When Leslie Odom Jr. was about to turn 30, he thought about quitting acting. He had been hustling for a decade in Los Angeles by then, nabbing small TV spots here and there. He loathed the unpredictability, and the thought of another decade of not knowing whether he would ever be able to get a mortgage or pay down his student loans.
“What is going to change about 30 to 40?” he wondered. “Am I just signing up for this forever? How do I grow up?”
Odom considered hospitality as his next jump, an industry with a customer-service appeal not dissimilar to acting. His mind was basically made up when he met with his mentor Stuart K. Robinson, an acting coach who also happened to be his future father-in-law, at a Marie Callender’s restaurant in California. Over their meal, Odom got some tough love.
“You can quit,” Robinson told him. “Of course, we can talk about things you might do if you quit. But I’d love to see you try first.”
In that instant, Odom finally faced the reality of what his last decade had really been: a young actor waiting for his moment to arrive, sitting by the phone and hoping it would ring instead of making the calls himself. Robinson encouraged him to sing more — something he had only done in the context of stage musicals — and expanded his idea of all the ways he could become the artist he was meant to be.
“The lightbulb went on in the middle of him talking,” says Odom, now 39, talking over Zoom from his home in L.A. After that conversation, Odom retook Acting 101 classes with Robinson. And what followed has been a steady climb to the top, and a moment that has never stopped being a moment: Within a year, in 2012, he appeared in House of Lies alongside Don Cheadle and nabbed a role in the beloved musical series Smash.
His biggest break came in 2015, when he joined the off-Broadway cast of a buzzy musical called Hamilton, playing the role of Aaron Burr. By the time the show moved to Broadway later that year, it was a full-on phenomenon. Tickets were sold out months in advance. The soundtrack alone exceeded all previous notions of Broadway-soundtrack success. Hamilton won a Pulitzer Prize and swept the 2016 Tony Awards, with Odom winning Best Actor in a Musical over his co-star and the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“The first time I really felt I was a part of a championship team was as a part of the company of Hamilton,” Odom says. “I felt it all come together; what is possible when we are given the material and the resources and the opportunity. We can really make some noise. We can move the needle. We can spark conversation. We can inspire a generation of theater makers.”
Just after the Tonys sweep, Odom, along with co-stars Miranda, Jonathan Groff, and Phillipa Soo, departed the musical. That music career he hadn’t considered in his twenties was becoming a reality, as he reissued his 2014 self-titled jazz debut. There was also a movie career to consider: In 2017, he starred alongside the likes of Willem Dafoe, Kenneth Branagh, and Judi Dench in a star-studded remake of Murder on the Orient Express. In 2019, he played abolitionist William Still in Harriet.
But now, it’s One Night in Miami — a feature that imagines a real night in February 1964 when Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Odom) hung out in a hotel room after one of Clay’s bouts — that has cemented his status as the latest Broadway-to-Hollywood success story, earning him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as well as for Best Original Song. Talky and actor-driven, the film positions these four historical icons against and alongside one another in intimate but challenging discussions that explore questions of race, identity, and purpose. Odom says it’s the closest to re-creating that “championship team” feeling he had while performing in Hamilton.
“I [had] never felt that on a film set,” he says. “I didn’t know that was possible until One Night in Miami.”
Odom is no stranger to playing historical figures, but taking on the role of Sam Cooke proved daunting. This was a voice he had not only been listening to his whole life but had grown up imitating. Cooke served as one of Odom’s first figurative “teachers” throughout his childhood in East Oak Lane, Philadelphia, where his parents lived until finally deciding to relocate closer to their son in L.A.
“You try to mimic first,” he explains. “ ‘How close can I sound to these people?’ They’re teaching you everything: technical aspects, emotional contours of the song.”
Odom was struck by writer Kemp Powers’ script, adapted from his 2013 debut play of the same name. The actor had seen firsthand how great material helps make a great performance with Hamilton, and Powers’ words gave him similar chills.
“What I saw in Kemp’s script was something akin to what David Mamet gave those actors with a script like Glengarry Glen Ross, or what [Tom] Stoppard gave the cast of Shakespeare in Love. Or what Aaron Sorkin regularly gives actors that work with him. It demands everything you’ve learned about being an actor, and it requires so little at the same time.”
Powers’ story has Cooke, Brown, Malcolm X, and Clay all meeting together at pivotal points in their lives. Brown is preparing to leave the NFL for Hollywood. Clay is on the eve of publicly revealing his conversion to Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X senses forces within the Nation of Islam conspiring against him.
The version of Cooke that joins this group is a star who has succumbed to the belief that his career hinges on acceptance from white audiences. Malcolm X clashes with him about protest music and whether the “You Send Me” singer has sold out the black community. The conversations are fictionalized, but the film provides vital context to Cooke’s musical shift with the song “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a politically charged single he debuted on The Tonight Show in 1964. The song was released as scheduled that December, but Cooke didn’t get to see its success — he had been fatally shot in a Los Angeles motel two weeks prior.
“When I look at the conversation that’s happening in One Night in Miami, the reason I could relate is because those were not only the conversations that I witnessed my parents having when I was a kid, but conversations I started having myself when I was an adult,” Odom says.
Hamilton took off in the midst of the 2016 election cycle, when the rift between a divided country was becoming deeper and more violent. It also coincided with the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking debate backstage about how a cast almost entirely composed of people of color could and should respond to the killings of Sandra Bland or Philando Castile at the hands of police.
