READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- What LeVar Burton most loves to read
- Why television is not the enemy
- What it’s like to become world-famous at age 19
LeVar Burton is an award-winning actor known for his iconic roles as Kunta Kinte in Roots and Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He is also the host of the long-running PBS series Reading Rainbow and the LeVar Burton Reads podcast. LeVar recently sat down with Jordan Harbinger on the Jordan Harbinger Show to discuss the passion and purpose he has found in the life of a storyteller.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.
Jordan: I heard that at first, you almost became a Catholic priest. Why did you make the shift to acting? It doesn’t seem like an adjacent field.
LeVar: From my perspective, it is. I had decided to become a priest when I was around eight, and I entered the seminary when I was 13—I was young, but committed. I had a great teacher who was a layman, which is to say he wasn’t a priest or a brother. He was the drama coach, and he also taught my favorite subject—English philosophy. He gave me books to read, like the Tao Te Ching by Laozi and [books by] Kierkegaard. As I read about these different points of view, the Catholic point of view just felt more and more narrow to me. I felt like I owed it to myself to get out there and live in the world before I made a decision [to become a priest for life].
A large part of [my mentality] was the idea of service. My mom’s second career was as a social worker, and one of the values that she instilled was that one’s life should be about something greater than one’s own pursuits, that you should really try and make the world a better place.
In looking around to figure out what I was going to do with my life, I discovered theater arts and really fell in love with it. I figured I could give that a shot—plus, there’s overlap between theater and the ministry. The Catholic liturgy is very theatrical—the vestments, the costumes. “Watch me change this wine into the blood of Christ, this host into the body of Christ.” There’s some real theatricality in that.
I used to have a recurring dream about my first sermon as an ordained priest. Sometimes it was in a big church, sometimes it was a small church, but the sense was that I was reaching people, that I was connecting with them with a message was very powerful.
I feel like I do that in this job. It’s about connecting and providing something of value to people, something that lifts them up and encourages their spirit.
Jordan: You got a huge acting role early on with Roots.
LeVar: I was 19. Roots was my first professional audition, [and before I knew it,] I was on the cover of Time magazine and known all over the world.
“The Catholic liturgy is very theatrical—the vestments, the costumes. ‘Watch me change this wine into the blood of Christ, this host into the body of Christ.’ There’s some real theatricality in that.”
Jordan: Wow. I’m curious how Reading Rainbow came out of that, because it seems a little bit like an un-glamorous role for an actor who just smashed it with Roots.
LeVar: For me, the connection was really clear. Roots made me aware of the power of television as a medium. In eight consecutive nights of television, this nation was changed—there was an America before Roots, and there was an America after Roots. They weren’t the same country. Before Roots, it was possible for us to tell ourselves the story that slavery was this necessary economic engine. After Roots, it was impossible to discuss [slavery] without holding in mind the human cost. This nation was built on chattel slavery, so that’s really powerful.
The idea for Reading Rainbow was pitched to me—to use this powerful medium to steer children who are making that decision as to whether or not they’re going to be a reader for life. The idea of taking a kid who can read and turning them into a lifelong reader, using the media of television, was really attractive to me.
At that time in 1984, television was, to the educational community, the evil empire. It was really counterintuitive, and I loved that about it. I had just experienced this massive awareness of how much good we could do.
Jordan: And today, it’s one of the longest-running shows on television.
LeVar: Third, behind Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Jordan: I assume you read a lot as a kid—you’ve said that your mode of education in the house was primarily reading.
LeVar: Yeah, my mom was a reader. That was, as it turns out, really critical modeling, and I believe it still is. Parents ask me all the time, “How do I get my kid to read more?” And generally I ask them two questions: Number one, do they see you reading? Then the other thing is, what are your child’s passions? If you know what your child is passionate about, then you’ve got a window into what sort of reading material they’re going to be interested in.
“If you know what your child is passionate about, then you’ve got a window into what sort of reading material they’re going to be interested in.”
Jordan: Do you remember when you first learned to read?
LeVar: I do. I remember my aunt was visiting from Kansas City. She was reading with me, and I got stuck on a word. I thought I knew what the word was, but I was afraid to be wrong, so I hesitated and hesitated. Then she said it, the word “pretty.” I was like, “I knew that was the word!” That was really important for my sense of confidence that I actually did know how to read.
The book that I was reading when I really got what reading was all about was Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, in third or fourth grade. When I finished that book, I was overwhelmed with sadness, because I had left a world and characters that I had become so connected to. To this day, when I’m reading a particularly good piece of fiction, I slow down for the last chapter or so, because I know that inevitable feeling of sadness is going to be a part of the experience when I’m done.
Jordan: It’s like saying goodbye to a friend.
LeVar: Exactly. That’s the power of literature.
