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Leslie Odom Jr. Finds Sam Cooke's Voice In 'One Night In Miami'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our first guest is Tony and Grammy Award-winning actor and singer Leslie Odom Jr. He's nominated for two Oscars for his work on the film "One Night In Miami." He made his Broadway debut when he was 17 and went on to star in "Hamilton." Leslie Odom Jr. spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Leslie Odom Jr. is halfway to an EGOT. He won a Tony and a Grammy for his lead role as Aaron Burr in "Hamilton," and now he is nominated for two Oscars - best supporting actor and best original song - for his work in the film "One Night In Miami." Here he plays another historic figure. This time, it's singer Sam Cooke.

The film imagines what might have happened on a real evening in 1964. Four friends, who also happened to be major public figures - Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay - had gathered to celebrate Clay's victory over Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight boxing champion. We don't really know what these men talked about that night, but the film imagines what conversations they might have had. Screenwriter Kemp Powers says he wanted to examine that and the question, what social responsibility do Black public figures have to support civil rights, and what's the best way to do it?

Leslie Odom Jr. is also an author, has three solo albums and has appeared in movies including "Harriet" and the upcoming "Many Saints Of Newark" and TV shows like "Smash" and "Central Park." We started with a clip from the film. Malcolm X and Sam Cooke are in the middle of one of their contentious exchanges. Sam, played by Leslie Odom Jr., is talking about how he's preparing to return to the Copacabana, a club where an all-white crowd was hostile to him. Malcolm is laying into Sam for caring about white audiences at all. Malcolm is played by Kingsley Ben-Adir.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")

KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR: (As Malcolm X) What kind of message are you sending, though, by doing one show for white folks and a completely different show for Black folks, Sam? No, listen to me. You're performing in places where the only Black people not on stage are the ones serving the food.

LESLIE ODOM JR: (As Sam Cooke) Don't you think I know that? I can't tell you how many times I wanted to reach out and punch somebody.

BEN-ADIR: (As Malcolm X) Then strike with the weapon that you have, man - your voice. Black people, we standing up. We speaking out. Sam, you have possibly one of the most effective, beautiful outlets of us all. You're not using it to help the cause, brother.

ODOM: (As Sam Cooke) The hell I'm not. I got the masters to my songs. I started a label. I'm producing tons of Black artists. Don't you think my determining, my creative and business destiny is every bit as inspiring to people as you standing up on a podium, trying to piss them off?

BALDONADO: Leslie Odom Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR.

ODOM: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

BALDONADO: Is there a certain quality to Sam Cooke's voice that you can describe, like something you had to emulate for this role?

ODOM: I think there's two, like, distinctive qualities of Sam. One is that soul thing that he was - he made no difference the way Aretha made no difference. He made no difference in the way he sang secular music than the way he sang gospel music, you know, which - to the people in the church, that is sacrilegious, almost. You know, you can't sing the two things in the same way. And Sam did. You listen to Sam "Live At The Harlem Square," and you - it sounds like a revival tent. But he ain't singing about Jesus in that club, you know?

So there's that as a hallmark of his voice. And then there's also - there's a sensuality to Sam's voice, and I think he found confidence there. I think he really understood the power of his voice when he tapped into that sensuality. And it was why young girls were falling out in the aisles when he was singing gospel music as a teenager. It was like he was singing to parts of them that they didn't quite understand yet.

BALDONADO: I'm thinking about, like, the gospel tradition of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. It's almost, like, visceral - and then, you know, that kind of thing applied to secular music.

ODOM: That's right. That's right. You listen to Sam Cooke "Live At The Harlem Square" in 1963, and you hear it (laughter). He takes "You Send Me," and he turns it into a sermon. He preaches "You Send Me." He talks about calling the operator and asking for his baby, and the operator can't get his baby. And he says, (singing) I want my baby. Like, you know, I can't. But he is - it's turned into something else. You know, there is a fervor and something that he can tap into, a gear that is available to him that is really not available to people that didn't grow up in that environment.

