Hamilton's Leslie Odom Jr. reclaims his joy after being 'held back at every level'
The acclaimed actor on the role that changed his life, his new album and post-pandemic plans
Leslie Odom Jr. is a master of all mediums with an illustrious career. From music and the stage to on screen and the pages, his resume boasts: three albums; Broadway plays such as Hamilton, Dreamgirls and Jersey Boys; TV and film appearances on Murder on the Orient Express, Red Tails, Smash and the animated musical-comedy series Central Park, for which he received an Emmy nomination.
The Grammy and Tony Award-winning vocalist, songwriter and actor also added an author moniker to his creative roster in 2018 with the release of his book Failing Up: How to Rise Above, Do Better, and Never Stop Learning — in which he outlines the obstacles and rejections preceding his success. And most recently, he teamed up with multi-platinum artist Sia to debut a revamped version of his song Cold.
Traversing the path of inequity
Playing Aaron Burr in the Broadway musical Hamilton was a pivotal moment in Odom Jr.'s career. In a new feature interview with q's Tom Power, he reflects that "as an actor and as a person of colour whose opportunities have always been extraordinarily limited" — especially in comparison with his "white brothers and sisters" — the role changed his life in the most meaningful way.
I was, kind of, stunted and held back at almost every level, you know, even with success when I compared it to somebody who was sort of equal [in craft] to me. There was never any equality about it.- Leslie Odom Jr.
Odom Jr. explains that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of the musical, gave him and "a room full of black and brown people," a chance to prove themselves, adding: "I didn't have the proof really, because there was no work for me to do."
"I thought maybe I was capable of more … but it is just a theory until someone gives you a chance to prove that. And proving it is what ultimately builds confidence. That's what builds self esteem.
WATCH | Leslie Odom Jr.'s full interview with q host Tom Power:
"It is those 500 shows that I have as Aaron Burr and those two years of development, you know, I know that I'm capable of something. So now, if someone is not asking the most of me, I know that it is not due to any kind of flaw in what I bring to the table."
The playing field was never equal for the actor and singer who says: "There are black and brown performers who died, you know, never having been fully utilized or realized what was within them. That's a tragedy. It drove some to madness, and drives people to substance abuse to bitterness.
"Lin had the same thing. That's why he wrote Hamilton, you know. There wasn't any roles for him either [sic]. I just think I got very lucky that it found its way to me."
Reclaiming his joy
About two years into bringing the world a great deal of joy with his landmark role in Hamilton, Odom Jr. decided to make a New Year's resolution to go on a quest to find his own joy.
And it wasn't because he was sad, says Odom Jr., he just didn't feel like he was as joyful as he wanted to be.
"I think it probably had something to do with the way I was raised."
He reflects that while his parents did a wonderful job at raising him, his mother's philosophy of "I don't want to get too high, because I don't want to get too low," put a capacity strap on experiencing deep emotions such as not being able to feel elation in anticipation of a subsequent drop.
"It's just caused me to not experience all the highs of joy in my life in the way that I wanted to. … And when I started, I had to start simple. I started making a list of things that brought me joy."
On that list were small things that made him smile, "stuff like Volkswagen buses," Odom Jr. reflects. And some slightly bigger goals including his newly released Christmas album, fittingly called The Christmas Album, where he reimagines the timeless Christmas classics Last Christmas, O Holy Night and It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.
The album also features Odom Jr.'s newly penned, original holiday classics Snow and Heaven & Earth as well as his version of the Christmas classic Little Drummer Boy performed with the Mzansi Youth Choir who offer a unique blend of the Christmas spirit and devotion to South African music.
"In a lot of ways, this is like the fulfillment of a New Year's resolution from three years ago."
When Odom Jr. first went to a record label to get a record deal, right after Hamilton wrapped, his intention was to make music that Nat King Cole would make today. That exact notion was what secured him the funds, says Odom Jr.
"I don't know if Nat would say the same thing, but he wasn't making throwback music in his time. Nat was making the contemporary, dance music — contemporary pop music of his day."
And though some of the songs on the album have been covered many times over the years, by acclaimed artists, Odom Jr. likens it to theatre and opera explaining that everyone wants to play Hamlet in drama school, even though it's been done 10,000 times, and many opera singers want to do their versions of Aida. Making this album rang the same truth for him.
"I'm a part of a tradition," he says, "I wanted it to be as pure an interpretation, as classic an interpretation, as you can get. ... I wanted to make sure that [the album] sounded fun. That the voice didn't sound sad or downtrodden."
I really wanted this record to feel like a gift at the holidays.- Leslie Odom Jr.
As an active advocate for positive change and someone who's been instrumental in fighting for equal pay and profit share for the actors and performers involved in the film version of Hamilton, it's no surprise that Odom Jr. would want to spread positive messages with his album.
According to the album press release, "by including a few non-Christmas songs on the album, Leslie's goal was to spread the message of inclusion, stressing how important it is to respect and celebrate our differences, now more than ever."
Looking to the future, Odom Jr. hopes to get back to the theatre stage after the pandemic and says: "I'm so excited about the work that's good, you know, the work that people are going to make coming out of this. It's gonna be like a slingshot, you know. … It's going to be the roaring '20s."
Written by Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic. Interview produced by Mitch Pollock.