(L-R) Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X) and Aldis Hodge. (Courtesy Photo
By Frank Dilella
Broadway favorite Leslie Odom Jr. returns to film this winter in the stage-to-screen transfer of One Night in Miami. The movie, which marks Oscar-winner Regina King’s feature directorial debut, is based on the play by Kemp Powers. Set in 1964 against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, Miami centers around a meeting of icons: Cassius Clay (played by Eli Goree), Jim Brown (played by Aldis Hodge), Malcolm X (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir), and Sam Cooke (played by Odom). Broadway Direct recently caught up with the Hamilton Tony Award winner to discuss playing the King of Soul.
Here you are taking on another well-known figure from American history — this time, singer/songwriter Sam Cooke.
I was lucky — of the four of my brothers in the movie, you know, I had music. I had so much of Sam’s music, and that tells you quite a bit about the psychology of someone and the heart and soul of someone.
A lot of what is addressed in this film — civil unrest, race relations — these are themes we’re seeing in today’s headlines, all these years later, and they have not gone away.
Malcolm X really, I think, carries the message of this movie. He’s the heart and soul of this movie. And Kingsley Ben-Adir does such a beautiful job of playing Brother Malcolm. But he’s charging us all. He’s saying, What is your responsibility to the times in which you live, and have you done enough? I’m sure you’re asking it as a journalist. I ask myself as an artist and as a citizen. So that’s the question he’s asking all of us in that hotel room and from beyond the grave.
Looking at the legends who are depicted in the film — Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay — and their beliefs and ideologies, who do you relate to the most?
Somewhere between Sam and Malcolm. They both met such tragic ends within a year of that night. Neither Sam nor Malcolm would see that same date a year later. Sam saw the value of putting in a capitalist society. He saw the value of helping people put food on their tables. He saw the simple value of giving people the dignity of being able to practice their craft and make a living doing the thing that they loved. And Malcolm was about divesting and building for ourselves. And so, you know, I probably fall somewhere in the middle of that argument.
I have to give a nod to your wife . You play opposite each other in the film — she plays Sam Cooke’s wife, Barbara.
Sam and Barbara were grade-school sweethearts; they’d been together since, like, the sixth grade. They grew up together in Chicago. So to get to play with Nicolette, who is my favorite actress walking planet Earth, to get to use our history, was such a gift.
Keeping with the theme of taking on well-known figures, who would you want to play you in your own biographical film or stage musical?
I don’t know if my life is exciting enough. That’s the thing about Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr or Sam Cooke or Malcolm X: These great figures, they lived big, expansive, impactful lives. So my story will be pretty boring — but I’m sure there’s some kid somewhere who’s in one of the drama schools getting that good training, you know. I want to live a life that’s worth having a biopic about. I don’t know if I’ve achieved it yet though.