Leslie Odom Jr. still can’t find the footage of Sam Cooke debuting ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’
The actor had to imagine what happened during Cooke's 1964 performance on The Tonight Show in order to recreate the emotional moment for One Night in Miami.
The conversation Sam Cooke had with Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and the young man who'd soon become Muhammad Ali during One Night in Miami isn't the only thing Leslie Odom Jr. had to imagine while preparing to play the soul legend.
During an interview with Blackprint and Entertainment Weekly alongside costar Kingsley Ben-Adir, Odom revealed that Cooke's climactic moment where he performs "A Change Is Gonna Come" on The Tonight Show wasn't something he and director Regina King could just pull up on YouTube to study.
"Sam sang that song on The Tonight Show. He sang 'Basin Street Blues,' and he debuted "A Change Is Gonna Come' on The Tonight Show," says Odom (at around the 14-minute mark). "If you go and you search 'Basin Street Blues' on The Tonight Show, you can find it. If you search for 'A Change Is Gonna Come,' you can't find it. It doesn't exist. The tape has been destroyed. I thought for sure when I got the job I was like, 'That tape exists somewhere, and they're going to show me that tape. Somebody has that tape,' but nobody has the tape.
"So that set us free, of course, because on some level we knew that we're going to build this [scene] based on everything we know of him, but we can take a leap of the imagination because we don't have a reference," adds the actor. "[Regina] wanted more emotion, she wanted more, and it was really important to me that the tear was in the song. I thought that the weeping would be in the music. I just couldn't imagine Sam on The Tonight Show crying his way through a song."
As one of the great songwriters of his generation, Odom felt that "the way Sam Cooke would craft something like that is that it's his whole life is in that recording. His whole life is in those stanzas, so I already cried the tear out. The tear was when I got in front of the microphone and I sang this thing, but we compromised in sort of building the emotion to as far as I was comfortable in really protecting my guy, protecting Sam. I thought the emotion that is shown is the amount that I was comfortable showing. But yeah, [filming that scene] was a very important day. I was very nervous about that day, as you can imagine."
Thinking back to when he first read the script written by Kemp Powers, and saw how Cooke singing "A Change Is Going To Come" plays out, Odom jokes, "Actors are very strange people. You read something like that and you're like, 'Oooh I can't wait to do that.' And right behind that, you're like, 'But no time soon though. I don't want to shoot that. Put that off for as long...' because you're terrified of it — and also very excited by it."
Watch the full conversation with Leslie Odom Jr. and Kingsley Ben-Adir above.
EW's A Celebration of Black Film is available on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.
Check out The Awardist podcast for interviews with this year's top contenders for the Oscars and more of Hollywood's biggest awards.