Erin Daniels - On luck, her love affair
with acting and growin’ up in the Lou.
She got her start producing puppet shows in her parents’
Clayton backyard, honed her early acting skills at Webster University’s
theater for kids, starred in off-Broadway productions and a handful of TV
shows in her 20s and even shared screen time with Robin Williams in the 2002
creep-fest One Hour Photo—the same year she took home the Emerging Actor
Award at the St. Louis International Film Festival.
But it is Erin Daniels’ role on Showtime’s groundbreaking series “The L
Word”—a no-holds-barred drama about the lives, loves and friendships of a
close-knit group of lesbian women living in Los Angeles—that has Hollywood
buzzing. Known for its rich characters and stellar cast (which includes
Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, Pam Grier and a slew of guest stars), the
show is praised for helping redefine what’s possible on television,
especially regarding its provocative, universally appealing storylines that
explore the places in human relationships where issues of sexuality, race,
class and gender intersect.
Since its record-breaking debut two years ago—the first two episodes
received four times Showtime’s average primetime ratings—Daniels has been a
fan favorite, winning hearts with her honest portrayal of character Dana
Fairbanks, a geeky-but-gorgeous pro tennis player who struggles to strike a
balance between her personal and professional lives as she comes out of the
closet to family and fans. During the third season, Daniels broke hearts
with her performance when Dana is diagnosed with breast cancer, a battle she
ultimately loses before the March 26 finale. I caught up with her by phone
on a sunny Saturday afternoon at her home in Hollywood Hills.
Kelly Hamilton: Hi Erin!
Erin Daniels: Hi! I’m so sorry I’m calling you late. One of my dogs [she has
two Boston Terriers, Henry and Max] is allergic to something. We don’t know
what it is, but every once in a while he gets into whatever it is and ends
up with all these little bumps.
KH: Did you take him to the vet?
ED: Yeah, he gets a shot of Benadryl and then he’s fine. He has no idea.
KH: Wow—so other than that, how are you?
ED: I’m fine. I’m used to it now that I know he can be medicated!
KH: Tell me what you’ve been up to since wrapping up the third season of
“The L Word.”
ED: I spent some time with my family in Texas and caught up with friends in
LA., started auditioning for things here and there. In January, I went to
New York for a few weeks to work on Tom Cavanaugh’s show “Love Monkey”—so
much fun. I love doing comedy. Third season of “The L Word” for me, not so
KH: But your character Dana is very funny—she’s quirky, naïve, sarcastic,
even goofy in a very endearing way. Do you see any of those characteristics
ED: Absolutely, especially the goofy part. And I love characters that are
awkward and flawed—I think we’re all kind of like that no matter how
together we tend to be.
KH: Dana went through a lot of very tough emotional evolutions on the show,
from coming out of the closet in the first season to battling, and
eventually succumbing to breast cancer in the third. That’s some pretty
heavy stuff. How did you prepare for it?
ED: For me it was spread over three or four years, so that made it easier.
As far as coming out of the closet, that was something that many people I
know and love have done, so I talked to them. And because I’ve never had to
do that before, I looked at the character and said, “The truth is, she’s
facing something about herself that she’s had a hard time accepting,” and
then asked myself what I have had a hard time accepting that was difficult
to tell my parents about. And I’ve certainly had those experiences, so I
related it to that.
KH: Any in particular you’d like to share?
ED: Specifically…[laughs] No, nothing I’d really want to expand on.
KH: What experiences do you think led up to your big break in acting?
ED: I moved to New York in the middle of my junior year at Vassar [where she
got a degree in art history and architecture] and commuted—I was just so
eager to see what was out there for me in terms of working as an actor. I
met a manager through a roommate and was introduced to an agent, and the
next thing I knew, I was auditioning for a bunch of stuff, commuting to
school and writing my thesis at the same time. I kept going until I realized
I was in over my head and wasn’t ready to do it for a living. So I stopped
and studied acting for two years with William Esper [who’s worked with
Kristen Davis, Jennifer Beals, John Malkovich and countless other
A-listers]. He turned everything around for me.
KH: It seems drive and determination have played a big part in your career.
ED: I’ve also been extremely lucky. There’s sort of a common theme
there—every time I push my acting career away, it comes back to me twofold.
Sort of like love—when you’re not looking for it, it comes to you. I guess
you can call this a love of mine. I wasn’t looking for it, but it came back
to me when I was ready and then I was off and running.
KH: Is that when you ran into “The L Word?”
