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Casting Director Bernard Telsey on TV, Auditions, and his First Emmy Nod

One of the most distinguished and respected casting directors of film and stage, Bernard Telsey, recently added television casting to his repertoire. The result was three heralded shows in one season—“Smash,” “A Gifted Man,” and “The Big C”—and his first Emmy nomination, for the latter.

The man who turned a bunch of unknowns into Broadway stars with “Rent” and cast such ensemble films as “Margin Call” and “Rachel Getting Married” had dabbled in TV before, but it was when star Laura Linney and showrunner Jenny Bicks asked if he would be interested in casting the second season of Showtime's “The Big C” that started the ball rolling. “I’d definitely wanted to do television,” Telsey says. “I’m a big fan of watching television and I loved the idea of a New York series because I know this community of actors and loved the idea of getting them more television work. I loved the material of ‘The Big C’ and it opened a new window for us. Because we started doing television, we became available for more television. I don’t know if that was coincidence, or if it was that people saw we were open to the medium. Either way, I’m thrilled.


What does an actor auditioning for television need to know?Bernard Telsey: For television auditions, you really need to know the material so that you can act with the reader and interact with the camera. So much of television work is listening. It’s different from a theater audition, where you can look down at your sides. On camera, if you look down, you’ve dropped out of the scene. The camera captures everything and people watching want to see you reacting and listening, and you can only do that if you know the lines so you’re not having to look at your sides. You really want to have it memorized and have it in your body so you can really be free to act to the camera. Also, you should make colorful choices, so that people watching the tape really get to see the ups and downs and colors. So make a lot of choices, even if it’s a short scene.

With TV, actors should have an advantage because they can familiarize themselves with the show thanks to Hulu and YouTube.
Telsey: Exactly. And you really need to because some of these small scenes are misleading; they look easy and they’re not. They really do refer to things that have to do with the main series regulars. And the more you can know about the show, the more informed you are to make a choice about a reaction or a line.

What was the most difficult role to cast last season?Telsey: The part that Hugh Dancy played was, I think, really tricky and complicated. It was probably the biggest recurring arc on that season and it was all with Laura. When the character was first described it was so many things: “sexy, best friend, maybe sexual chemistry, gay but straight, is going to go through a death.” So there was a big bio. Basically, it was a leading man with star presence who would be available for five episodes. It was a big challenge, and Hugh was someone I know really well. He had just done a play, “The Pride,” that I’d produced at my theater company, MCC. I had a feeling and instinct he’d be great, but there are a lot of things you have to do after that instinct. He ended up coming in and meeting with Jenny and getting cast, and was utterly brilliant. 

Was there anyone who was new to you that ended up being cast?Telsey: Boyd Holbrook, who played the young Russian lover to Gabourey Sidibe’s character. I didn’t know Boyd. He was submitted, and like any young kid we didn’t know in L.A., we asked him to self-tape. My associate, Abbie Brady-Dalton, saw it and said, “You have to see this guy.” This is another thing I say to an actor: If you’re given the opportunity to make a tape, make it. The actor often thinks no one sees it, but it’s not true.

Is there a particular actor you like to bring in a lot that might not be a household name?Telsey: Annaleigh Ashford is a young actress who’s like my favorite actress of all time. We’ve cast her in lead roles in New York in “Rent” and “Kinky Boots,” which is rehearsing now. She was in “Wicked” and “Legally Blonde” as well. I’m crazy about her. The minute we started doing all this television I was like, “We have to bring Annaleigh in.” And we’ve booked her in all four of our TV shows and all seven of our movies. She played a dominatrix in “The Big C,” then went on play the bad actress in the pilot of “Smash.” And she’ll be coming back for another episode. We just did a Showtime pilot, “Masters of Sex,” and she has a real part opposite Michael Sheen. We’ve watched her grow from bigger part to bigger part. She’s someone we can’t wait to bring in.

