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Leslie Odom Jr. On Parenting In Lockdown, Playing Sam Cooke, And That Nationwide Commercial

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Leslie Odom Jr. is a GRAMMY and Tony award-winner but it was his work in the Nationwide commercials that landed him his role as Sam Cooke in "One Night In Miami." #Colbert #OneNightInMiami #LeslieOdomJr

Video Transcript

STEPHEN COLBERT: Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the show. My first guest tonight is a Grammy and Tony Award winning actor. He recently received two, count them, two Oscar nominations for his work in the new film One Night in Miami.

- (singing) I was born by the river in a little tent. Oh, and just like the river, I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know change is going to come.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Please welcome back to The Late Show, Leslie Odom Jr. Leslie, thanks for being here.

LESLIE ODOM JR.: My pleasure, Stephen. Thanks for having me.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, I want to get to that incredible performance in just a moment for the new film, One Night in Miami, but first, congratulations on the new baby boy, Abel Phineas. That is big news, and a second child, right? This is your second.

LESLIE ODOM JR.: That's our second. That's our second. How do my bags look on late night on Zoom?

STEPHEN COLBERT: You look good. We have digitally removed them. Nobody at home will know how ragged you look to me.

LESLIE ODOM JR.: Thank you.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Now, this is your second child. How is-- I think we have here-- yes, OK, this is Lucille, holding her little brother. That's a beautiful shot. How she adjusting? Because some older siblings say, OK, take him back now. How is she handling it?

LESLIE ODOM JR.: As you can see with the crown on and everything, she's taken to it very, very well. She knows her position in the house and his position, you know? She's letting him know early who the Princess is. She's doing very well.

STEPHEN COLBERT: What about your adjustment as a parent? Because, now, A, you and your wife for our on man to man, you know, man to man defense here. One more, and you got to go to zone. But do have things that you've learned from being a parent of one that you've got all this wisdom that you can now use the raise your second child or to add another child to the mix here? Do you have pearls of wisdom that you've learned from your first parenting experiences?

LESLIE ODOM JR.: You know, speaking of pearls of wisdom, I really thought that that's what fatherhood was about, right? I thought that that's what it entailed. I was going to open up my book, my literal book, and I would just read to the my children.

A couple of times a day, I would say, gather round, and I would just impart wisdom to them and tell them, you know, that's all the lesson for today. That's the lesson today, but my daughter has taught me that it's just really so much more about-- she tells me what she needs essentially, you know? Because you're parenting the kid that you have, so I feel like the first part of this is really just getting to know Abel. And he'll tell me what he needs to learn.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Now, another congratulations in order. As I said before in the intro, two Oscar nominations for your performance as the great Sam Cook in One Night in Miami. I always like to ask where people were when they found out about the nomination. Did it catch you by surprise? Were you hanging out, waiting for it? What was the moment like?

LESLIE ODOM JR.: I was asleep. A very exciting story to tell you. I was deep into REM sleep. It happens very early in Los Angeles as well.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Of course, yeah.

LESLIE ODOM JR.: Yeah, I got one of those phone calls. My team did let me know. They said, we know that we know you don't want to know what tomorrow is. We know you're not going to get up and watch, but just leave your phone on. Be a grown up, and leave your phone on in case we need to reach you in the morning. So I did that at the very least.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Did you celebrate?

LESLIE ODOM JR.: I did. Yeah, Nicollet was still-- you know, she was about to pop. So I had some champagne all by myself. It's been a celebration ever since, though, you know? It's sucks-- you know, the Oscar nomination is just such a moment, you know? So it's been a celebration in the weeks that have followed.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, you've got the Grammy, and the Tony, and now, the Oscar nomination. Let's see if we can get you an Emmy for tonight's interview. We're just going to [? egot ?] it up. We're going to [? egot ?] it up in one fell swoop. OK, I want to talk to you, and I also want to talk to the audience about this performance as Sam Cook.

First of all, let's just talk for a second about the idea of the movie itself. We had Regina King on here to talk about it, and it's this extraordinary story of four great, black Americans meeting based on a true story. And tell the people what happened, what the true story is based on, and what the story of the movie tells.

