- October 5, 2021
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“Most people, in fact, will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.” — Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 410 BCE.
“The thing about Black history is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up. You have to have a canon so the next generation can come along and explode it.” — Henry Louis Gates.
“It’s all a matter of habit. And good habits in America make any man rich.” — John Jacob Astor.
Astoria, Queens was named for John Jacob Astor in the hopes that the wealthy businessman would be attracted to invest in the nascent borough. In the end, even though he could see it clear as day across the water from one of his in Manhattan mansions, the plutocrat never set foot in his namesake neighborhood and contributed 500 paltry dollars. But this text is not about yet another man—albeit one with self-proclaimed good habits—who profited through the ruthless exploitation of the resources of the early American nation. Instead, it’s about a much more interesting son of the borough named after him. A new and unproblematic American hero, a solid family man whose combined qualities of being handsome, wholesome, and humble make him worthy of both the words, and the wealth. An astute, multi-faceted actor who should perhaps be awarded a medal for services to historiography for his output so far—and to come.
Leslie Odom Jr. took his first breath in Astoria, Queens in 1981, his parents first son. Seeking greener pastures, the family soon relocated to the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, where Odom was raised with one sister, Elizabeth. Here the young man was allowed free reign to develop his innate talents— speaking up and singing out in Baptist Church brought early acclaim, while at home he was given his own karaoke machine at age nine, as well as a tape deck to mess around on and record demos. Good habits do start young. Since then, with sweat, tears, time, and a lot of hard work, Odom has navigated to heights that would make any working actor giddy—but he’s no Icarus. He’s built this flying machine to last. So let’s learn a little more about this man on a mission, who’s been soaring around the cinematic stratosphere as if he was born with wings, poised to smash any remaining glass ceilings still left in entertainment.
And now, he’s a Soprano. Well, by proxy. The personable Odom plays a key and coveted role in The Many Saints of Newark, the much anticipated prequel to the landmark series, set to be released this October in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. The following text is full of spoilers, so take this as your warning if for any reason you happen to be reading this prior to must-seeing the must-see movie of Fall 2021.
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Astor, ok. Gates, makes sense. But why did I quote from Thucydides? Am I just being pretentious? Yes, absolutely, of course, I am. That’s just me. But also, there’s a direct link here. Through the magic of telecommunication technology, a busy Odom Jr. took time out of his day to speak to me across the airwaves from the luxurious enclave of Porto Heli, Greece, a choice spot overlooking the picturesque bay of Argolis, today a two-hour cruise from Athens. In ancient times it probably took a little longer, but it is a strategic position that the main historian of the Peloponnesian Wars would have been quite familiar with.
Odom Jr. is here on location alongside Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton, Janelle Monae, and many more A-listers to shoot sure-fire future blockbuster Knives Out 2. Another comedically convoluted murder mystery from writer-director Rian Johnson, where one can safely assume the plot concerns a group of eccentric characters and some foul play being investigated by Daniel Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc. However, instead of the stuffy, sepulchral New England of the first flick, the action has been switched up to a place very much in the sun. And why not?
So, please let’s get us to Greece, and picture the terrace of an elegant villa, a wide blue bay and an ever charming mega-star in headphones.
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How are you feeling? Have you started shooting yet?
We start on Monday with camera tests. So far we’ve been having costume fittings, having meetings with Rian, meeting the other castmates. How do I feel? I’m nervous at the beginning of every movie. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s working on a new show too—he said, ‘Why does it feel like every time, you start from scratch?’ And you know, I think that that’s what we do. Every time. You can’t take it for granted. Yeah, I have a process and a craft, you know, from those great teachers at drama school, but every project is a little different, every project needs a little different thing from you.
Are those lessons you learned there still with you? When you wake up in the morning, whose words are in your head?
