A scene in Act II of Herb Gardner’s drama “Conversations With My Father” makes the audience gasp: a violent, emotionally intense confrontation between the hot-headed bar-keep Eddie (Tony winner Judd Hirsch) and his equally mercurial 10-year-old son Charlie (J. D. Daniels).
Sylvie Drake singled out Daniels’ performance in her review in The Times of “Conversations” (at the James A. Doolittle Theatre through Dec. 19): “It’s the stunning vigor and intensity of J. D. Daniels’ Young Charlie that steals the show.”
Such rave reviews from Los Angeles critics have taken the friendly 13-year-old by surprise. “I try my best out there,” he said, relaxing upstairs at the Doolittle. “I didn’t think I would get that good reviews. It was really flattering.”
For each performance, Daniels psyches himself up for that scene a few minutes before it begins. “I’m sort of in a routine now,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m used to it by now. It’s getting easier.”
Director Dan Sullivan said that it took Daniels a while during rehearsals to understand Young Charlie’s emotions. “I think it’s interesting because J. D. is actually smaller than his age,” he said. “His life attitude is that of a 13-year-old. A 13-year-old wants to be cool at all costs. So for a while during rehearsal he was sort of like Clint Eastwood. He had to understand just how emotional it had to get. But he certainly was able to get there when the time came.”
The New York-born Daniels was 9 when he first auditioned for--and lost--the role of Young Charlie for the original Broadway production. “When Judd pushes me it would have looked like child abuse, because I was so small,” Daniels said. “Now, they said I was fine.”
Sullivan found Daniels to be “a very clever guy. There’s a sweetness to him in life which I think will serve him well.”
The self-assuredness Daniels displays on stage carries over into real life. This is a young man who definitely knows where he’s going.
He was all of 6 1/2 when he decided he wanted to be an actor. “I lived in Manhattan and my mom managed a restaurant in Greenwich Village,” Daniels said. “All the waiters and waitresses were actors and actresses. I said to my mom, ‘I want to do what they do.’ ”
His mother, however, told him to wait until he graduated from college. Daniels wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I think about a week later, I said. ‘We have to have a family discussion.’ So we went over to our favorite pizza place and I said, ‘You are stopping me from having a career.’ I convinced her.”
Daniels also gave his agent a list of career goals. “It was a movie, a Broadway play, a TV series. I want to direct when I am 18 and produce when I am 21.” His biggest dream was to play the urchin Gavroche in “Les Miserables.”
“I went out for it when I was 7,” Daniels said. “They liked me, but I was way too young. I went for it every year until finally I got it when I was 10. I went nuts. I went into the street and told everyone, ‘I got it! I got it!’ People were looking at me like I was crazy, but it was the thing I wanted to do most.”
Next up was a TV series, the short-lived ABC sitcom “Going Places.” That’s when Daniels and his mother moved to Los Angeles.
Daniels’ wish to do movies also has come true. He’s appeared in “The Pickle,” “The Mighty Ducks” and “CB4.” Daniels also is featured with Ally Sheedy and Lance Henrikson in the recent thriller “Man’s Best Friend.” After Daniels completes “Conversations,” he’ll join Martin Sheen and Kyle MacLachlan in the Showtime thriller “Roswell.”
When he’s not acting, the eighth-grader attends Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica. He studies with a tutor while doing “Conversations.” “I love school,” said the honors student. “It gets harder every year, but it’s fun.”
His favorite subject?
“English,” he said. “Among other things I want to do when I am older is be a writer for movies and TV and stuff.”