Welcome to Mogul's November interview featuring performer Leslie Odom, Jr.
Leslie is best known for originating the role of Aaron Burr in Broadway's megahit musical Hamilton. For this role, he won the Tony Award for "Best Lead Actor in a Musical."
Leslie’s currently touring a solo concert. His movie “Murder on the Orient Express” releases this month and we can also look forward to his debut book, “Failing Up,” and a new album in early 2018.
In this interview, learn about all of this plus the defining moment that changed Leslie’s career and advice for aspiring performers:
Here are Leslie's interview #takeaways:
-I was born in New York and grew up in Philadelphia.
-As a kid, I wanted to be a singer like Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson. Growing up, I didn’t really know about Broadway.
Jessica Lipps (JL): How did you learn about Broadway?
Leslie Odom, Jr. (LOJ): The show Rent! Learning about Rent was like falling in love. I made a powerful connection with the musical.
-I didn’t necessarily want to be in show business. I wanted to be in THAT show. I started in Rent on Broadway at age 17 and it changed my life.
-Following Rent, I decided to train to become a professional actor.
-I attended Carnegie Mellon and studied theater.
-College helped prepare me for the different facets of the business, especially the television and film world that I traverse in now.
JL: How did your role in Hamilton come about?
LOJ: Lin sent me an email. He was going to give me a shot at Burr.
-When I received the score, it was clear that this was quite possibly the greatest original material that I would ever be given and my goal was to make Lin never want to see another Aaron Burr.
-It’s about how you prepare, how you show up. You’re letting them know - not in your words so much - but in the way that you attack the material. It’s about how you take the work into your soul and deliver it in a way that inspires the writer (in this case, Lin) to write more.
-That’s how you make it so that once an opportunity comes your way, you can keep them coming your way.
JL: What did it feel like winning the Tony?
LOJ: It’s incredibly humbling. It feels wonderful to be recognized by peers for the work that you’re doing.
-Practically, it can help your business. When you want to tour, the questions are: 'Can you sell out this symphony space? How about this 2,000 seat theater?' Having Hamilton helps.
-I take audiences seriously. I have to deliver a performance that makes audiences want to come back. I want audience members to leave with a smile on their face.
-Having an award like the Tony opens doors. It’s my job to keep the doors open.
ON LESLIE’S NEXT ALBUM:
-As an artist, you want to be the dreamer and need someone to be the architect to help you build a foundation and stand it up. That is the relationship between me and my manager.
-We are working on an album of all originals that will be out in early 2018.
-The song ideas and themes come from me and I collaborate with composers. Collaboration is key!
ON LESLIE’S DEBUT BOOK “FAILING UP:"
-I speak with students to share some of the knowledge that I’ve gathered and pass down lessons learned. People did this for me and it’s a pleasure when I get to pay it forward.
-A publishing company heard that I do this and asked if I’d want to make a book out of these stories.
JL: Can you preview a key story from the book?
LOJ: Yes! In my mid-'20s, I realized that other people’s work was inspiring me but that I couldn’t look to my own work for inspiration. Nothing about what I was doing was exciting. It was ‘safe.'
-I was going on a really important audition for a high comedy film. I made a bold choice about a risky way to attack the material.
-Every audition is high stakes and you’re worried about your agents and managers dropping you.
-For the first time, I decided to give myself permission to fail. I hadn’t done it in elementary school, high school or even college. I’d never given myself permission to fail!
-So either the success was going to be if I got the role OR if the casting company called my agent and said: “Don’t ever send him in again. That was the worst audition ever.” Because I’d never done anything that risky.
-Giving myself permission to fail in that moment changed the trajectory of my life. There would be no Aaron Burr in Hamilton without it. The risks that I was willing to take on the Hamilton stage and the way that I was willing to attack that material, it all related back to this comedy audition where I gave myself permission to take a risk and fail.
-Most of the ground that you cover in this business is hard won. It’s very competitive and doesn’t always feel fair.
-But there are good days. When those moments happen and someone says: "I’m going to give you an opportunity," you have to knock those things out of the park. You hope that you’re prepared for them because what you turn that into is up to you.
JL: Will you be back to Broadway?
LOJ: I love the question and that people want me back.
-I would love to go back but Aaron Burr is the role of a lifetime. You’d be hard pressed to come up with 5 other roles that are that complex and exciting for an actor.
-The second that one comes along, I’ll be there. But right now, those roles and opportunities are coming from film.
-The chance to learn from my talented colleagues in "Murder on an Orient Express" and in a film setting was too good to pass up.
-Film is the new form where I'm stretching, growing and learning the most. So for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here. But if there are any Broadway offers, let me know!