Arts & Entertainment

‘Hamilton’s’ Leslie Odom Jr. thinks Hollywood’s diversity efforts are paying off

Leslie Odom Junior, photo by Shervin Lainez
Leslie Odom Junior, photo by Shervin Lainez
Shervin Lainez

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Leslie Odom Jr. was living in Los Angeles, struggling to make it as an actor, when he got an e-mail from Lin Manuel Miranda. The creator of "Hamilton" wondered if he'd be interested in reading for the pivotal role of Aaron Burr.

Odom had seen an early staged reading of the show at Vassar College and immediately said yes.

"I fell in love with the thing," he said. "I never in a million years thought I would be in it."

But Odom was determined to land what he calls the role of a lifetime.

"It's about not just being a performer, but having something people connect you with," he said. "Whether it's a record or a television series or a movie, something that makes people push the save button on your name."

Roughly two years later, he secured the part and went on to win the 2016 Tony for Best Actor in a musical for his portrayal of Aaron Burr. More recently, he was cast in the reboot of the 1974 film "Murder on the Orient Express." He plays the part of Colonel Arbuthnot — a role that was originally portrayed by Sean Connery.

Odom said the casting choice was part of a larger plan to make the Orient Express look a bit more like a train one might ride in present-day New York City. But, the actor said, the filmmakers were careful to make sure the casting was thoughtful, by really considering how Arbuthnot's life might be different were he a black man.

He says films like this one are proof that Hollywood is doing better with diversity efforts.

"We're on our way," he said, "but the real boon is when it's not just window dressing, when we take it a step further." He said it's a mistake to cast people of color without dealing with their differences.

Odom said earlier in his career, he took on roles written originally for white performers.

"It's a tricky thing, but it's almost like whiteface," he said. He believes writers weren't really interested in writing a black person and what his life might have been. "It was more like 'let's get a black person in there!'" he said.

You can hear more from Leslie Odom Jr. by clicking on the blue play button above.