There’s a humbleness to Leslie Odom Jr. as he speaks to NME. The 39-year-old actor and musician is dressed casually in a sweatshirt, chatting from his home in Los Angeles. He talks slowly and quietly, taking time to answer our questions about his rapidly rising career. You get the impression that he can’t quite believe he’s made it: “I’ve already achieved more than I ever intended to, I have to tell you.”
And yet, Odom Jr. is having a major moment. You’ll know him as antihero Aaron Burr from hit musical Hamilton, which brought new screen roles after years of theatre work. But 2021 is when Odom Jr. steps out onto an even bigger stage. He’s infiltrating the mob world of Tony Soprano in David Chase’s prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark, rubbing shoulders with Aussie pop star Sia in her directorial debut Music, and he’s just received a Golden Globe nomination for playing Sam Cooke in One Night In Miami.
Set over a balmy evening in the Magic City, One Night In Miami marks Oscar winner Regina King’s directorial debut. It’s based on a play by Kemp Powers which imagines a fictional meeting between Cooke and three very famous pals: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cassius Clay before he became Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree). With powerful performances and a razor-sharp script, the four actors bounce off each other like conkers in a battle for the spotlight – although if you’re a music fan, there’s only one winner.
“Without Cooke there would be no Aretha Franklin, Al Green or Marvin Gaye,” says Odom Jr., who had listened to the King of Soul since he was a kid. “He really is the first in a long line of brilliance that was given to us.”
“Sam Cooke is the first in a long line of brilliance”
Yet when he first heard about it, Odom Jr. decided to pass. “For the first time I felt people were letting me be the very best version of Leslie Odom Jr., so why would I try to be a terrible Sam Cooke?” he told the Press Association at the time. He was encouraged by his manager and agent to reconsider, found new meaning in the script and Cooke’s story, and decided to jump in. That left him with just two months to prepare for the most difficult role of his life: “I didn’t think there was enough time for me to really make the transformation that l needed to make.”
He read interviews and watched archive footage of Cooke while reacquainting himself with his many hits. “It’s like a deep, psychological profile of a person, the way that they sing,” he says. “Aretha Franklin said that when 19-year-old Sam was singing about his love of God in church, girls were fainting in the aisles. Let’s just say that he was stirring parts of them that your average singer on a Sunday morning wasn’t stirring.”
Odom Jr.’s Golden Globe-nominated performance – which includes a honeyed, rippling rendition of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ – has bolstered his chances as a hot favourite for the Oscars. With Hamilton’s release on Disney+ also eligible in a COVID-extended awards season, 2021 feels like a milestone in his post-Broadway career.
It’s odd, then, to think that Odom Jr. never dreamed of Hollywood as a kid. Born in Queens, New York, in 1981 and raised in Philadelphia, he won a scholarship to art school before studying at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. His early gigs were on the stage, not on the screen – including a Broadway debut in Rent at just 17. “My favourite quote about art is that artists spend their entire lives trying to get back to the place where their heart was first opened up,” he says of the Tony-winning rock musical in which he played the leader of an HIV support group. “That show opened up my heart.”
“I was consistently and systematically marginalised as a Black actor”
After Rent came a decade of supporting parts in big productions like Dreamgirls and Jersey Boys. TV work helped pay the rent too, but these roles proved bittersweet. Odom Jr.’s progress was blocked, repeatedly, by racism. “I was consistently and systematically marginalised as a Black actor,” he says. “When that happens to you enough times you start to wonder: ‘Is it you?’ That’s dangerous, when there were days when I felt like I wasn’t up to snuff.”
It’s a problem that he still faces to this day: “[Even now], I continue to be pushed to the side by virtually anybody white. They’re always going to be looked at as a little more interesting, or a little more talented than I am.”
Eventually, a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Over email in 2013, the Hamilton creator reached out to Odom Jr. and asked him to attend an early workshop of the show, then a tiny off-Broadway project. Five years, $1bn in revenue and a bucketload of awards later, it’s proved the biggest break he’s ever got.
“Lin-Manuel took a room of Brown and Black people and showed us evidence that we could do more than fetch coffee or help the hero to tell their story,” he says. “My whole life until then had been evidence to the contrary.
“Stacey Abrams is a real hero – she registered 800,000 people to vote”
“It’s representative of a culture and of a people. That representation is so important. It’s why trans actors want to see themselves represented. It’s why women want to be represented in halls of power. It’s why the first Native American person is serving in this country in Biden’s cabinet.”
