Jessica Daniels is known for casting series like NBC’s 30 Rock and Hulu’s Deadbeat, along with films such as Radha Blanks’ The Forty-Year-Old-Version, Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades and Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog. She holds the title of Vice President of Casting for Disney Television Studios in New York, covering the New York talent pool on pilots and series like Tyson (Hulu), Reasonable Doubt (Onyx), and Ordinary Joe (20th for NBC) while working closely with her Los Angeles colleague, Kim Williams, on projects such as the upcoming Freeform series Single Drunk Female. And even with a busy slate that includes her recent appointment to the new Board of Directors for Casting Society of America (CSA), Daniels still found time to virtually sit down and talk with Casting Networks. Keep reading for a window in the person behind all the casting credits.
First off, congrats on recently being elected Vice President of Finance and Treasurer of CSA! Can you share any goals for the organization that you’re aiming to accomplish alongside Jason Kennedy in the role that you share?
Thanks! I’ve been on the New York board of CSA for seven years, and this was the first year that it combined with the national board. It’s been great to partake in the official combining of efforts and vision for the organization, and then with the new regime under [CSA President] Kim [Williams], it’s just been an exciting time during which we’ve been able to look at CSA as a whole to figure out what still needs work and how we want to grow. For my role in finance, that translates to where we want to focus our resources, and two topics are top-of-mind with that. Firstly, we want to make sure that the organization is serving its members because there aren’t many support systems for casting directors out there. It’s important that we understand their needs and provide opportunities such as education in new casting technology and training for upcoming assistants and associates. Then in addition to that overarching goal, we are working on CSA becoming the most equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist organization it can be. We’ve had an opportunity in the wake of the social justice movement to reflect and recognize that the casting field is predominantly white, which doesn’t reflect the world we live in. We want to change that.
Those are some vital goals. And now, let’s take it back to the start of your career. When was the moment you knew that casting was the job for you?
Growing up in New York City, I was a theater kid and went to every show I possibly could. I also acted in high school and college, along with writing, directing, and producing while still in school. Then once I graduated, my first job was working for Backstage newspaper as an editorial assistant. I edited its casting notices, and through that process, I started to understand what casting directors do. I ended up writing an article for which I interviewed the top 20 film casting directors at the time, and talking to all of them made the light bulb come on for me that it was the job I wanted to do. So I sent my résumé to essentially every casting director in town and only got a couple of responses, but one of them was Avy Kaufman. She’s one of the most talented and prolific casting directors out there, and I had actually interviewed her for the article. For almost four years after that, I was with Avy and really consider that time under her direction as my “casting college.”
What a way to learn the business! I’d also love to hear one of your proudest casting moments.
One of them is The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is an independent film directed by Desiree Akhavan that won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and came out in 2018. It’s based on a book about a gay conversion therapy camp where kids are forced to “pray out the gay” and is just a really beautifully told story. There wasn’t a lot of time or money for casting, though, and like most of the independents I cast, the movie came to me with nobody attached. Chloë Grace Moretz had recently dropped out of all her projects and was looking to do something more meaningful so we jumped on that and sent her the script. She has two brothers who identify as queer and really responded to the piece when we sent it — her attachment ended up being what green-lit the movie. I’m especially proud of the ensemble we built, including attaching Sasha Lane, Jennifer Ehle, and John Gallagher Jr. and casting Forrest Goodluck, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, Quinn Shephard, and Kerry Butler. It all happened in an organic way, and everyone was super close on set. I think it shows on film how tight everyone was, and I’m proud to be part of a film that was so moving and for some, a way to see themselves reflected on screen for the first time.
That’s an impressive cast list you assembled. What about your casting inspirations? Can you name a few?
Thanks so much! I’ve recently been bingeing The Americans, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t watched until now, but Rori Bergman did a brilliant job of assembling that cast and all the guest actors. There’s an inordinate amount of invisible work and searching that goes into making that series feel authentic with its requirement for dialects and language skills — my hat goes off to her. Also, Kimberly Hardin’s work on One Night in Miami was perfection. She approaches her work holistically and with such wisdom — I really admire her. Plus, I’ve been lucky to work with some fabulous casting directors who’ve inspired me. While I was still an associate, I worked with Steve Jacobs, who taught me all about negotiating. And then I rose from associate to casting director on 30 Rock under the wing of comedy casting maverick Jennifer McNamara. Sharon Klein — who heads casting for Disney, including ABC Networks, Signature Studios, Hulu, and 20th — gave me the opportunity to crossover to the executive side of casting. She is one of a kind and the embodiment of a boss lady who leads with humor and empathy. I’m lucky to learn from her every day.
Before we wrapped, Daniels shared some more titles on her watchlist at the moment. Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building was at the top of her list, along with Disney+’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, which she specified as content that was enjoyable to watch with her kids. Plus, after loving Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You last year, Daniels has been viewing the multi-hyphenate’s first series, Chewing Gum, which she calls “wonderful.” And for those interested in learning more about what she’s working on, Daniels offered her Instagram page as the best place to go. You can find her there as @jdcstg.
This interview has been edited and condensed.