It’s nearly Christmas, and almost two weeks have passed since the actor and singer-songwriter appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” after which DeGeneres tested positive for the coronavirus. Odom has since been quarantining from his wife, actress Nicolette Robinson, who is pregnant with their second child. After a slew of negative tests, Odom says this should be the last one. Facing the health-care worker, he straightens his back, takes a swab to the nostrils, scrunches his face and exhales.
By now, Odom is used to pandemic-induced deviations. This past spring, his month-long concert tour was nixed after two dates. He spent his summer co-starring with Robinson in the Freeform miniseries “Love in the Time of Corona,” which they shot from their house. And “Hamilton” unexpectedly reclaimed the zeitgeist in July, when the coronavirus prompted Disney to send a filmed production of the original Broadway cast — Odom included — straight to streaming, 15 months ahead of a planned theatrical release.
Odom, of course, relishes the shot of joy “Hamilton” brought viewers during a dreary 2020. But from a professional perspective, he acknowledges the early drop was “disconcerting.”
“When ‘Hamilton’ is going to be released, you’re going to try to set up things around that,” says Odom, 39, who won a Tony and Grammy for playing Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s tragic foil. “Maybe I’m going to record a record, or maybe I’m going to get some meetings. This is maybe the biggest moment of my career, and I’m locked in the house — we’re all locked in the house.”
If Odom couldn’t capitalize on #Hamifilm mania the way he imagined, you wouldn’t know it from his recent body of work. For one, Odom did eventually record an album — his second collection of Christmas tunes, released in November — and collaborated with Sia on a reimagining of his 2019 track “Cold.” He also earned his first Emmy nomination for his voice-over performance in “Central Park,” the earnest and eccentric Apple TV Plus animated series.
Now, Odom is orchestrating double Oscar buzz for “One Night in Miami,” in which he plays soul music savant Sam Cooke and performs the original song “Speak Now,” co-written by him and Sam Ashworth. The movie, directed by Regina King and adapted by Kemp Powers from his 2013 play, imagines the discussions that went down Feb. 25, 1964, when Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), then known as Cassius Clay, celebrated his heavyweight world championship by convening in a seedy hotel room with fellow Black icons Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cooke.
“[Odom] is such a special talent as far as singing, dancing, acting, theater, TV, film — he really can do it all,” Goree says. “You feel like you’re next to somebody that 30, 40 years from now, people are going to come up to you and say, ‘Wow, what was he like?’ ”
Actor Josh Gad was 18 when he met Odom at Carnegie Mellon University's theater program. His classmate had lengthy dreadlocks, Gad recalls, and a heavenly voice — plus a sly sense of humor that surfaced when the duo were required to help with set construction. ("It was just such delirium," Gad says, "that two actors who had basically never used their hands for physical labor were suddenly working with saws and jackhammers.")
After Odom graduated in 2003, the Philadelphia product embarked on an inconsistent career performing on Broadway (in “Rent” and the short-lived “Leap of Faith”) and the small screen (in the NBC musical “Smash,” most notably). Successes proved fleeting, setbacks proved dispiriting and, before his star-making turn in “Hamilton,” Odom considered quitting show business.
“There’s a depth in his acting and in his singing that speaks to a very full life with ups and downs,” says Gad, the co-creator of “Central Park.” “Any pain that he’s had in his life, he puts into his performance. Over the years, obviously he’s refined it. But you could even see as an 18-year-old that, God, this guy is special.”
In the wake of “Hamilton’s” transcendence, Odom steered his drive toward new lanes: music and film. November 2019 brought the release of “Mr,” a fusion of classic jazz and contemporary soul that marked Odom’s first album of original material. On the big screen, he booked roles in “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Harriet” and the upcoming “Sopranos” prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark.”
When asked about auditioning for Cooke in “One Night in Miami,” though, Odom concedes he “ran from this project for an amount of time that embarrasses me today.” And Cooke wasn’t the only musical mastermind he resisted — Odom backed off when approached about playing Sammy Davis Jr. on screen, as well.
“I wanted to do all of the things that no one would have dared let me do before ‘Hamilton,’ ” Odom explains, noting Hollywood’s penchant for pigeonholing actors. “For the very first time, instead of being, you know, a wack Sammy Davis Jr., I had the opportunity to be a really exceptional Leslie Odom Jr. So as you can imagine, that was a valuable thing to me. I didn’t want to rush to put on somebody else’s very large, ill-fitting shoes.”
