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Actor Leslie Odom Jr. Discusses Representation & ‘Taking Risks’ In Virtual Lecture

Penn State’s Student Programming Association (SPA) hosted actor and singer Leslie Odom Jr. for a virtual lecture Friday evening.

Throughout it, Odom discussed everything from his time in the award-winning musical “Hamilton” to his experiences overcoming stage fright.

The actor began by answering questions regarding what sparked his interest in performing. He said that early teachers and adults steered him toward the stage due to extra energy and fearlessness when it came to getting up in front of people.

Odom grew up in Philadelphia and wrote speeches that he delivered in citywide competitions. He credited those writing for helping him learn to stand up and communicate, and develop a point of view.

“I don’t know how you can make meaningful art if you’re not super opinionated if you don’t have a point of view,” Odom said. “I encourage you to interrogate everything you see and hear. Have some truths for yourself, some things you believe in.”

The actor also explained the difference between happiness and joy for him.

“Happiness is fleeting — it is momentary,” Odom said. “Joy goes deeper than that.”

Odom said there was a tremendous amount of joy that came along with “Hamilton” because he felt that it was impactful. However, there was a seriousness to playing Aaron Burr in the hit production.

“If you looked at me from the outside, I don’t know how happy I would have looked,” Odom said.

Continuing the conversation, Odom reflected on his experience writing his solo album, “Mr.” He said that crafting his own music is “not always fun, but it is joyful. I have to try to introduce new songs into the culture, introduce new ideas, new sounds. I’m very proud of it.”

“I’m only ever trying to move you. I want to make you think. I desperately desire to make art that matters,” Odom said.

Odom has experience onstage as well as on-screen in both television and film. In terms of advice for aspiring actors trying to establish themselves in multiple mediums, Odom said, “Come to each one humbly. Come to each one as a student. You have to learn the rules before you break them.”

“A Tony award does not guarantee you success as a pop artist, the same way a successful pop career does not translate to a successful career on the stage,” he said. “Choose your heroes wisely, take what you can from them. Your path will be entirely different, entirely unique, and hopefully joyful.”

Odom said he believed “Hamilton”‘s legacy has changed since its original premiere thanks to how art is in conversation with the world around it.

“As we mature, as scales fall away, the piece will feel different. There will come a day where some young writer makes ‘Hamilton’ look quaint. The conversation moves forward, we grow up as a nation, we can handle more as a nation.”

Later, Odom reflected on the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol Building.

“That’s a bloodthirsty mob, that spirit is still here. That was an act of wickedness and violence,” he said. Some people are seeing it, some people are waking up. I’m waking up and I come into consciousness more and more each day. We’re supposed to come to consciousness, and we’re supposed to become our very best versions of ourselves. Not everyone is on that journey, but that is the journey I’m on.”

Additionally, Odom said that there is a lot of work to do pertaining to diversity, and allowing room for others to tell their stories.

“It gets harder to hate someone, to discriminate against someone you know,” he added.

Changing pace, Odom said he wished he knew how to take risks when he was younger. He advised Penn State students to learn to take “leaps of faith” and believe in themselves.

“I wish I had tried a little harder to fail in school. I graduated with honors, but I did that by playing safe,” he said. “Be daring. Take risks.”

Toward the end of the lecture, Odom answered questions from the audience. One question asked if the actor had any tips for stage fright and if he had any experience with it.

Odom later reflected on performing”Wait For It” from “Hamilton.” He said that the song put him in touch with the idea of stillness, something he had never understood, even after exercises from his teachers at Carnegie Melon University. As a performer, he said, moving helps divert any bad feelings.

“It is a real experience to allow, to be with your experience,” he says. “What a wonderful opportunity to be courageous. You can only build courage when you are afraid. Courage is built when fear is present.”

Odom also touched on the importance of representation of marginalized people in the arts.

“Feeling alone, we’re not made for that,” he said. “We’re supposed to live in communities. That’s the wonderful thing about art, you can feel seen.”

Odom said that the musical “Rent” was the “Hamilton” of its day.

“The diversity, the acceptance, the love, the community they showed me… Something about it made me feel like it was gonna be OK,” Odom said. “I was gonna find my community one day. That’s what representation does. That piece of art changed my life. It made a little boy in Philadelphia feel like, ‘I’m gonna be OK.'”

Odom finished the evening with a moving performance of “Wait For It.”

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About the Author

Anna Wiggins

Anna is a junior public relations major and one of Onward State's social media editors. Hailing from Washington D.C. (aka Alexandria, VA), she loves 80's and 90's rock, fashion, spending money, Snoopy, and was born in a pink hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @annaewiggins. Please send all of your best gossip to [email protected]

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