Leslie Odom Jr. discusses his new book and navigating life
There are certain Carnegie Mellon alumni whose names are repeated on tours of campus, line the walls of buildings, and are spoken with a certain degree of reverence as if their degree of talent and success could somehow be shared with current students. One of these alums is actor Leslie Odom Jr., best known for his Tony-award winning role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, who was most recently seen in the film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, and has recently released his first book. Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning follows Odom’s life, from his childhood in Philadelphia, to his experiences as a musical theater major at Carnegie Mellon University, and of course delves into his career on Broadway.
Although Odom initially found the task of writing a book to be daunting, he told The Tartan that he began to warm up to the idea when publishers proposed that he write it in the form of a commencement address.
“Because of the educational nature of Hamilton, people were interested in what I thought about education, especially arts education,” says Odom, which led him to a series of speaking tours after leaving the show. Because of this experience, he found that writing a book in the same sort of format would be more freeing while allowing him to “offer a little bit of inspiration and a little bit of hope to the next generation.”
Odom decided to title the book Failing Up as a reference to the lessons that you learn through life’s struggles. “A turning point in my life as a young artist was when I gave myself the permission to fail,” he says, realizing that “it was really only up from there.”
While Odom initially envisioned his audience sitting before him in caps and gowns, he started to broaden this view with the guide of the many forms of graduations he has experienced since his own at Carnegie Mellon.
“The day you graduate college, it can feel like the end of something, but really it’s the beginning of something,” he says. “I graduated into my thirties. I graduated into my first serious relationship. I graduated into fatherhood. Leaving Hamilton, in a lot of ways, felt like a graduation. On the day of your college graduation, there are so many moments to look forward to.”
With the numerous amount of projects that Odom was taking on, The Tartan asked him how he managed to find time to write Failing Up.
“It was not easy,” he laughs. “My plan was, somewhere around the holiday time, I’d rent a cabin, I’d take my family into the woods for the winter and I’d write my book.” As winter approached, Odom was contacted by director Kenneth Branaugh to be part of Murder on the Orient Express which shot from late October to February. In April, his daughter Lucy, the eventual focus of the last chapter of his book, was born and the winter was over.
Eventually, Odom says that he just wrote whenever he could find the time. “If I had a six-hour flight, I’d power up on espresso and write.” He used the energy he had after concerts to fit in another three to four hours. Although it wasn’t easy, Odom still values the experience. “I enjoyed it so much, I’m already thinking about next year,” he says. “I want to make sure now that I make the time in my life to have this kind of creative outlet for myself always.”
Odom graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama in 2003. He dedicates his book to his teachers, the many people who have served as mentors to him throughout his life. In the book, he discusses his relationship with voice coach Professor Thomas Douglas and cites his dance teacher Professor Judy Conte as someone who was “really important and special to me.”
The Tartan asked, considering the recent dialogue that has surrounded mental health at the School of Drama, how Odom makes time to take care of his own mental health, to which Odom credited the art form with being a meditative and therapeutic aspect in itself.
“As you work on the issues that are holding you back in your work, it frees you up in your life as well, and vice-versa,” he says. “When you choose to really devote yourself to a life in the theater, a life as an artist, it comes with challenges for sure, but there is sort of a built in therapy aspect because there is so much self-analyzation. We spend our time dealing with empathy, we spend our time dealing with humanity and human foibles, and so you can allow time to keep an eye on those things in your life as you work on them on stage.”
For those moments where you can’t push through closed doors and are facing personal limitations that you can’t reach beyond, Odom states that “in those times, it helps to have a real spiritual practice to deal with that.”
On April 27, Odom can be seen in his first televised concert on PBS as part of their Live from Lincoln Center series. Odom calls the hour-long performance a “half diary journal entry, half concert,” where he performs songs from his albums and others he calls some of his “favorite songs on the planet.”
“We really married the music and the song choices with a deeper look into what life has been like for me over the past year since the Hamilton phenomenon,” says Odom. “It was a really big deal for me…I’m really proud of the concert special.”
As for future projects, Odom can soon be seen starring alongside Freida Pinto in Only from writer-director Takashi Doscher and in the as-yet untitled feature film directorial debut from Sia.