I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Leslie Odom Jr. in concert, and the way he holds an audience in the palm of his hand is thrilling. Imagine how a Tony winner, brought to national attention by a tiny, historical musical Hamilton, has to change their persona on stage in order to inhabit a completely new performer. For Odom Jr., he had to transform into another famous singer, but he also felt the weight of Sam Cooke’s contributions on his shoulders.
When director Regina King puts Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Eli Goree in one room, it feels like it will combust from the energy. The cast received a deserved SAG ensemble nomination, and the sparring between Odom Jr.’s Cooke and Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is particularly riveting. Malcolm thinks Cooke needs to do more with his platform in the music industry, but Cooke is able to assure his friend that he is already doing a lot for the Black community. Malcolm just doesn’t know it.
There is a scene where Sam Cooke’s performance hits the skids when the sound system blows. Cooke has to get a crowd back on his side, and it’s one of the best scenes of the year. He also serves as a writer on the Oscar shortlisted song, “Speak Now” so Odom Jr. could become a double nominee this year. Music has a way of affecting our mind when it comes to empathy. There is a connection between them. Odom Jr. transports us to a time when Cooke’s voice is the urgency of the Black community.
Awards Daily: What did you learn from Kemp Powers in terms of finding the rhythm of Sam Cooke? You obviously have a theater background and One Night in Miami… is based on a play, so I was curious if there was a throughline there?
Leslie Odom Jr.: There’s no acting coach in town like great writing. I learned it first with Hamilton, I think. In acting school, they train you with the best stuff like Shakespeare and August Wilson and Moliere and Tennessee Williams. You get out of school and you think it’s all going to be like that.
LOJ: You get out of school and you’re not always doing those shows or you’re doing a lot of new works. That has its value for young writers finding their way. But it ain’t August Wilson. I used to think that good acting could hide bad habits–that you could act your way around those traps. With Hamilton, I found out that you cannot. The writing is king. When you get an exceptional piece like Lin [Manuel Miranda] gave me or that Kemp gave us, you’re still part of the jazz band, but you’re less Miles Davis and more like you’re Miles Davis’ horn. If you allow yourself to be an instrument…
AD: You can really be an instrument to help the good writing shine.
LOJ: That’s right. You’re being carried through. There’s something about music, I believe, that is not supposed to be talked about. It’s meant to be felt. That’s why it’s there. There are certain chambers of this experience that we are not able to express through words. It drives you to the trumpet or the keyboard. The closer I got to Sam, in my research and the more I stared at this piece of music that Kemp had written, the more the music made sense. The more I released into it, the more I could understand. In a lot of ways, Kemp wrote the way Sam sang. To work off other exceptional instruments–Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm was so inspiring to me and challenging. Stuff like that makes the whole room better.
AD: I’m so glad that the ensemble got nominated at the Screen Actors Guild, because the push and pull between the four of you is great. Some of the things that you say to one another land in a really painful way. Especially between Sam and Malcolm. He says to you, “You’ll never be loved by the people you’re trying to win over. Never. You’re a wind-up toy in a music box.”
LOJ: When he said that to me, it wounded me deeply. For Sam and for myself. Because there’s nowhere to hide as an actor. Yes, it’s Malcolm talking to Sam but it’s also Kingsley talking to Leslie take after take after take. There’s nowhere for that to go. You’re in service to something to make an important statement or give voice to another lived experience. You make yourself available for that. You sacrifice your little hurt feelings for something greater and larger than. We could say something louder together that’s more important than my little hurt feelings. But that hurt.
LOJ: I get to use those hurt feelings when Sam gets to come back at Malcolm and give him some challenges and things to think about too. What I thought quite possible was a real achievement in this movie, because it’s a uniquely Black, American story told mostly by Black Americans, was that there was a shared understanding when we all approached the material about how those things can be said if there is love present. Those things can only be said because there is a trust, a brotherhood, and love underneath it all. A friend of mine gave me a quote that says, “The truth without love is brutality.” Those men are telling a lot of truths to one another and they go too far. It’s grounded with love.
