“I always say that it’s great if an actor just comes in with a choice, you know? Just something really specific.” – Casting Director Rachel Tenner on Auditioning
When actor/directors like George Clooney and Ben Stiller keep calling you back to cast their projects, you are definitely doing something right. From FX’s Fargo, to Clooney’s The Tender Bar and Midnight Sky and Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Escape at Dannemora, casting director Rachel Tenner always manages to assemble some of the best casts around.
And with Severance, now streaming on Apple+, she’s knocked it out of the park once again. The show, about a team of office workers whose memories have been surgically divided between their work and personal lives, stars Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette, John Turturro and Christopher Walken and has Stiller directing six of the nine episodes.
In this interview, Tenner talks about casting Severance and working with Ben Stiller, what makes a memorable audition and self-tape and what she likes to see on a demo reel. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or on YouTube.
When you take on a project like this, were the leads like Adam Scott, John Turturro or Christopher Walken already cast?
Rachel Tenner: No, for Severance, we had nobody set when we started. So we just kind of started from the ground up and you know, built it up.
I know Ben Stiller was involved, so did you both come in with a list of ideas?
Rachel Tenner: Well, I had worked with Ben for a number of years already at this point. So, you know, we had been well loosely talking about the show as it was kind of becoming real. Adam was always somebody who was… I think they had talked to each other about it, like years ago when it was something that had first come to Ben’s company. So yeah, Adam was always part of the conversation from the get-go. And then I did my process, and we had some final tests with people and Adam was the guy. It’s kind of like a no-brainer with him, so it’s very easy to say that.
And then we did full searches for everybody, for Helly (Britt Lower) and Zach Cherry‘s role. For Turturro’s role, I did lists for that. There are so many great actors in that world too, so it was kind of an abundance of riches to think about and explore.
I think just the big question on Severance really became more about tone and then once you kind of clicked into the tone, then people started taking shape about who’s really gonna work in this world and this environment.
When you’re first approaching an actor or bringing them in for an audition, was it hard for people to wrap their heads around the concept at first?
Rachel Tenner: I don’t think so. You know, generally when people came into the office, we’d have a chance to kind of do it once, right? I’ll just focus on Helly, since that was one of the big searches. You do it once and then you had a chance to kind of talk about it and just kind of see what’s working, what’s not working. For someone who read the scripts, I know where the character’s going. I can flesh out some backstory more and give a little bit more information about the tone. And then we do it again from there and get it a little bit more on point of what I thought Ben might be looking for, you know?
When you first start out, do you have a list of files, go through that, and decide who you want to bring in?
Rachel Tenner: It’s kind of a little bit of everything, right? You certainly have your list of people that you’ve read before, loved before from watching things and if they’re available absolutely get them to go on tape. And then on top of it, you also do have agents, you have managers pitching. So, it’s like a mix of everything. It’s your agents, your managers and then it’s the work we do as an office, trying to stay on top of seeing theater and things that are happening. And then just trying to keep lists of things that of people we’ve loved watching. So, I think we saw a mix of all of that.
I like to see a lot of people. I think that’s kind of probably my strength and my weakness. I like to feel at the end of the day that I’ve done… Like, this is my land. This is like my world; this is what I’m pulling from. I kind feel like I have a good closure feeling on things.
But this was a really fun process to do. I loved these scripts so much. Every scene, I loved hearing. I mean, obviously after you hear it a lot, it can start turning on you a little bit, but I did love hearing all these scenes and hearing everything out loud. It was a lot of fun.
Just a weird question. How many emails a day do you get?
Rachel Tenner: Oh my God. It’s so funny you say that because literally my associate Rick Messina and I always kind of have this thing where we’ll get on a call with each other and by the time we’re done, how many emails have shown up in your inbox. It’s incessant.
Was Ben Stiller involved in the casting?
Rachel Tenner: Oh yeah. Oh my God, yeah. Soup to nuts. He’s so involved, from the beginning to the end. He sees everything, sees everyone. He participates in sessions when he can. We talk nonstop about everything. It’s fun. It’s so collaborative and it’s so safe to be really creative with him. I can come up with like the craziest idea and be like, “Okay, I have an idea for you.” And he’ll be like that, “That’s ridiculous.” We get to talk things out or he he’ll have ideas about things, and we’ll talk those out too. So, it’s a really collaborative working relationship with him and he’s super involved.
