You may not have known much about Leslie Odom Jr. before 2012, but the longtime Broadway star skyrocketed to big screen success with a role in the George Lucas-produced film Red Tails in January. In his first major motion picture, Odom had the honor of playing Tuskegee Airman Declan “Winky” Hall alongside the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston and Ne-Yo.
Just one month after Red Tails debuted in theaters, the heavily advertised NBC series Smash hit television with a bang. Odom’s role as ensemble player Sam Strickland struck a chord with fans of the show, and you’ll be seeing more of him as the series returns for Season 2.
If all this wasn’t enough to celebrate for the first quarter of the new year, Odom also nabbed an intriguing role on Showtime’s brilliant, naughty comedy House of Lies, which stars Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson. The series debuted just days before Red Tails hit theaters, and Odom popped up in later episodes as a potential new company recruit (and ultimately, professional victim) for the devilishly poised consultant Marty Kaan (Cheadle).
Upon the release of Red Tails to DVD, UrbLife.com had a chance to speak with the cheery Carnegie Mellon graduate and Broadway vet about his many triumphs thus far, and how he is managing life with such a boom of mainstream recognition. What is Leslie’s favorite memory of working on Red Tails? Is Broadway anything like what we see on Smash? What type of performing excites him the most? Read on for the answers…
Red Tails was a hit with fans, despite the critics, and it was your first big screen role. How do you feel it’s helped emerging actors such as yourself who have put in so much work?
Leslie Odom Jr.: I’ve never been a part of something that was so embraced by the community, where the community sort of lifted up and championed in that way so I’m… grateful is the only word I can find to express how I feel. The love that we received in the community and the way they just surrounded this film and supported it, I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I think I would be lucky or greedy to expect to feel it again. It was possibly a once in a lifetime thing, but I hope not.
Also, getting to know the men Roscoe Brown and Lee Archer, these octogenarians… time is precious and we don’t know how long any of us are going to be here, so those relationships and having those personal experiences with those guys I’ll take with me forever and ever. I’m so [happy] with the way that it came out.
You went from this successful niche film with Red Tails into the hit TV show Smash, which is just about the most [mainstream] show that you could get these days. What’s that dynamic like for you as an actor, going from one extreme to the other?
LOJ: I really have to stay open to any and all opportunities that come along my way. That doesn’t mean I take every single thing, but I definitely go after a lot more things, because in order to have any kind of success, I really need to sort of maintain a presence in as many different areas as I can.
To keep it politically correct and not make this interview too explosive, I have to work a lot more jobs to make the same money that some of my other counterparts do, even on Smash. I want to buy my mama a house too, I want to have nice stuff too.
And I love it all so much. I love TV and film and stage and commercials and live performances. I love any kind of performing, and anytime I get to meet people and work with brilliant people that challenge you, it’s a great gift to me. I go where the work is, and if it’s something I think I can bring something special to and something where I can learn something, I’m there.
I love your work on House of Lies. Don Cheadle is one of the best to ever do it, and the fact that you can stand up eye to eye with this guy… it was really compelling. Cheadle can dominate a scene.
LOJ: Oh yeah! It is such a blessing for to me to get to work with him, because Cuba [Gooding Jr.] was the same way. I had that scene that I was so happy with the way it turned out in Red Tails. Cuba and Don [Cheadle] and Terrence [Howard], those guys of course can wipe the floor with you or they can try, but working with those cats, I was so impressed with their generosity on screen.[None] of those guys tried to make it about a competition or make it a pissing match – it really was another brother trying to do his thing. The work is going to be better if we don’t compete with one another, and just decide to share. And every one of those guys did that. I was so happy with the way all those things came out.
You have been doing theater since you were a kid. Now that you’ve experienced the dynamic of doing television with series roles and guest spots, and you’ve done a major film, what is your favorite to do and why?
LOJ: The variety, of course, is what you want. It was really my dream when I graduated because I never quite believed that it would happen; that I would get to work in both New York and L.A. We call it bi-coastal in the business, and it’s really a very small handful of actors that get to really keep a presence on both coasts. I’ve been able to do that for the last couple of years which I’m so happy about.
But having been that diplomatic about it, I really do prefer theater. That’s where I started, I’m built for it, there’s nothing like performing for a live audience every night and then meeting with them afterwards. There’s a disconnect a little bit in tv and film because you don’t get that immediate response from the audience. You have no idea what people are going to think.
Now, walking down the street, having people come up to me and tell me how much they love Smash and tell me how much they love House of Lies is fantastic – but shooting it, I had no idea. I had to do what I like, and just tell the truth in the moment, but in theater you get that immediate response. That instant gratification and that’s like a drug. There’s nothing better than that.
With Red Tails, you did this historical, beautiful movie about real people who changed history. Now you’re doing a television show about Broadway. How realistic is that show, and what you’ve experienced?
LOJ: We take many, many licenses on that show. We take many dramatic licenses. If it was truly like it is on TV, I don’t think I would enjoy it as much. What you’ll actually find backstage at a Broadway house are the most generous, kindest, most loving people and really just about the best community you can find. It’s a community full of misfits – nerds and geeks and people who were outsiders in high school. Its people that are on the fringe.
With Red Tails, I went to Comic-Com for the first time this year and [it] was just the most loving and open warm accepting place I’ve ever been. Again, its people that I think are outsiders, it’s not the popular kids. It’s there they celebrate who they are and they celebrate their quirkiness and their weirdness and what they love. You find that in the theater too.
The television show, it’s a television show, there certainly truth in it… [Broadway] is also one of the most competitive places you can choose to spend your life. It’s very competitive, it can be cutthroat, it’s unfair…you know the business is unfair, but like I said, it’s also I said it’s a really loving environment too.
Do you find it more challenging to play a real life character or a fictional character?
LOJ: I find them the same. Talk to me if they ever hire me to play Barack Obama, that might be a little daunting. I kind of look at them all as souls, so I approached Red Tails with the same reverence and respect as I did House of Lies. Every single project and every single character is an opportunity to speak for a soul and to bring forth a true voice. You’re speaking for somebody.
If you could remake any movie in history and put yourself in the lead role, which would it be?
LOJ: No one’s ever asked me that, but the first thing that came to mind is umm…my fiancé’s an actress and we love the old love stories. Mahogany – I just love that movie. Brilliant script, beautiful performances, said something that hasn’t quite been said before. Maybe Mahogany with me and Nicollete Robinson. Soon to be Nicolette Robinson-Odom.
That’s so cute! Its awesome they are remaking Sparkle – that’s one of my favorites too.
LOJ: Yeah, I cannot wait to see that – I loved Sparkle!
What are some of the things you are doing to establish your future?
LOJ: I think that I had to come terms… you have to accept the fact in this business that it may never come to you, and if it does come to you “It” might not stay. This is a wonderfully fruitful time right now. I’ve worked for 10 years to get here.
But I think as an adult, you realize it’s a moment in time, so people might not always be stopping me on the street an tell me how much they love me. Planning for the future, I think I def want to teach at some point. I loved my professors so much in college and they just gave me so much at such a crucial time in my life. I have a heart for teaching, a heart for education.
For me, growing up is about being in the present and loving every single moment of this, my time, but also realizing that it moves on. Soon enough, hopefully not too soon, it’ll be someone else’s time – so being able to let go when it moves beyond you.
Follow Leslie on Twitter @LeslieOdomJr
CLICK HERE to get Red Tails on DVD via various retailers and watch the trailer below