I don’t remember who said it, but somebody said something along the lines of ‘You don’t have to write everything down, because the most important stuff sticks.’You know what I mean? You don’t have to go through life with a notepad. The most important things from David Mamet’s writings, from the directors I’ve worked with, the actors I’ve worked with, all that stuff is within me. I’m a ‘collector’ of wisdom, so all that stuff is within me, so I at least start with that. I still have to start from scratch every time in that I’m building a character from the ground up, but I at least start with all these gems, nuggets of wisdom from smart people I’ve worked with.
The Many Saints of Newark is the result of the controversial idea to create a Sopranos-universe prequel which has been floating around Hollywood even before the hallowed series came to an abrupt ending in 2007. The film was finally announced in 2018, and shot on location in New Jersey over 2019. It’s a testament to the hypnotic powers of creator David Chase that a full 14 years after he left them hanging with an insanely unresolved final episode, fans ares still getting hysterical about the movie. This also means that at this point in time, Mr. Leslie Odom Jr. has had over two years not to answer any questions about The Sopranos. It must have been tough not to give anything away. However, after I broach the subject, Odom Jr. directs the first question to me. And it was exactly the one I was hoping I could avoid.
Are you a Sopranos fan?
I have to tell the truth. Face it head-on. Like I was in a polygraph test. Or being grilled under a bare-bulbed lamp in a Mafia warehouse.
No. I’ve never watched one single episode of The Sopranos. I went into that screening theatre literally, and figuratively, in the dark.
Great, what did you think?
To go straight into the prequel, with no prior knowledge, and it to be a film like that… to go straight to the origin story was actually more useful than trying to watch six seasons before I spoke to you today… And the film really was fantastic, it blew me away.
I’m so glad. I have to say, I felt the same thing. Film is such a collaborative thing. Making films, I have to tell you, is such a public way to learn. You’re falling on your face sometimes—or succeeding, if you’re lucky, in front of an audience. When I saw the film I was just happy to be a part of it. So much of the stuff happens in post, in the edit. What they put together, what’s cut, what’s added. I was blown away by it too.
And there we see the David Mamet coming through—one of the dramatist’s many famous utterances is: “You can’t rely on acting to tell the story.”
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So as you asked me—I have to ask you: Are you a Sopranos fan? Did you watch it before?
No. Not when it came out. And not even before I shot it. I didn’t have time to watch it, in all its entirety, before I shot it. I was aware of The Sopranos, I had seen a couple of episodes, but I didn’t grow up with HBO; we didn’t have the money for that, you know. And when I was a young college student, when I was first out in the world, I certainly didn’t have HBO. So it was after shooting. Thank goodness for HBO Max for putting up the library of their whole history of the network, everything which is not available anymore, up on the platform. I got sucked in. Oh man. Man, did I fall in love with those characters, and with David’s writing style. I’d obviously already fallen in love with David as a writer, but now I did with the characters and the impeccable storytelling in the original run of the show.
This particular analogy struck me earlier this year, long before this interview came up. In a flash, it helped me to put the ‘weight’ of the show in perspective, using a literary comparison I could understand. I read the following text aloud to Odom: “If Proust’s nearest cognate today is The Sopranos (or the other way around) the death of the grandmother in The Guermantes Way is akin to the death of Livia which, unplanned, intervened into the beginning of season three—after a season of Tony saying, ‘She’s dead to me,’ similar to Marcel ignoring his grandmother’s mini-stroke in a public toilet. Just as Proust split the grandmother’s store and death into two parts.” —LACAN SALON Vancouver, via Instagram.
Odom nods and reacts to the statement with measured sagacity.
David writes in a way that is disarming. I can’t really explain it. There is a story on the set—after a few weeks of shooting—of course everybody in our lives is asking us how it’s going, what’s it like. I really couldn’t place it. I was like, ‘I don’t know, I feel it’s going ok, but I don’t feel like I’m doing much, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything.’And you know, that was the feeling from a lot of the guys. And one of the old-timers said, ‘Yeah, that’s good writing.’ Where you don’t feel like that, as an actor, you’re not in there ‘muscling’ it every day, and working it every day. So much of it is on the page, and takes care of itself.
