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Emmy Nominee: Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story Casting Director Eric Dawson Finds Winning Talent For Ryan Murphy’s Universe


Evan Peters in Dahmer / Netflix

Casting Director Eric Dawson, CSA, along with his partners Robert J. Ulrich and Carol Kritzer of Ulrich, Dawson, and Kritzer Casting have been part of the Ryan Murphy universe since the very beginning.

One of Dawson’s early claims to fame was finding a bevy of fairly unknown, talented singers for Glee, many of whom have gone on to have prolific careers. Prior to that, he was casting movies and series for ’90s television, such as Jake And The Fatman, Melrose Place, Perry Mason movies of the week, Diagnosis Murder, and Matlock, to name a few. At the beginning of the aughts, he met Murphy, casting the teen comedy drama Popular, which led to another high school-themed series, Felicity. He would cast other high-profile credits, including CSI:Miami, Everwood, and Battlestar Galactica, inevitably circling back to Murphy for the director’s cut pilot episode for Glee, which led to casting 121 episodes for the series and winning the 2011 Emmy for “Outstanding Casting For A Comedy Series.” Dawson essentially became Murphy’s go-to casting director.

To date, he’s cast American Horror Story, American Horror Story:Asylum, American Horror Story:Coven, American Horror Story:Freak Show, Feud Betty and Joan, and 9-1-1. Dawson also cast 100 episodes of Murphy’s Nip/Tuck. His most recent casting credits include Designated Survivor, The Good Doctor, Supernatural, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Big Sky, The Boys, The Rookie, and Grey’s Anatomy. Needless to say, one should definitely check out his impressive IMDB page, as it is swarming with must-see TV.

Dawson is nominated for “Outstanding Casting For A Limited Or Anthology Series Or Movie” for Murphy’s latest creation, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.

In a recent conversation with Below The Line via Zoom, Dawson spoke about how he came to be the center of the Ryan Murphy universe when it comes to casting. He revealed that American Horror Story alum Evan Peters (also nominated for “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie”) was not a lock for the title role, as he was still shooting AHS, not to mention the subject matter required him to go to some pretty dark places. Dawson discusses how they were able to make it work after auditioning hundreds of actors for the role. Finding the ensemble cast was where his expertise also proved immeasurable, literally putting Molly Ringwald back into the viewers’ zeitgeist as Shari Dahmer. Too humble to say he’s discovered any one actor, you’d be surprised to hear about who he’s cast in pilots or bit parts throughout his illustrious career that have become household names. Hint: She’s now a Mattel sensation.

Below The Line: Nice to meet you. Can I gush a little because I think every single thing that you’ve ever cast, I’ve watched. Tell me about the company you formed.

Eric Dawson: We’ve been very fortunate to have had a really nice career and been surrounded by great producers, and the Ryan Murphys of the world have been so great to us. Robert Ulrich and I started our company in 1989, and Carol Kritzer was our assistant. She then became our associate and then our partner in the nineties. So we’re the three partners, and then we have other people who work for the company, and obviously, our team of associates and assistants.

BTL: Going back to the nineties, how did you get your start because you seemed to be very prolific back then with a lot of TV series and movies of the week.

Dawson: We all worked for Reuben Cannon, who was a very prominent casting director. He did things like Moonlighting and The Color Purple. I was doing a miniseries in Nebraska locally (where I’m from), and he came out and was the casting director who cast the major roles. I worked with him my senior year of college in 1986 and then said to him, “Can I come work for you in Los Angeles as an intern?” And he said I could. So I finished my last semester of school and moved to Los Angeles. I was an intern for a few months, and I was his assistant. I then worked for him for a few years, and he gave me my first job, which was my own show, Matlock.

Robert Ulrich was doing another show for Viacom. We did a lot of Viacom shows at that time, like Matlock and Jake and the Fatman, Perry Mason, and Diagnosis Murder—all those really good crime shows. Then Reuben decided that he was more interested in being a producer, and he left. He became Oprah Winfrey‘s partner and produced a lot with Oprah. We continued with the shows and sort of built it out from there. I think we did our first pilot in 1989, which was called Erie, Indiana, and we’ve done like a hundred and some pilots since then. I think we’ve done 200 projects between us. It’s been a long, long, fabulous road.

Evan Peters (L) and Michael Learned in Dahmer / Netflix

BTL: When did the opportunity to cast Felicity come up? Of course, that went on to become a big hit, and certainly put Keri Russell on the map.