BALDONADO: You talk about, when you were preparing for - to play Sam Cooke, about how you would listen to recordings. And some of them, when there were recordings that were for white audiences, it was like Sam Cooke at work, you know, and how you kind of turned to some of his recordings where he's in front of a Black audience because that felt more to you, like, maybe how he would be when he was hanging around with his friends.

ODOM: Well, I know it. Yeah, that's code switching, you know? Yeah, we live that, you know? And that's what was so dangerous and exciting about Kemp's script. You know, I thought Kemp's script was making a private conversation public in a way that I'd never quite seen before. "Live At The Harlem Square" was a way for - that was a link, I thought. The way he was speaking to that Black audience would be a link to the way he was speaking to this Black audience - you know, this audience of brothers that he had in this room.

And I don't think - forgive me, but, you know, I don't even know if that's something that Sam, especially an artist of that day, would have resented - you know, the code switching of it all. I think that that was a part of his gifts, though, you know? Part of - a part of his gifting was that he knew that he could speak a few languages really well. He just didn't want to be limited. He knew what success at the Copa meant. That was not about white approval for some deep psychological need or - you know, it wasn't about that. It was about the doors that that would open around the country.

What he had to do on the road - you can only imagine, you know, the schedule and the work that would - the toll that it was taking on his body to have to tour in this way to make a fraction of what you could make if you could win over rooms at the Copa. You know, he understood that, and he knew he could do it. And you listen to Sam at the Copa and Sam at the Harlem Square, and you can hear how well he speaks these two very different languages.

GROSS: Let's hear you singing us Sam Cooke. And this is you in the movie and on the soundtrack singing "You Send Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU SEND ME")

ODOM: (As Sam Cooke, singing) Darling, you send me. I know you send me. Darling, you send me. Honest, you do. Honest, you do. Honest, you do. Whoa, you thrill me. I know you, you, you, you thrill me. Darling, you, you, you, you thrill me. Honest, you do. At first, I thought it was infatuation, but, ooh...

BALDONADO: That's Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke. He is nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for the role of Sam Cooke in the film "One Night In Miami." He's also nominated for co-writing an original song for the movie. It's called "Speak Now."

Now, Kemp Powers is the writer who wrote both the play and the movie "One Night In Miami," and he says he read about this meeting, and he imagined what these four men could have been talking about. And he used the opportunity to have these men have a conversation that's an important conversation. It's happened before. It's happened since. And that's what's the social responsibility - what social responsibility do Black public figures, artists of color have? And Kemp Powers says he kind of used the men to articulate these different perspectives. Can you talk about what you think Sam Cooke's perspective was? Like, in your conversations with Kemp Powers and the director, Regina King, like, where did you guys land on where Sam Cooke was coming from?

ODOM: You know, Kemp used his training and expertise as a journalist to write this screenplay, and so the men are so well-researched. So I think that he comes pretty damn close to what Sam might have said if someone challenged him on his record of what he'd done for his community, for his people. Sam was a businessman, and he thought that the best way for him to use his gift and his platform and, you know, all that he'd been given to help his people was to help them put food on their table, you know, to give them a gig, to give talented musicians jobs and careers, recording careers. Sam owned a record label, you know? And where he - he owned it himself, you know, where he almost exclusively worked with Black artists, by the way, that he grew up with. You know, he was going back. It wasn't like - he never left his community. He never sort of abandoned them, you know. He was married to his wife, who he met in grade school. They met in the fifth or sixth grade. And a lot of the artists he was signing at SAR Records were the gospel groups and the gospel artists that he toured the country with.

BALDONADO: And Kemp Powers has also said that in a way, he feels like this conversation is a variation of the conversations he's had his whole life, like dating back to his college dorm room. Do you remember having these conversations early on in your life?

