Off Hollywood - LeVar Burton
Actor / Director / Educator
Roots (1977), Reading Rainbow (1983-2006), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
In a world of ever-increasing cynicism, LeVar Burton continues to influence a better tomorrow. Born during the height of the civil rights movement, he pretty much seemed destined to make a positive difference from the time he was a teenager. At 19 years old, LeVar made a powerful television debut in the mini-series adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which helped cultivate a new understanding of the condition of the American slave.
In addition to his career as an actor, LeVar has dedicated the last 30 years of his life to fostering a love of reading in children as the host of Reading Rainbow. “Being the son of a school teacher,” he says, “I was raised with the notion you are what you read as much as what you eat.”
I recently sat with LeVar in his office—surrounded by healing crystals, sage, and his shiny gold Emmy—to discuss his career, Google Glass versus Geordi LaForge's "Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement," and if he ever feels like being an asshole.
VICE: You made your television debut in 1977 in the role of Kunta Kinte, a young man unwillingly brought to America, who—despite serving many years as a slave—never lost the connection to his African heritage. How did you prepare for such a weighted role?
LeVar Burton: I was a college student at the time, studying theater at the University of Southern California. In terms of my readiness as an actor, I was already living the actor’s life, busy dedicating myself to studying this craft. When I read Kunta for the first time, I knew who this kid was. I knew the innocence and the rage. I have no other way of explaining it: I felt like I’d been preparing to play Kunta my whole life.
Roots was a huge success. Today it remains the third highest-rated mini-series of all time. How did this affect you personally?
It was overwhelming to be a part of a piece of entertainment that holds that much power. Roots was weird for me specifically, because it was personal as well as public. With its success, my whole world shifted—I went from being a theater student to the cover of TV Guide. The reason it continues to have tremendous impact on the nation is that it speaks to the hearts of people who value the concept of freedom. Kunta represents the indomitability of the human spirit, and the idea that we are all born free no matter what the circumstance. So yeah, those aren’t the kind of shoes you fit into perfectly at 19 years old. You grow into them. It’s taken me my entire career to tap into the riches of that experience.
Why did it take a television mini-series to help create a better understanding of slavery in America?
It’s the power of moving pictures when they are combined with sound! Human beings are predisposed to gather the full spectrum of information in a shared experience. It gets our attention, and the information easily penetrates the deepest levels of our consciousness. The experience of watching Roots on television helped people develop empathy towards the condition of the slave. It was an awareness our country needed for genuine healing to take place.
Is it true that your Roots audition was your first professional casting call?
Yes. My first day as a professional actor, Cicely Tyson played my mother and Maya Angelou played my grandmother. These women were my mentors. It doesn’t get any better that that!
How did you resist fear of intimidation?
One of the great things about our profession is the tradition of journeymen embracing the newbies. And they expect you to bring the goods. Otherwise you don’t belong in the room. I did my best to step up. The only other choice was to step off, and I don't believe in stepping off.
You spent your childhood training to become a priest. Why choose Hollywood over the clergy?
I had this idea of my life from a very early age that I would live the life of a priest. It was no small decision for me to alter that course. Maturity is a series of shattered illusions. I was 16 years old when I realized that priests didn’t really have it all figured out. I was under the influence of some sort of magical thinking, that once you got ordained you were somehow imbued with holiness. You know, stuff that prevented you from fucking up. So I thought I might as well just go out and make my own mistakes and see the world.
What kind of roles were you offered directly after Roots?
I did a series of movies of the week. One in a Million, Battered, Dummy. It was always the heavy stuff, always drama.
Most of your performances, especially Kunta Kinte, are heavily expressed through your eyes. Yet in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they put you in a visor that essentially covered your eyes from the camera. What did you learn from having your special powers taken away?
Crazy isn’t it? Take away your power to communicate? Well, I had to figure it out. There’s a fair amount of voice work, but most of it is energetic. It’s all the subtleties you won’t ever see. After seven years of wearing the visor, I requested them to develop a new technology so I could incorporate the eyes back into my performance.
Being a fan of the original Star Trek series, what did you want to bring to the Next Generation that you felt was missing?
Nothing! I loved the original so much. I was just so happy to be a part of the reboot. We can draw a lot upon the reflections that we see of ourselves reflected in the world around us. Growing up, Star Trek was one of the few shows I watched where I could see people who looked like me, and they were running the ship! I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I didn’t want to be a pimp or hustler, I didn’t want to get chased by the cops, or do drugs. I wanted to be like these cats when I grew up. Gene Roddenberry’s vision helped me to form a positive self-image from a very young age.
How did Geordi see the world from behind the visor?
Geordi sees everything in the electromagnetic spectrum. He sees everything from infrared to X-ray. He even sees sound. What makes him unique is that he is experiencing it all simultaneously.
Why did you turn down a pair of Google Glass?
I’m not comfortable with digitizing my experiences and sharing the data with Google. My mama didn’t raise no dummy.
Whose idea was it for Reading Rainbow to visit the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Collectively, we thought it was a fun idea, and that it would be interesting for the kids to see what goes on behind the scenes. You don’t know how many people I meet who work in special effects who tell me they mark that episode as the start of an interest in what goes on behind the camera.
How did you come to host Reading Rainbow?
I had recently hosted another PBS show called Rebop, and was contacted by the producers about hosting a television show that would encourage children to read. It was an easy yes. I hosted the show for 23 years, and it became a huge part of who I am.
The show was canceled due to cutbacks at the hands of No Child Left Behind. Can you explain what happened?
The gist of it is, the funding PBS would normally receive to make Reading Rainbow was taken away and put towards other initiatives. No Child Left Behind claimed that they wanted to teach children to read. All the while they forgot the best way to get children to read is foster their love of reading. In 2006, PBS put Reading Rainbow out to pasture.
Recently you acquired the rights to Reading Rainbow, and re-launched it as a mobile app. Are you afraid of computers replacing a good old book?
No, because the show is about learning to love reading and having access to books. Kids today pay way more attention to iPads than they do to television, so naturally this is the way Reading Rainbow should evolve. I always wanted to have much more of an involvement with the show, so controlling the rights and the brand has always been a long-held dream.
How did you get the Reading Rainbow Twitter handle back from a cybersquatter?
For three years someone snagged the name and just sat on it. With the help of my followers—and the hashtag #ydhttmwfi (You Don’t Have To Take My Word For It)—we caught the attention of Twitter and got the name verified.
What do you think of Jimmy Fallon’s Doors cover of the Reading Rainbow theme?
It’s my favorite version!
Throughout your career, you have been a beacon of positivity. Have you ever secretly wished you could act like a jerk?
Oh, you mean just be an asshole? I suppose on some level it might be freeing. However, I have worked long and hard at identifying my authentic self, and I’m not going to surrender it to anyone or anything. This is genuinely who I am. I am naturally someone who has a positive spirit and a positive outlook. I do all kinds of things to keep it in shape. I have even done a couple of Tony Robbins fire walks. I’m what you might call a good energy junkie.
What I admire about you is that you are never afraid of coming off a bit nerdy.
I call it not being afraid of being enthusiastic!
Finally can you recommend a book for the readers of VICE?
I highly recommend, The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck. It’s a book that you will undoubtedly find in the self-help section, but don’t be afraid of it. It can help a searching individual find the key to who you are.
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