Odom’s newly-invented character ‘Harold McBrayer’ starts out as a bag-man for Richard Moltisanti, who is played with keen intensity by Alessandro Nivola, and whom the narrative of The Many Saints of Newark is woven around. The charismatic playboy Moltisanti—aka ‘Uncle Dickie’— also just happens to be fulfilling the role of mentor and surrogate father figure to the young Tony Soprano, while his real father is in prison. The future DiMeo crime boss is very cleverly incorporated into the main narrative, in that we watch him witnessing all that goes on, first as a child and then adolescent. Through the eyes of babes. When Odom’s ambitious upstart turns the tables on his former employers, his unexpected power grab destabilizes the local chapter, with serious consequences.
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With such a revered, almost sacred, set of characters, there must have been some serious pressure to get it right.
When you step into something like that… I’m a bonafide fan now, although I couldn’t have called myself that when really when I started the film. When I was shooting, I was always aware of the fanbase, and of the place on the timeline that this show occupied. I just wanted to be, if I could—if it was even possible—I wanted the performance to be as human, and as rich, and as layered, as the performances in that original series. Now having seen it—I’m like, ‘My god!’
I read up and find that young Michael Gandolfini, who plays the reckless teenage Tony Soprano, had never seen show either prior to being cast. Before he took on the role of a lifetime, he had to play catch-up, too. He was just a little kid when his father—Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini—was filming, and says his dad never really explained what it was all about before he tragically suffered a fatal heart attack at only 51 in 2013.
Your character Harold McBrayer is not only a huge catalyst for what happens in the film, but also the subsequent timeline of the series. He’s an ‘antagonist’ in the movie, that he’s a late 60s guy who is about standing up to what was going on. How did you ‘find’ Harold?
Again, it goes without saying I had tremendous writing here. I just wanted to live up to the writing. I wanted to bring my best to that, to meet the writing where it was. So my job was to think about who Harold might have been before we met him. My job was to think about what music is he listening to, what books is he reading? What was his sport as a kid? Because all that affects him now. And really to drop myself into the time period. Whatever could make me feel like a soul, a soul that’s walking the planet at that time, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be dropped into the time.
And what a time that was. The action jumps right into the 1967 Newark Race Riots, which were incited by the brutal beating of a local Black taxi driver by racist cops. The very fabric of what constituted ‘American society’ was being torn up and remade by all those willing to fight for—or against—change. Violent urban uprisings were just one expression of that impulse. Clashes were happening on the street, but also in the mind. Other interactions would be more subtle, and the film neatly captures these. When Harold enters a Mob nightclub to meet Dickie Moltisanti, a wisecracking Wiseguy gets up and leaves—half-jokingly delivering the line ‘White Flight!’ as he does so.
Giuseppina, Moltisanti’s frantic young mistress—‘comare’ in the lingo—seduces Harold, who’d caught her eye that very night. Post-coitally tousled, she says: “I always wondered if it would be different with a Black man.” “Is it?” he asks—and she says “No.” Apparently, the difference has nothing to do with sexual mechanics. The difference is… culinary. She imparts that a woman better be in the kitchen cooking up a heap of his favorite foodstuffs, before, during, and after the act, if she expects to get any lovin’ at all from an Italian stallion.
Because this is not just the origin story of the characters of one fictional universe, it is an origin story of a monumental shift in American demographics. Odom’s character comes from North Carolina, where he has already had run-ins with the law, making him need to make a quick exit from his hometown—and part of the massive diaspora that arrived in urban areas from the South. He wants to carve out a fresh new life in the boroughs, but immediately encounters power structures that themselves are the reaction to segregation and oppression. The Italian newcomers had always been marginalized and excluded from the WASP system, so they found creative, sometimes illegal, ways around it. The Black community was also forced to find workarounds to this system; i.e. criminalize to survive. And so the prequel film is a chance for Chase to show a more rounded perspective in relation to race than was afforded during the series run. It’s not simply about shifting The Sopranos universe into a more ‘inclusive’ space, but in fact, providing viewers a more accurate vision, one that more truly reflects the actual racial composition of the boroughs, and America as a whole.
