To get to play soul singing legend Sam Cooke would be an achievement enough but to do so in a film as prestigious as One Night In Miami adds the sweet topping to the prize cake. Such a triumph is not the only feather in the cap of 39-year old Leslie Odom Jr. —- he also played Aaron Burr in the mega award winning musical Hamilton — but Cooke challenged in various ways he hadn’t been tested before.
Nonetheless, this class act acknowledges these challenges in a way that someone who has been performing a major role since he was 17 would appreciate. But this is not all; he has also handled TV series such as Smash (2012–2013) and Person of Interest (2013-2014) and had roles in major ensemble features such as Murder on the Orient Express (2017). For his performance as the politically challenged Cooke, Odom has been nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA Award, Critics’ Choice Movie Award, Golden Globe, and the Screen Actors Guild Award, among others. He was also nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for writing the song “Speak Now” which is showcased in the film. In addition, this Queens-born, Philly-raised multi-talent has released four albums and a book.
In the following Q&A, Odom addresses the aforementioned challenges and much more. One Night In Miami is written by fellow Academy Award nominee Kemp Powers — based on his play — and is directed by the magnificent Regina King.
Q: What was your first job in this business, the first time you felt you could call yourself a professional singer or or actor?
LOJ: The first time I could call myself a professional was when I got my Equity card in a Broadway show. I went to an open call for a show called “Rent”. My favorite quote about art and artists is that artists spend their entire lives trying to get back to the place that opened your heart. Rent was the show that opened up my heart. I was 16 years old when I went to that audition. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to get the show. I kept getting these callbacks, and I honestly thought that was at the end of some sort of process. My picture and resume were going inside a filing cabinet. The best I could hope for was that some day when I became an adult, they would remember me and they would go back to that filing cabinet, and “Ah, let’s call that kid.” So you could have knocked me over with a feather when at the end of the summer I got a call to come join the Broadway company. That was the first time I could call myself a professional actor.
Q: Most actors have had humble beginnings — making commercials, doing background work— but you made your Broadway debut at 17.
LOJ: Well, have you read that book The Alchemist? It’s been a while since I read it, but the most salient lesson that I have from that book was, he talks about that early success that you have is confirmation from the universe that you are on the right path; the challenges come later. It’s what we call ‘beginner’s luck’. That’s what that was. It was a big job, but all it really was was beginner’s luck. When I’m talking to young people I’m saying I wasn’t jaded, I was so happy to be there, I was malleable, agreeable. All those things are really attractive. Imagine, 17 years old, who wouldn’t want to hire that kid, you know? What happens, I think, is over the years, we have our hearts broken, we get jaded, things get more difficult and so really it’s about trying to remember what that 17-year-old, what was that magic that he had. What was that thing that, he just waltzed into his first opportunity? We were trying not to lose that, I think.
Q: Well, you also had to be pretty good. That’s pretty amazing.
LOJ: The school play, the community theater — it lit me up. It lit me up, and so I was just walking toward the thing that lit me up from the inside. I think that you can’t go wrong when you’re doing that. I think that after four or five years of having taken some dance classes and having done some things, I showed up at that audition and I was more prepared than I knew. I was more prepared than I intended to be. I wasn’t taking those classes for some grand ambition. But I showed up and = I’m keeping up. Who knew? I didn’t know.
Q: Were you doing musicals in high school?
LOJ: I did. I don’t remember a ton of them. As far as the plays, I remember I did The Miracle Worker, I was the slave boy, Percy is his name. Then we did Twelve Angry Men a couple of years later, I was Juror No. whatever. Super-talented — but it was boys and girls, so it was Twelve Angry Jurors. Bye, Bye, Birdie, I played Conrad Birdie.
Q: That’s a great role. So you’ve played iconic singers before. When One Night in Miami came your way, and they wanted you to play Sam Cooke, you were ready.
LOJ: I think of singing as an oral tradition. It’s passed down from generation to generation. You learn the technique, you learn the ways of storytelling — the craft — from the singers ahead of you.
There’s this thing “Versus” that’s happening in the pandemic, where they pit two singers or two acts against each other online, and everybody shows up. We were just celebrating the catalogs of these people. Yesterday was Earth, Wind & Fire versus the Isley Brothers. How much have we learned about R&B and soul music from these catalogs?
Sam was one of my teachers in many ways. I’m not the only one. He really is responsible for several generations of singers. He’s the blueprint, really, for how to bridge for yourself from the black church to the popular music space. Sam invented that bridge.
Q: He was the first wasn’t he? How were you initially approached about the project? Regina King has said she had to chase you a little.
LOJ: Yeah [laughs]. Most of the opportunities in this town I am chasing. I’m actively chasing, and I’m being actively rebuffed — people are like “Nah, no thanks.” But every now and again, somebody is interested in me for something. So this is one of those [times]. I got an email from my team saying they were interested in this thing. I knew about Kemp’s play; I would have done the play, no question. If we’re really successful, maybe 10,000 people will see me in this play but I’ll learn, work on my chops — something like that, great.
