'Hamilton' star Leslie Odom Jr. reveals the advice that changed his life

Leslie Odom Jr.
Credit: Christopher Boudewyns

Leslie Odom Jr. got his ticket to stardom when he landed a leading role in the smash hit musical "Hamilton."

His smoldering performance as Aaron Burr, the "damn fool" who shot Hamilton, won him Tony and Grammy awards. Now, the 35-year-old actor is among the star-studded cast of "Murder on the Orient Express," filming in London. Oh, and he recently released an eponymous jazz album and a holiday album "Simply Christmas."

Odom says he learned two crucial lessons on his way to the top.

"The two most important things I've learned since getting out of college are directly related to [my success in] 'Hamilton,'" Odom said.

First, "Don't make a secret of what you want," he said.

To get the part in "Hamilton," Odom quit a lucrative TV series, demonstrating his commitment to the musical, even though writer Lin Manuel Miranda had yet to finish it. "Everything about it felt once in a lifetime," he said. "It's an environment you dream about as an artist. You don't make that a secret."

Second, he said, "Be prepared."

That meant working "really hard inside and outside the room to make sure I was always meeting and exceeding expectations" and getting "bad habits" out of the way. "Once you identify that thing you want, the question becomes, is this behavior going to help you get to that place or not? Is being timid going to help? Is being unprepared going to help me walk toward the thing I want?"

Cover art for Leslie Odom Jr.'s recently released eponymous jazz album
Credit: Nate Jensen INN8Creative

For Odom, one critical bad habit had to go. "Lateness is something I've struggled with," he said. "Because I think I can do more than I can in a certain amount of time. If I have an hour, I think I can go to lunch, make that call and go to Starbucks."

Being late sends the wrong message, he said. "If there's a project [or job] you love, show up on time with your passion, good energy and skill set, and make that available to people in the room."

Of course, working with Miranda was totally inspirational. "He does so much with his hours and his talents, that anyone around him for 10 minutes, thinks, 'Man, I can do more.'"

But the best advice he ever got was from his acting coach, when he was close to giving up on his career. "He asked me 'What did you do today? Did you send an email? Call anyone? Did you do anything today beside wait for the phone to ring?' and I realized that's all I was doing and it changed my life," he said.

He acknowledged that it's easy to fall into a pattern of waiting for an agent, manager, casting director or boss to hand you opportunities. But that will not get you to the next level.

Being clear about your goals is the best way to achieve them. "There are so many things we want that we can actually have, so the more specific your goal is, the better," he said. "It's really good to name it and write it down."

Odom is looking for new challenges. "What I'm most interested in is the next scary, exciting thing," he said.

That's why he jumped when offered a part in the remake of "Murder on the Orient Express," featuring Dame Judi Dench and Johnny Depp and directed by Kenneth Branagh.

"Film is definitely a priority for me," Odom said. "Those kinds of doors were not open to me pre-'Hamilton,' so the success of the show has meant that wonderful and fruitful opportunities are coming my way."

Another priority is taking a break ... someday. He says it's tough right now to find enough time to spend with his wife, actress Nicolette Robinson. "Balance is definitely missing from my life," Odom said. "'Hamilton' was such a phenomenon; I would be foolish to ignore the opportunities it's opened up."

Yet, he's aware that overdoing it can lead to burnout. "I want my work to crackle, to be inspired," he said. "So, after the movie, I'll take a couple months off. That's what's next."

Leslie Odom Jr.
Credit: Christopher Boudewyns
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