It’s time to feature another casting director who has utilized any extra time from the pause on productions to give back and help actors. Leah Daniels-Butler is known for her casting work on projects such as Empire, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Precious. She recently conducted the Quarantine Monologue initiative, which allowed actors to put themselves on camera and submit a self-tape for the chance to win a general meeting with Daniels-Butler. Keep reading to hear how the initiative grew and to learn more about the casting director behind it.
When was the moment you knew that casting was for you?
It was the first time I saw my name on the screen. Growing up in a city like Philadelphia, I never expected that to happen. And so the very first time it did, I had this “I made it” moment. My very first casting credit was an assistant credit for CB4, and seeing it on the screen made me realize that I wanted casting to be my career path. That’s when I caught the bug.
Filmmaking seems to run in the family. What has it been like to get to work with your brother on projects such as Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Empire?
Working with my brother is fun because we grew up together and know each other very well. We share this sort of unspoken language where we can know what the other person is thinking just from their body language. Having that ability makes it a lot of fun when we’re in the room together working with actors. And I’ve learned so much from working with him. It’s just fascinating to watch the way he communicates with actors and is able to get a performance out of them. We worked together on The Butler and The Paperboy, which both shot in New Orleans, and I was fortunate enough to watch him on set and take in how meticulous he is about every little detail. Plus, I always love working on projects with him because we get to share special career moments, the ones we’ll talk about forever. Empire, for example, was his introduction to television. He was nervous about it because he started as an independent film director and wasn’t used to so many other voices having a say in the world he was trying to create. That dynamic can be really difficult and challenging, so it was good that we both got to experience it together.
You’ve extended your family’s real-life empire by founding the production company 1oneninety5 Productions with your husband Henry Butler. What attracted you to the role of being an executive producer?
I think that producing can be a natural segue from casting. For example, if you start with a project before it’s greenlit, you’re coming in on more of a consulting basis. You’re creating lists, checking availabilities, and helping build the attachments for the project so that it can get funding. When I come on in that capacity, I generally do ask for a producer credit. And then on this last film we did with 1oneninety5 called Survival, I was an executive producer in every sense of the word. My husband and I funded the project, and we literally took on every position in order to get this movie finished, whether it meant being a grip, a costumer, a production assistant, etc. I really enjoy the day-to-day of producing because you get to explore all the different departments and really see how the project’s being made. But I definitely still want to keep my casting company, Leah Daniels-Butler Casting, which is under the banner of 1oneninety5 Productions. The name of the production company is actually a nod to the day my husband and I were married: January 1, 1995. It has been 25 years of marriage now, and I still have a good time working with him.
What prompted you to create the Quarantine Monologue initiative, and were you expecting such a response?
It definitely started out of quarantine. By the third week, I was getting cabin fever and asked myself what I would be doing if productions were still up and running. If it were just a normal hiatus, I would be meeting actors. So I decided to just put it out there on social media, letting actors know that I’d be holding general meetings and to hit me up if they wanted one. I was not expecting to be inundated with responses and quickly realized that there needed to be a selection process. That’s when I came up with the idea of having actors do a one-to-two minute monologue or scene. They would upload their submissions, and then I would select 10 winners and have general meetings with each one. That was the goal. But within 24 hours, I had received 3,500 submissions, which grew to over 11,000 submissions by the time the entry period ended. A lot of people didn’t follow the directions, though, so they were unfortunately eliminated from the selection process.
But there was still a very high number of submissions to go through so I enlisted some of the people in my office to help. And I commend them for doing it because they weren’t getting paid — they just wanted to help! We all took a share of the submissions and then began narrowing them down, being conscious of inclusivity. I wanted to show a wide range of performances. We eventually got it down to 58 people, and it was my husband’s idea to have them go live with me on Instagram to perform their pieces. The whole thing got a really good response and just kind of blew up. So then we picked four top finalists from that group of people and paired them with members of our Writer’s Mob to come up with material for individual one-man shows. From there, we picked a final winner, Justina Adorno, and we’re actually going to lengthen her one-woman show and fully produce it.
If someone made a film about your life, who would your casting team choose to play you?
If it were a comedy, they would probably cast Tiffany Haddish. I think her background, her connection to the culture, and her way of dealing with people is similar to mine. And if it were a drama, I think that they would probably go with Regina King. When you see her performances, they’re always very grounded and very real. So if it were a dramatic version of my life, I think she would be able to do it the most justice.
What are you watching at the moment?
I’m watching so many things. I just finished the Spectrum Originals show Paradise Lost and the Apple TV+ series Servant, which might just be the most bizarre thing I have ever seen. But it’s so good, as is Belgravia. I recently finished that one, too, and binged it in two days. And then I’m currently watching Schitt’s Creek. I mean, I love all genres. I don’t think there is any sort of TV series or film that I wouldn’t watch. I like it all.
Daniels-Butler shared during her interview that one of the most rewarding aspects of conducting the Quarantine Monologue initiative was seeing how it helped people. “Actors were able to get representation from it, and so it not only helped people feel connected, but it also built bridges between actors and agents who wouldn’t have normally met,” Daniels-Butler said. The casting director added that because of the initiative, she was also able to discover talent she hadn’t previously known. And Daniels-Butler isn’t stopping any time soon. She plans to continue using social media to give back with “Monologue Mondays,” during which she’ll go live on the Leah Daniels-Butler Casting Instagram account and invite actors to perform monologues. The continued opportunities Daniels-Butler is providing for actors can be a source of inspiration for them in the midst of the industry pause. Her support for and championing of actors clearly embody the idea that casting directors are rooting for their success.
This interview has been edited and condensed.