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Cast away
Erica Daniels's eye for talent is Chicago theater's secret weapon.

Publication: Time Out Chicago
Published: August 2-8, 2007
Client: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Novid Parsi

Casting director Erica Daniels doesn't know what the FBI was thinking. In the late '90s, after several years of talent-agent work left her disillusioned and burnt out, Daniels says, "I took a detour and I went into the FBI." She embarked on the yearlong application process. "Every time I got through a level I was like, Are you kidding me? I'm a talent agent from Chicago, Illinois." She entered the FBI's training program in Quantico, Virginia, "to become [Laughing] a secret agent." ("Yeah, I had my gun. I had my Glock.") Yet Daniels realized, "I was totally inadequately prepared mentally for the challenge…It was a judgment error on my part and on theirs, too."

Born in Queens and raised in New Jersey, Daniels planned on an acting career. But just after she graduated from Northwestern in 1991, a bartending accident ("twenty cases of beer landed on my foot") put her leg in a cast and a fork in her career path: She got an internship at a casting agency. As Steppenwolf's full-time casting director since 2001 (and sometime go-to casting guru for About Face, Lookingglass and Profiles), Daniels has demonstrated time and again an uncanny ability to match talent with role. (Profiles' recent breakout-ingenue turns from Kelly O'Sullivan and Deborah Hearst were both Daniels's finds.)

"I'm blessed with a really good memory," she explains. "It's almost freakish how I can keep track of actors." Daniels stores actors' files not on a computer—she doesn't even own a DVD player ("If it's not on Lifetime, I'm not interested")—but in her Rolodex, four filing cabinets and bear-trap memory. She might audition someone one year and several years later remember the actor's face, name, performance and agent. (For our money, the FBI knew exactly what it was doing.)

As she teaches a class at the School at Steppenwolf, the petite 37-year-old—who evokes Jodie Foster's tough-tender Clarice Starling if you subtract the vulnerability and add a rapid-fire giggle—observes 14 young actors deliver their monologues. An actor finishes, there's an expectant pause and then Daniels quickly reels out a crisp critique so dead-on that, before we've formulated our own response, we think, Yeah. What she said.

Certain themes recur in her comments to the class: "Be in the moment," she says. "Never get off the objective." She advises one actor to avoid "acting with one's eyes: I'm angry and I'm squinting at you." To a self-consciously fidgety actor, she says, "That's shmacting." Yet her tone suggests not severity but good-humored, impassioned intensity. Her tips are practical, too: To one performer with a trendy hole in the crotch of his jeans, she says, "We can't focus on your monologue if we're constantly worried about your penis falling out."

While her phenomenal memory and keenly discriminating eye have spotted the talent, her dogged drive has hunted it down. Daniels was absolutely convinced that Deanna Dunagan was the right actor for the terrifying, pill-popping mom in Tracy Letts's widely heralded three-act epic, August: Osage County. Dunagan herself, however, was not so sure. "I said, 'Erica, I don't think I can do it,' " Dunagan recalls. "And she said, 'You're kidding, right?' " It wasn't just the role's physical demands that daunted Dunagan (who suffers from chronic knee and back pain, and would have to climb up and down stairs several times per show) but the emotional toll as well. "I found it devastating," she says. For the next month or two, Daniels called Dunagan weekly. Finally, Dunagan accepted the offer (and underwent physical therapy). Daniels's persistence pays nightly dividends: The veteran Chicago actor makes for a fascinatingly horrific child-chewing matriarch.

For a minor Native American role in August, playwright Letts wanted a Native American actor, not someone pretending. Native American actors primarily live on the West Coast, so Daniels and director Anna Shapiro flew to L.A. for a day to audition 20 to 25 such performers—for a part with a handful of lines. And to cast the three youths in last spring's The Diary of Anne Frank, Daniels vetted a thousand young actors.

Most people Daniels sees, of course, don't fall into the "accept" pile, sometimes for memorable reasons. When she held auditions for the Nazis in Anne Frank, one guy brandished a whip. "It was the most nerve-wracking—like: Why do you own that?" Daniels says. "A couple of them physically hit the reader, and it's like, You're not supposed to actually be a Nazi." Yet another hopeful threw a chair, which happened to nail Daniels right on the knee. "It was excruciating," she says, holding back laughter. "And I was like, What about that seems like that's gonna be a good idea?"

During the auditions for Tina Landau's Theatrical Essays, actors were asked to sing 16 bars and do something original. One actor put up a little cardboard house. "And I'm like, Cool. Puppet show. And he knelt down, and we're like, Puppets are gonna come up! And he stood up butt naked and started to air guitar to Stevie Ray Vaughan. For ten minutes. And he walked out, and Tina looked at me and she went, 'That was really bad air guitar.' "

Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton says of Daniels, "She loves actors, and I can't really say that's true for all casting directors." In 2001, the New York auditions Steppenwolf held for Glengarry Glen Ross, helmed by Morton, fell on September 11; one actor had just come from Ground Zero. "You could tell he was just stricken and had seen some terrible things," Morton says. "Erica sat with him and said, 'You can read, you can not read, we can get you lunch, we can do whatever you want.' " Morton pauses, then adds: "This doesn't really have anything to do with casting. This has to do with her character."

August: Osage County is playing at Steppenwolf.

DANIELS IN THE LION'S DEN Steppenwolf's casting director works with students at the theater's school.

 
 

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