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Interview: Emmy-Nominated Casting Directors Rachel Tenner & Bess Fifer Discuss ‘Severance’

Apple TV+

Severance on Apple TV+ has become the internet’s new obsession. Phrases and words like innie, outie, break room, and waffle party have taken on new meanings, and Lumon merch has become a hot commodity. But what does it take to assemble a cast on a groundbreaking series like Severance? Recently, Awards Radar spoke with Severance casting directors Rachel Tenner (CSA) and Bess Fifer (CSA) to talk about their careers in the industry, their processes while working on Severance, and what stood out to them about the auditions of the Severance cast.

Parts of this interview may have been edited for length or clarity.

Awards Radar: How did you both get into the casting industry? 

Rachel Tenner: I knew I wanted to work in the industry but didn’t know exactly where I would land. I had visions of grandeur that I would write for David Letterman at one point, but then reality set in that I wasn’t a good enough writer. And then I interned at a bunch of places; I interned for a producer, I interned for a talent agency, and then there was an internship available for a casting agency in Chicago; I got the internship and loved it. It clicked right away, and I loved everything I was doing. I thought the whole thing was very exciting, and then it just snowballed quickly from there because the woman I was working for wanted to get out of the business. And so I was like an intern, then part-time, then full-time, and then I bought the company, which was all like within two years. So at the end of the day, it’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my whole life. So that’s my story.

Awards Radar: That sounds like great timing. I love that. 

Rachel Tenner: Yeah. Yeah, it was. When I look back on it, I can’t believe how it went and how I feel like I just lucked into the whole thing. And then, I sold my part of the business and moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago.

Awards Radar: Wow. 

Rachel Tenner: It started then, yeah.

Awards Radar: Bess, what about you?

Bess Fifer: [My story is] similar [to Rachel’s] in trying to find my place in the business and knowing that I wanted to be in TV and film, but not knowing where I would be happiest. I actually took an aptitude test when I was in graduate school, and Casting Director came up on my aptitude test. I wasn’t familiar with the job, but I started doing some research, and it seemed like an excellent way to have my hands on both sides of creativity in the business. I got lucky and decided to move to New York out of college in Alabama. I got an internship and was just like, “I’m going to prove that I’m good at this.” And luckily, so far, so good. (Laughs) So but yeah. I started as an intern, clawed my way up, left a few companies, met Miss Tenner over a decade ago, and fell in love. And she keeps me around sometimes. (Laughs) So it’s been a joy. 

Awards Radar: That’s great. Moving on to Severance, what was your audition process for the series? Did COVID change your creative method at all? 

Rachel Tenner: We started before the pandemic, so we cast most of the main cast through in-person auditions, and we were lucky that way. COVID hit us much closer to us starting in our production, so we had to deal with the ramifications of the show’s shutdown by rescheduling and reorganizing everything and working through that whole situation. And then we switched to Zoom to finish the show and did more episode-to-episode [work]. But our main cast was already set way before COVID started. That’s true, right, Bess? 

Bess Fifer: Yeah, we had a table read for our first block of episodes, and then two days later, that was when everything in-person stopped in New York. Yeah, it’s been interesting because we started the process by doing one kind of work and completely changed how we do our job. It became more about getting a cast established early on and then dealing with a changing schedule every day. So the logistics on the back end were just very, very different. We usually will get scripts, and you’ll cast for an episode or two and then get new scripts and cast for an episode or two. And we ended up doing a nine-episode cross-board that we never really knew too much in advance of who would be needed and when. And so yeah, the process completely changed, and starting new projects now, there’s more of a linear process, but this one was really start-to-finish. Over the course of two years, our jobs really changed as far as day to day. 

Awards Radar: Yeah, I’m sure. Since the cast of Severance has such a wide range of name recognition and notability. Did you hold auditions for every role, and were there specific roles where you knew you wanted unknown actors versus established performers?

Rachel Tenner: No. I mean, sometimes it’s dictated by a studio or a network that maybe you have to have a linchpin or an anchor to the show with more notoriety and build around [them]. And, you know, I didn’t feel like we had that pressure. We obviously wanted to get Mark [Adam Scott] settled pretty fast and pretty early, and we were lucky because Severance gave us a big window of casting ahead of time. So once we got Mark settled, it was whoever was the best person for the other roles. 

Bess Fifer: We auditioned for almost every role, yeah. 

Rachel Tenner: Yeah. I think we knew Irving [played by John Turturro] would probably be someone we’d offer it to. Patricia [Arquette], obviously, we just had done [Escape at Dannemora] with Patricia, so she was top of the brain already. But everything else was full-on auditions for all the other roles. I think Ben [Stiller] loves that. Ben really enjoys getting to—I mean, we’re not discovering people. These are all actors who have had jobs and worked over the years. But maybe that might not be in the consciousness of the rest of the public. So it was a great opportunity to find these amazing actors and, you know, get them in here. And everyone still felt fresh and exciting to us. And I think now they certainly have a lot more recognition. 

Awards Radar: For sure. The show balances several different tones throughout the season. What were you looking for in actors to pull off this balancing act of emotion?

Rachel Tenner: I mean, the tone is definitely the crux of this whole show and landing on that was what we talked most about and collaborated on. The show is obviously very heavy and has a specific mood and everything, but there is a lot of humor. And I think one of the pieces we needed most was to make sure we had actors who could navigate the drama and humor. And I think it’s funny that many of our main cast have comedy backgrounds. So that ended up being great. Bess, don’t you feel like, for some of the roles, especially like Dichen [Lachman]‘s role, [Miss Casey], you had to do a lot of explaining of what was happening [in the show]?