But, to make a film where half of the cast have already been played by iconic figures themselves. You got Denzel’s Malcolm X, and Will Smith’s Oscar-nominated Ali, of course. So it just didn’t seem wise. It felt like I should steer clear of that. That could turn out not so great.
Q: It’s now immortalized on film, where anyone can go to Amazon and watch it any time.
LOJ: That’s right. It felt like high stakes. Film is such a public way to learn. I admire and envy the people who — from the first glimpse we get of them on film — just really understand it. They understand the medium and they’re beautiful to look at, and it’s a Thing. That wasn’t my story. I’ve got the story at the Rent thing. That I got right away. But film has taken some doing. I had to really understand how to make good use of myself in that space. So I was a little nervous.
I wanted to make sure that — what I think I told my agents was that the next films that I do, I want them to be impossible. I want them to be those things that only I should do. Like, “only that guy should have told that story”. I don’t want to play a bunch of nice husbands — you know, the roles that any guy could do. I want to work on the specialty of some sort.
So when my agent and my manager called me to tell me I was making a mistake passing on this opportunity, they said, “We have to say we disagree with you. We feel like this is one of those roles that you said [you wanted]. This is something that you are at least on a very short list of people that should be telling these stories.” So they believed in me, and I had to find a way to believe in myself.
Q: You’ve played real people before, from Aaron Burr to William Still in Harriett. People today still remember what Sam Cooke looked and sounded like. Was it nice to have this footage and research to draw on, or did that make it more intimidating?
LOJ: That made it a little more intimidating for me. There was something about it. With Burr, no one was going to walk into the theater expecting me to walk and talk and sound like Burr. They were going to take a leap of the imagination before I even said my first line. They knew this was going to be symbolic in some way. It was going to be about the spirit of these people.
But with Sam, I think the four of us guys in the room, we knew on some level this was going to be about verisimilitude; this was going to be about how close we could come. It was going to be about the illusion. Could we fool you, could we trick you? Because certainly it would be more impactful if somewhere along the way you could feel like you were watching real guys and you could get lost in it. So that was daunting.
But yeah, as you say, I certainly had my marching orders. I had so much music, I had — there’s not a ton of video clips, but there’s enough. There’s not a ton of audio of him speaking, but there’s enough for me to build on.
Q: Is it more challenging to play a real person or completely fictional person?
LOJ: They’re equally challenging. Because when it is a character of invention, you don’t want to just keep playing versions of yourself, so you have to find this specific person. You have to write a biography.
But sitting here today, Sam Cooke was the most challenging that I had ever done. If I had had two years I would have been a lot less nervous. If Regina had called me and said Will you play Sam Cooke for me in two years, my answer, hands down, would have been yes. I need that time to prepare.
I think that there are children and cousins of Hamilton all around us in pop culture today. You look at Emily Dickinson, the way that they cast that. Bridgerton reminded people that we didn’t have to be slave-ish. These stories go past that. We could bend and twist and tell stories. We could tell stories that we needed to hear, right now. We could take creative license. I think Hamilton still ripples that we see all throughout the world.
Q: You talked about the research that you put into Sam Cooke. Was there anything you learned that surprised you or caught you off guard?
LOJ: Our brilliant screenwriter Kemp Powers started his career as a journalist, so these men were well-researched. So while there is no passage in the script that is lifted verbatim — something that they actually said in life — the men are so well researched that it feels like it is. It feels like this is something Malcolm would say because it is something Malcolm would say. It is something that Sam would say.
Really, it is that other side of him. My dad told me a story when I was a kid. We were at a park and there was a swan gracefully riding on the water. My dad said “See that swan?” I said “Yeah.” “See how graceful he is?” “Yeah.” “Now see under the water?” [feet paddling] And I left it at that.
That’s Sam. It is “grace on its face” — but underneath, underneath that exterior is grit and chutzpah. And anger, and some rage — he was nothin’ to mess with. And you weren’t going to see that side of him on Johnny Carson. You weren’t going to see that side of him with Dick Clark. So it’s in Kemp’s script for a reason. That’s what was researched — when you hear his friends talk, when you hear people do a closed-end talk, that’s what people talk about most. “Sam has a short fuse”, he let you know exactly what he wanted. So one of the best ways I could honor him in this film was to honor that side of him — was to make him not easy, was to show a little bit of that what was happening underneath the water.
Q: The characters in One Night in Miami are hit hard by racism, yours very publicly in the scenes at the club. It’s painful to watch. Did you draw on any personal experiences for this role?’
