Photo Credit: Viktorija Pashuta

Intelligent, poetic, talented and jovial – that’s the Leslie Odom, Jr we’ve come to know at Wiles.  Classically trained at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, Leslie Odom, Jr is a throwback to triple-threat talents like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Gregory Hines – both of whom smoothly traversed the worlds of stage, television and film – singing, dancing and acting their ways into audience’s hearts.

It makes perfect sense then, that Odom – a veteran of the Broadway sensation Rent – would be a perfect fit for the cast of NBC’s hit musical drama Smash. We recently caught up with Leslie Odom Jr. to chat about his past successes, his dreams for the future and what it’s like to come of age on the stage.

Leslie Odom, Jr. grew up in “what felt like a virtual breeding ground for exciting young talent” in Philadelphia, PA. In addition to church and school, he credits black cultural landmarks like Freedom Theater and the Philadelphia Dance Company for putting him in touch with his voice and his greater purpose as a performer.

“[The Philadelphia Dance Company] was known for plucking young men off of the streets and putting them at the ballet barre,” he told us. “These were both places that were started by black people, run by black people, and they chose to nurture and encourage the burgeoning young talent of the day.  I owe a great deal to them.”

Leslie also attributes his participation in city-wide oratorical competition each year for helping him build his confidence.  And, after graduating from high school, he took his formal training to the next level when he was accepted to the world-renowned Carnegie Mellon University.

“[Carnegie Mellon] was really challenging. I loved every second. Well…most seconds,” he shared.  “I showed up on my first day with a little bit of talent and a whole lot of passion. My professors gave me a process, and technique. But as fantastic as my professors were, my classmates were my greatest teachers. I learned so much from watching them experiment and grow. I still do. “

Odom soon took his talents to the stage, and his appearance in the Broadway hit Rent was, in his words, nothing short of magic. “I didn’t really know a thing about Broadway or musicals before I was introduced to Rent,” he confided. “The most special moment for me during that whole process was probably my opening night – my first night on Broadway. Someone in the cast wisely told me to ‘take it in,’ because you only have a first night on Broadway’ once. That hit my 17 year old heart with all the gravity that it should have, and I really did relish every moment.”

Cinema fans will recognize Leslie from his recent turn as Declan “Winky” Hall in the George Lucas-produced film Red Tails – a re-telling of the history of the elite African-American World War II pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.  Odom gave both his producer and the film’s director, Anthony Hemingway, high praise as he recalled his experience on set.

“Anthony is one of the kindest spirits you’ll ever encounter. Positivity, just like negativity, emanates from the top and trickles down. Anthony took care of us on that set. I am happy to know him.”

And what were his thoughts of George Lucas? “George is one of the coolest cats ever. You are completely aware at all times that he’s George-freaking-Lucas…but there’s no ‘mad genius’ there. He’s a guy you can have a beer with. I really like that about him.”

In the worlds of music, acting and dance, artists and performers often find inspiration from other creative forces to inform their work.  It should come as no surprise, then, that a classically trained singer, dancer and actor like Leslie draws from various mediums for his inspiration.

“Actors like Don Cheadle, Denzel Washington, Ruben Santiago Hudson, Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, and Dustin Hoffman inspire me. Music inspires me – especially artists like Bilal, Amy Winehouse, Lalah Hathaway, Ledisi, and Marvin Gaye,” he said.  “The legends are still teaching, and I pull from all of it. I like to think that the same genius that Fosse or Alvin Ailey had access to can work through me, as well, if I am receptive and get myself and my ego out of the way and allow myself to be used. It’s a wonderfully encouraging feeling. It connects you to a bloodline of brilliance and a tradition of art and craft.”

And for his current role on NBC’s hit musical drama Smash, Leslie channels that inspiration and oodles of talent into his character “Sam” – a dancer on Broadway.

“My character Sam’s best friend is in the midst of clawing her way to the top. He’s there to try to keep her grounded. I like him. He’s honest, fair, and fun. Everybody would want a best friend like Sam.”

When he isn’t working – which is almost never – Leslie enjoys spending time with friends, family, and reading. As a philanthropist, his money, time, and talents go to Uganda Project – a non-profit organization started by his best friend – that pays for the educations of orphans and profoundly poor children in Uganda where education is not free.

Leslie Odom, Jr is a multifaceted, multi-talented performer who is sure to delight audiences for decades to come.  For now, you can watch Leslie’s rising star on television programs like NBC’s Smash, and on the new Don Cheadle vehicle for Showtime House of Lies.

To stay connected with Leslie Odom, Jr, please follow him on Twitter at: (@leslieodomjr).

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