Dawson: We did the last two seasons of Felicity. That would’ve been probably like ’94 or something like that. That was sort of a big deal show for us that was sort of moving into a little higher-end show. We were doing other WB shows at the time. Everwood was in there somewhere. Jack and Bobby were around there somewhere. But Felicity was a big deal for us, and I’m super proud of it. I still love Keri, and I watched The Diplomat, and I have fond memories of that time.

BTL: You mentioned casting Everwood, and I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Treat Williams. What are your memories of him?

Dawson: He was cast before we came on. It was shot in Utah, so we didn’t really get to spend much time with him then. It was only later that I hired him for some other series, and we saw him quite a bit on things. He was an incredible person and has been such a huge loss for the community and just everybody who knew him. We were doing a show about a Chicago crime family, and he was the father, and the prototype was Treat Williams. So he came in and it was just us; I was putting it on tape, and he goes, “Tell me everything you can tell me to get this job. I really want this job.” And I said, “Well, you’re the prototype, so just do you.” He did it, and he goes, “How was my Treat Williams?” I said, “One of the best Treat Williamses I’ve ever seen.” It was really nice because we had some younger actors on the show, and he was just a father figure to everybody and just the hardest worker. You would think maybe a guy who’d been doing it so long would come in with a chip on his shoulder or tired of auditioning and was just always so much fun to have in the room. I mean, it was a treat.

BTL: Everybody says that about him, that he was a “treat” which is so true. 

Dawson: I didn’t even mean to say it, but he really was. My favorite film of all time is Once Upon A Time in America, and he was in that. So every time he came in, I’d ask him about the film, and he would tell me about the film. He was really great.

Penelope Ann Miller in Dahmer / Netflix

BTL: So tell me the story of how you actually met Ryan Murphy, because I think you’ve become his go-to casting director. 

Dawson: [chuckles] We’ve done a lot. I was Ryan’s very first person he ever hired in Hollywood. He was a writer. The very first show he sold was a show called Popular for the WB. We met him, and Shephard and Robin Productions were the producers. It was so funny; he basically pitched the entire Popular script to us in an hour and a half, through every scene and every detail. He was just bubbling with enthusiasm for what he was doing. I just hit it off with him. The first casting session he ever attended was with me and Robert. We sort of showed him what casting was. We started talking about people we liked, what we liked about things, how you got in the room, the proper way to audition actors, and what we could figure out.

We did Popular for a couple years, and then Nip Tuck was, I think, the next show we did with him, which was really groundbreaking and fantastic. It was 100 episodes, and it sort of made cable television cool. That was our first Emmy nomination. It was really a wonderful experience because, back then, doing cable wasn’t necessarily cool. We had to talk actors into it, sort of like, “This is the place to be.” Then we got Alec Baldwin to do it, and Vanessa Redgrave and Catherine Deneuve – I actually did her SAG card. She wasn’t a member yet, which was like the craziest thing in the world. It started attracting wonderful actors, and people really wanted to do it. That was a wild ride.

BTL: What were your next Ryan Murphy projects after the success of Nip/Tuck?

Dawson: Then we had American Horror Story and Glee, both groundbreaking in their own ways. We did Feud, which was one of my favorite things—the Betty and Joan story. First of all, it was all about Hollywood, so just casting all those people during that time I love the whole Hollywood tradition, especially during the fifties and sixties. The costumes and the writing were really terrific, and obviously Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon The show and I got nominated as well.

BTL: How many Emmy nominations have you had to date?

Dawson:I think Dahmer is our ninth nomination, which is really great. We had a bunch for Feud, we had Nip/Tuck, and we had several for Glee. But it’s been a couple years, so this nomination has been sort of like, you don’t know if you ever get back to the party, and so to be invited back to the party is really terrific.

BTL: Wonderful. So I want to break down the casting for Dahmer. I imagine Evan Peters was already on board to play Jeffrey Dahmer?

Dawson: He wasn’t. He was unavailable doing American Horror Story for us on the East Coast, on Season 10. He had a very big role in that, and that was during the pandemic, and we were shooting (Dahmer) in L.A. We talked about Evan day one, but we knew that would be the biggest nightmare in the world to try to have him on two sets at once. So we global searched and saw like 400 people for Dahmer. Then over several months we were sort of doing it all on audition tape. No one was in offices, so it was really sort of at the very beginnings of auditioning and sending tapes in from your home and everything. We spent a couple months doing that, had some really good contenders, and then we thought, “How do we make Evan work?”

We talked to the producers; they wrote him out of scenes. We block shot some things. We obviously had to go to Evan and see if he was interested because it was obviously a very dark character. Evan is just a consummate actor and he doesn’t go into anything unless he can give a hundred percent. We had to talk through Evan and the deal, and all that sort of stuff.