LOJ: Oh, yeah. At least one of the most powerful and daring things that Kemp is doing in this script — I hope I can tell this story right. In the Toni Morrison documentary, she talks about the “white gaze”. She talks about how very specifically and consciously in her career, she was not writing with the white gaze ever present. She wanted to be read and translated all over the world, and discussed that she was talking to a very specific audience: black people, mainly. And there were not a whole lot of writers that were doing that when Toni Morrison was writing.
She said even the famous writers that she admired — Richard Wright and James Baldwin — she could feel that they were not talking to her. Because if they were talking to her, there were things that they were explaining to people that they wouldn’t have to explain if they were talking to her.
The “white gaze.” So I thought what was really daring and subversive about Kemp’s script was that — un-explicitly — it was about code switching. Because it was about the way we were going to talk in this hotel room when no one else was watching. It was about how real, how raw — who were those men when the white gaze wasn’t present? When they were home? When they were amongst family? We don’t have any footage of Sam Cooke in that arena. So that was a leap of real imagination, and that’s what was daring about the script, I thought.
Q: He’s taking, literally and figuratively, these private conversations and showing them to the public.
LOJ: And that’s what I got to use. I understand I’m doing it right now. And not because this is not a version of myself that is untrue. But I am aware of the company, that I’m in mixed company. So there’s a way that I would like to be welcoming. there are things that I’d be willing to explain, I’ll tell that Toni Morrison story, because I want to be understood and I want to be valued and accepted.
But here’s the difference: I understand code switching.
Q: Code switching probably wasn’t a term when One Night in Miami took place. It feels fairly recent. Did they call it something else then, or did it just not have a name? I never understood.
LOJ: Yeah, I don’t know if it had a name. I know Sam was a master at it. It was very different thing between what Sam was doing and what I call “cooning” — or Uncle Tom-ing. Somebody that is willing to change who they are, or kowtow for white acceptance or white adjacency. That’s not what Sam was doing. Sam is totally himself. He is audacious and he is bold. Sam is his own master, and has his own record label. He is his own man. But at the same time, he understands that in his day, there was a show he needed to do at the Copa Cabaña with the band, and it took him a couple of tries to understand that show, and the very different show that he could do at the Harlem Square in 1963.
Q: You have such amazing chemistry with all of the actors. There’s no way to define chemistry. Did you know each other at all or did it just develop naturally?
LOJ: Not at all. I think that chemistry is hard to define. We were put together. Regina placed us together, and I think some of that is very conscious and happened very purposefully, and some of it is a blessing. If you could manufacture it, and you could do it every time out, you would. And every movie would be special, but they’re not. So there was some of it that was just a rare, lucky thing, a very special thing for me. We all had similar faith.
At the end of the day — where we might differ in process, where we might differ in experience, we all came from different parts of the world, with different training — we were clear on mission and we agreed on it. We agreed on why we were there, so nothing was going to get in the way of why we were there. We were there to honor the legacy of those men, and we were there to serve Regina’s vision. That was it. We all just fell in line behind that. They’re good guys, and so we definitely pushed one another’s boundaries in those scenes. That’s a great gift of an actor: when an actor checks you. He didn’t hold anything back. Because of that, it raised the level of everyone in the room. It raised the bar for everybody.
Q: With four main actors, four huge personas, in such a small room, and a whole production crew, the shooting space must have felt very tight to work in.
LOJ: Yes, it did. And you use that. That’s great stuff. That’s great for the film. As you can imagine, in a Tennessee Williams play, the oppressive heat is one of the obstacles. To feel that is only going to aid you. that’s gas, that’s fuel. Yes, of course! There were days when all you wanted to do was to be out of that hotel room. But you can use that — don’t let that go.
I think it was Holly Hunter that said she heard from some great acting teacher that anything you’re feeling on a film set — if you’re hungry, if you’re frustrated that the shot is taking too long — don’t waste it. Don’t waste any of that. As soon as Regina says action, use that to kick-start you. That’s your gas. So the answer is yes, and it’s very useful. The claustrophobia was very useful.
Q: How did this female director keep the testosterone high enough to be realistic, but also balanced it out so it didn’t become too much?
LOJ: We were four brothers that respected the divine feminine. We respected that our leader was a woman. There are some men that maybe have a problem with that. We were not the four men that had a problem with that. Regina is in touch with all the different sides, the myriad sides of herself. You see it in her work. So there’s a part of Regina that’s one of the guys, too. That’s just who she is. She can put on a gown and do that whole thing, and she can take that gown off and have a drink, and do other things too.
There was a part of me as an actor working for her, I felt like the direction that she gave me was both from the inside and from the outside. When she gave me a thought, it was like in her perspective, she was giving me the thought as a “Hey, I’m watching you, and this is what it looks like. I don’t know what it feels like, but I’m telling you this is what it looks like.” And then as she would help me find maybe another path, she was doing it as Sam, like her. Her notes for me for Sam Cooke were for me as Sam Cooke. She was acting it, too. So I also got the benefit of the expertise of one of the great actresses of our time. Every now and again, Regina had a joke for me. That just wouldn’t have occurred to me. She would send me down a more truthful path, a more entertaining path.
