Oscar nominee Leslie Odom Jr. and the ‘One Night in Miami’ cast on how the film is ‘daring’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Leslie Odom Jr. is now a two-time Oscar nominee, earning recognition for his performance as Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami” and for writing the film’s end credits song, “Speak Now.”

Odom recently joined his “One Night in Miami” co-stars, Eli Goree and Aldis Hodge, in speaking with Gold Derby editor in chief Tom O’Neil and editor Rob Licuria about the film’s continued relevance and working with writer Kemp Powers‘s source material and their experiences with director Regina King. Watch the exclusive chat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: The genius of this drama is that we know that all of these very famous people were there that night when Sonny Liston went down to Cassius Clay. We don’t know what happened and so, that gives the drama a chance to take the dialogue wherever you want it. But I would like to know what you would have done if you personally could have been in that room with any one of them. Maybe somebody shoves you in there. Maybe you stumble in there. However it works, but if you were among these few men that night, what would you have said and maybe specifically to your own character? To complete the thought, you could say, “Yes, America’s racially divided now and sexually divided, and there’s a drug revolution going on and there’s a sexual revolution going on and on and on and on and on. But in our case, over race, things will get better. We’re going to have a Black president someday. Would they have believed you? Even if they had believed you, could you then say the storm won’t be over because a few years later, there’s going to be a thing called Black Lives Matter? What if you were part of that conversation?

Aldis Hodge: If I was part of the conversation, I would ask, coming from my perspective what they would think of the times today and what they would do to help us fix where we’re at, because, things have progressed. Yes, we have a Black president. That doesn’t fix the problem. Black Lives Matter is a movement of necessity out of the current state of times that became something because our priority for protection was being ignored consistently so we started crying out and then what you see is more people continuing to cry out on our behalf and in support of us and you see this whole universal global movement, which is beautiful, that shows love is greater than hate. (Aldis’s internet cuts out)

GD (Tom): Aldis’s screen has frozen. Who wants to pick up his thought here?

Eli Goree: I can’t pick up his thought but I will say that I also respectfully disagree that having a Black president in any way reflects the more general issues and systemic issues that Black people have faced. I think we’ve always had anomalies. There was a time when Sidney Poitier won an Oscar and then it took another 30 years before another Black person won an Oscar. We’ve had great leaders in the Black community that have been able to overcome and transcend the racial boundaries forever, since Booker T. Washington. But that has never meant that the grander scale of systemic racism has been addressed and that’s really what they were meeting about at that time and what we’re still fighting to overcome today and in many ways, we have made some progress in certain areas, but in many ways, we’ve digressed in many areas. When you look at the criminal justice system and the numbers that we’re looking at of Black men being force-fed through that machine and when you look at the unity that existed back then, we don’t have anything like the Black Panthers today. We’re now starting to get things again, like the bus boycotts that were back then, even like the Nation of Islam at that time. Obviously, the Nation of Islam still exists but the type of interaction that it had in the Black community, the type of impact that it had, there was a lot more unity within the Black community, I think, at that time in many aspects than there is right now. And that’s largely due to a continued attack, through drugs being put into our communities, through negative imagery and systemic stereotypes being force-fed on our communities through a lack of proper educational support and health support and so many different aspects.

I think, if anything, they were worried that this is where things might be and they were trying to get to a better place than what we’ve gotten to today because these are the types of issues that they talk about in the film. They talk to Sam about how there’s always one Black guy who manages to break through, but at what expense and at what cost? These are all conversations that we had in the film, which resonate very clearly to the times that we’re in now. So I definitely think that they could have envisioned where we’re at today. I think that they would have had a lot to say about how we need to take greater strides and I think they had a very powerful vision for what they wanted to see. I think now that Aldis is back, I’ll let him take it back. But economically, I know he has a lot that Jim wanted to see and still wants to see in our communities that still hasn’t been realized. So Aldis, I’ll let you pick it back up from there then. 

