived by those around me. [Laughs] That’s my vibe, I guess.
[Laughs] That’s impressive they both had the same rationale behind their picks for you. And before we go any further, I have to congratulate you on the success of Ghosts and its renewal for season two! What can you tell us about the process of assembling its ensemble cast?
You know, it was such an interesting journey because we started casting it in February of 2020, right before the pandemic hit. We were looking for true character actors and didn’t have the pressure of everybody needing to be famous and a name — there was such freedom to find people who truly felt like the roles. So, that was exciting, and we had tremendous collaborative support from Rosalie Joseph and Eric Goldberg at CBS’ New York office. They found Asher Grodman, who plays the character of Trevor, as well as the actor who portrays Pete, Richie Moriarty, early on in the process. Once we saw how specific and real they were in their roles, it really set the bar high for everybody else. We’d hired Rebecca Wisocky for projects before, and when she came in to audition for Hetty, it was like she’d walked straight out of an oil painting. She was so precise in having the character fit her respective time period while still finding the humor in her scenes. Liz and I had also previously hired Devan Chandler Long a bunch of times, and when we tested him to play the Viking character Thorfinn, it was just a slam dunk.
All of them are so fantastic in the show.
They really are. And then when the pandemic hit in March, everything was up in the air. But we found out in June that Utkarsh [Ambudkar] was interested, and we ended up doing a virtual chemistry read between him and Rose [McIver], our leads. I had to do a crash course on Zoom to prepare for it, which was basically a week of me making my dad, my daughter, and my husband all call me from different computers so I could practice. [Laughs] But we figured it was a good sign that people were still being attached to the project. The rest of the main cast all auditioned over Zoom, so I’ve never actually met them in person. I’m so desperate to just hug them and thank them for navigating the virtual casting process with us, which was all so new back in 2020.
That’s right — it was a steep learning curve for everyone.
Right, and then the cast went off to shoot the pilot. The original BBC version on which Ghosts is based features a fantastic troupe of actors who developed the show for themselves. They all have such beautiful chemistry because they’d previously performed together. But for our series that Joe Port and Joe Wiseman created, we were assembling an ensemble of people who didn’t have such shared experience. I still buy all of their on-camera relationships, though, and I’m just so proud of them. Plus, I love seeing on Twitter some of their behind-the-scenes content, which shows how the actors have developed real camaraderie off-camera through filming the first season of Ghosts.
It’s nice to know their characters’ friendships extend off-screen. And before we wrap, I’d love to hear the types of stories you’re passionate about telling with your work.
I’ll start by saying that I love the fundamental nature of casting because every project is a new world to explore. And while comedy may be my happy place, I also do a lot of indie film, as well. That’s where I can really go outside the box with storytelling. I did one that came out this year called Butter, which deals with fat-shaming and mental health issues. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and I’m definitely passionate about putting things out into the world that I think would help her and her friends navigate this chaos we call life. I also relish the opportunity to support the voices of storytellers whose stories differ from my own, along with the chance to hear somebody else’s perspective on life.
Those interested in learning more about the casting director can check out her bio section on the casting website of Barnes, her frequent collaborator. Vallely can also be found on Twitter as @TannisV, and her bio there may be of special interest to sourdough enthusiasts, in particular.
This interview has been edited and condensed.