The Emmy-nominated, Tony Award-winner star of Hamilton and Harriet was struggling to kick-start a career on-screen, spending too much time on his couch and waiting for calls. Then a networking lunch led to some surprising life-changing advice.
It was 2011 and my career had been going great. I had relocated from New York City to Los Angeles with my girlfriend, Nicolette (now my wife), hoping to score more TV work, and I’d had some luck. I’d gotten roles—not lead roles, but solid parts—on shows like CSI: Miami and Grey’s Anatomy. I couldn’t complain.
Nicolette and I had been dating for a little more than a year and we’d scored this unbelievable apartment. It had crappy hardwood floors, but they were hardwood floors. It had a pool—it wasn’t heated, but there was a pool! We had a patio and a little balcony. It was our first home together and we could afford it. It was ours. Things were supposed to only get better. Then my phone stopped ringing.
I had landed my first big role, in Rent on Broadway, at 17. Rent was the show that brought me to the theater—before it, I didn’t intend to be in show business. But I wanted to be a part of that show, about young people struggling to make their lives in New York. Getting that job opened doors for me in my teens and 20s, and there was a part of me that assumed they’d just keep opening.
But after a high-profile TV pilot I’d been cast in didn’t get picked up, I fell into a slump. It was months of failed audition after failed audition. Rejection is a part of life in Hollywood, and I thought I was equipped to deal with it. But the noes were piling up and I was depressed. It was getting harder to put myself out there. I was lying on my couch feeling sorry for myself. I was about to turn 30 and I felt like I still didn’t have any stability in my life. It didn’t help that Nicolette, also an actor, was carrying us financially. We’d moved in together with the goal of pulling equal weight. I wasn’t doing that, and it made me really uncomfortable. To her credit, she always believed in me and never complained once.
I knew things had to change. And I feel like the luckiest person in the world that I found acting coach and all-around Renaissance man Stuart K. Robinson. When I met Stuart, he was a guy whose name I didn’t know. He wasn’t Denzel Washington. He wasn’t Will Smith. And I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a Will or a Samuel L. or any of those guys, but I hoped for stability, and Stuart had that. He’d made a life for himself and his family in the entertainment industry. He’d put two kids through college. He had a nice home, a couple of cars. His life looked a bit like the life that my own middle-class parents were able to provide for me as a kid growing up in Philly.
So I asked Stuart to go to lunch, and over chicken pot pie at Marie Callender’s he listened to my stories of depression and rejection. I told him that I wanted to know what other jobs I could get with my skills, that I was considering quitting acting. Stuart said, “You can quit. We can absolutely talk about that, but I’d love to see you try first.” I was taken aback. How was I not trying? I was auditioning! I wasn’t turning anything down.
Anyone who has seen Hamilton probably thinks of me as a singer before they think of me as an actor, but at that time I wasn’t singing at all. Stuart asked me, “Do you know how many coffee shops would love to have you play the lunch hour?” He pointed out all of these ways for me to take ownership of my creativity. He woke me up to the fact that I didn’t have to wait for someone to give me permission to be an artist or to practice my craft. He was challenging me to make work for myself.
Getting back on track wasn’t easy. It was painful, humbling, and embarrassing at times. One of the first things I did was sign up for Stuart’s commercial acting class, aimed at getting things like Pepsi and Crest commercials. Now, I’d come from serious conservatory training—I had a fancy degree from Carnegie Mellon University! I’d performed on Broadway! I hadn’t taken an acting class since I’d graduated. Yet I wasn’t doing anything but sitting on my couch, so I thought, Why not? Let me tell you, it was revelation after revelation in that class. I sat with people who’d just moved to L.A. from Ohio and Texas, who’d never taken an acting class before. Getting up there and “auditioning” for these commercials felt so far from what I wanted to do, from what I’d been trained to do. But Stuart turned on his camera and called us up one by one.
After these exercises, which felt a little silly, he said, “I’m going to share something with you from my years of experience working in a casting office. We watch tapes for hours and hours and sometimes we watch them on mute.” Wait a minute, what?! He added, “We’re looking for a light, for a spark that goes beyond the words coming out of your mouth. The people with that spark are the people we call back.”
Looking at the tapes, I saw people who didn’t have training, who maybe tripped over their words, but they had that light. They wanted to be there. They sparkled. But me? I did not look happy for the opportunity to be in the room. I looked jaded and angry.
“I made a promise to myself that I’d never again wait for the phone to ring. Because the second I got off the couch, the second I started doing things for myself, the universe met me more than halfway.”
I realized I need to bring my light back. I need to find the eagerness of the beginner again. I thought back to my first audition ever, for Rent, and I put aside my ego and began to search for that same spark. That class was the reset button. I started to put myself out there again. Whether I was making $150 playing a lunch shift at a coffee shop or launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund my very first album—yes, I did that—I slowly took control of my career. I stopped waiting for opportunities to fall into my lap.
I saw an immediate change in the way people responded to me. I went from not knowing where my next job was coming from to having to turn down opportunities. In the eight years since, I’ve worked steadily. In 2016, I won a Tony and a Grammy for Hamilton. I had the opportunity to sing at the White House and starred in movies like Murder on the Orient Express and Harriet. Last year I released Mr., my third full-length album, the first of original material. The Christmas Album, my fourth, will be out this fall. That Kickstarter campaign, all those years ago, paved the way for it. And it was Stuart grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me that started it all.
Since Hamilton, there have been incoming calls about jobs, wonderful incoming calls. But I assure you, I’m not waiting for them. Since the time I stepped off that stage in New York in 2016, it’s been, What am I creating for myself? What am I doing to help myself today? I made a promise to myself that I’d never again wait for the phone to ring. Because the second I got off the couch, the second I started doing things for myself, the universe met me more than halfway.
Today I try to give back. I want to be to others what Stuart was to me. That’s why I wrote my book, Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning. It’s why I make time when text messages and calls come in from others asking to pick my brain. It’s another opportunity I don’t want to miss: the chance to help another young artist on the brink of giving up. It doesn’t matter if you’re an actor or a teacher or a cook or a delivery person. We all get stuck. Reach out for help. Find someone who can help identify what you can do for yourself while you’re waiting for your shot.
Not Waiting for It
By Leslie Odom Jr. | Illustrations by Katherine Streeter | Photographs by Getty(2) and Glen Wilson/Focus Features