LESLIE ODOM JR.: Yes, true story. Young Cassius Clay, February 1964, is going to go down to Miami and fight his first heavyweight championship bout against Sonny Liston. Nobody expects Cassius to win this fight, of course, except for Cassius, but his three closest friends show up in Miami to help him celebrate the night. And they happened-- they just happened to be Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cook. So that's the true story. They spent the entire evening after Cassius won.

There's no victory party planned for young Muhammad, so they spent the evening palling around in Malcolm's motel room, one of the all black motels down in Miami. In this movie, nobody knows what the gentleman talked about in the hotel room, where it happened, as it were. But Kemp Powers, Oscar nominated Kemp Powers received a nomination for this beautiful script. He supposes what these men might have talked about all night long.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Your performance, everyone's performances incredible on this, but also, Powers' writing is amazing. It's sort of writing that I associate with Paddy Chayefsky, which is every character gets their moment to say what they're about. And when they do, you go, oh, I think I agree with them.

Like it's very balanced, and there's this great tension between Sam Cook, the character or Sam Cook, and the character of Malcolm X about what the position is, what a black man of notoriety in the 1960s should do to better his own people. And tragically, both of those men, I don't believe, survive another year or maybe barely more than a year for one of them. I know Sam Cook dies within the year just shortly after. Correct?

LESLIE ODOM JR.: Sam dies in December, and Malcolm dies, I believe, in February. Malcolm is assassinated in February.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, besides the human tragedy of anyone's death, Sam Cook has been one of the great lost voice, in my opinion, of the 20th century, and I never thought I'd hear anything like that again. And while you still sound like Leslie Odom, you have captured this extraordinary tone, and style, and soul of Sam Cook. What was that process like to become, to embody that voice? Because I never thought I'd hear it, again, and I got chills every time you would start singing in that movie.

What was the process? Did you go all the way back to the soul stirrers? What did you do to sort of get accustomed to him?

LESLIE ODOM JR.: Yes, I went in chronological order. I'm a fan, too, you know? In many ways, Sam was one of my teachers. Singing is an oral tradition.

It's passed down from generation to generation. We learn the way we're supposed to approach a song and what is required of us as storytellers, but I went back to the beginning. And I really kind of tried to understand the evolution of his sound and try to understand kind of like the psychology of it for maybe why he was making the choices that he was making.

I have to tell you, I did not-- for real, true story. I did not think that the person that they hired to play Sam Cook was going to sing the Sam Cook songs. We've seen lots of actors. You know, Rami Malick just did it beautifully. He plays Freddie Mercury, and nobody asked Rami to sing the Freddie Mercury song. So I did not think that was going to be a part of my--

STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, listen, but then, again, not every person you ask to play a part is Leslie Odom Jr. I have seen you sing in person before. I was there early on in Hamilton. I was on the third row in the center, and when you came out to do Room Where it Happens, I got pinned back to my seat. And I turned to our mutual friend Carrie right afterwards and said, who the [BLEEP] is that?

Regina King was on, as I said, before, talking about this film a little over a month ago, and I was asking. I was talking about you and your performance, and she said, you know, I wasn't really that familiar with Hamilton. And she goes, it really was that Nationwide commercial that sold me. Now, admittedly, those are fine commercials, and you do a fine job in it. Does it surprise you at all that that's what pushed you over the top for her?

LESLIE ODOM JR.: Can I tell you? Not at all, because look, that's a good partnership. That's a good brand partnership. When a commercial-- when an insurance commercial is getting new roles of a lifetime as Sam Cook, that's a good brand partnership. But at my concerts, I would sometimes do a poll of the audience at the end, you know?

And I'd say, who's here for Hamilton? And, of course, you know, 85%, 90% of the people are clapping. 5% of the people are there because of some other TV show they saw me on in the early 2000s, Gray's Anatomy, or Gilmore Girls, or whatever. And 5% of the people were there because of the Nationwide commercial. So all these years later, and Nationwide's still on my side, you know? It's still--

STEPHEN COLBERT: Cut him a check, Nationwide. That's inclusive sponsorship. Leslie, great to see you again. Thanks so much for being here.

LESLIE ODOM JR.: Thanks for having me.

STEPHEN COLBERT: One Night in Miami is available now on Amazon Prime. Leslie Odom Jr., everybody. We'll be right back with physicist Michio Kaku.