While most actors would jump at the chance to play one of the greatest singers of all time, Leslie Odom Jr. had to be convinced. When approached for the role of Sam Cooke in Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami…, the 39-year-old—already a Grammy and Tony winner for his breakout performance as Hamilton’s Aaron Burr—just couldn’t picture himself in a role so huge, so historic. To find his way into the character, he immersed himself in Cooke’s voice. “His singing taught me so much about his psychology,” Odom Jr. says. “There was a sensuality, even when he was singing gospel music. That’s why Aretha Franklin and teenage girls were falling out in the aisles.” For our annual Best Performances issue, the two-time 2021 Golden Globe nominee shares what led him to ultimately accept the part, and his surprising choice for who should play him in the movie of his own life.
How did you get involved with One Night in Miami…?
A script came in. They were looking to find a Sam Cooke very quickly, and I said no, thank you.
When you’re starting out as a young actor, people are rushing to put a label on you as fast as possible—kind of like a young Denzel-ish, Don Cheadle–ish, Wesley Snipes, maybe? It takes time to get people to accept you for who you are and to strip the labels away. I felt like post-Hamilton, I’d finally gotten a little bit of daylight between me and those guys, and I wasn’t in a rush to try on somebody else’s ill-fitting shoes. That’s what I thought.
What changed your mind?
I met with [One Night in Miami…’s director] Regina King and Kim Hardin, the casting director. I read for them, and it couldn’t have gone worse. I’m just grateful, because Regina saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. It took me a while to believe in my version of Sam Cooke, but we got there.
Did you know that you would be singing in the role?
It had never occurred to me until all these recording sessions started showing up on my calendar. I was like, “We’re not just lip-synching?” I hadn’t sung in the audition or in the meeting. We’ve seen actors lip-synch before: Ray Charles, the Tina Turner biopic, and Rami [Malek] in Bohemian Rhapsody. I assumed with a voice as signature [as Cooke’s], it would be that kind of situation. When they told me I would be singing, I was even more scared. But as a singer myself, I know a voice is like a fingerprint. I could learn about the heart and soul of Sam Cooke by crawling inside his recordings.
Both Hamilton and One Night in Miami… are very much ensemble productions, and yet there are such distinct personalities among the individuals within the ensembles. Is it difficult to both stand out and blend in?
The greatest achievement of something like Hamilton or something like this is that you’re seeing people reveling in the glory of one another, as well as the unique beauty of the person that you’re on stage or in a scene with. I wasn’t the greatest athlete in the world, so Hamilton was the first time that I really felt like I was a part of a championship team. I carry that with me.
What was the first song you remember singing in your life?
“This Little Light of Mine” is the first song I consciously remember singing, a simple song from church, but the first pop song from the radio that I remember just playing over and over again was that glorious voice of Whitney Houston’s on “Greatest Love of All.”
That’s a hard song for a kid to sing, isn’t it?
I didn’t think it was hard. I thought I sounded beautiful.
Of all the actors to play her in a movie version of her life, Cynthia Erivo has said that she’d pick you. Thoughts?
I love that. And I don’t know if I can think of a better person than Cynthia Erivo to play me. I think she’d be great.