For those of you who still haven’t seen it, this is Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in the landmark musical “Hamilton” … talk about a tough act to follow.
Excerpt: Leslie Odom Jr. performs “The Room Where It Happens” from “Hamilton”:
But now, he just might’ve found a way to top himself. In the film “One Night in Miami,” Odom plays the legendary artist Sam Cooke, opposite his real-life wife, Nicolette Robinson. The movie is centered around the fictional account of a meeting with Cooke, Malcolm X, the NFL’s Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) on the night Clay won a title bout in Miami.
You’d think an actor would jump at the chance to join this ensemble, but after playing a real person on stage in “Hamilton,” Odom needed some convincing.
Correspondent Tracy Smith asked, “When you first heard about the role, did you wanna do it?”
“Absolutely not,” Odom replied. “No. To play Sam Cooke just felt, like, not wise.”
“What changed your mind?”
“My agent and my manager called me up and they said, ‘We think you’re making a mistake.’ And they had never done anything like that before.”
“And you listened?” Smith asked.
And it was pretty sound advice: Odom has been nominated for two Oscars here, for Best Supporting Actor, and for a song, “Speak Now,” that he wrote and performed.
Impressive, but you might say he’s been rehearsing for this moment his entire life. Growing up in Philadelphia, young Leslie’s favorite pastime was singing along with a toy karaoke machine. And at an age when most kids are happy to be in the school play, he tried out for the hit musical “Rent” on Broadway, and he actually got the part.
He shared with Smith a letter he’d gotten from the “Rent” producers, with an Amtrak ticket and directions to the Nederlander Theatre. “And I told them I didn’t even want them to pay for my train ticket, because I didn’t want them to, like, I thought that would be too much money for them to spend on me,’ he said. “Like, ‘No, my parents will drive me. I’m okay. You don’t need to worry about me. I’m gonna be there.’ Can you imagine?”
And to this day he can still fee the thrill of that first professional paycheck. “I couldn’t imagine that they were going to pay me to be in this show. And I remember the Broadway minimum at that time was $1,260 a week. I was 17 years old. You’re gonna give me $1200 a week to be in this? I would pay you. You do know that?”
At his parents’ insistence he chose college over Broadway, and after graduation from Carnegie Mellon, his career resumed, but by his late 20s it had stalled.
Smith said, “Let’s fast forward to 2011. It’s right before your 30th birthday. How was your career going?”
“Not great,” Odom said. “I was tired of it.”
But with his family’s encouragement, Odom kicked around the business for a couple more years, until he had one of those lightning-bolt moments that only happen in the movies (or on a Broadway stage).
He recalled, “There was a reading of this thing happening called ‘The Hamilton Mix Tape’ at Vassar. And I scored the very last folding chair in the very last row.”
“‘Cause you had a buddy who was an usher, and so you got the last seat?” Smith asked.
“And how much of it did you have to hear before you knew?”
“Twenty seconds, max?” he replied, reciting the show’s opening. “‘How does a bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean …’ What am I hearing? What?”
‘Course back then, he had no way of knowing whether “Hamilton” would be a monster Broadway hit, or whether the whole idea was too “out there.”
“I didn’t know if ‘Hamilton’ would fall into that category, if people would actually dig it, you know?” he said, adding, “I didn’t care.”
“You just had to do it?” Smith asked.
“I had to. I had to.”
Part of the beauty of “Hamilton” is that it means different things to different people. For Leslie Odom Jr., it meant a Tony Award, a Grammy, and a place in Broadway history.
“It’s social currency now – how early you saw ‘Hamilton,’ not [even] that you saw it,'” he said.
Smith said, “‘Were you one of the first?’ Right?”
“Yeah. Did you see it? Did you see it early in previews at the Public Theater? Did you see it on Broadway? ‘Cause that really correlates to how much you paid for your ticket!”
Odom now lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles, with his wife, a young daughter, and a son due any minute now. “It is a very family neighborhood,” he said. “My wife grew up in this neighborhood. And we’re happy to continue that tradition, too, yeah.”
Smith asked, “And that means that the in-laws are close by for childcare help?”
“In-laws are very close by, and very helpful, yeah.”
That means more time to write and record music, and work on his next move.
Odom said, “You know, leaving ‘Hamilton,’ people were asking me, ‘What, what do you do next?’ You know, people are saying, ‘What’s your dream role?’ The truth was, I just played it.”
“Yeah, so then, what do you do?” Smith asked.
“But I said, ‘Well, I wanna do, I think I wanna do…’ – I knew I wanted to do – ‘I wanna do all the things that no one would let me dare do before ‘Hamilton.'”
And now, with “One Night in Miami,” Leslie Odom Jr. is actually doing it: the former “Hamilton” star is playing a role that gives him the chance to make history again.
Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke, performing “Chain Gang” a cappella, in “One Night in Miami”:
Odom said, “You wonder if in a movie, like, if the pieces lined up, you know, maybe I could do something. And they gave us the chance to prove it to ourselves. Thank God. Thank God.”
For more info:
- “One Night in Miami” can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video
- “Hamilton” can be streamed on Disney+
Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Lauren Barnello.