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Posted on Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Dreaming of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, James Leon ’20 felt called to attend Westminster College soon after his first visit to New Wilmington. Now four years after graduation, and having lived in three states, it took only two auditions to prompt the WC biology graduate and Hollywood actor pause to consider how unintentionally intentional his journey has been in pursuing his new life goal: to be one of the greatest movie stars of his generation.

Read on and hear from Leon about his experience sharing the screen with Ryan Gosling in the “Barbie” movie and how he cherishes his experiences at Westminster as a stepping stone for his success. 

Describe a pivotal moment in your career journey. 

I was working as a lab technician right out of Westminster, back in Miami….overnight shift. Sleeping during the day, working through the night. I would pipette constantly over and over. I did this for two weeks and I could feel this wasn’t where I was supposed to be. One day, I was watching “All-American,” a TV show on Netflix with my then-girlfriend who commented that I would look good on the show. 

This set off a cascade of thoughts….and thoughts….and thoughts. The next week, I took off for California and can still remember the smell of salt in the air as my feet hit the ground and the feeling of energy, the palpitation, the exhilaration, the blood, the adrenaline…..I could feel that I was supposed to be there. 

I flew back home to Miami and told my mom and dad that I’m going to California. My dad walked out of the room. Mom looked at me and she said, "You better do something great." She supported me to get my biology degree and I was supposed to be a doctor. I could understand their concern. Regardless, I packed up my Jeep and the $2,000 I had in my bank account and headed for the west coast to become an actor. That day was the most pivotal day of my life, and that day is a marker in history for me in my life that I made a decision to go after something that I found worthwhile, and that I knew wasn't "safe."

What kind of lessons did you learn early on in California?

I was working as a lab tech again in my new location in CA. I had an acting coach at the time that told me I was the worst actor he’d ever seen. And for some reason, I had a flashback to the discipline of Westminster football. I had the physicality to play Westminster football, but as far as understanding the game, I just didn’t have what it takes. What clicked with the football thing was the discipline of showing up every day for the workouts, so I grinded for the team for three years while at Westminster.

After my coach made that comment, I decided I would discipline myself in order to do something great. I’m going to have that mentality of telling myself I’m going to be the greatest actor. I told him to give me a few years and watch me work. I kept grinding and kept believing in myself, relying on that self-discipline.

What was your big break?

One day I called off work at the lab and went for a jog in my neighborhood. I stopped in the grocery store to get a Powerade. And there passes Debbie, a stranger at the time, but who is now my talent manager. After a brief conversation, she gave me her card and told me to call her. I was completely unprepared for a meeting with her, but she took a chance on me. My second audition with Debbie as my manager was for an untitled Warner Brothers film, which ended up being called “Barbie.” Everything continues happening for a reason. When one door closes, another one opens, right? That's what this whole journey has been teaching me. It's truly incredible. WATCH: Leon talks about being on set for "Barbie"

From growing up in Miami to living in California, do you miss anything from Western Pennsylvania? 

One of the greatest gifts for me about going to college in New Wilmington was getting this bird out of his nest; the baby chick spreading his wings. It’s not necessarily about what I miss from town, it’s what I gained at Westminster that’s important. Having the opportunity to spread my wings and figure things out as a young adult, while having the room to fail, was huge for me. Being OK with having the room to fail is one of the best experiences I gained at WC. Education wise, Westminster provided so much support and guidance for me during those four years. 

Do you have any memorable classes or professors at WC? 

Dr. Joe Balczon and Dr. Furimsky (biology) are some of the best people I met at WC. These professors helped me cultivate and reach this understanding that helped me discover who I really am. Looking back at it now, I’m only the materialization of that person, meaning I’m building up to be somebody else. And Westminster and those professors gave me the stepping stone. It’s not about the fame of being on a billboard on Sunset for a blockbuster movie or the money. It’s about the person I needed to become to be that person. I’ve got to credit Westminster for being the stepping stone to discovering who that person is.

I also have to give a HUGE amount of credit and THANK YOU to Dr. David Swerdlow. 

What was your favorite spot on campus?

My personal favorite spot would have to be in the library. The bottom floor study room -- that was my spot. I would grab a dinner from Duff and go down there and it was so serene, so quiet. The library at Westminster is such an underrated spot. Also, I do miss brunch at Duff, specifically the pancake machine. 

What life lessons did you take away from your experience at Westminster?

You not only learn in an educational capacity at Westminster, but you learn about yourself. You get the freedom to learn about who you are and what you want to do with this world, and how to make it a better place. But also remember to give yourself the room to learn, to grow, to nurture things, to let things happen and always be in the moment. Never neglect being in the moment and never neglect the relationships that you can build with your professors. 

What’s next for you? Can you share any plans/jobs?

So I wish I can tell you about the next phase. I really wish I could say, but what's coming next is most likely not going to be a surprise. I’m big on manifesting and I’ve been saying I’ve wanted to work with someone for a long time. Stay tuned…..

Connect with James Leon on LinkedIn, and follow him on Instagram and TikTok @shinobijames.