Molly Ringwald, Richard Jenkins in Dahmer / Netflix

BTL: What was it about Richard Jenkins as his father Lionel Dahmer that was right for the role?

Dawson: Richard Jenkins was the first person to be cast. He was cast before Evan was. It’s interesting, he wasn’t exactly right for the role because he was about 30 years older, but because we knew we were going to play younger and older, we were going to have the same person do both roles. Then when we started talking about Richard and just his gravitas, we knew that those scenes would just kill you, and they did. I mean, what a blessing.

We chased him on another Ryan Murphy show, so he was part of that group that we’ve always wanted to hire but weren’t able to because of scheduling or whatever. When we started, Ryan and I started talking about the potential of Richard, which just became so exciting, and to think that we’d hire him before we even got Dahmer is hilarious. He elevated the whole project.

BTL: It was great to see Molly Ringwald as Shari Dahmer. How’d that choice come about? 

Dawson: Molly and Penelope Ann Miller (Joyce Dahmer) both auditioned and just sent me their tape. They both wanted to be in Ryan Murphy’s world. Molly, I think, was on the East Coast, and if I remember right, she was in her attic at her home and just put it down there! Those two roles, both wives, were sort of at the end of the casting process. As we were putting all the puzzle pieces together, for some reason they kept being set aside a little bit as we were trying to figure everything out. I presented those two auditions to Ryan, and it was almost instantaneous. First of all, they’re great, but it was also, you haven’t seen Molly that much lately, and to sort of bring her back, and I think that she’s doing another show for Ryan right now as well. So it was great to bring her into the world, and I just had so much respect that she would go like, “Yeah, I’m just going to throw it down on an audition.”

Niecy Nash in Dahmer / Netflix

BTL: What about the ensemble cast, tell me your process there.

Dawson:  That was a cool thing: with Ryan, we’ve created over the years this sort of ensemble of actors, this pool that he likes to draw from. On this, he really didn’t feel like he needed stars. A lot of times we make a lot of offers, but on this, I think we had two offers, which were Richard and Niecy [Nash as Glenda Cleveland], and I think Evan, and that was it. There are so many people like Evan Peters, whom I hired on The Mentalist as a guest star, and then we hired him on American Horror Story season one. So you start to have these relationships with actors, and you start to really know what they’re capable of. That’s really been the fun part for us. For Popular, Niecy played a woman in a lobster outfit! We’ve actually hired Niecy several times on Ryan’s shows. She did a Nip/Tuck too. She’s been in our world for a while.

My partner casts Rookie: Feds, and they came after us, but we’ve just always been big fans. Out of the 240 actors that we hired, I think three of them were offers, and the rest were all auditions. I think about 200 of them were new to Ryan Murphy’s world. It was kind of neat, just introducing him to new people. I think there were so many terrific performances. I just had to do the Emmy reel (for the upcoming show), so I had to go back through everything and find my favorite scenes. It was so hard to get it down to 30 minutes out of 10 hours. People were committed, and knowing the sensitivity of the material, everybody took it very seriously.

BTL: How would you describe Ryan’s casting philosophy when you work with him?

Dawson: I really love that Ryan refuses to put actors in these boxes. To him, a good actor can do anything. If you look at Horror Story, people will play one thing one year, and the next year they play something completely different. He never wants to cast people the same way every year. In an awards show, Niecy was talking about all the times that Ryan gave her those jobs along the way that paid her rent and everything. That’s a fun part of casting.

BTL: What would you say were some of your biggest discoveries, that you felt this made them a star?

Dawson: I never want to claim that. It takes so many things to make someone a star. We’ve certainly given a lot of people their first jobs and SAG cards, but I never want to take credit for anybody’s career because I’m one little peg in it.

BTL: I’m not letting you off the hook so easily! Give me an example of somebody that you feel you found in the background who hadn’t really done anything yet, and boom.

Dawson: There are all different people in different parts, like Bryan Cranston, who we hired on every single show when he had no real agent. It was literally like he would see that a show would get picked up when we were casting it, and he was like, “Oh God, I have a job.” We cast him in Matlock and Jake And The Fatman, and Perry Mason. Literally every show we did, Bryan was there. Those are the fun ones when you take somebody from a little teeny agency and smaller roles and then sort of graduate them up to the bigger guest stars, and then you watch him bloom. I think he has more Emmy wins than anybody in the history of the Emmys.

