Bernie Telsey, 'Hamilton' casting director, on the push to unionize

Bernie Telsey, 'Hamilton' casting director, on the push to unionize

An interview with Bernie Telsey, 'Hamilton' casting director, on the push to unionize
June 14, 2017

Bernie Sanders – straight out of central casting for a Brooklynite of a certain age, right? Not all casting determinations are so easy, and that’s where casting director Bernie Telsey, founder of Telsey + Company, comes in. City & State talked to Telsey about casting directors’ push to unionize, how he chose a racially diverse cast for “Hamilton,” and who on Broadway looks like Andrew Cuomo.

C&S: Casting directors are the only Broadway workers without a union. Why are you pushing to get unionized now?

BT: Once we become unionized for film and TV 12 years ago with the Teamsters (Local 817), it was always our intention and hope that the Teamsters would always be able to also cover us in theater. And it just took longer. They’ve always been our right hand and supportive and part of it, but then they were able, about a year and a half ago to two years ago, really take it on seriously. And we just had blocks.

The real reason for unionizing is to really protect the profession continuing to grow. It’s about the next generation of casting directors. It’s become such a recognized profession in the last ten years – because it’s a young profession. It’s those young people that I stare at, that I want to be able to say, ‘yes, you can make a living and you can get health benefits and you can get pension if you’re working at the top of your field, which is Broadway. That’s really what this quest is about.

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C&S: The Teamsters demonstrated outside the Tony’s on June 11. Did that help the cause?

BT: I think so. We’ve been actively (campaigning) since last August, but everything went full speed ahead this past spring, as the season was coming to a close. The timing just seemed right to make a big push through social media, through reaching out to the League, etc. The Tony time is when the press is talking about Broadway because of the nominations and because of the awards, so it seemed like a good time to make a push with the brass ourselves.

C&S: You also run an off-Broadway theater, the MCC Theater. What’s that part of the industry mean for New York?

BT: It’s the cultural hot house for new work. The theater is booming Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. If you think about the shows that won Tony Awards, whether it be “Jitney” or “Dear Evan Hanson,” all came from Off-Broadway institutions. “Dear Evan Hanson” started off Off-Broadway. And same with “Jitney” and same with “Oslo,” the best play. But the Off-Broadway community, there are so many Off-Broadway, not-for-profit institutions, like the one I run, along with so many others that are just the place where, not only the tourists, but the New Yorkers, the people who actually live and work in this city are flying to Off-Broadway all the time, eight times a week. And they’re all healthy and they’re all doing really well and I think New York expects them to be part of their backyard.

C&S: But the city is becoming more expensive, especially for up-and-coming artists. Will New York ever NOT be the place to come for actors to be discovered?

BT: Not, it’ll always be. I do think, how does that young artist afford to live in New York when – you know, when I first came to New York, the apartments were $300 or $400 a month. And then there was the next generation of artists where I was like, ‘oh, now they’re $750, and $1200,” and now they’re so much more.

But they’re living in Bushwick or they’re living in Queens or they’re living in other parts of the city, but they’re making it work. It will always be the place where people can break into the business, not only to be discovered, but to be able to do the work that they want to do that helps them grow. Whether it be an actor, playwright, a director. There’s just so many places for that young artist to explore and have a chance. And that has not changed in the 30 years I’ve been doing this.

C&S: You hear a lot about MTA delays recently, and one kid even missed his college graduation because he was stuck on a subway. Has that been an issue in casting calls?

BT: No, I mean, no different than when I started as a casting assistant. If someone has – either they’re sick or they missed their train, then there’s another day. With the iPhones and mobile phones, people are reachable, people are self-taping. Actors know how to get to their work. They know how to get to their audition, they know how to show up, or if they miss it, they come the next day. When we do open calls for “Hamilton,” or any of the big musicals, they show up in the hundreds and hundreds of people.

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C&S: You cast “Hamilton,” where actors of color play white historical figures. What role did you play in casting those roles?

BT: Sure, that’s a good story! Bethany Knox is the other casting director in this firm, who was the lead casting director on “Hamilton.” All casting directors – and I can speak for all of them, because I do talk to all of them – for us, diversity has been an issue of concern for the last 25 years. Because for us, it’s a bigger playground to play with. Of course, casting directors are always wanting to cast diverse. But at the end of the day, it’s not our decision. We’re here to serve the vision of that playwright, that producer, that director.

And Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail, the director and Jeffrey Seller, the producer, they were insistent. I mean, ‘this is what I wrote, this is what I want, this is what you and Beth and your office need to find me.’ I love that this show gets so much attention and accolades for its diversity, but it starts with the creators, and they wanted it. And that was the story they wanted to tell. And it’s beautiful. Because it’s definitely spread. I’ve watched, in the last two years since working on “Hamilton,” other people say, ‘I want what “Hamilton” has!’ or ‘How come they have it?’ It’s been a great re-eye-opener. It’s wonderful to actually see a change really happening.

C&S: The First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, has been outspoken on diversity in casting and #OscarsSoWhite. Are you happy to see politicians and public figures get involved?

BT: Absolutely! I mean it has to happen on the high level for individuals to make change. It’s so hard for people to make change. Or to even see that they’re maybe not doing something necessarily correct. And by having the Oscars So White campaign in everyone’s face to the First Lady making comments – we need more people of color in powerful positions. The television industry has made huge strides and maybe a lot of that is because a lot of the television companies are run by corporations and they get it. They know that we need diversity in the corporations, so it’s been trickled down to what you see on the screen.

Look what America is. America is every color. And we need to have every color in the decision-making people and what is actually on stage or on screen. As casting directors, we love hearing that from other people. Because it helps. We can’t be the only ones saying it.

C&S: Are you ever asked to cast a “New York type?” What does that mean to you?

BT: Fast-talking and fast-moving! I think sometimes it can be stereotypical, because there’s an image of a New Yorker: fast-talking and hip and aggressive. Even though you and I both know, there’s all different types in New York. But I think New York probably instinctually means aggressive and someone who is no-bullshit.

C&S: Who would you cast to play Bill de Blasio?

BT: Wow. Hmm… Somewhere between John Lithgow and Tracy Letts.

C&S: What about Andrew Cuomo?

BT: There’s this guy Daniel Oreskes. He’s in “Oslo,” the play that just won the Tony Award.

C&S: What about Chuck Schumer?

BT: Oh, George Segal. Or Robert Klein.

C&S: And of course, Donald Trump?

BT: Oh I don’t wish that on any actor. Who’s better than Alec Baldwin?

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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