ED: [After appearing in several off-Broadway productions in New York and
guest-starring on several shows including “Law & Order”] I moved to L.A. and
did a couple of pilots and a couple of series [“Action,” “The Outer
Limits”], and I was frustrated at the time, because it’s a very frustrating
business, especially for women. I hit a wall, and said I’m tired of
auditioning for the bimbos and young, naïve girls. I went back to school for
environmental and interior design and told my agent I was just not
interested in anything unless it was brilliant or showed women as
intelligent. One day my manager called and said there’s this great script
you should read. My first reaction was, “Ugh, lesbians for cable? It’s going
to be the “Red Shoe Diaries”; I’m not interested!” She said, “Just read
it—it’s different.” And she was right—that was the only project I auditioned
for that whole summer and my life changed.
KH: How does your family react to the steamy girl-on-girl love scenes?
ED: My family has always been extremely liberal. They didn’t care whether
the character was gay or straight or sexual or not; they just wanted to make
sure I was happy doing the work I was doing. And my grandmother actually
watches the show with her friends. She leaves the room when there’s a sex
scene—not because it’s with a woman; she just can’t stand the fact that I’m
actually naked on television.
KH: Your parents sound very supportive of your acting. How did you get
ED: My friend and I used to put on puppet shows for our parents. I loved the
whole process of it—I didn’t know what I was doing, I just knew that I liked
it. Luckily my parents saw that and put me in classes at Webster
University’s theater for kids when I was around six. After that, I was done.
I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I suppose I just needed
the attention so badly that I was like “This is great! This is more
attention than I could ever need right here!”
KH: But you’ve certainly garnered a lot of attention for “The L Word” [which
attracted close to a million viewers in its pilot episode, was just picked
up for a fourth season and generates more than a third of all traffic on the
Showtime website]. Did you know the show would be this successful?
ED: I had no idea. The only thing I thought about was that the
characters—the way they were written—were very smart, very interesting and
very complicated. That combined with the fact that it was a cast made up of
thinking women blew me away, because unfortunately, up until that time there
wasn’t a whole lot of that. “Sex and the City” had just started to become
popular and it’s really been in the past four or five years that people have
realized producing shows about intelligent women actually makes successful
KH: “The L Word” has definitely played a role in that shift. What did your
role mean to you personally and what do you think it has meant to your
viewers—both gay and straight?
ED: I’ve loved being part of a show that has changed the social fabric of
television. Making TV that actually touches a lot of people very personally
is an incredible experience. And playing this character in particular,
because she has such a journey, has been phenomenal.
KH: And Dana’s battle with breast cancer—that’s a storyline that speaks to
ED: That’s something Ilene [Chaiken, the show’s creator] and I talked about
when she told me the plan for the third season [to have a character die of
breast cancer, with Dana being chosen because she was well-loved, not in
spite of it, Chaiken told The New York Times]. It wasn’t my decision to
leave the show, and I was very sad to see Dana go. But it was an important
storyline to tell that applies to all women—something I think all women
fear, and that’s huge.
ERIN DANIELS ON…
Upcoming projects: I’m looking at a TV series [Fox’s upcoming pilot “Julie
Reno, Bounty Hunter,” for which Daniels was cast as the lead]. And I’m
producing a film based on a British novel I optioned about a group of
friends dealing with the loss of a friend.
Being from The Lou: I had friends in college who were from Manhattan and
they’d say, “You’re from Missouri? Do you live on a farm?” I was like “No,
you’re from Manhattan. Do you own a gun?!”
High school hangouts: Hi Pointe, Cheshire, Venice Café, Blueberry Hill, the
St. Louis Art Museum. If I was having a bad day I’d go and just walk around
for an hour. It sort of became my temple, my church. It’s probably why I
ended up studying art in college.
Guilty pleasures: I can’t believe I’m going to admit this, but I really like
Mariah Carey’s new album. Any man that was interested in dating me I think
just lost interest.
Food faves: I’m a hardcore Midwestern girl, no question about it. I like
fancy French food, but I’ll also have my steak and potatoes, thank you very
Must-have duds: A black corduroy jacket that I bought at a flea market in
Paris for like 20 bucks. I wear it at least once a day. And I’ve always been
a big fan of Costume Nationale and Chloe.
Dream co-workers: I was really impressed with Paul Haggis [director of
Crash]. I’d also love to work with Cate Blanchett and—it’s almost cliché
because she’s so good—but I’d love to work with Meryl Streep.
Erin Daniels (born Cohen) graduated Clayton High in
1991, earned a degree in architecture and art history from Vassar and
studied under the renowned William Esper in New York before pursuing her
acting career full-time. Daniels guest-starred on several series before
landing a starring role as pro tennis player Dana Fairbanks in the hit
Showtime series “The L Word"