Why Leslie Odom Jr. was hesitant to play Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami
In One Night in Miami, the feature film debut from director Regina King, actors Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom Jr. have the difficult task of embodying the iconic tetrad of Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke, respectively. Odom himself had the added difficulty of having to sing a song like "A Change Is Gonna Come," in the same fashion as the gone-too-soon performer he was playing.
However daunting, it was still a task the Tony-winning Hamilton alum was prepared for. "As a Black actor, I went to Carnegie Mellon University, I got all this fabulous training on how to handle text, and how to break down a scene and build a character," the actor tells EW. "Many of us get to use that training so infrequently."
When an opportunity like One Night in Miami finally comes, Odom says "so often when I'm working on something, I have to leave so much of myself at the door." Following the response to the film after its screenings at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival — which touted Odom as a possible Oscar contender for his scene-stealing work — the actor surrendering himself to the project evidently paid off.
It's the capper to a big year for Odom, whose Hamilton work was introduced to a mass audience for the first time earlier this summer, with the filmed version's Disney+ premiere. Odom spoke to EW about what that experience has been like, as well as why he was hesitant to accept the part of Sam Cooke and how he ended up writing a song for the movie too.
One Night in Miami will be released later this year via Amazon Prime Video.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Starting things off, what has your experience been with a much bigger audience now getting to see your work in Hamilton on Disney+? Usually, when an actor has a breakout role on Broadway, it leads to more opportunities, but most audiences never get to see them play that role on stage.
LESLIE ODOM JR.: It's all been upside. It was really able to bring people some joy and inspiration at a time when they maybe needed it most. At the beginning, there was a part of me that was a little sad that I wouldn't get to lift Renee [Elise Goldsberry] up onto my shoulders and run her around a movie theater after “Satisfied,” or that I wouldn't get to wrap my arms around Philippa Soo's neck at the end of that show and tell her how much she moved me. There was a part of me that was just a little sad that I wouldn't be able to be in close proximity with my brothers and sisters, to share this moment. But what has been revealed over the last few months is that this thing, it's impact and the way it's connected with people is way bigger than us.
A couple of days before the show premiered, Tommy [Kail] said, "Leslie, do you realize that more people are probably going to see you in this role this weekend then saw your entire Broadway run in the show?" So the potential for that kind of scaling was hard for me to wrap my mind around on opening weekend, but I've certainly seen it since. Quite frankly, most of the people that are watching Hamilton on Disney+ are experiencing the show for the first time. It is their first experience of it. And the way that you can scale in that way with television or with these streaming platforms is, again, not anything we considered when we were preparing to open our off-Broadway show in 2015.
Getting into One Night in Miami, what was the casting process like for this?
They had to chase me a little bit, only because I didn't see what they saw in myself. I did not see Sam Cooke in me.
Well, because, while I've played a couple of people that have walked the planet earth —I did do Aaron Burr [and] William Still— but these are not people that there exists so much footage. There's so much footage on Sam, and we hear Sam. We've heard Sam our whole lives. He's been in our ear. Anybody that's walking planet earth right now, has heard Sam, has heard “You Send Me,” has heard “A Change Is Going to Come,” so I was not inclined to pick up those very large shoes and fail. I didn't feel up for the task, and I just thought there would be somebody better suited than I, but my manager and my agent called me. They've never done that before. They called me, and they said, "We really think you should reconsider."
I gave the script a second look, and I saw beyond that. I saw beyond my fear, and I really saw what Kemp was doing in that script. He was having a very private conversation publicly. He was really allowing maybe more than one thread, but a certain kind of conversation that has been had around me my whole life, certainly as a child. And then when I became an adult, I started to have them myself. These are the kinds of talks that we have. Kemp says it about his own experience. This is the way him and his friends were talking at Howard University when he was coming up. This is the way we were talking backstage at Hamilton. These are the kinds of conversations we've been having for a very long time, but it was the first time that I had seen it in a script, and certainly, the first time that I was being offered the opportunity to be that raw and to be that honest. So I was going to have to find my way there through my fear. I had to, because Sam was having the conversation. It wasn't me, but I saw the value in it, and I was willing to take the leap.
You already mentioned this, but this is a vastly different historical figure from Aaron Burr. Were you doing anything different research-wise? You mentioned watching footage of Cooke.