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What Harold wants to do—and he says it clearly—is to empower himself and his community financially. He says ‘I’m going to get that money.’ Now we see 40 years later a completely savage gangster culture, which comes with AK47s instead of pistols—but that sentiment stays the same. Compared to that, what Harold is doing, like hijacking ‘the take’ from the local store’s number-running scam, is quite quaint.
Yes. And listen—to deal with the brutality as a society, to deal with the violence, to deal with the rage—to deal with why people make the choices the way they do— storytellers can help with that. Writers, filmmakers, help us analyze those things and help us look at them from a distance, and maybe from a distance we can make change.
I think one thing that will really surprise people about the film is the way the authentic Black movements and poetry or that era—the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron—are integrated into the plot. Scott-Heron’s ‘The Vulture’ poem is even read aloud. It’s a very modern, very refreshing approach to put emphasis on that alongside the Italian culture people know and love so well, that people will naturally expect to encounter in this movie. Including it in a film that will be so mainstream—I mean, everyone is going to see this.
I certainly hope so.
The codes of ‘honor’ in this world, the codes that everyone is supposed to be defending, are pushed and pushed. And after they go, anything goes. It’s all about ‘an eye for an eye’—but then here’s another eye, and a head… Then you get down to, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’ Can you say something on the morality of this universe?
You know, I’ve turned down roles that were ‘gleeful’ in their violence. Or glib about the taking of human life. I’m a dad now, I just can’t really sign up for that. But I don’t think that that’s the world that David writes in. I think that these people—Harold anyway—are troubled by the things that he has to do. But the truth is—there ain’t no Saints in The Many Saints of Newark. I mean, this is a guy who makes a lot of mistakes. Some people have commented on that final moment in the movie—like ‘Harold wins.’ But I don’t know that if in a David Chase world, this world that he’s writing about, I don’t know if people ‘win.’ They might have a good week, they might have a good month, or a good year… Tony had some good years; did Tony win, in the end?
Indeed, it’s beyond difficult within the elusive and limitless folds of history to define ‘winners’, let alone truths. Bearing this in mind, Odom Jr. jumps directly from one important history piece to another—Regina King’s One Night In Miami…
Tell me about that exceptional experience?
One Night in Miami… felt like boot camp. I was like: ‘Man, if I can do that, I can do almost anything.’ Because that shoot was damn near impossible. Not enough time, not enough money, not enough rehearsal… But we had a brilliant director, we had a fucking cracking script, I had the best scene partners I could ask for, and so it was a dream, really.” I shot One Night In Miami… just after The Many Saints of Newark. The truth is, I was a better actor after working with David, and Alan, and Alessandro, and Michela. I think the raw materials I brought to Regina were more honed, more useful.
These materials seem to have been honed to a diamond precision, sharp enough to (almost) engrave his name forever on Hollywood’s most coveted Gold statuette—Odom Jr. was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Sam Cooke, as well as for writing the original song, “Speak Now”.
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The movie has such a great premise— those particular four men meeting and spending time together, really taking the time to talk to each other. Doing my due diligence, I also read the YouTube comments under the ONIM trailer—and I discovered that there’s a real division in opinion over that premise. Most people loved the film and leave an ‘It’s great, it’s beautiful, fills my heart with joy’ kind of comment. But there are some naysayers who say, ‘This is bullshit, this never happened, these guys never said that to each other.’