With the new president at America’s helm – and Kamala Harris by his side – Odom Jr. is hopeful other up-and-comers will have a fairer deal than he did. “We’re not where we used to be, I certainly think that,” he says. “I look at the example of [Georgia democrat] Stacey Abrams. She had to register 800,000 people to get the [Senate] race within 11,000 votes. That’s remarkable. That’s a real hero. That’s a sign of another way to move things forward.”
The future looks just as bright for Odom Jr. Since Hamilton – and even more so after last summer’s hit Disney+ film – his career has skyrocketed. Yes, One Night In Miami continues to fuel Oscar speculation, but another of his movies has started to make even more headlines.
Set for release later this year, Music is the Golden Globe-nominated, candy-coloured musical directed by chart-topping singer Sia. It’s about a young woman (Kate Hudson) who suddenly becomes guardian of her little sister (Maddie Ziegler), who is on the autism spectrum. Odom Jr. plays Ebo, their all-singing, all-dancing neighbour. In spite of its cheerful disposition, the film has come under fire for casting Sia’s teen muse as the nonverbal autistic protagonist.
“I’m not here to defend Sia – ‘Music’ is the movie she wanted to make”
Sia’s response has been mixed so far. She initially dismissed the backlash in an expletive-filled tweet, before later admitting “ableism” on her part. But in the same interview, she blamed “nepotism” due to her inability to “do a project without [Ziegler]”. Odom Jr. initially came out in support of his director, but has since altered his stance.
“I have to be careful about this,” he says slowly. “I’m not here to defend Sia. This is the movie that Sia wanted to make. We put out this thing, and now it’s time for us to listen to what people have to say. Sometimes it hurts, but it’s always instructive.”
It’s this willingness to take a situation this controversial and turn it into an opportunity to grow that sets apart Odom Jr. It’s the attitude of an actor who has no time for egos.
His other big screen venture this year takes him to New York, specifically a famous patch of New Jersey. The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to mob epic The Sopranos, sees him join a cast of heavyweights including Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta and The Walking Dead alum John Bernthal. The late James Gandolfini’s son Michael will step into his dad’s designer loafers, playing a young Tony Soprano.
“‘The Many Saints Of Newark’ is still the story of the family that we love – the Sopranos”
Odom Jr. hasn’t been allowed to talk about the top-secret gig yet – presumably out of fear of getting whacked – but he tells NME what to expect: “I work for the family,” he confirms, in reference to Tony and the notorious DiMeo crime outfit. “It’s about a pivotal summer in young Tony’s life, and we’re looking at the Newark riots.”
The race riots in question took place over the ‘Long Hot Summer of 1967’ and erupted after John William Smith, a Black cab driver, was arrested and beaten by two white policemen. In the world of The Sopranos, the central crime families’ open mistreatment of Black characters was always portrayed with frankness. Does The Many Saints of Newark take a similar approach?
“It is a frank approach, absolutely,” says Odom Jr.. “It is still, in a lot of ways, the story of the family that we love – the Sopranos. That is not my story.” He adds, however, that he was still excited to be stepping into their world.
“I was a happy artist,” he says. “I was very happy to talk about how the immigrant story rubbed up against the story of disenfranchised Black people at that time. It was quite literally incendiary. The city was on fire.”
A few more projects remain in the pipeline for Odom Jr. He will play a pastor and father-of-four in an upcoming comedy based on a true story, and reunites with his Harriet co-star Cynthia Erivo for sci-fi Needle In A Timestack. The Apple TV+ animated musical Central Park, which he lends his voice to alongside Hamilton‘s Daveed Diggs, has been picked up for a second season.
Until then, Odom Jr. enforces his creative control in his other profession: as a Billboard-topping jazz recording artist with two studio albums under his belt and sometimes up to 200 tour dates a year. It’s in this part of his life that he feels at his most free.
“I want to keep breaking new ground. There are new doors to open”
“Nobody tells me what to do in that space,” he says. “Music is where I have ownership and can follow my own inspiration. It means that when Regina King or David Chase call me with these wonderful opportunities, I can really make myself available to tell the stories that they want to tell.”
What continues to stand out in our conversation is the gratitude that Odom Jr. holds for the people that have made it possible for him and people like him to progress. It’s evident when we speak about Hamilton and Miranda, and when he talks about the life that Malcolm X sacrificed for Black civil rights when discussing One Night In Miami. It’s there when we reflect on the legacy of Sam Cooke: “I have to give thanks for the doors that Sam knocked down,” he says. “There are pathways that are available to me that were not available to him.”
It’s that gratitude that continues to drive him forward, more so than the lure of awards success. “I wasn’t really trying to be in show business at all,” he says. “But as I keep having these experiences, I want to keep breaking new ground. There are new doors to open.”
‘One Night In Miami’ is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video