Leslie Odom Jr. almost quit acting before he landed the pivotal role of Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton. He was 30 years old, a tall, obviously attractive black man, with a voice from the gods and a killer knack for choreography, but he still couldn't find a job. On the Vogue podcast, hosted by André Leon Talley, Odom explained how his career nearly died before it took off:
Then there's the times that you book a big show, you book a big pilot and then it doesn't get picked up. The phone's not ringing. I just got tired of—how do you ever grow up? How do you ever raise a family? How do you become an adult if it can just be stripped away like that at every moment?
It's terrifying to think that American culture might have been deprived of a rising star because the industry hasn't made room for black actors to get roles that can launch their careers. Odom isn't quite a household name, but Hamilton has been such a hit that it's hard to imagine him ever being placed back in the same situation today. Success, we've been led to believe, only reaps success. But for Odom, that isn't and can't be the case. As it stands, there just isn't space for him in the incredibly white space of the theater. And in The Hollywood Reporter's Tonys Actor Roundtable, published this morning, Odom explains that he is essentially stuck in the same position he was before Hamilton.
The table is populated by all white men and Leslie Odom Jr. They actors discuss how Hollywood (and show business in general) is not a meritocracy, and how insanely expensive Broadway tickets can be. But where the discussion really shines is when Odom describes how hard it is for him to feel secure in his industry right now, even at this peak of fame in a historically diverse theater season
I think what we’re having is a rare moment. I think what we really need to pay attention to is the next two seasons. Oftentimes, from my career, I've watched my white counterparts and I imagine—if you would, with me—if a white actor were having a similar situation as to what I’m having on this show, with the kind of success of the show, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows you’re going to do. There are no shows for me to do. There’s just no roles.
Especially when you look at an Aaron Burr, and you look at the complexity, the humanity in this part, there's no parts for me to play. Unless we're talking about somebody's gonna reimagine something—somebody's gonna let me do a She Loves Me or a Music Man— which… these were roles that were written for white actors.
Leslie Odom Jr, who is currently nominated for the Tony Award for best actor in a musical, isn't getting phone calls. He doesn't know where his next job is.
"Colorblind casting is great. But you know what's better than colorblind casting? Roles that are actually written about you, and roles that are actually written about you," he added. "I want to see stories about Asian people. I want to see stories about trans people. Diversity is not just a black and white issue."
Amen, Leslie Odom Jr. We would be thrilled to watch you perform in literally anything.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.