Listen. That’s so fucking dumb, that’s just dumb. With One Night in Miami…, the documentation is there. Those four men spent the evening together that night, all night long. What the writer Kemp Powers did, is that he took the real documents, he found every record of who those men were, leading up to that night, and then he imagined, with all this evidence, what it might have been. That’s what we do.
The night in Miami in question is that of February 25, 1964, and the four men are Muhammad Ali, on the cusp of his conversion to Islam but still bearing the moniker Cassius Clay, NFL star turned actor Jim Brown, a Malcolm X in full fire, and Sam Cooke—popular crooner and music mogul, played by Odom Jr. The future legends are humanized as they fight and fuss and pray, inspire and insult and egg each other on, for the most part inside Malcolm’s cramped hotel room. Harsh truths and raw hopes are revealed.
At the time, attaining success in America was a tight-rope that only a few Black men could walk, and even then it cut their feet to shreds each time, and they had to keep walking on the wounds, building up layers and layers of scar tissue in the process. As Ali says passionately to Cooke: “We have to be there for each other. Because can’t nobody understand what it’s like being one of us, except us. You know. Young. Black. Righteous. Famous. Unapologetic.”
The racial aggressions of this troubled era are not glossed over, but dissected and exposed with subtle grace. We see an under-appreciated Sam bomb at the Copacabana to a snarky and apathetic all-white audience. Cooke has to get his white, Jewish manager Allen Klein to book him in at the fancy Fontainebleau— while the others stay a ways away in a far less glamorous hotel in Overtown, where African-Americans were the prosperous majority, until 1969 when the neighborhood was deliberately split up and destroyed by the I-95 freeway expansion.
Odom Jr. delivers a sensitive, feisty and funny Cooke. The two share a background of singing in church since childhood, and a dedication to economic equality in entertainment. I am struck by a comment from the documentary ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (2019): “That Black male energy that Sam Cooke possessed, unfortunately, for some people in power in this country, represented a threat that had to be stopped.” In ONIM, we marvel at four men who are vibrant and alive, full of spirt and energy. That’s the best way to remember them, at the height of their beauty and influence.
However, mere months after the events depicted in the King’s film, a disheveled, unarmed Cooke was shot to death ‘in self-defense’ during a messy late night debacle at a cheap motel. Muhammad Ali called for an FBI investigation, but nothing was done, leading to the inevitable suggestion that the FBI did not care to clear up the ‘mystery’ because they were just glad that he—and his political voice—were gone. The assassination of Malcolm X took place in February 1965, and after that came a parade of Civil Rights leaders’ murders that no civilized society could ever be proud of.
What’s very clear from every project he’s done, is that Odom is passionate about history, about getting it right. He is deeply invested in the business of breathing life into dry historical documents, and he brings our discussion back around to his own life story with a stirring personal example.
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Tell me about the personal connection?
I have to tell you, I just spent three hours with Dr. Skip Gates—Henry Louis Gates Jr.—having the history of my family retraced, doing my family tree for his show, Finding Your Roots. And I got a glimpse into what historians do. Because historians look at hundreds of documents, and then they imagine a story around those documents. ‘Why might this have happened?’ I found out that one of my great great grandparents came from Barbados, immigrated here—a Black immigration story of the turn of the century in America—which is very rare. So he comes from Barbados. Makes a whole life, and he’s here for forty years before he applies for naturalization. 63-years-old for citizenship, as an American! And I got to read the document! The Dr. and I were sitting there and we were imagining, ‘So why might you do that, at 63-years-old?’ And so as a father now, I came up with a story—I think you do that for your kids, and you do that for your grandkids. For future generations. You’re saying ‘This is our home, we’re planting roots here. We’re not guests.’ Right? And that’s the story that I wrote around it.
Congratulations on the new addition to your family, by the way. Your son, Able Phineas, was born only a few months ago in March 2021. It’s a name which sounds like a gentleman from the 1800s. Is this the first time you’ve been away since he was born?