AH: The internet doesn’t want me to be great. I don’t know whether we have some outages going on in my area, but as I was saying, the fact that we have to ask certain questions about progress, people say, “Has it gotten better?” The fact that we have to ask, “Has it gotten better” means it hasn’t gotten better. We have never in this country seen real equity. This country doesn’t know what that is when it comes to universal equity for all cultures in this country, especially as it pertains to Black people. So we haven’t seen that yet. The goal, the dream has not been accomplished. So there’s still a lot more work to do and I think that their take on it for right now, if anything, would be leading us towards what that work is, or the question might be, “Why hasn’t that work been done and why hasn’t it been accomplished?” It’s not for lack of trying. It is for a means of continually being held back in those ways that continually used against us to hold us back. Those ways are graduating. I say systemic racism and oppression has only evolved to what is culturally appropriate, because at a time, enslavement was culturally appropriate. It has changed in its execution but is it really gone? I don’t think so. So we’ve got a lot of work to do, but not just Black people, white people, too. It’s a race we beat together, so we gotta get hand in hand on it, man. 

Leslie Odom Jr.: I don’t know if there’s much I can add to what my brother said, really complete answers for sure. 

Gold Derby (Rob Licuria): When I spoke to Kemp Powers, the brilliant man who broke this play and then obviously wrote the script, he said that this film’s prescience actually fills him with a profound sense of sadness because you long for the day that this film can be a time capsule because it’s about a certain period of American history, a very profound part of American history. And yet, it should represent a far-off time and feel like it’s not written like a response to something that’s happening now, because it wasn’t. When it was produced in 2013, it was considered prescient. When it was in London in 2015, it was considered prescient. And yet again, this was made before 2020, and yet, when it opened at the end of last year, people couldn’t stop talking about how prescient this film has become. So I’m wondering when I see you guys talk about this film and what it means so passionately, no kidding, it feels like history keeps repeating. I’m wondering when you’re in that room with Regina and you’re trying to film something quite profound and intimate, was that stuff ever really occurring to you guys or was it more just about trying to find the truth and authenticity in each moment? I’ll go to you first, Leslie. 

LO: I think we had such an incredible blueprint from Kemp about what he wanted to say, and to me, my job was pretty simple, was just to honor what he had written and to do my best to try to touch the bar that Regina was setting for us, a very, very high bar that she was setting for us. This was adding to the canon of images of Black humanity and what we’ve made here, what we have made for ourselves here, what we continue to build for ourselves. But there was something about the nature of the script that I recognized as daring. There was something daring about it. This was a conversation we never had publicly. I had really never seen a conversation like this publicly, so it was something private that Kemp was daring us to share, daring us to share more of ourselves in public. So that requires a little courage and taking up a little more space. So it was exciting, but yeah, I wasn’t bogged down too much thinking about the sadness. I wasn’t even really thinking about the year that followed that evening because tragically, we lost both Malcolm [X] and Sam within a year of that night, but I wanted them full of life in that room.

This is a moment of celebration. There’s joy. There’s so much joy in this film and friendship and camaraderie and in the midst of the trials, that is important, too. That is radical, too. I looked for every moment that I could to have full-bodied laughter and joy when I’m with my brothers because that’s what binds them. That’s what keeps them in the room. That is what has sustained us. It is not this never-ending worship of our own pain, of our own difficulties in this country. What has sustained us is joy. What has sustained us is passion and Black brilliance. They are rallying around a young king in Cassius Clay. We all see something in him that reminds us of ourselves and then some. So there’s so much celebration on that night after all. He’s the new champ. So if he could be the champ, what am I capable of? What is he showing these young kids? So anyway, that’s a galvanizing thing. That is something that could get us through the long days of shooting, and that is something we wanted to put out into the world. 

GD (Rob): Eli, do you have anything further to say on that point? 

EG: I think Leslie nailed it. I think it’s about celebrating the moment. I guess one thing I would just add is that I think we were, at least for me, I was really passionate. I can actually say I think for everybody, I think I was really passionate and had the complete responsibility and understood the responsibility that I was playing Cassius Clay, so I thank Regina for being Regina because I didn’t have the luxury of being able to look at things from 50,000 feet and trying to have the bigger, grander scope of how it all fits into the story of today and yesteryear. I was playing Cassius Clay and I needed to nail that because that’s going to be with me for the rest of my life and I know Leslie’s singing Sam Cooke, Jim Brown is still alive. These are huge legacies that you’re carrying. So for me, that’s all I was thinking about all the time, from beginning to end.

