How Leonardo Nam Went From Architecture School in Australia to Starring on ‘Westworld’

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Photo Source: Wil Cohen

The following Career Dispatches essay was written by Leonardo Nam, who stars on HBO’s “Westworld” as well as “MacGyver” on CBS. 

Just say Yes. 

Say yes to living the life you want. Say yes to going after the career you want. Say yes to writing that play. Say yes to taking that class. All of these things have one thing in common: listening to yourself. 

I believe I have the career that I have only because I’ve said yes to things that seemed so out of the box for others, but that I envisioned myself doing it. 

Back when I was studying architecture in Sydney, Australia, I remember having this moment of clarity while getting off the bus to go to school. My architecture school was to my left, and the drama school was to my right. I remember having this feeling that I had to make a right turn, that I wanted and needed to include acting in my life, that I needed to say yes to moving in that direction. Some say crazy, some say listening to intuition. 

I didn’t know anyone in the performing arts. I didn’t know any actors that looked like me on TV or films. I didn’t know anything about the entertainment industry. All I had was my intuition and my sense of calling. This is also what led me to move to NYC—without knowing a soul—to study drama, and find a way forward in a profession that, for example, when I told people I was going to be an actor, they actually laughed. But no matter what they said, or how they reacted, I had to keep saying yes to myself and keep my eye on the horizon and envision myself working. 

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When I graduated, I remember speaking to an immigration lawyer about how to continue working in the U.S. He told me there were two scenarios: One was I had to provide box office receipts from my home country of Australia (impossible because I was just a student). The other was to be cast as the lead in a studio film. He looked at me with sorry eyes as he told me that reality. Things definitely were not looking good, but I continued to hold steadfast in my decision to say yes to my life. I envisioned a reality where I was the lead of a studio film. Armed with vision, I soldiered on.

Then came the audition for “The Perfect Score”— just what I needed. I had heard about a role in the upcoming film, and I had self-submitted several times, but each time there was no call for an audition. Finally, I had heard that they had opened up the casting search to “Open Ethnicity.” I figured, Well, I fall under that! That same day, I had said yes to doing a yoga movement class for my drama school curriculum at a local yoga studio. One lady whom I happened to sit next to while having tea afterward was a baby print agent. I decided to say yes to asking her for help. I thought the submission could be more helpful if it came from a legit agency banner (even if it was for babies only). 

I explained to her that it was the opportunity of a lifetime, one of the leads in a film for Paramount Pictures. It was exactly what the lawyer said I needed. It would star Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Erika Christensen, Bryan Greenberg, and the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star Darius Miles. Next thing I know, I get an audition. After several callbacks, and flying back and forth to L.A. for screen tests, I landed the role of Roy, and my trajectory in life was changed forever. I landed a lead role in a studio-backed film! 

Since the film was released, I have gone on to star in a string of films and shows, none of which would have been able to happen had I not landed that first film; had I not listened to my intuition and taken that leap of faith and moved to NYC to study; had I not gone to see the lawyer and understood what I needed to do; had I not studied craft that I could explore when auditioning.

I’ve had my ups and downs in this industry, from being dropped by my agent, chased after by others, offered incredible roles, lost out on other incredible roles, being written out and also being written in. But through all of it, I continue to say yes to the life I want.

I’ve learned that when you do things the way other people think you should, you are living in their version of their lives. But by saying yes to living your version of your life, little by little, you discover you have created the life you want. As I write this essay, I am on two TV shows airing this week: “Westworld” and “MacGyver”; HBO and CBS. It’s incredible to me that I am working and being the missing face on TV that I never saw growing up. 

Saying yes to the life I wanted was the only way I could give myself the career and life I envisioned for myself. So, I encourage you to do the same. I next envision myself as the lead of a major movie franchise. I haven’t seen one that looks like me yet, so it’s time to say yes to that.

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