ODOM: I do. I remember watching conversations like this be had as a little boy. And, yeah, I started to have them myself. We were having these same conversations backstage at "Hamilton." You know, we're asking ourselves when Sandra Bland is mysteriously murdered in police custody, when Philando Castile is murdered on the side of the road in front of his girlfriend and her little daughter - we're asking ourselves, what is our responsibility? You know, is there anything we can do? Can we raise money for any organization? Is there anybody we can throw attention to because the show has that power to shine a light on things that are important to us as a collective.

BALDONADO: My guest is Leslie Odom Jr. He's nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role as Sam Cooke in the film "One Night In Miami." He's also nominated for best original song, "Speak Now," which he co-wrote for the film. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER'S "MIGHTY MIGHTY")

BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado. Our guest is Tony and Grammy Award-winner Leslie Odom Jr. He's been nominated for two Academy Awards, best supporting actor for his role as Sam Cooke in the film "One Night In Miami" and for writing an original song for the film. It's called "Speak Now."

You were born in New York, but grew up mostly in Philadelphia. In your book, "Failing Up," you talk about this experience you had when you were a teen seeing the musical "Rent" in Philly. It was a touring production. Do you think that part of the reason why "Rent" was so important to you was because the cast was so diverse? You know, in the same way that I think why people love "Hamilton" so much - because they can see - like for people of color, they can see themselves, even if it's not - I mean, it's a story of the Founding Fathers, so that part of it isn't about them - but seeing that there are these people of color who perform like that.

ODOM: I do, for sure. I do think that that was attractive about it, for sure. I'll say - just to make sense of it, had the cast of "Rent" been all white people, I don't think it would have meant as much to me. That's for sure. Yeah, the representation in that sense mattered. It felt like - it felt a little bit - it looked a little bit like the world I was growing up in. It looked a little bit like my little middle school or my high school. It looked like my friends. That's what my friends looked like. You know, we weren't as cool. We were a little younger, but that's what I hoped we would look like when we were in our early 20s. You know, I hoped to have a little community, a little family of artists and passionate people that I was rolling with, that I was in connection to.

BALDONADO: Now, not soon after that, you were actually in "Rent" on Broadway.

ODOM: Yeah (laughter).

BALDONADO: Not everyone who, like, has those kind of feelings about seeing a show get to then be in the show. Can you tell us how that happened?

ODOM: So after I saw the show, they were in Philadelphia, and they had an open call, a cattle call. That's what it used to be called. And so, yeah, me and probably a thousand other people showed up at Shampoo, the club in Philadelphia, and we waited all day to be seen. And I sang my little - my tiny - my 16 bars or whatever, and I kept getting invited back. I thought that - the most that I thought would happen was that at the end of some process, my picture might go in a filing cabinet, and maybe I'd get a call one day when I was an adult - you know, when I'm 25 or I'm 30 years old. Like, they'll go through their filing cabinet, and they'll remember that kid that they met in Philadelphia - you know, 'cause I was 16 years old when I went to the "Rent" audition.

So they just kept inviting me back over the next few months. And I got a call at the end of the summer. You know, it was like August 20 or something like that, right before school started - right before my senior year started. And they had a spot for me in New York - in the company in New York. And I was just blown away.

BALDONADO: After you were in "Rent," you actually didn't stay in New York or stay on Broadway. And you had opportunities to do so, but you didn't go that route, you went to college for theater. Why did you decide to do that instead?

ODOM: Both my parents were college-educated, and so it was kind of, you know, just drummed into us ever since we were little kids that we were going to go to college. They didn't care what we studied, they just cared that we studied. And so I had been looking forward to the chance to go to college for a long time. And I went to Carnegie Mellon because there was a guy in "Rent."

