The 'Hamilton' alum breaks down his journey to becoming an author
In Hamilton, as Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom Jr. asked Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, “How do you write like you’re running out of time?”
Odom now has an answer to that question, having written his first book, Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning. The book is part auto-biography and part inspirational text, with Odom relaying stories of life lessons he’s learned from childhood, through his Broadway debut in Rent, and up to his Grammy- and Tony-winning work in Hamilton.
Although the multihyphenate writing and recording star can now add author to his expanding resume, Odom tells EW he wasn’t initially eager to go down that path, and only felt comfortable approaching a book with the idea of passing along some wisdom and insight through his own life journey. “I hope that it’s not just some silly stupid book where you’re just talking about yourself and it’s not going to help anybody,” he says.
During a recent phone call, Odom talked about the process of writing a book, what it’s like transitioning from actor to author, and why you get nothing if you wait for it, wait for it. (Just kidding on that last one.) Failing Up hits shelves March 27 and will be available as an audiobook via Audible on April 10. Listen to an exclusive clip below, and read on for more from Odom.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to write a book, and how did this all come to be?
LESLIE ODOM JR.: As you can imagine, there are so many open doors and opportunities after Hamilton. My agent said, “The publishers are interested in a book,” and I was like, “There’s no way I’m writing a book.” But I took the meeting. They had heard about the fact that I enjoy working with college kids. … So they said, “What if you wrote a commencement address? What if you wrote a book and we designed it like a commencement address?” And I said, “Well, that I could do.” In the course of writing it, I really started thinking about graduation as a metaphor. As you are sitting there with your cap and gown on college graduation day, it feels like the end of something, but also the beginning of something. That was the first of many graduations: Leaving Hamilton was a graduation in a lot of ways. You graduate into your 30s. I graduated into fatherhood recently. There’s all these moments of transition where you are clearly going from one time in your life to the next time and it can bring up fear. It can bring up trepidation. I just wanted to write something that would encourage people and inspire people during those moments.
Is that why it has this motivational and inspirational aspect, as opposed to just a straight biography?
Oh yeah, straight biography I would have bored myself to tears. Actors get this reputation for being self-centered, [but] I don’t love talking about myself a whole lot. Now, do I enjoy encouraging people? Do I enjoy helping people like my mentors and teachers helped me? For sure. A biography I would have run from, but a chance to write something where people maybe could learn through some of the stuff that I’ve been through — it might help them, as they go through their own thing.
As Burr, you asked Hamilton, “How do you write like you’re running out of time?” Is that refrain something that came back to you as you were working?
Oh yeah. [Laughs] I thought about [Lin-Manuel Miranda] a lot. It was really my first experience being a writer since being a kid. My very first mentor introduced me to writing, and I was writing and delivering my own speeches in Philadelphia. I was winning competitions, and the oratory got me involved in the arts. This was my first experience with writing where I had a publisher, where I had deadlines and I had accountability. I was being treated like a professional writer. So yeah, I thought about Lin and Hamilton a lot, and it did at times feel like I was writing like I was running out of time. I knew why though. In the show we ask, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” I knew very clearly that I was running out of time. I had deadlines that I had to meet if I wanted this book to come out.
As an actor, you breathe life into someone else’s words and become a character that is sometimes like you and sometimes quite different. Here, you’re faced with yourself and your own words. Did you find that a new challenge, and were there any similarities to the acting process?
There were maybe similarities. I kind of went right from the Hamilton stage to the concert stage, so I’ve been traveling around the country and a little bit abroad with my band, doing concerts with just the six of us. There, I tell stories, and then I sing a song that relates to the story. Some of this I’ve found along the way, I found on the road. I would get offstage from a concert, and I would go home and I would write what I said that night. … I’ve been performing as myself more than I’ve been performing as a character for the last two years, which was helpful.
What would you say is harder: performing an eight-show week or writing a book?
Ha! Writing a book. Writing a book is harder for sure. Lin did the hardest thing. The hardest thing about Hamilton was the writing. Day 1 of the rehearsal process, that was already done, so we already had something that worked. There was an editing process. Until opening night, it was always being fine-tuned and sharpened. But yeah, writing. The blank page and writing my own thing was way harder than speaking somebody else’s words. And that was hard enough, believe me.
