In One Night in Miami…, now streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video, Leslie Odom Jr. plays singer Sam Cooke, one of four influential Black Americans who fall into each other's company for one evening following Cassius Clay’s victory at the World Heavyweight Boxing Championships in 1964. On screen, Cooke is joined by Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Ben Kingsley-Adir), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge)—four men who changed the trajectory of America.
While a fictionalized account, the real-world impact of these men was not lost on anyone involved in the film. Behind the scenes, the actors were joined by director Regina King and screenwriter Kemp Powers, who also wrote a stage play of the same name on which the movie is based. Together, the group captured an era when every moment felt like a harbinger of change.
Several decades after that fortuitous evening Odom Jr. notices a similar feeling happening in our society. The atmosphere is charged as people sit inside waiting for the world to re-open from COVID-19 and contemplating the social justice reckoning that upended 2020.
Just like Cooke, who wrote “A Change is Gonna Come” after being inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Odom Jr. knows all it takes is a single event to change the course of history. So while the star is focused on the release of One Night in Miami…, he's also anticipating the healing that awaits the theatre industry and nation as a whole.
“I really am hoping that I can be a part of the effort that it's going to take to remind people of the importance of going to the theater,” says the Tony winner. “Once we are back up and running, I think I’d like to make that a priority... I want to be a part of the movement that is going to remind people of why this is not only a perk and a treat to have in civilized society, but that is really necessary and it serves a real purpose and answers a real need for humanity.”
Read Playbill’s full interview below.
One Night in Miami... is now available to stream on Amazon’s Prime Video. How does it feel?
Oh, it’s amazing to be on the other side of this. We showed up in New Orleans as a team accepting and knowing that there were going to be places that we fell short. I was not going to be Sam Cooke enough for everybody. Kingsley [Ben-Adir] wasn’t going to be Malcolm X enough for some people, but we set up pure intentions and we went into the project with our hearts in the right place, hoping that that would cover the gaps. And, so far, the response to the movie really makes good on that. I think what people are responding to is not only the clarified vision of Regina King and the brilliant words that Kemp Powers gave us, I think they’re responding to our pure intention as a company of actors.
You co-wrote “Speak Now,” the film’s original song. In the film, Sam just sits down alone and starts singing and playing the guitar. Is that similar to your own creative process?
Not really, no. Sam was one of those people who I think was happy and fine to create alone. He was just one of those unicorns, like Stevie Wonder or Lin-Manuel Miranda, who really can write it all by themselves. I am not one of those people. I’m only in it for the collaboration.
For me, if I’m inspired to write a song, or if I’m given the task to write a song, it is an opportunity for me to collaborate. So “Speak Now” was a song that I wrote with Sam Ashworth, who I’ve written many songs with: “Cold” right now is climbing the charts here in the States and overseas, the remix with Sia is available right now.
We went back to the inspiration for Sam [Cooke], which was Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” In the same way that that room [in the movie] wasn’t about a spirit of competition, either between the icons we were playing or the actors in the room, [the song] really couldn’t be about a spirit of competition. [The movie is] about everyone holding these views up side-by-side, and holding the men up side-by-side and letting them speak for themselves with clarity. We knew we would get into major trouble if we tried to compete with “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “A Change Is Gonna Come.” So, we thought if we don’t go into a competitive place, what do we want to add to that? To say, “What is our message? What is our statement for our generation right now?” We thought maybe we could find more success in that way.
Would you say collaboration was at the forefront working on the set of the film, too?
You do your part to help create an environment that is welcoming and warm and a safe space for people to feel like they can fall on their face and get back up and dust themselves off and try again.
The biggest thing that I’ve learned making films since leaving the theatre is how much control you don’t have. At Hamilton, Tommy Kail, our director, he set us on our path but then he leaves on opening night. So in film, I really have had to make peace with the fact that, as they say, it is a director’s and editor’s medium.
So, it was even more collaborative—if you can believe—than in the theatre because there’s a tremendous amount of trust. You must hand over the performance to someone else. In the case of One Night in Miami..., Regina King has returned something back to us that is just so gorgeous. And I’m just humbled by this movie that she’s made. We did what we did on the day, but it was really sharpened and made so much better in post.
In what other ways is being on a film set different from working in a theatre?
I’ll say this: I’ve made a few films and I’ve gotten used to the fact that a film set can be a very kind of technical, sterile place. I haven’t been able to quite find the same feeling on a film set as I find in the theatre. And on some level that bums me out. The long hours, the time away from my family, it just hasn’t been quite as satisfying. There’ve been other things about it, so I don't mean to complain, but I’ve been learning things I didn’t know.
The things that I wanted to do after Hamilton, when people would ask me, you know, “Hey, Leslie, what's your dream role?” I would have to answer them honestly and the truth is I had just played it. So, I came up with a little touchstone for myself, when people would ask that, I said, “I want to work on all the things that no one would let me work on before Hamilton.” And that’s why my career has focused so intentionally on film and music, because those are the doors that I could not have knocked down. But One Night in Miami..., this was the first time that I felt some of what I feel when I’m on stage.
That makes sense since the film is based on a play.