Thank you. Yes, this is the first time we’ve traveled since the pandemic. We love an old school name. My daughter’s name is Lucille, and she’s named after her great grandmother. And my son, my daughter named my son herself. We don’t know where she got the name from; we don’t know anyone called ‘Able.’ But my wife and I heard her say it and we just loved it.
So many ancestors stories led to all of us standing here now. That brings us back around to Hamilton. Its revisionary history par excellence, bringing the complications of American history to the fore—and making them popular. How do you feel now about being involved in something that was so momentous?
I will be grateful forever. The show changed my life. It gave me … it put me in a company of artists that I just…I feel grateful every day to know these people. To know Lin Manuel, Phillipa, Anthony… Everybody. It has been the greatest gift. I think everybody comes to New York with a fire in their belly, people get on the Greyhound, they get on the plane—they hitchhike—to come to the city because they have something to say. They have something to say. And Hamilton gave me the chance to say the thing I’ve been longing to say.
And he has not stopped saying these things or rested on his laurels even after winning a Tony. When Odom was asked to come back for a special Hamilton Live broadcast on Disney +, he held out for equal—and substantial— pay for his work. He simply refused to perform his unique version of Aaron Burr unless his fee was matched to a comparative performance in the live musical genre. Even though I really doubt Grease Live has affected as many hearts and minds as Miranda’s breakthrough opus, at the very last moment, Odom Jr. got what he asked for, and the show went on.
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On the way back from the screening of The Many Saints of Newark at Warner Brothers in Burbank, I passed back through Hollywood and saw that Hamilton was coming soon to the Pantages Theatre. It’s still exciting to see the show is still going strong, still a hot ticket. Basically, I feel that you’ve revised what ‘American Heritage’ is for a whole generation of people.
I think it’s a step, I think it’s a step. What Lin did, was on some level, was that he parroted it back in a very clever way. He’s like—‘Ok, this is the history that you taught us, this is the history of the country—great. So… is it ok that we tell the same stories in our language, though? In rhythms that are our own? Is it ok if we tell it using ourselves?’ Right? I think that the next step will be to tell the stories that haven’t been told, because there are so many stories that haven’t been told. All these stories that have been pushed to the margins. Because again, if you spend any time in American History class, and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, wait—where were the fucking women?’ ‘Where did the Native Americans that weren’t fucking slaughtered go?’
I’m reminded here of a Mississippi teacher’s powerful message to her class during Black History Month, which went viral—“Dear Students: they didn’t steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, etc, and made them slaves. Sincerely, your ancestors.”
Absolutely. We need to find traces of these people, there will be traces of these people, underneath what is written in the books, between the lines of what is written in the books. We can reconstruct their stories. Before an interview, I pull some things out of my bookcase to focus on. So in front of me, I have an illustrated school history book from the 70s, a DVD by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise and this, because you mentioned him in your past interviews—a David Mamet book of essays on the theatre and acting.
That David Mamet book is very controversial. He’s an iconoclast. It was radical. One of the first things he says in the book is like, ‘It is not about you, the actor. Your job is to say the words loud enough so they can be heard. Period. That is where your job begins and ends.’
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But you are more than an actor. You are also a prolific musician. You’ve got these multiple streams running through you. So—music, acting, is there a struggle between them inside you—or it is all from the same source? What’s different about your approach, there?
Good question. Hmmm…. I think they probably all come from the same source—my source is like the One God, it’s the Source, capital ’S’… It’s the divine. I think that’s where all the best inspiration comes from, and it’s available to all of us. But singing fulfills a different thing in me. To use my voice, to be a musician, it fulfills a different need than acting does. I wouldn’t be satisfied just doing one or the other.