Jennifer Love Hewitt, who’s the lead in 9 1 1, was given her SAG card on a pilot when she was 14 years old. Between the three of us, we’re hiring hundreds of actors every week. It is nice to get the letters that say, “You gave me my first job.” I remember the day that Margot Robbie came in and read for me for American Horror Story for the role of the crazy woman in the asylum. It was a good role. Margot came in, and she’d already started her career a little bit but was still auditioning at that point. It doesn’t take a brilliant person to realize that you’re in the audience with somebody who’s going to become a huge star.

BTL: Do you have to have sort of a radar when you’re watching auditions?

Dawson: That’s what you’re always trying to do: find those people and bring them in. Yeah, sometimes it’s not your project that makes them a star. Because, you know, it has to be the right person with the right project at the right time. We did a pilot that wasn’t picked up. It was the same year as Friends, and half the Friends cast tested for our pilot and didn’t get it, then went and got the Friends pilot. So they were super lucky they didn’t get ours! Even Matthew Perry tested for it and didn’t get it. He wouldn’t have been available anyway if we had cast him in the pilot.

Shaun J. Brown (L) with Peters in Dahmer / Netflix

BTL: How would you describe where your expertise and knowledge of the business comes from?

Dawson:I had one associate, Eric Soar, who’s a wonderful casting director and now a casting executive. He’s the only person I’ve ever known who said that when I was 12, I knew I wanted to be a casting director. I’ve never met anyone who grew up wanting to be a casting director. I think you sort of fell into it a little bit. Somebody needs something, a play, and all of a sudden you decide you have a pretty good eye and find your way into it. I took theater classes and acting classes in college. I took film classes. I just knew I really wanted to be in the business.

When I moved to Los Angeles [from Nebraska], this was a door that was open to me. Robert said that because I was a life science major, I studied casting like I was getting my MCATs. In those days, you didn’t have the internet, so you couldn’t just get information. I went to every movie and every television show. I wrote down everybody that was in it, and I just had notebook after notebook after notebook. I didn’t come from a background of casting, and all of a sudden, I was in my mid-twenties when I got my first show, which was sort of unheard of at the time, and I just really had to play catchup.

If you do anything for 30 or more years every day, with really great people, I guess you have to have natural talent. One of the things about casting is not only understanding talent, but also being really good at business. When we’re doing the deals we’re doing, there’s so much production work, and especially if we’re working on 12 shows at once, you really have to have a business mind to do it. The artistic part and the business part are both super important. We’re entrusted with a lot of deals, a lot of money, and a lot of moving parts. You can have great taste, but you have to deliver and send tapes in a timely manner and bring people aboard.

BTL: If you’re having to answer to all the business people, it must be hard sometimes to agree on casting. What is it that works with your relationship with Ryan?

Dawson: A lot of times I feel like so much of my job, especially on pilots, is to get everybody to agree to one person to cast. You have your producers, your writers, your directors, your studio, your network, and your production company, and you have to get everybody to agree. I feel that that is a real skill. How do you get all these people to agree? You’re building your cast, and so you have a vision of what you’re doing, and a lot of times, especially with the studio and network people, they come in for their half-hour session and then they’re onto the next show. So they haven’t necessarily really thought about the whole picture like we did, you know?

I’ve always thought that was a real talent, to be able to bring everybody on board to see your picture and then, at the same time, be able to pivot when they don’t agree. Otherwise, you just go down in flames. I mean, it is the studio network’s final decision, or, in the case of Ryan Murphy, it’s always Ryan, which is really a great way to work. Ryan is a special person due to the fact that he can make a decision easily and see it right away.

I mean, the cool thing about Ryan after 25 or 30 years is that you have sort of the same brain. He doesn’t like to tell me too much about the characters. He wants me to go wide and see what works for me, and then he wants me to narrow it down for him. He doesn’t want to see four bananas. He wants to see an apple, a pear, and a banana-type thing. It’s liberating to me that I don’t have to show him five of the same thing. A lot of times, I’ll change the sex, I’ll change the age, and I’ll change what happens. Then there are times where you just send one person and he’ll go, “This is so brilliant.” Ryan doesn’t need to sit through five people. He just needs a winner.

Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is now available to stream on Netflix.

Robin Milling
Robin Milling
Robin Milling is an Entertainment Reporter and Producer based in New York. Robin has a wealth of experience as an Entertainment Reporter covering film, theater, television, and music. Her style is conversational and candid, discussing personal issues as well as professional topics with celebrities. She is a writer/producer and host of the podcast Milling About™ with Robin Milling, which can be heard on Amazon Music, Apple podcasts, and seen on YouTube, featuring her provocative conversations with the hottest names in Hollywood.
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