Interview: Leslie Odom Jr. on Creating His Award-Winning Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami…
February 3 was a big day for Hamilton Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr.
Odom earned a pair of 2021 Golden Globe nominations for his work on Regina King's film One Night in Miami…, one for his portrayal of singer Sam Cooke; the other for the original song he wrote for the movie with Sam Ashworth, titled "Speak Now." They're two of many accolades Odom has collected for either his performance or the number since One Night in Miami… premiered last fall — he's basically swept the countrywide critics' awards that serve as precursors for the Oscars.
A week prior to the Golden Globes announcement, TheaterMania chatted with Odom about One Night in Miami…, the way he built his version of Sam Cooke while staying true to the real thing, and how "Speak Now" complements both the movie and his performance.
Where did you start in terms of building your portrayal of Sam Cooke, and how did it compare with the process of creating another real-life figure in Aaron Burr for Hamilton?
It compares in that the first step, especially if you're playing someone real, is to gather as much information as possible. I was reading every book on Burr. Fans found out that my favorite thing was getting my hands on any Burr book, any book that was out of print, and fans brought me them. There were no recordings or videos of Burr I could watch, but with Sam, I had that, and I had the music. Sam's recordings are a deep psychological profile of the man. You can learn so much about his heart and soul from the way he laid down a song.
Do you feel a scrupulousness in terms of emulating his voice?
Of course I wanted to emulate his voice! I wanted to be Sam Cooke. And I knew that for some people, I would never come close enough. That's what I had to set myself free from. Even myself; I had to forgive myself for the places that I was most assuredly going to fall short. What was going to cover that gap were my intentions, and if the performance was right-hearted. But all I wanted to do was come as close as possible.
One Night in Miami… takes place in February 1964. By December of that year, Sam Cooke is dead at 33; and in February, 1965, Malcolm X is assassinated at 39. How much did that knowledge weigh on your performance?
Good question. What I knew was that I did not want December present in that hotel room. I did not want that tragic coda present. I wanted to honor Sam's memory by making sure he was full of life. Because that's what's tragic about December, and about all death. We never know when it's going to come. So this is a monument to his life. He's a man who wanted fast cars and women and booze and friendship and passion and music. All of that is present, so that whatever happens in December, or whenever we're taken out of here, our friends remember the way we lived, and our fans and the people that knew us saw us alive before we're gone.
What was it like to work opposite your real-life wife, Nicolette Robinson, who played Sam's wife Barbara?
Oh, tremendous fun. Nicolette, as you know, is a brilliant actress. Our whole thing started as a talent crush; Nicolette and I met doing Once on This Island in Los Angeles. I'm so into her as a performer, and her sensitivity and humanity. I loved working with her, and I thought it was a really nice way to honor Sam and Barbara, who met when they were in sixth grade. For Nicolette and I to use our 12-year history for that is really special.
How does the song you and Sam Ashworth wrote for the film — "Speak Now" — accentuate the movie and your performance?
It was a tall order. We knew that whatever song we wrote was gonna play after "A Change Is Gonna Come," which is one of the most famous and powerful songs written for American pop music in the last 100 years. But in the same way that these actual four men were able to occupy their own space bring something of value to that hotel room, in the same way that me and Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Aldis Hodge, and Eli Goree, and Regina King were able to occupy our own space and bring something of value to the movie, that's all Sam Ashworth and I wanted to do. We said, "We're not in competition with 'Blowin' in the Wind' or 'A Change Is Gonna Come,' we're here to make an offering that can hopefully occupy a space that is valuable in its own right.