Odom dropped his first self-titled album in 2014, followed up with the jazzy Mr in 2019. Anticipating the theme of this issue, one of his tracks is the slinky “Stronger Magic” where he croons along like Sammy Davis Jr. As wholesome as the day is long, he’s also recorded two Christmas albums as well. His version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” on the first one is a bop, and in the latest, he covers Wham!’s “Last Christmas” as well as a sweet “Edelwiess” with his similarly angel-voiced wife, Nicolette Robinson. With vocal tones of buttery velvet, Odom remixes classic standards by adding elements from his other favorite genres, hip-hop, Broadway show tunes, and a touch of folk, with results as appealing and likable as the man himself. As technically proficient as he is, he’s also a chameleon. He’s not afraid to branch out into the unknown, either, turning in an all-singing, dancing, and acting performance (with added African accent) as the kindly boxer Ebo in the experimental film MUSIC from the Australian Art popster, Sia.
Do you switch into a different persona, a different part of your psyche when you are standing on stage? Are you a different person standing there?
As an actor, I’m playing a character, I’m not ever playing myself—I’m playing Aaron Burr, or Sam Cooke, or whoever. As a musician, I have to step up there and sing and talk and speak solely as myself. You’ve gotta make some choices, you’ve gotta ask some hard questions of yourself when you’re starting out as a musician. Some musicians, that’s all they do, they know exactly who they are, they get to be that all the tie. So coming from acting, yeah, I did have to go on a little bit of a journey to discover that.
As well as a mega-successful actor and singer, Odom Jr. is also a published writer. His 2018 book, Failing Up is a both memoir and a useful, self-help guide to life, which isn’t something many other leading men today would be able to deliver. Reaching the milestone age of 40 years old in August 2021, it’s crazy to imagine how at 30 Odom wrote that he was still ‘struggling.’ He stresses the importance of finding a mentor, as well as finding your own strengths. The whole vibe is positive, inspirational, aspirational gold—and I for one want to know more.
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Your book Failing Up has the great subtitle: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher And Never Stop Learning. What did you learn during the pandemic, specifically?
So many things. I took piano lessons, I took chess lessons… Eventually—I even started working out, that is after I gained a bunch of weight [laughs]. Oh—and lots of cooking—that was huge. Usually, with my schedule, we eat out quite a bit. But now, of course, we didn’t have anywhere to go. So I cooked so much—maybe 70 percent of the meals we ate over the year, I made. Right now, I’ve got this beautiful pad here in Porto Heli, and I’m cooking… I’m so grateful my cooking skills are up to snuff, for me at least.
What’s a favorite dish that you’re proud of in L.A.?
My favorite thing that I made in L.A., and I made it quite often, was Orange Chicken. I love Asian food so much. And we weren’t getting any of it. My in-laws have an orange tree, so I would pick the oranges fresh from the tree. Essentially, the sauce is oranges, ginger, soy sauce, a couple other spices, but that’s mainly what it is, and you make a reduction of that over about 45 minutes. And then you can put the sauce on some chicken, and you can serve that with some nice glass noodles, or some brown rice. It’s just heaven.
That sounds divine. So you followed your own advice—to never stop learning?
Yes. And you know, I’m still doing it. Every time you have a kid, it’s like your system reboots. You have another set of blank slates. I know they come here with stuff, but there’s also a lot of stuff that they are picking up and learning, right from the beginning. With my son, part of the reason why I love his name is that I really want him to know, I really want it to be a part of his foundational understanding of who he is, that is able to do anything. That it’s really just about learning the process. Start at the beginning. You can start at the beginning of anything. And you shouldn’t be afraid to do that. You shouldn’t be afraid to learn the rudiments, to begin with the building blocks, then to humbly work your way up to where you want to be. It’s never too late to start an apprenticeship in life. And it’s probably never too early, either.
How was the shoot for the Flaunt cover story?
I had a ball. Jonny Marlow, the photographer, had this idea—we wanted to do something a little spiritual, a little scary, a little wicked, maybe. Do something with ‘horror movie’ vibes. I just had the best time shooting with him. So fun. My stylist, Avo dressed me in some great looks. But Jonny, he’s like a director. There were moments when I was afraid of the monster, and there were moments where I was the monster.
