Bess Fifer, a casting associate with the Telsey and Company agency in New York City, has cast films such as “Sex and the City: The Movie” and the upcoming “I Love You Phillip Morris,” starring Jim Carrey. She has also cast Broadway shows, such as “Rent” and “In the Heights.” This weekend she will be working with young actors in Ithaca during a two-day workshop at Ithaca College that will examine the latest audition methods and resume tactics. Staff writer Anne Gould Northgraves spoke with Fifer about finding her dream job and the struggles young actors face today.
Anne Gould Northgraves: What does the job of a casting associate include?
Bess Fifer: I work on everything from musicals to straight plays to commercials to film. What we do is find and audition actors for whatever we have been hired to find, go out and look for the best actor for the part, bring it to our creative team, which usually consists of a director and producer, and offer them what we have found.
AGN: What brought you into this line of work?
BF: (laughs) Actually I was working as an office manager in a commercial real estate development firm [in Anniston, Ala.]. I’d always been in the arts but was just trying to get some business experience and I ended up taking a [career] aptitude test. “Casting director” popped up on the suggestions, and I had no idea what it was. I started doing some research and it just kind of hit me… That sounded like the coolest job I had ever heard of. I ultimately made the decision to move to New York, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do since I got here [in August 2004].
AGN: Had you been involved in acting or theater in high school or college?
BF: I actually have from high school. I did a lot of theater — music theater — in college and then I got involved in it once we moved to New York. I never was a New York performer — it was never something that I ever wanted to do. I moved here to pursue casting.
AGN: What makes you excited about your job?
BF: I really love performers. It’s amazing what they do, to really put themselves out there in the rawest state possible. I love working with them, trying to get the best performance out of them. I enjoy the creative process and seeing how the work we did in the room transfers to the stage or screen.
AGN: Have you ever been upstate to Ithaca before?
BF: I have been upstate but I have never been to Ithaca before. So I’m excited about that. I love small towns and college towns in particular because they have so much life and I’m really excited to get up there and look around.
AGN: There has been a lot of press about shows closing on Broadway, such as “Hairspray” and “Legally Blonde.” What are your thoughts on that, as someone who casts Broadway shows?
BF: It’s a very precarious time for all of us, you know? It just means that it’s going to be harder, [and there will be] more competition for the students [who] are getting ready to graduate. There’s even less [work] out there. You really have to be on top of your game. And you really have to want it. There’s really a blind sense of faith you have to have in yourself in order to really be able to go out there everyday.
AGN: Do you think the rumored upcoming strike of the Screen Actors’ Guild is going to happen?
BF: I would like to say I hope a strike doesn’t happen. But at the same time there is a lot of new gray area in actors’ contracts and a lot of that has to do with the Internet coming into play in ways it never has before. An actor’s product is themselves. They deserve to know how they are being used and that’s a very important part of the discussion. I hope it works out because everyone deserves to be supported.
AGN: It’s such an interesting time for actors. What would you say is an essential piece of information or advice you could give to aspiring actors?
BF: I think it’s really important to know yourself. I feel a lot of times people waste their time trying to go for something that they’re never going to be right for. I can’t tell you how many times I’m sitting there and someone walks in with a piece of music that they would never perform. And I get it, it means something to them, and that’s important too. But at the same time you want to show somebody what you’re right for, and to come in and present yourself in a way that is not right for you can be a drawback. There are definitely times when you can go in and change people’s minds. And you should do that. But at the same time you should be very aware of what and who you are.
“Audition Intensive: Working with the Pros” will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Whalen Center for Music. Tuition is $100 for students and $150 for non-students. Space is limited. Call (607) 273-8588 ext. 440 to reserve placement.