Jordan: In [Ray Bradbury’s] Fahrenheit 451, some people memorized books so that they could retell those stories. The only book I ever memorized was Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. [If we were in the world of Fahrenheit 451,] what would be the book that you would memorize?
LeVar: I’d definitely want to memorize something by Octavia Butler. She was an amazing writer, and science fiction is my favorite genre of literature. When I’m reading for pleasure, it’s generally science fiction or fantasy.
Jordan: Going back to Roots, why didn’t you implode? You were 19—how come we’re not seeing headlines like, “LeVar pleads not guilty”?
LeVar: I had a pretty good foundation—family, good values, a lot of people who cared about me. I grew up with a woman who was a real disciplinarian, and had expectations of me. It was always really important to me to try and please my mom, or at the very least to not get yelled at by her. [In fact,] my whole career has been about making my mom proud. Like you, I was a latchkey kid. I could have been one of those statistics—the black male child, with a single mom working nine to five. But the amount of love, dedication, support and expectation that my mother had for me, that was my guide and compass. It was my North Star.
“My whole career has been about making my mom proud.”
Jordan: That’s probably what kept you, in part, from imploding. You’re like, “My mom is going to kill me if this happens.”
LeVar: No kidding. I was afraid of that woman until the day she died. You know, they are about to rename a park in my hometown, in my old neighborhood. They’re going to put my name on it. My mom’s not here to witness that, but she would have been really tickled. She did everything she could to keep us out of the ghetto. She was pretty incredible.
Jordan: I heard that for a brief period of time after Roots, you didn’t want to audition for parts. It was like, “I don’t have to do this. I’m LeVar!”
LeVar: Success at any age is a process one has to adjust to, and that was part of the learning curve. What I didn’t realize was how much I was sabotaging myself by walking into a room with that kind of attitude. When I realized it, it was like, “Oh my God, that’s not a good look.” In turning it around, I had to remember how much I loved acting—I started looking at the audition process as an opportunity to do something that I really love.
It was a huge life lesson—the idea that your shit doesn’t stink is such a fallacy. We’ve all been there. Luckily, I was able to course-correct.
Jordan: Was there a time when maybe your manager said something like, “Look, good job with Roots, you can’t ride that forever”? When did you realize, “I’m doing this to myself”?
LeVar: It was a process of self-discovery. It hit me hard—in recognizing that I was in my own way, there was a certain amount of shame in that. I was ashamed of myself when I realized what I was doing. It was simply inappropriate. But it’s rewarding to make that discovery and then make a change.
Jordan: How do you prepare yourself for rejection, and the hustle that you need to make it in show business? You hear of these actors that have done 10 years of auditioning and haven’t gotten anything.
LeVar: You have to have a thick skin. You have to have a supreme belief in yourself in order to not allow rejection to have that negative impact on you.
Jordan: It’s almost a delusional level of confidence.
LeVar: It absolutely is. It all depends on why you’re in it to begin with. A lot of the kids coming up these days—they don’t want to be actors, they want to be famous. There’s a big difference.
“I believe that we are all here for a reason, and that it’s important to discover what that reason is, and then pursue it with everything we’ve got.”
Jordan: Yeah, you need that passion. Maybe that’s the antidote to the self-doubt.
LeVar: Bingo. Resilience [is all about] passion.
Jordan: I think you’re right. The negative event is the catalyst—it’s the fire that burns you away, and then what’s left over is either something that’s made out of steel, or—“Oops, that guy was made out of wood. He’s done.”
LeVar: I use that image all the time. The beginning part of my life with fame and the whole Roots experience was like walking through fire. I came out of the fire a tempered piece of steel. I didn’t implode, I didn’t self-destruct—I learned how to cope. I learned that it doesn’t work to try and satisfy every impulse that I have—it’s a non-sustainable strategy for living. Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Jordan: You’ve said in past interviews that you couldn’t have even imagined how rich and fulfilling your life would be now. That’s got to feel pretty awesome.
LeVar: It does. If I had been given the right to blueprint my life, I wouldn’t have been this generous to myself.
Jordan: How do you stop yourself from wanting even more than that?
LeVar: I still have goals. I want the last third of my life to be the most productive period of my life. I want to pass on everything that I’ve learned up to this point, and I have other things that I want to do. I’m a storyteller—that’s what I’ve discovered about myself. I want to do it in as many ways as I can—acting, writing, producing, directing, podcasting. I’m fulfilling my purpose. I believe that we are all here for a reason, and that it’s important to discover what that reason is, and then pursue it with everything we’ve got.
Jordan: Discovering that reason goes back to our discussion of passion. And for the people that say, “I don’t feel passion for any specific thing,” I’d tell them to get as much varied and diverse experience as possible.
LeVar: Yeah. Follow your bliss. What are you passionate about? That is an indicator as to how you should be spending your time. If you’re not making a living by doing something you’re passionate about, you can find or exercise that passion in areas outside of your job. But you have to have some passion for something. You just have to.