You have a chapter about Rent and its impact on your life. What about that show spoke to you, and why do you think Hamilton has become a cultural phenomenon in the same way?
There was something about it that felt like something my parents wouldn’t like. It felt dangerous. It felt like something adults were trying to keep from us because it was about sex and rebellion and sexuality and poverty and rage and disease. It was about things that your parents don’t really want you to know about, and so of course I was drawn to it for those reasons. What it has in common with Hamilton was that it was a Broadway musical that sounded like the music we were listening to on the radio. It sounded like popular music — popular music that was being made to work in the theatrical form. It’s a combination that, when it works, it can be tremendously impactful. Because when you add a storytelling aspect to pop music, it just draws you in. And Lin does it as well as anyone’s ever done it. Jonathan Larson [the creator of Rent] did it really well too. That’s what drew me to Rent. …There’s probably as many different reasons people like Hamilton as there are people. But I will say it’s a well-made thing. At the end of the day, Lin, his craft as a writer and a storyteller, he tells that story in about as good a way you can tell it. You find that it connects with little, little kids. I expected teenagers; 3- and 4-year-olds I was not expecting, and 80- and 85-year-olds and senior citizens. It’s because of the storytelling. It’s so clear, it’s so understandable. They can relate.
You wrote about thinking about quitting acting, and the self-examination around that. If you’d done that, what do you think you’d be doing right now?
I was hoping I could stay in the business. I’m going to say some jobs and then people in those jobs are going to roll their eyes, because what I’ve realized as I matured is that those jobs don’t offer much security either. Companies downsize, if you are an independent contractor, you still have to look for work, but at the time, I wanted a job at a casting office or I wanted to look at the network level. Is there a job I can get as a suit in one of these places? Because on Thursday I know that I’m going to get a check, I know what that check is going to say, and I can start to plan my life around what that check is going to say. I know for sure that I’m going to be able to pay my rent. I was just really tired of not being able to count on that. I was turning 30, and I was like, “If I don’t make some real changes, how the hell do I know that my life’s not going to look like this when I’m about to turn 40, when I’m about to turn 50? What changes? What about this scenario is going to change? “The truth is, none of it was going to change. It really was [mentor Stuart K. Robinson’s] advice that changed it all. He said to me, “You’re sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring. The phone didn’t ring today and so what did you do today for yourself in the absence of a ringing phone? Did you call anyone? Did you write anything? Did you practice?” It was at least half of my business that I was completely ignoring. My life as a creative person I was completely ignoring, and that was what changed it.
You talk about that shifting perception and the effort you put in coming back to you twofold. Then in the epilogue you address systemic and institutional racism. Why did you decide to hold those two things apart in your writing?
I didn’t want people to even think for a second that I was saying that my life lesson is the answer to pulling each and every person out of poverty. … I am trying to help people, and I didn’t want that to be used against me or be used against someone who was facing real systematic and systemic obstacles in their lives. … I wrote my book from the bottom of my heart. I hope and believe that it will help some people, but I didn’t want it to be used to hurt anyone. So I felt the need to mention that at the end. I’m really not trying to stand on some pulpit and tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. You know what I mean? There’s still societal ills that we have to handle — as a country, as a community. Somebody’s individual commitment to their own success does not absolve this country from the work it has to do.
If, down the line, someone wanted you to pick up where this book leaves off, would you be interested in that?
Oh yeah, I want to keep flexing the storytelling muscle. I’m in a car right now coming from In the Heights at the Kennedy Center, and [Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos] is starring in it. More of my Hamilton cast mates were involved in it, and obviously it’s Lin’s first show. Long before Hamilton, I went to see In the Heights and was bowled over and so moved by this young writer and his love for his community and the lengths he went to tell their story on a stage. The thing that I left In the Heights with today is there’s nothing more important than that. For me. I need to make more time to tell stories about where I come from. Tell the stories about the people that I love. Because what I saw on stage today, I just think it’s the holiest, greatest thing you can do as an artist. To, number one, pay homage to the people that you love in that way, and then to create those kinds of opportunities for that explosion of color and passion and culture on that stage that would not have existed if Lin hadn’t written that show. I want to make more opportunity in my life to do that.