Several months after winning an L.A. Weekly Theater Award trophy for Supporting Female in last season’s production of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical, The Wild Party, at the Blank Theatre, Daisy Eagan mentioned that she was ready to leave performing. When I told her I’d like to write about what led her to this decision, she hedged and asked for time to think about it.
Eagan was 11 when she received a Tony Award for her performance in The Secret Garden. She’s still the youngest recipient of that coveted prize, which has done nothing to bolster her self-confidence. It might even have done damage.
“When I got the Tony, my mother told me if I ever got a big head, she’d pull me out of the business,” Eagan says. “She had good intentions; she didn’t want me to be a brat. But I’m a New York Jew, so I’m already hard on myself.”
Even now, one bad review in a stream of positive notices can set her reeling, she says, which is why she tries not to read any of them.
Eagan’s crisis of confidence is perennial. She wobbles between believing in herself and believing the worst of what others say about her.
“I have a preoccupation with what other people think of me,” Eagan explains. “I have to say that any actor who doesn’t care what other people think of them isn’t telling the truth. We perform for people. We want people to enjoy our work.”
This may be true, but it’s also why, for years, Eagan has been standing at a precipice, between remaining an actor and quitting. And whenever she’s about to leap off into a new career, local theater woos her back.
During her 20-year career, Eagan has accrued an impressive list of credits in TV and film (she moved here from New York in 2003), on Broadway and off-Broadway (Ensemble Studio Theatre, Playwrights Horizons), and in regional theaters (South Coast Repertory and La Jolla Playhouse). She also stepped in as a last-minute replacement in Sunset Boulevard at the Pantages. And though, like most actors, her employment as a performer has been both glittering and sporadic, she says it’s mostly the Industry that keeps rattling her confidence — and even her desire to continue acting — while the theater has come to her rescue, providing comfort and confidence, particularly the theater in Southern California.
“I came out here to do TV and film, and I’ve done more theater in L.A. than I ever did in New York,” she says. “I also found the theater community out here to be more embracing, warmer. The New York theater community got to be a little cold, maybe because I went through such a difficult time there, and I didn’t find much support from people who were happy to be around me when I was a star on Broadway, and less happy to be around me when I wasn’t.”
Yet Eagan says issues of professional identity are tougher here: “You tell people you’re an actor, they don’t even blink. But I want to say I really am an actor. I work. But everyone’s an actor. Eventually, when I was in bars and people would ask me what I did, I’d lie and say I was a rocket scientist.”
Then there’s the dismissive attitude toward local theater by the Industry itself.
“I’ve been through six agents out here,” Eagan says, “and couldn’t get one of them to see any of the plays I was in — not even The Wild Party, which was in Hollywood with free tickets.”
To keep the rent paid when auditions weren’t panning out into roles, Eagan has worked all kinds of jobs here, including telemarketing for a prepay psychic hot line.
“If you’ve been an actor for 20 years, being a telemarketer is easy,” she says. “The people around you are getting upset over all the rejection, and I say, ‘Oh, please…’ ”
That job didn’t last long. Eagan was fired after she wrote a scathing blog about the company and the customers, which, of course, got read by a company exec. “I was lucky they didn’t sue me,” she says.
Last month, Eagan was again dangling on the edge of quitting, her dissatisfaction stemming mostly from the long shadow the Industry casts here. “My decision [to leave] is largely based on experiences in L.A. It’s a totally different environment out here [from New York],” she says, referring to film/TV casting calls, “not based on ability but on factors that are beyond your control. To be frank, I’ve lost faith in my ability at this point. It’s hard for me to think about auditioning, because I worry they’re going to find out that basically I have no talent. How many times can a person be told ‘no’ and still keep going?”
On one occasion, however, Eagan was the one who said “no” — to the Mark Taper Forum, no less, which had asked her to understudy five roles.
“Maybe it’s just my perception,” Eagan explains, “but once you reach a certain level, it’s awkward to take things like understudy jobs, because it makes people wonder what’s happened to your career, rather than people thinking you’re just an actor like everyone else. My career started so easily. I reached such a height so quickly, that’s all I knew, that’s what I expected. So when I got older and it wasn’t so easy, it was hard to come to terms with that. I’m just realizing this now. Sometimes I wish I could start over and be totally anonymous.”
At age 6, after seeing her father perform in a play, Eagan decided she wanted to act in theater.
“I was not very popular in school; I thought of acting as a way to get out, to be somebody else,” she says. “I auditioned for a musical at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I got the lead. The next audition was for Les Miz and I got that.”
Two years after her Tony, Eagan’s mother died, sending the child on a whirlwind of grief and confusion.
“I was mad. I was rebelling and sabotaging myself,” she explains. “Here I was in New York, without any training, up against a lot of girls who had been in singing and dancing lessons since they were 3. I didn’t know a work ethic. So I was dealing with being a teenager, and I figured there’s a conspiracy, nobody wants to hire me. It’s only recently I figured, well, maybe I wasn’t hirable.”
In 2005, again contemplating throwing in the towel, Eagan got the call to do The Wild Party.
“That’s happened quite a few times. I say I can’t do this anymore, and then I’m offered a great part that reminds me of why I love to do it,” she tells me. “And it’s always in the theater, never TV or film. If I can guest-star on a TV show, I’m like, okay, it’s nice to work, obviously, but it doesn’t do the same thing that theater does. I’m not caught up in a dream of being famous, just comfortable, where I don’t have to worry about paying the rent.
“I love to do theater, but I don’t like being broke,” Eagan adds. “It’s hard to go from being the youngest actress on Broadway to not making any money. I wasn’t trained for that. But I’m learning. And it’s humbling. It’s teaching me about flesh and blood. This business is not so much about talent but perseverance and thick skin. I have the perseverance, but my skin is thinning — which I’m working on, but it’s tough.”
The day after this interview, Eagan called to say she’d just booked a guest-star role in Without a Trace. It airs April 8 on CBS. She also says she’ll remain an actor, for the time being.Click here for more stories of L.A. Theater 2007