7 Reasons to Stop Blaming Your Agent and Book Work Now


7 Reasons to Stop Blaming Your Agent and Book Work Now
Constance Tillotson | Posted Oct. 4, 2012,      Sterling Studio
Last week, I wrote about how to have more confidence at auditions. However, let's get back to actually booking those auditions in the first place. There is rarely a gathering of two or more actors when the sentence is heard “I’m not getting out on anything. My Agent/Manager is horrible.”
When you sign with an agent, it is imperative you understand YOUR responsibility in the relationship. Even the top representation cannot get you seen if you are not providing the proper marketing materials. This falls solely on your shoulders. If you are not getting seen, a great team should be asking you for changes. That is how you know they are doing THEIR job. Listen to them!  How often have they told you your headshots aren’t working? This means your headshots are NOT working and they are submitting you. They get frustrated if they keep having to tell you to get better headshots and begin to feel you aren’t really in to this career so why should they put the effort in to it.
1. GREAT headshots. It is vital for the actor to understand the trends in casting. The type of pictures they were responding to last year may be obsolete today. Yes, pictures can get expensive, but this investment has to be your priority. And you need a variety of them on your casting sights. Right now, REAL is in. Shots that really show the emotion of the actor as if it is a still out of a movie are the ones that will get you in the door to casting. You must have a nice selection of shots that show your versatility as an actor. It is no longer in vogue for the actor to just be “dressed” as a doctor. We must see and feel the command of a doctor. If your current headshots are not getting hits, it’s not that your agent is not working; your shots are not working! Change them, or you are losing out on opportunities.
2. Clips of your work. The good news is that we are getting away from expensive reels. Casting does not have the time to look at them. They want to see short clips of your work that corresponds to the character in their project. Get up as many great clips as you can so your representation has a variety to choose from.
3. Keep your multi-media current. The SECOND you book a job, update your profile and other marketing sites. Keep a close watch on your IMDb that production posts credit. If project is up on IMDb then post the credit yourself!  You don’t need IMDB until you have something to put up there.
4. Your IMDB must be current! Upload new headshots, shots you take from set, red carpet events, and film festivals. Have a great bio up and make sure your agent/manager contact info posted.
Once your marketing materials begin to pop, then you must put your focus on the artistic part of the process.
1. If you are not getting callbacks, you MUST look at how to take different actions when preparing for auditions. You must accept that your current way is not working. If you keep making the same choices, it will lead to the same end result and keep you at the same level. Begin to make different choices that will take you out of your artistic comfort zone. That’s when the fun really begins!!!
2. Begin preparing immediately. Your audition begins the moment you receive your sides. Do your research on the production team. This is a very small town; you may know the producer, director, writer etc. There maybe someone you can also reach out on your own before or after the audition. It will also give you insight at the type of actors they have worked with and gravitate to.
3. When you are at an audition, or on set, remember you are there REPRESENTING YOUR TEAM. For this reason alone, you should always have the intention to bring your very best. Careers are built on referrals. Regardless of the level of success of an actor, if you are always bringing forth more that will raise your level, people WILL notice and remember you for other projects.
I inspire all my actors to work with the intention to make everyone else’s job easier: agents, managers, casting directors, producers, directors, writers to everyone else down the line.  When the integrity of your work is based on respect for those around you this energy blasts through any personal fears you have that may be holding you back you no longer are placing focus on them.
We remain at our same level because of OUR OWN CHOICES. It has nothing to do  with external. Once we garner the courage to stop assigning blame on anyone, we take ownership of our own process and begin on a Higher Road that welcomes and encourages different, exciting and life-evolving actions.
Constance Tillotson is CEO of Sterling Studio. Her studio had over 200 bookings last year.  Actors in her studio are renown for their extraordinary work in major feature films and television. Her booking actors range from 5-years-old on up. She is also a top pick for private theatrical coaching and preproduction preparation. She is an actor, writer, director, and producer. She also works globally with children building self-esteem through filmmaking. She is a talent manager at LA Management where she helms the careers of a select group of successful clientele.