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How Leslie Odom Jr. overcame imposter syndrome as Sam Cooke in ‘One Night in Miami...’

Actor Leslie Odom Jr sits in a hanging chair in his backyard
Actor Leslie Odom Jr., Oscar-nominated for both his performance as Sam Cooke and the original song in the film “One Night in Miami...,” photographed at his home in the Cheviot Hills area of Los Angeles.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Nicole Cooke-Johnson and her grandmother, Barbara Cooke, cried tears of joy the first time they saw Regina King‘s “One Night in Miami....” In fact, they were so moved they watched it twice.

The film, written by Kemp Powers, who also co-directed Pixar’s animated Oscar contender “Soul,” imagines a conversation among Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). It marked the first time Cooke’s granddaughter and widow had ever seen the soul legend portrayed onscreen. And Odom’s performance — which earned him a supporting actor Oscar nomination to go with his original song nod for the film’s end-credits track, “Speak Now” — more crucially won the approval of Cooke’s family.

“He knocked it out of the park,” Cooke-Johnson says during a conference call with Odom and The Times. “Everyone was excited to see how Sam would be portrayed on film. I mean, that’s something we’ve been anxious to see someone do for years. It was so important to see my grandfather portrayed not just for the singer-songwriter that he was but for his tenacity as a businessman, for the passion that he had and for the fun, affable man he was.”

“Nicole, thank you so much for the vote of confidence,” Odom says. “I assumed that I would fall short for some people, maybe even myself, because I knew that there would be places in this movie where I didn’t measure up, where I wasn’t Sam Cooke enough for some people. And so what I had to focus on was pure intention: I wanted Nicole and her family to see that my only desire was to get it right, to honor Mr. Cooke and his legacy. I hoped that intention would cover the gap in whatever my shortcomings were. So the fact that you’ve been so supportive means more to me than I can say.”

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Although he is touched by the Academy recognition, Odom says he has mixed feelings about his Oscar nominations.

Nicole Cooke-Johnson, granddaughter of singer Sam Cooke
Nicole Cooke-Johnson, granddaughter of singer Sam Cooke, is photographed via the FaceTime app on an iPad, from her home in Atlanta, Georgia.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

“The Academy Awards is really about a tradition of honor and excellence, and so to be mentioned in the same breath as the other four nominees as well as all of the nominees that have ever been makes you part of a tradition of storytelling and the arts,” he says. “Film is very new to me. It’s only been the last five or six years. So to be welcomed into the fraternity of storytellers is very meaningful.”

On the other hand, King’s snub in the directing category “hurts,” he says. “It hurts me because that’s my friend and I revere her as an artist and a collaborator. But I should say it hurts me that the other three brothers in the film aren’t nominated.”

Odom points out that “even in an impossible year like last year, there was some incredible work in the film space.” He brings up “Nomadland,” “Minari,” “The 40 Year Old Version,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Da 5 Bloods” as examples. “You could wipe away the five nominees in my category and pull five other names just as worthy and valid out of the work from last year. I don’t want to knock anybody that’s on that list. I’ve seen those films and they’re beautiful. So I hold both of those truths in my hand: I’m so hurt that Regina was not nominated. And every single one of those directors that’s on that list is worthy and did tremendous work.”

One comfort: “Any nominations for the film tacitly acknowledge Regina,” Odom says. “I mean, you can’t really parcel out any parts of this film that doesn’t have Regina’s fingerprints all over it.”

Although Cooke-Johnson has long been acquainted with King, she says she was caught off-guard when the actress signed on as director.

“This project had been on the table for a long time. It went on a small play circuit and we had just finished seeing it in Miami when they were in talks about getting Regina as the director. I didn’t know Regina was even in line. We had no information that she was even interested in it.

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“I called her and said, ‘Regina, my grandmother is so excited.’ She was excited to see a woman of color direct it. She thought that would be one of the best ways to tell a story of men and their relationships. And [Regina] said, ‘How do you know about this?’ And I said, ‘Regina, did you forget Sam is my grandfather?’ She said, ‘Oh my God.’ And so this whole project from day one has been organic.”

While the family was invited to be a part of the process, Cooke-Johnson says, “Our faith in Regina and the story that Kemp was playing was superlative. I knew that if we just stood back, we would get the best result.

“A lot of time when you’re this close to it, you battle with being biased about everything,” she adds. “And I know there are a lot of struggles having families involved in projects like this. So for us, when Regina came on, we literally were hands off. I was hesitant about even coming on set often because you almost want to close your eyes and just see it when it’s all done.”

Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke sings into a microphone
Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke in Regina King’s “One Night in Miami....”
(Patti Perret / Amazon Studios)

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Odom initially turned down the role, thinking Cooke’s shoes were simply too large to fill. But the chance to breathe life into Powers’ script — which the writer adapted from his own stage play and which explores the relationship between the four icons through conversation rather than following a traditional biopic structure — was too big an opportunity to pass up.

“I recognized that Kemp was doing something new,” Odom says. “He was going a little deeper. The conversation was compelling and honest in a way I’d never quite seen. It was daring and I wanted to be a part of something daring.”

Because Cooke’s career spanned just seven years before he was killed in 1964, “There is a finite catalog of video and documentaries [about him],” says Cooke-Johnson. “I mean, there’s probably a dozen video clips, maybe less. But Leslie brought home the small movements, even down to how he held himself in his performance, his inflections and the way he held his mouth when he sang. To see Leslie pick that up was awesome.”

Another major challenge was the film’s quick turnaround, which left Odom just five weeks to prepare for the role. “It’s not like I got to just clear my schedule for five weeks to go away and prepare,” says Odom, who with his wife, actress Nicolette Robinson (“The Affair”), welcomed a second child, a son, earlier this month. “I knew I was going to leave my family for almost two months to go shoot so I couldn’t spend all five weeks now running away from them — I was just reading and watching video clips and documentaries and filling in the gaps in my knowledge about Sam Cooke.”

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Odom got to reunite with his family sooner than expected when Robinson stepped in to play Barbara Cooke in a short scene early in the film. “We thought it would be such a fitting way to honor their love story,” he says. "[Sam and Barbara] had been together since grade school. Nicolette and I haven’t been together that long but with 12 years [together], we got to lean into our familiarity and our trust of one another and use that in service of the telling of the story of the Cookes.”

“We were privy to who would play [my grandmother] and what she looked like and then just recently when they were expecting I was like, ‘Wait a minute, she looks familiar!’” says Cooke-Johnson.

“Ha!” Odom says. “Yeah, we didn’t lead with that. My wife still has her [maiden name] because she is her own woman and her own artist. And Nicolette didn’t get this job because we’re married; she got it on her own merits [after] we lost the original actress who was scheduled to play Mrs. Cooke during COVID when she couldn’t travel out to L.A. I said to Regina, ‘Well, I just happen to live with a brilliant actress, let us make you a tape and see if it works.’”

For all the things that clicked into place during the production of “One Night in Miami...” Odom faced one major hurdle: He was plagued by imposter syndrome throughout filming.

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“There’s a saying from when I was a kid that goes something like, ‘Your arms are too short to box with God,’” he says. “And so essentially I was wondering, am I enough?”

King — and the spirit of Cooke — helped him through the struggle.

“I believed in Regina and Regina believed in me, so I had to find a way to believe in myself along the way of shooting this movie,” Odom says. “And a lot of that I got from Sam’s confidence. He just had a real understanding of his power, his position and his potential so he was able to walk tall. And playing him, I walked like he did. After [shooting in] Louisiana, I grew a couple of inches. I have more of an understanding of my own abilities after having walked around a little bit in Sam’s shoes.”


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