'I know the cost of my words': Leslie Odom Jr. finds his voice as Sam Cooke in 'One Night in Miami'

Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
·5 min read

Soul singer Sam Cooke is the kind of role most actors dream of: a dynamic real-life figure in a timely period drama ("One Night in Miami"), directed by a beloved actress-turned-filmmaker (Regina King).

But initially, Leslie Odom Jr. turned it down.

"I said, 'No, thank you,' respectfully,'" says Odom, 39, who won a best actor Tony Award in 2016 playing founding father Aaron Burr in the Broadway phenomenon "Hamilton."

"It was part fear," he says. "Starting out in this business, people are rushing to put a label on your forehead: 'Oh, you're like a Don Cheadle meets Ben Vereen,' or 'Oh, you're doing a Sammy Davis Jr. thing.' You long for the day people will just see you as yourself, so I didn't think it was wise to go and try to now pretend to be Sam Cooke. What if I fell short?"

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But after rereading Kemp Powers' "daring" and "beautiful" script at his management's urging, Odom signed on to "One Night in Miami" (streaming Friday on Amazon Prime), which imagines a fictional hangout between Cooke, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) in 1964. The critically acclaimed drama is expected to be a major Oscar player, with Odom currently topping many experts' best supporting actor predictions on awards tracker GoldDerby.

The film follows these icons over the course of one evening, as they commiserate about money, celebrity and the pressures facing Black leaders in white-dominated spaces. Malcolm argues that Sam has a responsibility to address civil rights in his music, while Sam counters that his success as a Black musician – owning the masters to his songs, signing other Black artists to his label – is itself an act of protest.

King, making her feature directorial debut after her Oscar-winning turn in 2018's "If Beale Street Could Talk," says she hasn't seen a film like "Miami" before: "Just Black men celebrating each other, debating healthily, and expressing their fears and concerns and allowing themselves to be vulnerable in this space. I can see my loved ones in these men and that was powerful to me."

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Odom, too, heard echoes of conversations he's had with fellow Black artists behind closed doors, coming up in theater (Broadway's "Rent") and TV (NBC's "Smash") before landing his breakthrough role in "Hamilton."

"Even in this interview, I'm so careful about my language, as a Black person in America who has amassed some sort of following and a cushion economically that I'm able to live well and help my family live a little better," Odom says. "I know the cost of my words, and how dangerous and incendiary our words can be. Those four men knew that as well."

But with this film, adapted from Powers' 2013 stage play, "we weren't going to watch our words. We weren't going to police our humanity. We were going to show who we were."

"One Night in Miami" depicts a fictionalized meeting between friends Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree, left), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.).
"One Night in Miami" depicts a fictionalized meeting between friends Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree, left), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.).

Late in the movie, Sam and Muhammad (then known as Cassius Clay) have a casual exchange about power, which the boxer movingly describes as "a world where we’re safe to be ourselves." Asked how he defines power, Odom pauses to reflect.

"A mentor of mine said, 'The first responsibility of freedom is to make sure somebody else is free.' That's what power looks like to me," Odom says. "The fact that I walk the streets of these United States and most days feel like a liberated Black man – it's my responsibility to make sure that somebody else feels that same way."

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year, Odom spoke about demanding pay parity for the filmed production of "Hamilton," and how he helped ensure his castmates' contracts included profit-sharing and financial protections. Before taping the movie, which was bought by Disney for $75 million and premiered on Disney+ last July, Odom asked producers for the same salary that Aaron Tveit, a white actor, earned in 2016's TV musical "Grease Live!" for a comparable starring role.

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"I learned early on that you can't come from a place of ego as an artist – and certainly not as a Black artist – at the negotiating table. You have to ask for what you feel you deserve and what you feel is right for your contribution," says Odom, who originated the role of Burr and played more than 500 "Hamilton" performances.

"I got a bad rap in certain circles in New York City – we all did – for that action. A lot of people were saying such awful things about us and trying to tarnish our reputations during that negotiation, and it's like, I hope you're not forming your lips to say 'Black Lives Matter' if that's how you feel. Don't wait for the cops to kill me for my Black life to matter. Compensate us fairly. Treat us with respect for our work. Give us the dignity of that. That's how you can show that 'Black Lives Matter' right now today."

Odom Jr. says he walks "a little more confidently" after that experience. And he believes the film was a good return on investment for everyone: "Hamilton" dominated social media chatter for weeks last summer, becoming the sixth most-streamed movie of 2020, according to Nielsen.

Days before the launch of "Hamilton" on Disney+, director Thomas Kail said, " 'Leslie, do you realize more people are going to see your work this weekend than saw your entire run on Broadway?' " Odom recalls. "And he was right. I've never been on the receiving end of that kind of love and support. It's far exceeded anything that I ever imagined."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'One Night in Miami': Leslie Odom Jr. on seeking 'Hamilton' pay parity