“What we’re all asking ourselves backstage is, ‘What is our responsibility to the movement and the moment happening outside these doors?’ ” Odom says. “We didn’t always agree on the best way to do that. Lin had very different ideas from me from time to time. Daveed [Diggs] felt a different way than Chris [Jackson] from time to time. We would have those discussions backstage.”
In November 2016, after Odom and most of the original players had left the show, the next iteration of the cast turned that discussion into action. Upon learning that Mike Pence was in the audience at a Hamilton performance, Odom’s replacement, Brandon Victor Dixon, read an open letter to the vice president-elect on behalf of the company at the end of the show. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,” Dixon read, as Pence left his seat. The incident fueled an uproar from Donald Trump on Twitter.
“I don’t know if I would have done that,” Odom admits, “but I can only imagine what it felt [like] doing Hamilton in November 2016 as Trump was elected and Pence is here in your presence.”
The filmed version of Hamilton came out during a similarly tumultuous time, debuting last July, following weeks of protests in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Even while isolated due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the original cast of Hamilton engaged with many of the same difficult subjects it had five years prior.
“When the film is coming out [and] our company gets together, it ain’t about ‘How do we turn this into more followers?’ or ‘How do we turn this into a photo op?’ It is: ‘What can we do? Is there some way we can be of service?’ If you’re not going to make good use of it, I don’t know what it’s for.”
In June, the cast decided to join Richard and Demi Weitz’s pandemic concert series for a private Zoom event for charity, and raised $1.6 million in 24 hours for the Equal Justice Initiative.
By the time in-person productions were halted due to the pandemic last March, filming for Miami was nearly completed. The cast briefly reunited in July to get a few remaining shots. The film debuted Christmas Day, to strong reviews.
But the experience of watching it reel in accolades, awards buzz, and nominations has been bittersweet for Odom. On one hand, he’s grateful that they were not only able to get the film finished but also to get it out, when so many movies this past year have been put into a continuous release or production purgatory. On the other hand, the most transformative film experience he has yet had doesn’t get the in-person fanfare he had hoped for while they were filming.
He’s trying to focus on the positive. “I think there’s something undeniable about the fact that the world is slow enough and quiet enough right now for a movie like One Night in Miami to get seen,” he says. “We’re able to have certain conversations in our lives that maybe are mirrored with the conversation that these four men are having onscreen.”
The rest of the team behind Miami is feeling the intense duality of this experience as well, especially director Regina King. “We were on a Zoom a week ago, and Regina kind of spontaneously broke down a bit,” Odom says. “She’s broken up about the fact that we don’t get to celebrate this all together in person. We haven’t seen one another since we wrapped.”
Odom received the call from his team about his Golden Globe nominations at 5:30 a.m. on February 3rd. Being nominated for his song “Speak Now”, alongside co-writer Sam Ashworth, was a particularly special surprise. King had requested an original from Odom, and the track plays over the credits, soon after Cooke’s last onscreen appearance debuting “A Change Is Gonna Come” on The Tonight Show. Odom’s excellent mimicry of Cooke’s signature warm voice is threaded throughout the film, and his own intense research made him want to make something that worked in conversation with Cooke’s own reflections.
“I swear we’ll never find a way to where we’re going all alone/Don’t take your eyes off the road,” he stirringly sings on the first verse. From there, Odom gently encourages both the process of listening to what’s happening around you as well as speaking up. “Don’t hold your tongue/Speak now.”
“We’d ask ourselves, ‘Has the change come? And if it has, for whom has it come?’ ” Like Cooke did when he wrote “Change,” Odom and Ashworth looked to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” for inspiration. “We needed to look and say, ‘Are those answers still blowing out there?’ ”
Politically, Odom still carries the weight of what he learned from all the historical figures he has played, from Burr to Still to Cooke. “I like a good story,” he says. Even as he prepared for his role in the upcoming Sopranos sequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark, he dug into the history of the New Jersey area where the film and iconic show were set. “I think that’s my draw. It’s why I love story time at night with my little girl,” he adds with a smile. “History helps us understand what we’re seeing in front of us. It’s not dead. It’s the reason for why we see what we see.”
This awards season, Odom and his wife, Nicolette Robinson (who plays Sam’s wife Barbara Cooke in Miami), have another reason to celebrate. Their family is growing, with the pair expecting a baby boy in March.
Initially, the news brought Odom back to some of those feelings of uncertainty and dread he’d had when he was turning 30. He wasn’t sure he could raise a son. He didn’t feel ready for a boy back when the couple were expecting their first child, their now-three-year-old daughter, Lucille Ruby. Not long after they found out Robinson was pregnant with a second, Odom had a conversation with his Hamilton co-star and good friend Renée Elise Goldsberry. He’d been reeling from the death of Ahmaud Arbery, whose senseless killing at the hands of two armed white men inflated his fears of bringing another black man into a world full of violence that targets them.
“Renée said a really beautiful thing to me about raising young black men,” Odom says, “that I’m paraphrasing: ‘Black people have been bringing children into a hostile world for generations. If our parents, great-grandparents, or our great-great-grandparents waited for the world to be free from hostility before they brought us into the world, we wouldn’t be here.’ ”
Now, as he prepares to turn another decade older, Odom is looking at the future with a different sense of gravity. “My daughter taught me just how much I do have to offer as a father,” he says. “I’m still doing more spiritual work on what it means for me to welcome a little man.”
Read more about Oscar contenders in this year’s Deadline x Rolling Stone special issue celebrating music in cinema.