‘One Night in Miami’ cast on being directed by Oscar-winning actress Regina King

The Oscar spotlight is once again on Regina King, who won the Academy Award for supporting actress for 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” But this time around, it’s for her feature film directorial debut “One Night in Miami,” a drama set in 1964 that imagines a meeting in a hotel room with Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke after Ali’s title win over Sonny Liston. Amazon Studios is releasing the film in limited theaters on Christmas Day and will begin to stream the drama on Jan. 15.

All men are at a crossroads in their lives: Malcolm X is thinking of leaving the Black Muslims but not before he announces that Clay will become a Muslim; the famed football star Brown is looking to make a break into movies; and pop singer Cooke, who is slick and successful, but is worried about his career path. Both Malcolm X and Cooke were murdered the following year.

The film immediately began to receive Oscar buzz when it premiered this past September at the Venice Film Festival. King made history with “One Night in Miami,” adapted by Kemp Powers from his play, it is the first film directed by an African American woman to play the festival. And King would be the first African American filmmaker to earn a best director Oscar nomination and potential win.

Reviews have been strong for the film-it’s currently at 97% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. And besides King, the four actors —Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X); Eli Goree (Ali/Clay), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) — are in the running for Oscar nominations.

This past Sunday, the four actors joined moderator Jenelle Riley for a SAG zoom Q&A. Surprisingly, both Hodge and Odom Jr., who won the Tony for his performance as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” initially didn’t think they had the chops to play these iconic roles.

“After a couple of conversations and discussions, initially walked away from the audition just because I didn’t know if I was up to par,” said Hodge. “But after a couple of conversations with team it’s like “Look, man, jus figure it out, try to build it.’ Just changing the perspective on how I wanted to see myself I it. It’s like alright, let me give it a shot. And they were like ‘Regina wants to see your audition.’ I was like ‘I’m not going to tell her no.’”

Odom Jr. didn’t think he had the voice to play Cooke, who had big hits with “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang” and Cupid.” “I was like Aldis. I fell in the same camp. I was really doing that thing they we’re not supposed to do as actors-playing casting director.  So, I ran away from the project and the script for a good two or three weeks. I respectfully declined the audition through my representatives. My agent and my manager had to call me. They were like ‘We think you’re making a mistake. We really think you need to look at this again.’ They had never done that before, so I did. I’m so glad that I did.”

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The British Ben-Adir didn’t hesitate about playing Malcolm X. “I was really excited by the opportunity because I kind of knew Regina was going to watch the [audition] tapes.” They wanted the audition tape, though, within 24 hours and Ben-Adir had to put 19 pages of the script on tape.  So, he begged and the weekend in order to “get the language in your body. I wanted to spend a couple of days just watching Malcolm as well, trying to understand the dialect and how he moved, just trying to find a way to make that scene as electric and as magnetic as possible to catch Regina’s attention. So, I locked myself away. Then I sent it to Regina on Monday, and I think that evening or the next day we were on Skype.”

Goree had been preparing to play Ali for two years “because I’d had another opportunity to do a film that Ang Lee was doing. I auditioned for it and Kingsley got it. I was devastated, you know. I met with Ang Lee. I was like ‘I’m the guy. I’ve been training or this for three months. They told me it went to some British guy. I didn’t know who at the time, but I figured it out later when we were on the set.” (The Lee film never happened)

Even though he didn’t get the part, Goree kept preparing to play Ali. “People tell me I favor a young Cassius Clay. Someone’s going to make another film and next time I’m going to be ready. I got a personal boxing coach, a dialect coach. I was just obsessed with Cassius Clay for, like a year and a half.” He was about to do a play about the relationship between Ali and comic Stepin Fetchit when he got a call about “One Night in Miami” and went into audition for King. “I was just grateful that it came. A lot of times, people prepare for these opportunities and they don’t get them, or you end up doing it at the L.A. Fringe and only 50 people see it. But I think it’s just about, what do you want to do as a creator, as an artist? What is it that you actually want to make and then go about doing it. Then sometimes if you’re really blessed, the best possible opportunity meets with it and becomes something special for you.”

PREDICT the 2021 Oscar nominations through March 15

Needless to say, the quartet loved working with King. “Two things that I love that I noticed most vividly in her approach was her patience and humility,” noted Hodge. “We all had different approaches to who we were, and she was so specific about all of those choices. She was very specific about engaging us in a space where it was comfortable for us to do what we do as we saw fit when it came to trying to create these characters.” King, he added, “is really dynamic. She took a movie that was adapted from a play about four men in a room having a conversation and she made it visually engaging.”

Ben-Adir noted there was a “deep, deep trust that whenever there was a note or an idea [from King] that you could just have full confidence in it, that she was always sending you down a more interesting path. Any note that Regina gave us was so helpful.”

“She always made me better,” said Odom Jr. “She didn’t confuse me. She didn’t derail me. It was always taking into account the actor in front of her.”

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