Part 1 All in the Family: How Leah Daniels-Butler, Sister of Hollywood Heavyweight Lee Daniels, Is Casting Her Own Role as a Shot Caller
So if you think acclaimed filmmaker and Empire TV creator Lee Daniels is the person to know if you want to make it in Hollywood, think again. His sister, Leah Daniels-Butler, a top veteran casting director, is the one you better recognize as well.
As one of the few elite African-American women in this critical role, Daniels-Butler had already proven herself and won notoriety in her own right by the time her big brother’s star began to rise as the director of the riveting, Academy Award-winning movie Precious. She is responsible for launching the careers of standout performers, including Gabourey Sidibe, then an unknown actress when the full-figured beauty landed the leading role in the 2009 film.
Throughout her career, Daniels-Butler has cast (or assisted in casting) numerous movies and television shows, and not surprisingly she continues to work alongside her brother, currently serving as casting director for Empire, one of TV’s top-rated shows on Fox.
Early in her career, thanks to her assistance, Daniels-Butler aided in casting a sexy, mocha-colored brotha with a bright smile and golden voice named Tyrese Gibson in the Coca-Cola ad that launched his acting/recording career. She also cast the films CB4 (Chris Rock), The Inkwell (Larenz Tate), and cult classic Friday (Ice Cube, Chris Tucker) before joining Warner Brothers, where she worked on award-winning such as Friends and Suddenly Susan.
In 2001, Daniels-Butler stepped out on her own and launched LDB Casting. She secured talent for films like 2 Fast 2 Furious, Shadow Boxer, ATL, and The Paperboy, which showcased all-star casts.
In 2013, she cast her brother’s award-winning film The Butler, with another all-star line-up that included Oprah Winfrey, Forrest Whitaker and Liev Shreiber. Among her many accolades, Daniels-Butler is the recipient of the Hamilton Award for Outstanding Casting for her work on The Butler, and the Casting Society of America’s “Outstanding Achievement in Casting for a Television Drama” award for her work on Empire. She serves as the only African-American member of The Casting Society of America Board of Directors.
In this first of a three-part conversation with BeGeorgeous, Butler-Daniels talks about her faith, her career and her greatest challenge to date.
BG: You continue to enjoy great success in your career as a casting director and producer. How have you been able to achieve success in this highly competitive entertainment field?
Daniels-Butler: God is at the center of my life. I don't do anything unless I pray about it first. I honestly believe if you put him first, everything else will fall into place. I also don't indulge in what the next person is doing; if you do that you will never be able to see what God has in store for you.
BG: You were working at Warner Brothers when you decided to launch your own company, LDB Casting, in 2001. Why did you decide to go out on your own? Did you ever experience tough times and wonder if you made a mistake?
Daniels-Butler: LOL. Well, it's kind of funny to hear it put that way. Working at Warner Brothers is one of the highlights of my career. I am very proud of that time and thankful for the experience. When I decided to form my casting company, it was because the department at Warner Brothers was being downsized. So pretty much everyone in the casting department at Warner Television moved on to different jobs, some corporate and some independent. I had been getting a little antsy with the corporate setting of casting, so when it happened, I looked at it as God’s way of telling me to start a new chapter in my life. And, yes, I did have doubts when I first started out, and times that were more than rough. But the rough times build character and make you work harder. It is all paying off now.
BG: What has been the greatest challenge of your career?
Daniels-Butler: I can answer that in two parts. First, the greatest challenge is still a challenge really, and that is trying not to worry about what is next. Once I finish a production or towards the end of that project, I start pressuring myself about the next project or film. I know I don't have to, but I feel responsible in some way for the people that work with my company, and I want to make sure we all stay working. Secondly, now that I have a production company with my husband, 1OneNinety5, and making the transition into producing, it’s hard juggling both – trying to get that company off the ground and maintaining LDB Casting.
BG: What has been the greatest accomplishment of your career?
Daniels-Butler: That’s a really tough question, because I still feel like I have so much more to accomplish.
BG: What advice would you give a young person now pursuing a career in entertainment – behind or in front of the camera?
Daniels-Butler: If you want to pursue a career behind the camera, explore ALL aspects of what is done. There are so many different departments that can offer rewarding and lucrative careers. Dabble in it all, if you can, and then decide. If you want to be in front of the camera - TRAINING! Point, blank, period. Be in constant study. Think of acting as a muscle in your body. It needs to be exercised regularly.
BG: If you had an opportunity to redo a part of your life – an incident, a phase, a decision, a moment – what would you do over?
Daniels-Butler: I would have finished college. I have a two-year college education, but I would have graduated and probably joined a sorority. LOL! That always looked like so much fun – the stepping part of it, and the sisterhood that they have. Outside of that, I wouldn't change anything. These life experiences have made me who I am.