Again, you saw - what? - representation. He was a Black guy, probably at that time 28, 29 years old. Michael McElroy was his name. And Michael was so talented, my goodness. And he had done - at that time, he'd done, like, four or five Broadway shows. And so I went to Michael before I left the show in November. I'd been in the show for about three months. I went to Michael, and I asked him what he thought I should do after - you know, how could I - essentially, like, how could I be you, Michael?

And he never even really looked at me. He kind of was putting makeup on in his dressing room in his - you know, in his mirror. And he said - because, yeah, I'd asked him, like, can I talk to you before the show? I'd barely talked to Michael, and he said, sure, you know, come. And he gave me a time to come. And I asked him what I should do, and he said, well, you know, I went to Carnegie Mellon. You should apply to Carnegie Mellon. And if you get in, you should go. And so I went to Carnegie Mellon because I wanted to be Michael McElroy. That's it.

BALDONADO: And you actually, instead of going to New York after you graduated, you did move to L.A., and you had a career in TV. And in your book, you write that there was a period when you were seriously thinking of giving up acting, like, when you were in L.A. focusing on TV. What was happening to you and your career at that time that made you think maybe I'm going to give it up?

ODOM: It's no secret to anybody that this is a - it is a very fickle business, and it's hard to wrap your arms around even when you've had some success as I had. You know, it was just so unpredictable. I did not understand how you gain any real footing, how you - most people, if you work a job, you get a check on Thursdays and, you know, you - so that's how you know how much rent you can afford.

You know, "Hamilton," which, you know, I was in my early 30s when "Hamilton" came along, that's the first - or mid-30s - that's the first job that I've ever had for a year in my life. I've never had a job for a year. That's just not the way my business works, you know? Everything ends. So, yeah, it was just that.

BALDONADO: You got involved in the workshops for "Hamilton." How did that come about?

ODOM: I got an email. I got an email from Lin-Manuel Miranda asking if I want - the email was called Oktoberfest. They were doing about four or five days of work on Act II. He'd just started writing Act II. And I had seen it. I had seen an early reading of a show called "The Hamilton Mixtape," so I knew what I was being invited to do.

BALDONADO: And did you know you always wanted that part?

ODOM: I would have taken any part to be honest, but I knew what a special part Burr was. I remember seeing the - I saw Act I, and I do remember distinctly Utkarsh was in the role when I saw it, and I thought he was beautiful in the part. And I - "Wait For It" finished, and I just like, you know, exhaled. And I was like, well, whomever gets to sing that song eight shows a week is going to be a very lucky actor.

It was a quiet song. It wasn't a showstopper of a song. I just recognized how special it was. I recognized what a magnificent piece of writing it was. You know, to have something that marries character, which you need in a musical - you know, to make something really compelling on stage, you got to be revealing character in a song. It needs to be moving the plot forward, so you got to give new information, new information. I need - you know, every time you, you know, repeat one of these choruses, I need to be learning something new. And what a gift if it's actually catchy, if it actually is catchy, but if the melody is actually beautiful. And wait for - I mean, "Wait For It," it's just all of those. It was a revelation. Yeah, I knew (laughter).

BALDONADO: Well, Leslie Odom, Jr., thank you so much.

ODOM: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Leslie Odom Jr. is nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Sam Cooke in the film "One Night In Miami." He's also nominated for Best Original Song. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIT FOR IT")

ODOM: (As Aaron Burr - singing) I'm willing to wait for it. My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher. But there are things that the homilies and hymns won't teach ya. My mother was a genius. My father commanded respect. When they died, they left no instructions, just a legacy to protect. Death doesn't discriminate...

GROSS: After we take a short break, we'll hear from Emerald Fennell. She wrote and directed the film "Promising Young Woman," which is nominated for five Oscars, including best film, director and screenplay. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIT FOR IT")

ODOM: (As Aaron Burr, singing) I'm willing to wait for. I'm willing to wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. I am the one thing in life I can control. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. I am inimitable. I am an original. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. I am not falling behind or running late. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. I'm not standing still, I am lying in wait. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.