I think it’s no accident. In the same way that I have been trying to make the leap from stage to screen, this piece was doing the same thing. One Night in Miami... started out on the stage and it, too, is trying to figure out how it can be useful in a new medium. What parts of itself can remain? What parts of itself must change and adapt? So, I felt a synergy with the piece itself. And I thought to myself while we were shooting some of those 10 and 12–page scenes in that room, “if any of this is showing up in the camera… [if it] is able to pick up any of the spirit that is flying around this room, we might be in good shape.” And I’m just very, very grateful that it did.
I know that they won’t all be like One Night in Miami…,I know all the movies that I make won't be like this from here on out. But, it let me know what’s possible in the same way that I got to know that with theatre. Every theatre piece I’m a part of is not going to be Hamilton, but it let us know what’s possible. There was so much of my career that I just felt pushed to the margins and Lin-Manuel Miranda gave a room full of Black and Brown people the evidence that if we are given the material and the resources, we are capable of great things. We’re capable of doing more than we were historically being asked to do as performers. Kemp Power and Regina King, with this script, did the very same thing with a room full of actors.
Is working on Black-driven ensemble pieces something that you're consciously thinking about when you pick projects to be a part of?
There’s nothing that makes me happier at the end of the day than if I feel like I signed up to be a part of something, I’ve made myself available for someone that I trust to use me, or in the absence of that, that I have used myself in any given day to to the best of my ability, to my greatest potential. That’s all I’m looking for.
I spent years twiddling my thumbs on a set, being asked to further the storylines of my white brothers and sisters. I’ve made no secret about how underused I felt on [Smash]. I was happy to be on it, but it was a frustrating experience. I just felt like we all knew what an opportunity that was for the theatre industry. We just wanted to contribute, and I felt like I just wanted to help and I couldn't help. No one would let me help, so you start to question, “Is it me?”
That's the dangerous and sad part about it. The lack of imagination from other people led me to doubt my ability, and then, thank God, a year and a half, two years later, or whenever it was, Lin-Manuel comes along and gives me the evidence that, no, it wasn’t me. Sorry, that won't look good in print.
I think it does. It’s a message to up-and-coming performers. If you’re questioning right now, just wait, keep fighting.
I played my good friend Megan Hilty’s best friend Sam on the show and [Megan and I had] gone to Carnegie Mellon University together. I was so happy for her because she was getting the opportunity to really show the world what she could do; she’s an extraordinary talent. And then there’s this one scene where Sam is over her house, comforting her, and they wanted me to start the scene, bringing her a blanket and a tray of tea at the top of the scene. And I’m like, “Look, I love her. Sam loves her. I’m not going to fucking suddenly become the butler. It’s just not happening.” It is a small, innocuous thing, seemingly, but I just thought that the image of it was more than I could bear. Two seasons into this show, I’ve already been pushed to the margins and now I’m literally “the help.” And, of course, there’s nothing wrong bringing tea to someone you love. I bring tea to my wife quite often, but I think you know the point that I’m making.
I suspected that I was capable of more than I would be asked to do. And Lin-Manuel gave me the evidence because it’s only something that you suspect until you get to prove it, first and foremost, to yourself. Kemp Powers gave us a chance to prove it to ourselves.
Are you seeing this opportunity being presented to the performers in the community at-large or is it still difficult to find those avenues?
At this moment, we are living through something right now. I think while there was a tremendous, unspeakable trauma that we haven’t even begun to deal with that was brought to the surface as a result of last year. The pandemic, the lynching of brother George Floyd, those things are not unrelated to what we saw on January 6 in the Capitol. There’s a pain and an ugliness and hatred that has been drummed up in this country really over the last five years.
As a result of the work, the Black Lives Matter movement, I think that...we, people in every industry, are looking at what their culpability and role has been in upholding an oppressive system that centers itself around white supremacy. That doesn’t just happen in our criminal justice system; it doesn’t just happen in our government. It happens in our newsrooms, and then our hospitals, and at times, even in our beloved theatre community.
What I have seen is people taking a second and the third look at their staff, at their audience outreach, at what they decided to program, at what their past actions say about what they believe, looking at those actions up against the mission statements of the theaters themselves. And so there’s work being done as it relates to the fight that we had four years ago. I submit: don’t wait for the police to kill me for my Black life to matter. Please. If Black lives matter, show me that my Black life matters by how you value my voice.
If I may dare to speak on behalf of a community: we want a seat at the table. We want several seats at the table, if I’m being honest. We want to be respected. We want to be paid fairly for our contributions. That’s it. You know, one of my favorite quotes that came out of last year was, “America is lucky that Black people are looking for equality and not revenge.” It’s not my quote. It was a one that I heard sort of out of the streets, but it rang true for me. Certainly the time has come and come and come and come.
The last thing I'll say is: but what an exciting time to be alive because there’s no shortage of work to be done. You really can point to any place in society—just close your eyes and point somewhere and find a need. There’s just no shortage of ways to be of service right now to our country, to our communities. And that’s an exciting thing, I think.
Do you think One Night in Miami... contributes to this conversation in any way?
I don’t know. I mean, what is clear to me is that the year 2020 was the first film directed by an African-American woman was accepted into the Venice Film Festival. That is clearly a line that, once crossed, you can only go forward from there. I didn’t know that in 2015 when Hamilton premiered, either. On some level, all I can do is walk toward the things that speak to me and pray and hope that they speak to someone else. And they don’t always, if I’m being honest. They don’t. The things that I believe in, they don’t always find an audience. They don’t always turn out in the way that I hope that they might. And every now and again, a film like One Night in Miami… comes back to me as some little miracle.