Leslie Odom Jr. on the Importance of Strong Writing + The One Mistake He Won’t Make Again

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

The Broadway revival of Ossie Davis’ 1961 play “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch,” opened Sept. 27; it marks Leslie Odom Jr.’s first time on the Great White Way since his Tony-winning turn as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.” The actor portrays Purlie, a traveling preacher who returns home to save his community’s church. Here, he discusses his artistic process, the enduring effect “Hamilton” had on his confidence, and the importance of strong writing. 

What performance should every actor see and why?

I remember seeing Anna Deavere Smith onstage—I think it was at Second Stage [Theater]—and she did [her solo show] “Let Me Down Easy.” I wanted to run out of that theater and drag people [in] from the street. I wanted everybody to get inside that theater, sit down, and listen to what this woman has to tell you about life and death and humanity and what this all means. 

Which role shaped you most as an actor?

Aaron Burr. [Lin-Manuel Miranda] showed us all what we were capable of. No one had ever asked us to fly before. People had maybe asked us to run fast or speed-walk. Nobody ever said to us, “Put that book down, stand on top of that table, and fly.” And we did. I did it 500 times. We walked away with the confidence that if given the opportunity and resources, we’re capable of great things. That’s a wonderful thing to know as an actor. We’re in the middle of a strike, and part of the reason why you go on strike is because there’s somebody somewhere who doesn’t want you to believe you are capable of great things. They don’t want you to believe that you are as valuable as you believe you are. So when you have an experience like the 20-some-odd of us had in “Hamilton,” you never have to question that again.

What’s the first step of your process?

I start with the words. In theater, the writing is king. I had an object lesson with “Hamilton,” certainly. That was the best modern writing, the best original text that I’d ever been given. Since “Hamilton,” those of us who were lucky enough to be a part of that original company [have] gone [on] to do all these wonderful things in TV, film, and music. In those other mediums, writing isn’t always the top priority. But in theater, if you don’t have the writing, you got nothing. And these words [in “Purlie Victorious”] from Mr. Davis are as good as I’ve ever been given.

What do the best theater directors you’ve worked with have in common?

The best theater directors got to know me and each one of us. They understood that we were all individuals who had different processes. Some actors, one sentence is enough; one word is enough. Some actors, you say “plaid,” and they go, “Oh, I know what you mean.” Some people, you need to take them out to dinner and have a whole conversation and maybe find out where they come from. What is their process? What might they understand? So the best directors—it wasn’t about us coming to them and how they like to work. They get to know each one of us and are malleable and can shape-shift based on what we need. 

What’s one mistake you’ve made in your career that you’ll never make again?

Talking more than I listen. 

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Backstage Magazine.