Bess Fifer: Oh yeah. 

Rachel Tenner: People didn’t get to read scripts; we weren’t giving them out. So you’d have to help people get to the right tone during their auditions, which was great. When we were doing things in person, it was even better. But there were a lot of discussions about what was happening and the tone of the whole thing.

Bess Fifer: Casting Tramell [Tillman] and doing all of the Milchicks was one role where we had to–

Rachel Tenner: Talk. 

Bess Fifer: –really talk with an actor and help them. All of us were finding this place of perfection [with Mr. Milchick], and [Tramell] really nailed the balance between nice and unsettling. We saw so many wonderful people and actors for that role. We had to have that ability to play with the actors a little bit. And as Rachel mentioned, Ben loves the audition process and playing with the actors. At least in the audition room, he loves trying various things to see if the actor can play the tones we’re looking for since it was so layered. 

Rachel Tenner: When one works with Ben, we happily and gladly do everything. So even like the dancers in the Waffle Party, you know, those are people that we cast. We had people do movements and then work with a choreographer and get auditions. Like, the whole thing from soup to nuts, as they say.

Awards Radar: I can’t imagine how time-consuming that is for you all. What is the standard timeline for casting a show like this? 

Bess Fifer: (Laughs) It was new territory. It took two years. It didn’t start the way that it ended, you know. 

Rachel Tenner: And generally, I think because of Ben’s feelings about the casting process and how much he enjoys it–I have to say, on his shows, I do feel that there’s a much larger window to prep ahead of time than other shows I work on. Yeah.

Awards Radar: What initially drew you to some of the breakout performers of the show, such as Tramell Tillman, Britt Lower, and Zach Cherry?

Rachel Tenner: I mean, I think they were, just, you know, we loved them. They did it so well, and when we got them in the room, they were even better. It’s old-fashioned, but they just won the roles, you know? They were so great. And again, all of them navigated the complexities of these characters so well that it was hard to ignore.

Awards Radar: They all seem so perfect for the roles; it’s really impressive.

Rachel Tenner: Right? Right.

Bess Fifer: I will say that Zach Cherry auditioned in New York for Dylan, and when we were doing the callback in the old Red Hour office, he got to sit at a desk. You might have a table in some auditions, but not as an actual prop. So we established a little area for him. Other people had that same audition that day, but his audition was just absolutely incredible. As Rachel said, [their performances] just jump at you like, “oh, yeah, no, that’s it. That’s it.” 

Rachel Tenner: Yeah. Even when we did our screen tests with Adam [Scott], we set up the same thing. We had to set up all the desks, you know, and shoot it. We had actors, friends of ours, come in and be the other parts and literally shoot it like it was a full office. And Jessica Gagné, the DP, came and shot [the screen tests]. It was like the fanciest test I’ve ever seen. (Laughs) It was kind of amazing. 

Awards Radar: So many of the characters in Severance have two personalities. What did you do in the audition room to prompt them to perform these double-sided roles? 

Rachel Tenner: You know what? We didn’t audition with any outie stuff. It was all inside. I think the outie stuff, especially for someone–(pauses). You know, actually, I’m going to watch what I say because Ben’s always like, “Don’t give out spoilers!” (Laughs.)

Bess Fifer: (Laughs.) 

Rachel Tenner: I’ll just leave it by saying we only auditioned people with their innie stuff. Nothing from their outie stuff. Unless, of course, they were just outie characters, but we didn’t really have to play that duality. I think we just assumed; that all of us: Bess, myself, and Ben, could make that leap that if they’re excelling at one part, we’re pretty sure they can do the other. I know, everyone’s always like, “Did they all test together?” And I was like, “No.” We just assumed that if everyone did one part well, it would be great. 

Awards Radar: Finally, what tips do you have for someone who may want to get into the casting industry but doesn’t know where to start? 

Rachel Tenner: You know, CSA [Casting Society of America] actually offers a training program now. So you can apply; I don’t know what the process is to do it, but you can learn about not only the craft of it, but you can learn about all the basics of what casting is and all the tools you need to work in somebody’s office. So it’s really an amazing resource. We post a lot of times on our own CSA websites when we’re looking for assistants or associates or anything we need, and people get alerts about it and then can apply and stuff. You could always obviously send out resumes to companies you love. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had a list of casting directors I was enamored of (enamored of? enamored with?) and loved their work. And I reached out and was like, “Hey, I just moved to town. Let me know if you need anybody in your office or anything as an associate.” So people can certainly do that, but I think going through CSA is probably the strongest because then they can equip you with the tools that we always need for somebody to come into our office. I don’t know, Bess, if you’ve had a different–

Bess Fifer: There are a few colleges that are starting casting programs. I mean, there’s no degree or anything necessarily needed to be a casting director. It’s more of a talent and an ability of a particular skill set. But yes, CSA has a program, and I think trying to get your foot in anywhere [is helpful]. I spent some time in an agent’s office and some time in a producer’s office; Rachel also spoke about that. But just start somewhere. I think a misnomer is that there is no way in, but your path might be a little bit of a different direction. And I think if you’re willing to be an assistant and want to start at that base level just to learn: reach out. We aren’t uncontactable, behind closed doors, people. When it comes to people who want to follow us and do what we’re doing, just reach out because we always need more people. (Laughs). 

Awards Radar: Great, thank you so much for talking to me today. Huge congrats again on your Emmy nominations for Severance

Rachel Tenner: Thank you! 

Bess Fifer: Thank you!

All nine episodes of Severance are available to stream now on Apple TV+.

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Written by Joshua Harris

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