So yeah, a moment like “A Change is Going to Come” or “Chain Gang”, any of those scenes where we really had to let it fly emotionally with Kingsley, I have access to all of that. I have access to all those colors only because of Billy. The colors were within me, but I was way too scared to access them. But Billy, he was my director, I worked with him again on the show in Philadelphia. He would push me past the ways in which I was holding myself back. I described emotions as one through ten. I was content. I was very comfortable, one being emotionless, ten being — well, you can imagine. I was very comfortable with notes 1 through 6.5. Seven, 8, 9, 10, it was a little scary for me to go outside. I didn’t know if I’d be able to come back. I didn’t have control over 7, 8, 9 and 10. So I wanted to do a control thing. I waned to present the thing that I made in my bedroom. And Billy was like, “We’re not interested in that.”
If you watch “Hamilton” on Disney, I can see myself: I’m like, within the first five minues, can I get to ten? [sings] “There woulda nothin’ left to do but someone…”
I’m looking at, ‘get there as fast as possible because I love that place. It’s free, and it’s fun! I love not knowing what’s going to happen once I get to that scary place, now. But it just took some doing and I thank him for that. He didn’t give up
Q: About the songs in the movie, what it was like to film them live?
LOJ: “Chain Gang” was such an interesting one. Sewing that thing together, knitting that thing together, making it something special. “Chain Gang” was not working for the first five or six hours of the day. It was not working. And after lunch, I told Regina, “I know what I have to do.” Again, scary. But you know what was required on that day? I realized I had 200, 250 singing partners, those extras and those background artists.
Somebody could get on a bullhorn and give them the direction, “And now you’ve got to…” I could do that, but it needed more than that. We needed to get to know each other. Scary thing. It’s like, “I know that you guys have to help me complete the illusion. If I’m up here and I say I’m Sam Cooke and you guys don’t believe it, I ain’t Sam Cooke. You guys make me Sam Cooke. You endow me with that power.”
After lunch, we started to talk. I started in the front row, to get to know who was there, and I asked certain things of them: “Hey, would you help me with this thing so I can get this number here.” We just built it and we got it — probably an hour or so after lunch. There was this one take that we did that they all clapped — and nobody told them to do that. But that was when I [saw] we had done it.
We still had the rest of the day to go, but it took awhile to find that. Kingsley ,Aldiss, Eli and I, we had had all those hours in the hotel room to gel and to find our thing, we had to become an ensemble. Me and these people, we met each other and in minutes we have to do this really really important story that’s not going to happen in broad strokes. It really happens moment by moment. So I learned a lot on that day. Yeah, it was special.
Q: It’s such an iconic moment; it’s surprising that there was ever a time it didn’t work.
LOJ: Yeah, those first few hours were rough. Once we found it, though, once we were on the ride together — can you imagine? I’m up here all by myself — literally, the band leaves, they’re booing. It was daunting. But man, I’m grateful for that day. They allowed me to believe in myself that day.
Q: In addition to being nominated for Best Supporting Actor, you are also nominated for Best Song, “Speak Now”, with Sam Ashworth. Did they ask you to play Sam Cooke and write the song for the film? Was this a package deal?
LOJ: It wasn’t quite the package deal. I don’t remember when. It was early, but I think they just came to me on set one day and asked me to do it, which I was happy to do.
Q: “Replaying the adapted singing of “Wait for It” after the election really really helped to alleviate the prolonged anxiety of those several days waiting for the votes to be tallied. How did that video come about?”
LOJ: Amy Schumer called me. That was Amy’s idea. I had texted a friend of mine who I knew worked with Colbert. I knew Colbert was going to do the election, ”We have to really make sure that people know on election night this is not going to be the Superbowl. We’re not going to know on that night. We need smart coverage.”
I had a good friend of mine who was working for Colbert. She was like, “I know, we’re on it.” She also is friends with Amy, so I think it came about that way. But Amy called and had that idea. And I was happy to do it. Because I it was going to be — whatever way the results went, I knew this was going to be a time because of the historic mail-in vote, my parents among them. Nicolette and I also weren’t going to the polls. My parents live in Pennsylvania — Philadelphia, actually.
So we knew that in so many places they made it so they couldn’t even start counting the votes until the polls close. So folks, we’re not going to know anything. There could be millions and millions of mail-in ballots. You just have to wait.
I was happy that Lin-Manuel’s brilliant, beautiful score, that Hamilton once again could be used to minister, to offer like a balm in a very troubled time.
Here’s the trailer for the film, “One Night in Miami.”