Hamilton catapulted him to stardom, but Leslie Odom Jr., multihyphenate actor, singer and much more, is building a meaningful career on his own terms.
When you're first starting out in your 20s, all people want to do is slap a label on you as fast as they can,” says Leslie Odom Jr., the beloved triple-threat talent responsible for bringing Aaron Burr into our collective conscience in Hamilton, winning Tony and Grammy awards along the way. “They want to know, ‘How am I supposed to look at you? Who are you? Are you Denzel [Washington]? Are you Wesley Snipes? Are you Don Cheadle? Tell me a name I know so I can pigeonhole you as fast as possible and so I don’t have to think about you too much.’”
Odom Jr. speaks thoughtfully, not hyperbolically—you can almost hear the wheels turning during long, contemplative pauses on the phone. So while this was his experience after debuting on Broadway in RENT aHt just 17 (“the Hamilton of its day,” he calls it, for which he auditioned “on a lark”), it’s safe to say no one is compartmentalizing the 39-year-old actor, singer and author these days.
The transition began in 2015, unsurprisingly with Hamilton’s feverish acclaim. Yes, his last name was still sometimes mispronounced “Uggums,” but “for the first time in my career, 15 or so years into this journey, I felt like I was beginning to get people to save room for me to be me,” recalls the creative force. “There was a little daylight between me and the Greats.”
Despite suddenly finding himself inside a tornado of demand, Odom Jr. made a promise—his post-Hamilton gift to himself—to never sit idle, waiting for opportunity to knock. “The freedom is not waiting, not giving over the power of my creative locomotive to anyone else.” His is a constant state of writing and recording. He journals “those profound things that sometimes dawn on us—simple, beautiful things, like something my daughter says. All my best songs I pull from those notes.”
Frequent recording is nothing new. Odom Jr.’s been doing it almost his entire life, albeit not always with sophistication. As a 5-year-old in Queens, N.Y., he received a tape recorder from his parents that set him on his path. “I was just fascinated that I could push record and then chat away, push play and listen to myself back,” he recalls, childlike wonder in his voice. “That turned into a double tape deck when I was about 10, and with that I learned how to do my own background vocals.” He emulated everything from gospel and R&B to his pop heroes—Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men—plus his parents’ favorites, Marvin Gaye and James Brown. Fast-forward to 2021, and he’s released four distinctive albums.
Not every acting role Odom Jr. accepts involves music; see The Sopranos prequel film The Many Saints of Newark, out this year. But many do, such as February’s Music (Sia’s directorial debut film, also starring Kate Hudson and Juliette Lewis) and Apple TV+’s animated series Central Park (returning for Season 2 this year), which earned him an Emmy nomination in 2020.
One Night in Miami, released in select theaters late December and on Prime Video Jan. 15, is perhaps his most significant—and culturally relevant—part as a vocalist to date. “Sometimes your number is called—you are enlisted,” says Odom Jr. of how he came to embody the “King of Soul,” the legendary Sam Cooke. “This was not a role I really went after,” he admits of the man he calls an idol and hero. “In many ways Sam was one of my teachers. He wasn’t just one of the most beautiful voices that has walked the planet; he was also a brilliant and prolific songwriter who’s written some of the greatest modern American songs of all time. So,” he chuckles, “you can understand why I was not running to put on his very large and formidable shoes.”
But Regina King—making her directorial debut—compelled Odom Jr. to take the role from Kemp Powers’ 2013 play. “She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” says Odom Jr. “She saw a Sam in me.” The film is a fictional take on a real night, Feb. 25, 1964, when four young Black American icons—Cassius Clay on the verge of becoming Muhammad Ali, Islamic leader Malcolm X, NFL star Jim Brown and Cooke—gathered in a Miami hotel room to celebrate the boxing champ’s big win. With Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Aldis Hodge, collaborative magic was conjured amid serious reflection: “What is our responsibility to this moment beyond something performative? Is something more required of us?” Questions that are top of mind for Odom Jr. personally too. “If people do make space for the movie, there’s medicine in it… for a tender heart, for a weary soul,” he says.
Beyond perspective on the revived civil rights movement we find ourselves in, Odom Jr. says, “What I gained as a vocalist I will use every day I step up to a microphone for as long as I’m here.” Learning to emulate Cooke’s audible passion, velocity, poise and polish was like grad school for voice. “There’s a lot of psychology in the way a man sings, and crawling inside Sam’s music to learn about him, to learn about his soul, was something else.”
The most fraught day on set was the very last, when Odom Jr. performed Cooke’s seminal civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” His fear of sounding phony or embarrassing himself was very real. However, he gave himself a pass. “I allowed myself, on that day, to just turn it up, to burn a little brighter,” he says. “Because we have no video footage of Sam singing his own beautiful song. He died before it was released.”
This sense of gravitas is not a given in showbiz. “So much of what I do can seem superfluous and silly,” Odom Jr. says with true humility. “I was talking to Dax Shepard, and he’s like, ‘It’s an embarrassing job.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s an embarrassing job.’ Especially when you’re talking to a first responder or a teacher. So when I can feel as an artist that I’m making good use of myself, that I am making something that is going to be of service to my community, a community, that is going to open somebody up or educate somebody, that’s when I feel like I’m on purpose, reaching my potential and living up to the calling of my profession and my life.”
In 2020, he also discovered the value he brings to his home as a partner and actor. The actor used to be away 200 to 250 days a year, but the pandemic has been, in Odom Jr.’s words, “a little West L.A. renaissance for Nicolette [Robinson] and me.” The husband-wife duo collaborated on the four-part Freeform miniseries Love in the Time of Corona (they were both stars and executive producers), plus several Christmas songs (she’s also a performer, best known for Waitress on Broadway) and a children’s book. “And now she’s making a child inside her!” he adds joyfully. Come March, their son will join daughter Lucille. “[She] thinks all parents perform and sing with orchestras and play pretend onstage,” says Odom Jr.
Of course, this self-described “animal of the stage” is already eyeing a return to it post-COVID. “We have to make it a priority to remind people of the power and need for live experiences again,” he says emphatically. “And I want to be a part of that.” Through strange and turbulent times, Odom Jr. is keeping life moving forward, keeping creativity flowing. “What I hear in my recordings, the only satisfaction I have, is that with every project it’s a little freer, a little more honest. That I’m a little more myself. The movies are the same. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
With this sincerity and drive, we may just hear the next class of young actors being asked hopefully, “Who are you? Are you Leslie Odom Jr.?”
Photography by: Photography by Tony Duran, tonyduran.net
First photo assistant: Justin Schwan, @justinschwan
Hair and makeup by Kéla Wong using Balmain Hair Couture and Stila Cosmetics, @kelawong
Models: Vivica and Kamyra, Margaux The Agency,
Shot on location at Kimpton La Peer Hotel and Olivetta on Holiday at Kimpton La Peer Hotel, lapeerhotel.com; olivetta.la
Artist: Adam Ellis