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Anyone who saw “Hamilton” on Broadway knows that Grammy and Tony-winner Leslie Odom Jr. can hold the stage. He can hold the screen, too, although he admits that he’s not as comfortable with it. That isn’t stopping him; the 39-year-old Queens-native is chasing after “all the things no one would dare let me work on before ‘Hamilton,'” he said.
“Film acting is such a public way to learn, to experience trial and error,” he said. “It’s also new to me. I’ve only racked up a handful of film credits. Some of them have worked, some of them haven’t. I watched through my fingers.”
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He didn’t have to do that with “One Night in Miami,” which matches the actor-musician with ’60s pop star Sam Cooke. Odom could wind up with two Oscar nominations, for Best Supporting Actor — he pops out of the ensemble of emerging actors including Eli Goree as Cassius Clay, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, and Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown — and Best Song, for title credit song “Speak Now.”
Odom was never able to take the role of Cooke in Kemp Powers’ original play. When director Regina King came to him with the movie, he said, “this combined the film and music spaces. ‘One Night in Miami’ is trying to do what I am trying to do: make use of itself in a new space going from theater to screen. We’re on parallel journeys.”
On the ‘One Night in Miami’ set in New Orleans, Odom bonded with fellow theater guy Ben-Adir. They saw the movie as their “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Odom said. “It felt like an opportunity you don’t get often.”
Odom has been ready to break out for two decades. “That’s the thing about being a Black actor,” he said. “I was recognized early, and got exceptional training in Shakespeare and Williams and Moliere at Carnegie Mellon. When I came out of school 20 years ago, there weren’t as many places to use that training as you might have hoped. I remember going up to the world premiere of ‘Jersey Boys’ in La Jolla, which was a brilliant piece of theater for four white guys to get to really shine.”
When Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote “Hamilton,” Odom said, “He wrote something for that new generation of artists, of people who look like me. For the first time in that show, Lin gave us the evidence that we were capable of more than we were being asked to do.”
What audiences saw on that Broadway stage, Odom said, was joy. “You better believe it,” he said. “Joy is the right word, deeper than happiness — that can be a momentary feeling — joy is a spirit with which you can go about doing your work, even in moments that are difficult or challenging, when doing 19 months of eight shows a week.”
Also challenging, and “incredibly tense,” said Odom, was shooting the low-budget “One Night in Miami.” While he was grateful to be among the actors recreating the famous night in 1964 after Clay beat Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world, “it was also an impossible amount of work, with not enough time to do it. The amount of dialogue, barely any rehearsal. We shot at lightning speed.”
His way into Cooke was the music. “A singer’s voice is a deep psychological profile,” he said. “Andra Day talks about Billie Holiday’s voice as a scroll: Her life is written on that voice, every needle she put in her arm, every prison sentence. I feel the same way about Sam. With ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ his life prepared him to write and perform a song like that. I was married to that study of the recordings. They had everything I needed to build who he might be in that hotel room.”
King encouraged her actors to show their soft side, to dig beneath their alpha-male public personae. “She wanted us to be honest and have the courage to tell the truth,” said Odom. “She asked, ‘What is the truth of brotherhood and friendship and your humanity that we don’t show? Are we going to have the courage to eschew the Malcolm that was created for his preservation for the good of his movement, for public consumption? The Sam that was created for the good of his business? Are we going to have the courage to tell the truth about the humanity of these men and in turn, tell a deeper truth about black humanity and life in this United States?’ If we did our jobs correctly, maybe the work itself could say something akin to Black Lives Matter, Black life matters.”
The film’s set piece is a heated debate between Cooke and Malcolm X, who wants the popular crooner to use his public megaphone to change social consciousness. King shot Ben-Adir’s side of the argument first, followed much later by Odom’s.
That was tough on Odom. “Malcolm starts pressing in on Sam and doesn’t let up,” he said. “It felt like a barrage. There’s no place for that to go within the body until you get to respond. I felt like Kingsley yelled at me for two weeks like a pit bull. It was challenging, it seasoned me, put me in a place to respond to him in a way he needed as well. It was a great gift.”
For Odom, “One Night in Miami” also represents a new guard of Black writers, “looking at our old historical figures. The new-guard storytellers see deeper truths being told. They are freer, being more honest with ourselves and one another.”
That marks a sea change. “For Black people to survive in these United States,” said Odom, “there have been sacrifices that we’ve made as a community. One of those is that we’ve had to wear a mask, because we’ve seen such distorted, hurtful twists of our humanity in media, in the caricatures of who we are, certainly in blackface and Vaudeville that turned us into the cartoons I’d watch as a little kid. Images on ‘Tom and Jerry’ are still there, vestiges of Stepin Fetchit, the lie about our humanity. They’re still trying to change pancake boxes, the images of who we are in the aisles of the supermarket are still amongst us. For decades, there has been a concerted effort to project an image of respectability. If we were just respectable enough for long enough, we would finally be welcomed. The promise of the American dream would be finally handed over without reservation.”
Something changed with the presidency of Barack Obama, Odom believes: “That broke open and unleashed something in this country. It was an object lesson that, in fact, respectability did not mean the end of racism in this country. We saw the backlash in the next presidency and the hatefulness he unleashed, what it sounded and felt like as a Black. It felt like: ‘We can follow the best of you with the worst of us. The worst of us equals the best of you.'”
As Odom teaches his children about what we’re going through, “living through the George Floyd protests has shown that respectability does not get it done,” he said. “Now we live in the truth more. You can tell your truth, what it fucking feels like, actually. The Bible says, ‘They will know the truth and the truth will make them free.'”
In this strange pandemic year, Odom is grateful that “Hamilton” (Disney+) and “One Night in Miami” (Amazon Prime) each found a way to reach wide audiences. “There’s some kind of alchemy,” he said, “how this film comes out and meets the moment in a way we could have not expected. There’s humility in when something works.”
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