Q&A With LeVar Burton

The former <em>Reading Rainbow</em> host and <em>Roots</em> actor visits Indy PopCon at the Convention Center June 8–10.
So what will you be doing at PopCon?
It’s just a good way to stay in touch with the fans. I’ll be taking pictures and signing autographs. I also have the opportunity to spread the word about LeVar Burton Kids and Skybrary, my digital library, as well as LeVar Burton Reads, my podcast. I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years, and I feel lucky to have been inserted in some really pivotal pieces of pop culture.

What are you most looking forward to this weekend?
Well, Wil Wheaton will be there. I rarely get to see him, so that will be fun. And I’m sure a lot of people will come to meet the actors who play Bran and Hodor from Game of Thrones. Also, I married a Hoosier, so my wife is just up the road visiting her mom in Fort Wayne. I’m hoping there might be a surprise visit from her.

You were co-executive producer for the 2016 remake of Roots. The 1977 original, of course, was a landmark cultural moment. Why did you think it was time to reinvent that?
I actually didn’t. Normally, I’m not a fan of remakes. But I was convinced by a single conversation with Mark Wolper, son of the original Roots executive producer, David Wolper. When Mark showed the original to his teenage children, they couldn’t relate to it. They didn’t recognize the cast members. The photography, the lighting, the make-up—it all dated itself. We remade it to keep this story alive in American culture, which meant introducing it to a new generation in a way they would embrace and understand.

Were there any key changes in the remake that adapted it to today’s environment?
Absolutely. Shooting style. Length. The original was 12 hours, and the remake was eight. We shaved four hours to meet the demand for more snackable content. Storytelling in the ’70s was slower and more pastoral, while today’s television is very quick-cutting. We purposely went after people like Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. We wanted to cast actors that the current generation of Americans, both black and white, would be familiar with.

Was it strange watching someone else play Kunta Kinte?
Yes and no. It was strange watching Malachi Kirby perform scenes that I myself had performed. But when I first met Malachi, there was this part of my heart that just opened up to him, and his to me. The two of us share a bond that’s fairly unique, and there’s an unspoken understanding between us at the center of that bond. I was able to really step back and marvel at Malachi’s performance in a way that perhaps people marveled at mine when I originated the role 42 years ago. He made it completely his own.

Do you think our country is more or less racially divided today than when the original Roots came out in 1977?
I think those who harbor racial animosities are more vocal than they were in 1977. They haven’t been this vocal since the ’50s and ’60s. People have grown more comfortable with expressing that point of view.

One of your other major roles was the host of Reading Rainbow, a brand you revived in 2014 and transitioned to LeVar Burton Kids. Why bring that back?
I felt the brand had more to offer. I still saw opportunity in using technology, whether it be television or digital devices, to reach kids and help them become readers for life. I’m enormously proud of my 34-year association with Reading Rainbow, and I always will be. Reading can take you so many places.

What are you hoping listeners get out of your LeVar Burton Reads podcast?
I hope those who listen share my love of not just literature, but also the short story format. There’s a certain satisfaction in maintaining a relationship with a now-adult audience that has been used to me providing advice about literature since they were kids. That relationship is an unexpected bonus from doing this podcast. Because really, I’m doing it for myself. I love podcasting, and I wanted to do something creative that I could absolutely control.

You’ve talked a bit about the evolution of technology as it relates to reading, from television to podcasts. Do you have any predictions for what the next device connected to storytelling might be?
I have no idea. I’m not a futurist. There are people out there at the leading edge, and then there are those behind them who serve as interpreters. That’s my tribe: I’m a messenger. We need those geniuses and innovators, but we also need a way to effectively spread their ideas. I’ve always said what I do for a living isn’t curing cancer, but it does have a place in society.

What are some of your all-time favorite children’s books?
I usually talk about three. First is Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman. It’s the definition of a piece of literature that every child and adult should be exposed to. Then I talk about Enemy Pie, by Derek Munson. I love Derek’s artistry, and I love the book’s message that everyone we perceive as an enemy is just a friend in waiting. The third would be my own first children’s book, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm. That’s not because I think my writing is worthy of those other two talents, but I’m proud of the message my book shares with a world of children.