When John Turturro or Christopher Walken comes on set, do you go there just to watch them and be a fan?
Rachel Tenner: I wish. We didn’t get to because COVID kind of just jumped in the way of everything during the shoot. The shoot was incredibly long and complicated because of COVID and so it wasn’t possible to just like, get on a plane and go fly and go see them. Normally though, I would’ve a thousand percent. Are you kidding me? Absolutely. Absolutely. I would’ve made up some title to just go like hang, absolutely.
Sometimes I’ll read a script and I’ll be like, “That’s the scene I want to watch.” When that comes to fruition, I want to be there for that scene. I’ll do that when I read different scripts. So, Severance had so many I wanted to watch, but it just wasn’t possible.
From your perspective, is it different auditioning for an actor/director as opposed to someone who is solely a director?
Rachel Tenner: I can’t speak for actors; I can speak of what I think Ben brings into the room. I think he has real compassion for everyone. He’s very, very kind. He’s excited to watch people do stuff. On Walter Mitty, he used to read with people. He’ll read with people when it calls for it. He enjoys the process quite a bit.
What makes an audition memorable? Where you want to bring them back again for that specific role or that you might want to bring them back for something else down the road?
Rachel Tenner: I always say that it’s great if an actor just comes in with a choice, you know? Just something really specific. And even if it’s not right, if it’s the wrong choice, obviously we can adjust. I just appreciate the specificity that people come in with and I think that’s kind of what can elevate an audition from seeing groups of actors.
I’m always just like, “Make a choice.” Come in, make a choice, break it down however you need to get to that place for yourself. And obviously if there’s any questions, reach out to your reps, have your reps reach out to us, ask us whatever question you need answered. If you come into the room and you have some holes, ask if we can plug those in for you so you can get as specific as possible.
What makes a good self-tape?
Rachel Tenner: Well, outside of obviously the actor and the choices and all that stuff, actually being able to see somebody and hear them well, you know what I mean? Just like real basics. You need to be able to see somebody, you need to be able to hear somebody.
If they’re reading with either somebody off camera, have them kind of near the camera. They’re not in profile the whole time. Just like real basics of things like that is what makes a great self-tape.
But other than that, it’s just the same stuff you would do in the room
Rachel Tenner: I feel like I kind of fluctuate back and forth between what I prefer on a given day.
I think, when possible, if there is a scene in there that can breathe a little bit, just to kind of really get the sense of somebody, that’s awesome. But usually whatever I get is fine.
I know those are really hard to kind of get together and to do and all that kind of stuff. Whatever I get is usually enough in one way or another. And if I need more, I ask for something more.
Also, I would just rather see the actor do the thing I’m doing. How much time is it off someone’s day to watch a tape? Not that much. I’d rather just have them just do the scene and not have to base it on the reel that was cut together.
For someone who might want to get in touch with you, do you prefer a physical headshot and resume? An email to add to the million you already get. How would an actor submit their stuff to you, especially if they don’t have an agent?
Rachel Tenner: Probably the best way is just to send it to racheltennercasting at gmail would be the best way. But you know, within reason. Things get looked through; I promise. You can’t send one every day or every week. Send it, we’ll get it and make note of it. But you just can’t repeatedly send things, that would be too much.
“Rachel, I’ve sent you 15 emails. You’ve never responded!”
Rachel Tenner: Exactly, exactly. And each one gets more belligerent. Most of the time people won’t respond. We have it, we get it, we check that email. If you don’t get a response, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t received. I know it’s frustrating because it’s out in the ether, but I’m telling you that we get them all.
What’s been the worst audition you’ve ever seen or been part of?
Rachel Tenner: Oh my God. The worst audition… When I was casting in Chicago, I remember I had to leave the room and I came back, the person was pretty much topless. I think they they just thought it was part of the character and the role and I was like, “This is too much.” It just took me by surprise, and I was like, “You don’t need to do that. That’s not necessary.”
That’ll teach you to leave the room.
Rachel Tenner: Yeah, right? Or maybe someone slapped the reader. They were in the moment, but literally like slapped them. And I was like, “Oh boy.” I felt bad for the reader.