Would you ever make a horror film?
Haha. I’m begging to. I hope that this Flaunt shoot gets me one step closer. I’m begging to.
Well, well, well. I guess Flaunt shoots do work their magic. While I’m writing this up, a whole new The Exorcist trilogy is announced for 2023—with Leslie Odom Jr. headlining in a starring role, alongside OG Ellen Burstyn. The veteran actress will be reprising her role as the demonic Regan’s mother Chris MacNeil, while Odom plays a father who is desperate for help with his own possessed child. Launching an official new chapter of the 1973 global hit is a big deal—a $400 million dollar deal between Universal, Blumhouse, and writer-director David Gordon Green. And here we see that our friend Odom Jr. is skilled in the art of keeping schtum—assuming he already knew that the biggest news in the horror genre in decades was about to drop. Another lesson well learned.
BURBERRY shirt, top, and pants and CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN shoes.
This past year, we were sequestered when some of the most important movements were out there in the streets. So much went on. Do you think that in 2020—just as the movements of the 1960s were groundbreaking, important—are the new movements… are we getting somewhere? Or are we just repeating ourselves and getting nowhere?
Well, smarter people than I have said that ‘history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.’ So it’s like evil changes its face. Wickedness finds new forms, so you have to find new ways to fight. I don’t think we are where we want to be, but we are not where we were. I think it was a clarifying year, how could it not be? It was a life-changing, life-altering season that not all of us survived.
It’s like the fiction makers of the future could look back on this past year and not even believe us. There were so many flashpoints. The pandemic. Murders by police. And I don’t want to mention him directly but there was also that guy whose name starts with T… There was a lot to deal with.
I have to say, it’s really hard for me to be ‘grateful’ for something that cost us 700,000 lives. It makes me very uneasy to say that there was a ‘reason’ for that. But what I will say is that when something like that happens, when there is a toll like that, when there is a cost in that way, if we don’t use the time… if we don’t allow that situation to once and for all shift us toward our better angels, then you know… then we’re not worth the breath we breathe.
I can feel that young Baptist church boy who stood up, spoke up, and sang loud for the congregation, to come back as he continues his answer.
How were you processing?
It was because of the pandemic that we were all home—that there was nowhere to run. We had to sit and watch that video—those videos. Those terrible videos of the lynchings and injustices. We had nowhere else to be but in line to vote, or sending in our ballots. The way capitalism works is that there’s a whole lot of people on Election Day that have to go to work. And have to worry about getting their kids to school, and feeding them dinner—there are tens of millions of us that don’t get the luxury, because voting day is not a national holiday. But this time, there was time. We had the time to meditate, and put action behind our intention. So it’s been a powerful time, it’s been a clarifying time, it’s been an awful time.
I think those lines deserve to be in a future stage play. I’ll make sure to include them.
Yeah, (laughs) please make me sound smart, edit out all the dumb stuff.
I won’t need to do much of that. But actually, I have a stupid, fun question that I’ve always wanted to ask someone in an interview like this but never have.
What’s your favorite color?
Ahhh. This is a man who has his priorities right, right down to the smallest detail. And with that, the nicest guy in Hollywood signs off, probably to go and cook up a beautiful dinner for his beautiful family as the sun sets over the breathtaking bay of Argolis. Proving that good habits bring a wealth that cannot be measured, and our own journey into History can be whatever we decide for it to be. Perhaps there is one saint in The Many Saints of Newark.
Photographed by Jonny Marlow at Early Morning Riot
Styled by Avo Yermagyan at Forward Artists
Makeup: Alexandra Fragga
Flaunt Film by Yong Kim
Location: Harvard House Motel
Photo Assistants: Ram Gibson & Tyler Werges
Written by Hannah Bhuiya
1418 N Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90028
© Flaunt Magazine 2017