GD (Rob): And to pick up on that, Aldis, I heard that when the camera stopped rolling, sometimes you could hear a pin drop and the hair on the back of your neck was stand up because you were all together. You stayed on set a lot. You didn’t just walk up to your trailers. There was a real camaraderie there. So, I mean, that follows. (Rob’s internet cuts off)

AH: While we’re waiting for Rob to come back, I’ll just answer his last question as well in terms of coming to it and thinking about where we were in the year and all of that. This was a message that spoke to me personally just because it’s a message, a conversation, since we were kids. We’re live in this. A lot of people stopped and realized what was going on in 2020 because they were forced to sit with it. But 2020 is every year for Black people. Let’s not forget Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland. There’s too many names. Too many. Emmett Till. This is every year for us. The rest of the world just woke up to it in 2020 like it just popped up. So now we have a grand opportunity with a film like this to share this actual conversation to a place where people can understand and that’s the true power of it, because now you see what we’re going through. Now you see that it’s not just a game because you don’t live this reality. You get to observe it, but now you get to actually understand it. That was truly genius about the way Kemp wrote the script and the thing that I love about it is that we’re also dealing with four men who are coming from different perspectives on how to get to the same goal but they’re still figuring out how to get there together. So they’re working together, figuring out how to actually work with one another. Even though they’ve got a couple of bumps and bruises on the road, they still come together. So it’s about real unity. It’s about brotherly love. It’s about understanding what their responsibility is to their people and they get to talk about it, debate about it, fight about it a little bit, but also have fun with it, laugh about it, enjoy it, because they understand at the end of the day they’re working for a higher, grander purpose, which was the same purpose that we carried into making this film. 

GD (Tom): What did Regina bring to this? What was the first thing she told you when she had you together as a group and she said X and what was X? In other words, “Don’t go over the top with rage.”

AH: Regina understood the tone so everything you saw and felt from the movie is everything that she brought to it, her vision, her choices, her team. But she understood tone and she knew that these men had to show and exhibit real vulnerability in order for us to understand where they were, to understand they’re human beings and go beyond the image that we see of these titans that we actually know them to be. We wanted to show real human beings. So she understood how to work with us individually because we’re all four different actors with different processes about how we’re coming into these men and she has so much patience, so much wisdom, so much guidance and it was really just, again, understanding the real message of the film and going on tone. There are moments where we are allowed to be mad and allowed to be full of rage and there are moments that are quiet where we’re allowed to be more insular and just trying to figure things out. Sometimes we’re a little lost and it’s OK to be lost. But that was the thing is she made it OK for them to be vulnerable and at fault in order to show how great they actually are. 

LO: I agree with everything Aldis said, but I think she brought a spirit of collaboration and like exceptional leaders can do, she brought out the leader in each one of us. We all knew that we were holding it up together so it just created a real ensemble. We became an ensemble pretty quickly.

EG: Yeah, I’ll say the first and last thing she said to me, because, I mean, I love Regina dearly. This movie has changed my life and so for this opportunity, I’m forever grateful to her. But the very first thing she said to me after we had our table read, she called me and I was extremely excited because I was like, “I killed it.” In my mind, I was like, “I got this.” And she called me up and she said, “So we got a long way to go.” 

GD (Tom): You got called out by Teacher!

EG: My confidence went boom. “I want your confidence, I want that bravado, but we got a long way to go.” I couldn’t go into all the different ways that she taught me and brought me along that journey. But at the very end, my last day of ADR, we were both walking to our car. She was actually walking across the street to get a sandwich and I was walking to my car to leave and she turned to me and she said, “I wasn’t sure if we had a movie or a film. But I know now that I’ve seen this cut, we have a film.” And that was Regina King talking to me so I just didn’t say anything. I was just like, “Praise God.” I got my car and I was like, “OK, I’m excited.” I remember being hyped for the rest of the day, just knowing that she was that proud of what had been produced and that she felt like she had gotten the vision that she had in her mind of what it could be, that she felt like it was going to get there. So that’s a little story for what it’s worth. 