But Odom’s representatives pleaded with him to reconsider “One Night in Miami.” Powers’s script lends a fly-on-the-wall appeal to the fictionalized banter among Cooke, Clay, Brown and X, as their larger-than-life personas fuel a crackling dialogue on faith and philosophy. At the film’s core is an ideological sparring session between Cooke and X over how to best use one’s platform to advance Black empowerment.
“My hesitation was being in, like, a Sam Cooke biopic, where it’s just essentially a trick, an impersonation,” Odom says. “But with this script, Kemp Powers wanted to use these men and their legacies, these archetypes of what they meant, what they stood for, and have a conversation.”
That conversation, Odom says, echoes the discussions that played out backstage at “Hamilton” in 2015 and 2016, as the original cast and crew grieved the tragedies of Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — Black Americans whose deaths became flash points in the nation’s struggle with systemic racism — and considered their own responsibility to speak out.
“We were in a unique position where we can say something and people are listening,” says Odom, who dedicated his final “Hamilton” performance to Sterling and Castile, among other victims of violence. “What is our responsibility to say? There were disagreements [backstage], and there were fights. So that’s the conversation that Kemp wanted to have, and that’s daring. That’s what made me get over my fear and jump in with both feet.”
After a limited theatrical release, "One Night in Miami" begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Reflecting on the early days of production, last January in New Orleans, Odom recalls that he wasn't yet tuned to Cooke's pitch. But his director had faith. "Regina saw something in me," Odom says, "that I didn't see in myself yet."
He gradually found the character over the course of production, imbuing Cooke with cool charisma and simmering intensity. To perform Cooke's songs, Odom immersed himself in archival recordings that helped him evoke the King of Soul's smooth tenor and stage presence.
“When I first heard the playback on set of ‘You Send Me,’ I didn’t know it was Leslie — I thought it was Sam,” Goree says. “I was like, ‘Man, I love this song.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I tried my best.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about? No, that’s not you!’ He just sounded so much like Sam.”
“I knew that Leslie could handle the singing, but I wanted to hear the dialogue from him,” King adds over email. “We had two conversations before he came in and read. In those conversations, I heard his passion and how dedicated he would be to the process. He wanted to honor the legacy of Sam Cooke and was open to all things that would allow him to achieve that.”
Odom’s vocals carry “One Night in Miami” to its cathartic conclusion, as the film ends with Cooke’s “Tonight Show” performance of the seminal protest song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Odom filmed that scene Feb. 7 — his last day of principal photography and, coincidentally, the 56th anniversary of that “Tonight Show” taping.
“[Cooke] was never closer to me than he was on that day,” Odom says. “Because ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ that is all of his training in the gospel church, all of his experience as a then-pop sensation and a matinee idol — it was him putting all of that together and saying the thing that only he could say. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Odom carried that metaphysical bond with Cooke into the composition of “Speak Now,” which plays over the film’s end credits. Dwelling on Cooke’s death less than a year after the release of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Odom remarks that “he’s already singing to us from beyond the grave . . . leaving something for all time, for his children to know him better.”
Cooke’s mortality inspired the urgency expressed in “Speak Now,” which Odom recorded this past summer amid the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence. With his young family’s future on his mind, Odom wanted to follow in Cooke’s footsteps and produce an activist anthem for generations to come.
“I’m just trying to reach a moment like that,” Odom says, “when I can put together all these experiences from those dance classes when I’m 13, 14 years old in Philadelphia, and finding myself standing in the center of my wildest dream in ‘Rent’ on Broadway, and the television training, and everything that ‘Hamilton’ and Burr gave me, and these films — I’m trying to put it all together to say something that only I can say.”
Considering how the role of Cooke amounted to an uncanny confluence of Odom’s talents and traits — as a performer, songwriter, activist and father — he is all the more flummoxed that he hesitated to pursue the part. When Odom called his representatives after production, he thanked them for pushing him toward the role and told them that “One Night in Miami” was a “new beginning” for his career.
Rule No. 1 for that restart: “From here on out, they all have to feel like this.”
“I’ve got to bring all of myself to this work,” Odom says. “Once you get to do that once, I don’t want to leave any of this at the door anymore.”