AD: That gives it so much more weight. You can only be that brutally honest with people you really love.
LOJ: I think you’re right. It took a lot of energy to do what they did that night. You just wouldn’t waste your breath on someone you didn’t give a damn about. You’d be out of there. They love each other and they love Cassius. He’s the reason they’ve all gathered, but I think they are fighting for how he is going to move forward. He is so special and he carried the hopes and dreams of all the men. Cassius can do something that maybe none of us could do with his talent, charisma, and fearlessness. It’s for Cassius’ benefit.
AD: One of the best scenes from all of last year is when Sam gets the crowd back on his side. Tell me what it was like to film that scene because it’s like one man versus a sea of people. How do you make that turn believable?
LOJ: I owe so much about what works in that scene to our editor, Tariq [Anwar] and to, obviously, Regina [King]. My 200 or 250 scene partners that I had that day, I needed them desperately to help me tell a complicated story beat. The background artists are sometimes told very little information and, on some sets, they can be treated as inconsequential or as set dressing. I’ve seen it happen. This was a situation where I needed 250 scene partners. I needed co-conspirators. I needed them to believe in this with me and they had to believe they were at a Sam Cooke concert. We had to start in one place and end in another and do it together. None of this did I realize until I showed up that day.
LOJ: This was something that wasn’t working for hours and somewhere along the way I realized that I was in the literal situation that Kemp wrote in the symbolic. I’m going to use a different tactic, but in the way that Sam was leading these people into a moment of unity, I had to somehow be that as well. I had to get over any fear that I had up there by my little self and wrap them up in it. I started talking to them and asking them their names and we found it together. It took a while and I think there were some people that were worried. We didn’t have it by lunch. It took time to find the rhythm and the flow of me and 250 strangers. That’s nothing you film once. They really hung in with me and I owe them a lot. It’s like when someone on screen is supposed to be terrifying. It’s really up to the other person to sell that illusion. That person is just showing up in a costume and doing the blocking, but it’s Jamie Lee Curtis that sells us on the horror of Michael Myers. I needed time on the day to make you believe in the magic of Sam Cooke.
AD: That has to be so hard to make that back and forth feel real and not phony.
AD: For “Speak Now,” were you looking forward to writing a song for a film you were in? I really think the simplicity of the lyrics and the build of the song are powerful.
LOJ: I don’t know if it was the producers idea. They offered me that opportunity and I was honored to just bring more of myself to the project. I believed in the project so much. I didn’t have long–I had about 2 weeks–and they wanted a choice so I wrote four songs.
AD: Oh wow.
LOJ: I didn’t have a lot of time to be daunted by it because the work had to get done. Looking back, I am very grateful that I wrote a handful because it meant that it was precious. I didn’t have to put all of my feelings or all of my thoughts of Sam into one piece. I was happy about that. Some people like Stevie Wonder or Prince or Sam Cooke are one man bands. You put them in a room alone and they come out with this brilliant piece of music. I am really only interested in collaboration. I like being in the room with other artists to bounce ideas off of each other to make it better. Sam Ashworth is someone I’ve written many songs with and I love the creativity between us. Our energies align. We went back to the “Blowin’ in the Wind” inspiration, and we started asking ourselves some questions. Are those answers still blowing around? Has that change come? If it has, for whom has it come? We knew that whatever we wrote would be after the seminal piece of the music. We had to get over any kind of mistaken idea that we were in competition with “A Change Is Gonna Come” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” because give me a break.
AD: You can’t compete with those.
LOJ: No, no. There is a way for us to occupy a space in the same way that, in this hotel room Sam, Jim, Cassius, and Malcolm could occupy the same space. They weren’t in competition with each other. They are allowed to be great in their own right. The same way that we were able to be generous and create with each other. We wanted it to be an offering.