GD (Rob): Well, I wanted to just talk about a couple of moments, but particularly, the way the film ends with that rousing payoff we get at the end, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” I found it really immensely satisfying and moving and I was wondering, Leslie, how it felt to bring that iconic song to life, and effective kind of have the final say on the film as Sam Cooke. 

LO: It was a fair amount of pressure. A weird thing happens as an actor when you read a moment like that. Eli might have had the same moment when he saw, like, “Oh, we gotta do these fights. We’ve gotta reenact these fights.” The weird thing that happens is that you are very excited by the challenge and the opportunity and you’re also terrified. You’re also like, “Let’s put that off for as long as possible.” But the day had come and I don’t know, I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I didn’t really have a plan. I couldn’t see it, but the day had come. Anyway, in the moment, when we went to shoot it, everything rose up within me. All the research that I’d done, all the time that I’d spent with Sam and then all the time that I spent with these brothers, because so much of my Sam I found in relationship to these other brilliant actors playing these brilliant men. So I don’t know, the whole experience was alive in me on that day and I was able to, at the very least, do something that I was not ashamed of. And then what’s on the screen, film is such a collaborative thing, so I know what’s on the screen is Regina and Tariq [Anwar], our editor, and the sound design, it’s all of those elements and the way it has been put together, I didn’t see that gorgeous shot of Muhammad at that point, onstage, that beautiful shot, I didn’t see that until the film. I didn’t see Aldis shoot the scene with the reporters around. So the film, what Regina gave us back, she gave us back something that was greater than the sum of our parts. She gave us back something beautiful. 

GD (Tom): Here’s my final question. Nothing in Hollywood ever goes according to script, ever. So what went wrong? It could be funny, some funny accident that went wrong or an improv moment where just something was disastrous and then you went, “You know, that’s pretty good. We should keep it.” Or craft services doesn’t show up one day or a set falls down or Leslie, you’re out there singing and you accidentally tip over a table. I mean, is there anything, any moment from the movie behind the scenes that we don’t see that is just a good story? 

AH: To be honest, I don’t really know if anything did actually go wrong except for weather. I mean, there was one day where we lost some time because a rainstorm was coming in so we had to shoot a scene on the roof and basically, we were running back and forth between the stage and the roof, like, “We got a cloud coming. We got like 30 minutes. Let’s go get this little clip. All right, cool, let’s run back to the stage, get the rest of it, wait for a cloud to pass.” It was people hustling back and forth between an exterior and interior set. But aside from that, everybody was really buttoned up because, brother, we had no time. 

LO: We were losing you. That was the thing. We were going to lose Aldis. Aldis had to shoot something, Kingsley [Ben-Adir] had to shoot something. 

GD (Tom): This movie is called “One Night in Miami,” it could very well have been called “A New Day in America,” because a lot does change after that. I remember living in the Midwest as a white Irish boy of Republican parents seeing the Muhammad Ali press conference live on TV and my parents turning to each other going, “Oh my God, what’s next?” To them, in their mind, it was like Cassius becoming Muhammad was an escalation in some crazy way in their mind of things worse instead of this man finding God in a new way. 

AH: How old were you then? 

GD (Tom): I’m 66 now. How old would I have been then? I don’t even know.

AH: I’m curious about how you felt about it. How did it make you feel? 

GD (Tom): I don’t know, I was scared of the world. I mean, I was living 10 miles from Cleveland where Watts was burning because of racial riots. I had a draft card with a fairly middle number that meant I could be hauled over there any minute. The world had gone from Eisenhower and all this sweetbread America to we didn’t know what. The atom bomb had just gone off. It was a terrifying time to live because we’d never seen anything like it and now we had a little box in our living rooms that showed us everything.

AH: Imagine the terror that Black people had to live in in that time. That’s real fear. 

GD (Tom): But you guys made a great contribution to that progress moving forward because this is a movie that will be remembered and will be honored duly on the award circuit. Congratulations on your success. Good luck in the awards arena.

AH: Thanks, take care.

LO: Be well.

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