The first chapter in Leslie Odom Jr.’s new book, Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning, is titled “The Mentor.” In it, the Tony and Grammy Award-winning performer -- who was catapulted to fame by his blazing portrait of Aaron Burr in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton -- remembers the schoolteachers who encouraged him early on. Special attention is paid to one Mrs. Turner, who prodded Odom to nurture his gift for oratory, even though, he admits, “I was a handful.” Odom writes, “Mrs. Turner was a vessel for small miracles.”
Mentors, and the courage and commitment they inspire, are celebrated throughout Failing Up. Odom’s book -- also available via Audible, where fans can hear the acclaimed actor and singer deliver his own words -- is part self-help, inspirational guide and memoir, though the 36-year-old says tells ET, he “felt I was too young” to embrace the last category: “Hopefully, I’m not even in the middle of my life yet.”
Odom’s publisher, Feiwel and Friends, suggested he approach the project “as if I were writing a commencement address, something that I could maybe deliver to the graduating class at my alma mater.” (That would be Carnegie Mellon University, the prestigious institution that also helped groom Josh Groban, Josh Gad and another Odom mentor, Billy Porter, to name a few.)
“I started writing it when I was an expectant dad,” Odom says; he and wife and fellow performer, Nicolette Robinson, welcomed their first child, daughter Lucille, last April. “I didn’t work for a while after Lucy came, for about six or seven weeks. Once I started traveling again, doing concerts, I would snatch time wherever I could. I’d be writing in hotel rooms, after concerts, in cars on my way to airports.”
Odom’s own parents are significant figures in Failing Up; at one point the author recalls, movingly, how his mother called in tears after learning he had decided to put off college to accept a Broadway role, in Disney’s Aida. (Odom eventually reversed that decision.) “My parents were only 23 when they had me -- adults, technically, but very young. I think of some of the things I was doing at 23; I was not charged with that responsibility.”
Odom and Robinson “are figuring out all the time” how to juggle family and work life, he says. Robinson, who has recurred on Showtime’s The Affair, “has no intention of being a stay-at-home mom, but she has a tough time leaving Lucy.” The couple moved to Los Angeles to be closer to Robinson’s family: “We live just a few blocks away from her parents. We’re trying to have it all, to fulfill our childhood dreams of performing and writing and making music and art. It’s a balancing act, but we’re finding our way.”
As Failing Up’s title suggests, Odom still adheres to the philosophy -- absurd as it may seem, given his talents and achievements -- that it’s best to surround yourself with more accomplished people. “I felt that way when I was on stage with Lin [-Manuel Miranda], and in Murder on the Orient Express,” Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel, which teamed Odom with Gad, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz and Willem Defoe. “I think if you’re the smartest person in the room, or feel like you can just hang back because you’ve got it all figured out, you’re in the wrong room.”
Odom recently shot a sci-fi movie with Freida Pinto, Only, and has his eye on another film script. Having struck gold on Broadway a couple of times -- before playing Burr, he was featured in Rent, the musical that drew him into performing (as documented in Failing Up) -- Odom is still eager to grow. “People ask, what do you do post-Hamilton, after such a phenomenon? I want to walk through doors that were not open to me before Hamilton. I want to work with great directors and actors. To get better.”
As an artist and new dad, Odom has also found encouragement in those with less experience, such as the students who have led recent marches against gun violence. “I’m so proud of those kids. There’s something they care about, and they’re getting out there and doing hard work. Change can happen -- I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen things made fairer on Broadway, the cultural and artistic shift since Hamilton, with more opportunities for actors of color and more consciousness about race. We can’t lose ground, though, because there’s still much work to be done.”
Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning (Feiwel & Friends) is out now. An Audible version narrated by Leslie Odom Jr. is out April 10.
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