Remarkable Woman: Erica Daniels

Erica Daniels has a lot of reading to do. Sitting among piles of submitted plays at her Steppenwolf office in Lincoln Park, she carefully places one script at the top of the stack so she remembers to take it home.

"Everybody's getting their scripts in that are due by year's end. We're doing season planning for 2012-13. Some of these aren't until 2014."

Daniels, who is 42, has always loved theater. She studied acting at Northwestern and had plans to make the audition rounds when she graduated in 1991 — until life got in the way.

"I broke my foot bartending," she said. "So I started an internship with Jane Brody Casting."

The internship turned into a job, and before she knew it, Daniels was finding her groove as an agent for Chicago talent agencies Shirley Hamilton, Arlene Wilson and Geddes. Throw in a brief stint with the FBI and some time in New York working for the William Morris Agency, and now Daniels is the associate artistic director for Steppenwolf, where she says the thrill of discovering new talent never goes away.

"That's the best moment ever in my job, is being able to make that call to an actor saying, 'Hey, we want to cast you!' " she said. "That excitement never gets old."

Q: What makes the Chicago acting community different from other cities?

A: Chicago actors look out for each other. People come here and they can't believe what a community it is. I mean, actors in Chicago will be submitting their friends for their projects. I remember Amy Morton coming in and she had a script in her hand and she said, "I am so wrong for this, but I hope they're seeing so-and-so." I thought that was amazing that Amy Morton was standing in my office saying this. People step up to really support each other in a profoundly beautiful way, which surprises me.

Q: How does a casting agent wind up working at the FBI?

A: I call that my little detour, yeah. I guess I felt like I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was 27 or 28, and I was really struggling, and I thought I wanted to do more good for people or something. I have no idea what possessed me, but I woke up one day and I really thought I was supposed to apply to the FBI. I got very caught up in the process — you fill out forms, take tests, and a lot of those are situational judgment tests. I never thought I'd get in, but before I knew it, I was packing my bags and moving to Quantico.

Q: Why did you come back?

A: My body really rebelled. I know that's a weird thing to say, but I just knew very quickly that, "Wow, I am really not cut out for this." It was really physically taxing. You had to do things like driving backward, and relay races, and lots of running and fitness stuff, I was in the best shape of my life, but physically my body knew I wasn't going to last. And when I got back into being an agent, I realized I'm supposed to be working with actors and telling stories to people and that's my contribution. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.

Q: Where do you find great talent?

A: I don't spend all my time in big theaters. I go to little, tiny black boxes to find actors. I see a couple of shows a week. We have a vast talent pool here. I want to invest in people who have made Chicago their home, since this is a Chicago theater so it's really important to me. I feel somebody should give these actors a shot, and why can't it be us?

Q: Tell me about a couple of theaters or troupes you think are really worth exploring.

A: Pavement Group. They do great work. They are in different places so you have to find them. I think TimeLine Theatre does outstanding work; they're on Wellington and Broadway. And I do love Trap Door Theatre; they're right in Bucktown.

Q: You were recently honored with Eclipse Theatre's Corona Award for supporting Chicago's theater community. Did your Steppenwolf colleagues help you celebrate?

A: Everyone was so supportive. Even those who are out of town. Somehow Gary (Sinise) had read about the award somewhere, and I got this email from him at my home the day before the news went public. I've met some famous people in my time, and I've never had a bad experience with these people.

Q: Is it a double-edged sword, having so many of your actors get hired for television series or movies?

A: Of course when they have success, we are thrilled, but I'll get nervous if I hear a series is coming to town looking to hire our talent.

Q: Who is your living hero?

A: My dad. He raised four daughters, and he was one of those original Mad Men in the ad agency game early on. He commuted every day to New York City from New Jersey, and I never heard him complain. My parents have been married 48 years, and he is 78 years old and he's still working. I want to find a guy just like him.

Q: What's the best advice he ever gave you?

A: He always told each of us to pursue our individual passions and everything else will follow — and he was right. He encouraged his daughters to be strong individuals.

Q: What's your professional mantra?

A: Be honest, be kind, be generous and be yourself.

Twitter @jenweigel

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