Q&A with LeVar Burton

A lifelong fan talks to LeVar Burton about inspiration, life, and—of course—books.

On Thursday, November 5, Burton presented The Bower of Storytelling: Written, Spoken, Lived at Rollins College. (Photo by Scott Cook) On Thursday, November 5, Burton presented The Bower of Storytelling: Written, Spoken, Lived at Rollins College. (Photo by Scott Cook)

When the Rollins Winter Park Institute announced that LeVar Burton was coming to campus to do a speech on storytelling, I was more excited about this than last year’s similar news about Sir Paul McCartney’s visit.

LeVar Burton—star of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Roots, as well as the creator of Reading Rainbow—has been a huge part of my development as a person and an artist. Writing and storytelling is a crucial element of who I am, and all of that started with watching Reading Rainbow as a child. For over three decades, Reading Rainbow has been bringing the joy of reading to children everywhere, and when they told me I would have the chance to interview Burton, I was overjoyed.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

We spoke on November 5 before Burton delivered his speech, “The Power of Storytelling– Written, Spoken, Lived” to a packed audience at the Alfond Sports Center on campus. Somehow, I found a way to talk about things other than Star Trek.

Nick D’Alessandro: I’ve been watching Reading Rainbow since I was a kid. That was what got me to pick up books; that was what got me to audition for my first show. One thing lead to another, and now I’m here, a student at Rollins College, majoring in theater. My question is, if you inspired me and a whole generation of people, who was someone that really inspired you?

LeVar Burton: Wow. Great question. I talked about four of my primary inspirations tonight. My mom, certainly, is the reason I am a reader; the reason I am. And then three of my storytelling mentors: Alex Haley [author of Roots], Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek), and Fred Rogers [star of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and Rollins alum].

ND: I’m also a massive Community fan, which you may not get very often.

LB: Actually, a surprising amount these days!

ND: It was such an amazing thing to me when that first episode came out. You came in and you were talking to Troy, and he was just frozen. At the time it was such a thing for me to watch that and go, “Holy crap, he freaks out about it in the same way I would!” Where I’m going with this is, I heard Frank Oz say that if he ever thought about all the people whose childhood’s he’s influenced, he’d probably go crazy about it, so how does the same concept make you feel?

On Friday, November 6, Burton read his new children's book, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, to students from the Rollins College Child Development Center. (Photo by Scott Cook) On Friday, November 6, Burton read his new children's book, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, to students from the Rollins College Child Development Center. (Photo by Scott Cook)

LB: It’s not something that I focus on. It’s not. I get feedback everyday of my life from people who have been touched, moved, inspired by something that I’ve done, and I’m enormously grateful for that. I think there’s a real danger in dwelling on it because part of my desire to stay in balance in all things is just that. It’s a desire to stay in balance and not indulge especially in my ego, which is considerable! [laughs] To not overindulge it in that regard, I don’t think about it. But I do get evidence of it almost everyday of my life.

ND: That makes me happy to hear.

LB: I love my life, I gotta tell you. If you ever hear about me not enjoying my life you will know that I have gone off the deep end because I really do. I love my life.

ND: I know that college stresses me out all the time and makes me feel overwhelmed. When was a time in your life where you have felt that, and what was something that got you out of it?

LB: Last Tuesday. I have a place in Los Angeles that keeps me sane and in balance. I go there as often as I can. It’s a natural mineral hot springs in Los Angeles. It’s on the same ley line as the La Brea Tar Pits. It’s the only natural mineral hot spring in Los Angeles, [and it’s located] in Koreatown. I’ve been going there for about 25 years.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

There’s never been a day there that I haven’t left feeling better than when I arrived, so it’s a place where I can really restore. And when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I do that if I can. If I’m not able to go there, I read: pick up some science fiction and just escape into my imagination for a while. These are the things that I have learned that help keep me grounded.

ND: Sort of self-reflection?

LB: Yes, it is about self-reflection, but it’s also about solace. It’s about quiet, right? Certainly at the hot springs, it’s about self-reflection, as it’s an opportunity to really check in with the self. Reading science fiction is about being able to occupy a safe space in my imagination. That is also restorative in its own way. These are tools that I have developed over time.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

ND: And, my final question: What are some books that you think are really good for the development of a college student? I know one book that really influenced me was The World According to Garp by John Irving, which I read going into my freshman year. It really hit somewhere deep for me, and I’ve read it a few times since then, and it always brings something new.

LB: There’s a book called The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. It’s a book that I like recommending to young people because it really does talk about what our purpose for being here is, and I think in college, that’s a good time to really spend some serious time contemplating what your reason for being here actually is, aside from your relationships and the activities you’re involved in. Why did you take a body? What’s the gift that you’ve come to give?

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)