Yes, I had never had to do that before. I'd never had to adhere so closely to my research. Even with Burr, I realized early on, I was reading all this info on Burr. Voracious in my reading on Burr and Hamilton. And somewhere early on in the process, I said, "You know what?" Because I was starting to feel a little constricted by my research. I said, "Number one, you're going to be the foremost authority on Burr in the room. And most of the audiences are not going to know as much on Burr as you do. So free yourself up." And also I said, "They're not looking for a book report. You're not going to step on stage and say 'Aaron Burr was born in ...'" That was about it. So it's really about finding the humanity, locating the human in your being and having the courage to present that. And if you can come close to that, you can come close to eliciting people's empathy.
I had to have grace for myself in this. I'm no fan of myself. I'm harder on myself than anybody. And so, when I watch the film, I can find flaws in it and pick myself apart all day, whenever I experience my work, period. But I watched this film, and I'm able to extend myself grace, because I know how hard we were working on that set, and I know the reverence that we brought with us on that set, all three of my brothers that I did this movie with. Regina, Kemp, we wanted to bring these men as close as possible. There is no footage. There is no real record of what was talked about in the room where it happened, as it were. There is no record of that, and so we could take a leap of the imagination. You bring all the research, you assimilate all that research within yourself, and then you make some art. You use your imagination, and you imagine, "What if? Could this be what they talked about? What if they had pressed each other in this way?"
After being directed by Kasi Lemmons in Harriet, how was it working with Regina King, who similarly is a Black female director who has experience acting in films?
Everything Regina offered me was something that I would not have seen. Every single note that she gave me, she was so helpful, because she was bringing to my life, bringing to the performance, something that would not have occurred to me because of her experience as a woman. Regina made me better. I think also part of a director's responsibility, maybe their main task, is to get us all wrapped up in the same vision. We all have to. From all of the design elements, certainly to the performances. We're coming in with different home situations, different training backgrounds, different professional experiences, and we all have to very quickly align and be telling the same story in the same way. Regina was brilliant at that. I think part of that is because all of us have such a working knowledge of her thrust as an artist and her singular fingerprint as an actor. We knew what we were after. We showed up in New Orleans, very clear on the type of performances we were trying to give, because we know what kind of performances Regina gives.
How did you end up writing the credits song? Was that something that you were in talks for, from the beginning of being cast as Sam Cooke?
Yeah, the producers were always very interested in whomever was cast as Sam [being] the person that would write the song for the movie. That they would take that experience of Sam and then [write a song]. Because the task was so great, we wrote four different songs. I worked with four different teams of songwriters and wrote four different songs. Then, we presented them all to Regina and the producers, and they chose “Speak Now,” [written] with a brilliant songwriter named Sam Ashworth. I worked with Sam actually on my original album, Mr. Sam was one of the writers on that album, so I think I've already written five or six songs with Sam before this— me and Sam had a great working relationship. Sam watched the movie, and he was very inspired by that thread in the story of how troubled Sam was by “Blowing in the Wind,” by Bob Dylan, so we started there.
Sam Ashworth lives in Nashville, and he started with that “Blowing in the Wind” piece, and we imagined what Sam Cooke's version of a song like “Blowing in the Wind” would be. With that song, because I spent the whole film trying to come as close to Sam Cooke as possible, we wanted to make sure that enough time had passed. That Sam had kind of left me, and I was feeling like myself again, so that this could be what sounds like me hopefully. The song feels a little bit like a ghost story or like a gathering around in the woods, because three of these men at least are speaking to us from beyond the grave. They're speaking to us from someplace else, and I just imagined the things that they might say and what they might ask of us right now. “Speak Now” resonated because it sounded like: Listen, your time is precious and you're not guaranteed a lot of it, so speak right now in this moment. Use your life, use everything that you are given, to make a change and to make a difference right in this moment.
Is Sam Cooke a role that you would want to revisit in a film that’s more of a traditional biopic?
I would never say never, but there are lots and lots of parts I want to play, and things I want to do. If I'm being honest, I just feel like I'm just getting started [in film]. I'd never done it before, and I really found something. I found something in New Orleans on this movie, with these brothers and Regina that I want to continue to build on. Whether that's Sam or whomever it is, I just know that I need to keep pushing myself, and I need to keep digging. That's what I know.
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