The Many Saints Of Newarks Leslie Odom Jr. On Telling A Story Focused On What’s Happening In Between The Lines
After playing Aaron Burr in the Tony-winning musical Hamilton and garnering a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination last year playing singer Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami, Leslie Odom Jr. this year turned his sights toward David Chase’s world of Jersey mobsters in The Many Saints of Newark. In the precursor to the celebrated series, The Sopranos, Odom Jr. plays Harold McBrayer opposite Alessandro Nivola’s Dickie Moltisanti. Their relationship grows from colleagues—McBrayer oversees a numbers operation for the other man—into bitter rivals in the backdrop of the Newark race riots, each escalating in violence and danger.
DEADLINE: You just received a Grammy nomination for your song “Speak Now” from One Night in Miami. Congratulations.
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LESLIE ODOM JR.: It certainly is a nice feeling. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve had the experience now of waking up and hoping to be nominated, and it happening. I’ve woken up and hoped to be nominated, and then, it didn’t happen. And I’ve had the very lucky experience a couple times now of waking up and being nominated for something I had no expectation at all to be nominated for. To hear about [being nominated] from other people is my favorite. You are living your life, fully invested in the things that are in front of you, the people that are in front of you, and then, something nice like this happens. It’s surprising and, yeah, wonderful.
DEADLINE: You look like a million bucks in that suit. Do you always look this sharp for Zoom interviews? I’m tempted to go change my shirt.
ODOM JR.: No pressure on you, but I’m trying to do this thing now where I just get rid of some of my slummier clothes. It’s something about that pandemic malaise, you know. Taking a shower every day, but I’m in this same sweatpants and sweatshirt I’ve been wearing for the last four days. I’m trying to phase some of that out. There are signs that we’re coming to the end of, you know, really tough and impossible time with quarantine and all that. So, I’m trying, essentially, to just have some nicer shit in the closets, so that I will wear nicer stuff.
DEADLINE: I approve, and I feel appropriately shamed. On The Many Saints of Newark, how big a fan of The Sopranos series were you when this all came about?
ODOM JR.: I wouldn’t call myself a fan, before I was cast. I hadn’t watched the series top to bottom. Sopranos premiered the year that I graduated high school, so it wasn’t top of mind. When I was a college freshman, HBO would have been like caviar, like eating lobster. I didn’t have those frills then. I didn’t watch the series the first time around. You couldn’t help but be aware of it because it was at the center of the cultural conversation, but I didn’t watch it the first time around.
DEADLINE: How did this all come about, leading to the call from David Chase on one of the best roles in The Sopranos prequel?
ODOM JR.: I didn’t think I was on David’s radar at all. I got a call to make an audition tape. At the time, I was in a really good spot because I was shooting a sitcom that was in production on a pilot at ABC. I was producing it with Kerry Washington, and I was really having the time of my life, starring in this sitcom. We didn’t go forward at ABC but that’s where my head was. I was fully invested in this sitcom; I wanted my Everybody Loves Raymond, the nine-season run. I was on the CBS Radford lot. And I got a call. They needed this tape very, very quickly. They were making a decision in the next two days, and I had to film this thing, tonight. I’m told, we know it’s been a long day on the lot, but you got to go make this tape. It’s a great script.
DEADLINE: You read the script?
ODOM JR.: I’m told they won’t send you a script. There’s just the scenes. But this is a big project! I make this tape with as little as they’d given me, but there was still something happening when I went to make the tape, there was inspiration there. The writing, nobody writes like they did. It was just specific enough that you don’t feel out to drift and just open enough that you really feel like you can express your own artistic soul.
So, I made the tape, expecting them to make the decision the next couple days like they said. Next day, I got a call. OK. They love your tape. They want you to tape again, but this time, you’ll have some notes. I’m like, OK, but I thought they were making a decision right away. Just make the tape again. So, I make the tape again with their notes in mind. I get a call the next day. OK. They want you to tape one more time. I said, OK. I’m fine taping at 11 pm at night after filming, but I need to talk to the director, or I need to read a script. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just making choices, jabs in the dark with this. I have no idea what the script is about.
And so, Alan Taylor got on the phone with me. He said, “I love what you’re doing. It’s really great. We really like your take on this guy but don’t forget, in that second scene, you know, you just killed that guy in the army recruitment office.” I was like “Alan, Alan. I had no idea about that. You haven’t sent me a script. That would be helpful to know. OK. I just killed a guy. All right.” So, he laughed. He had a good chuckle with that, because you know, I don’t even know if Alan knew how serious they were about keeping the actors auditioning in the dark. So, then, they sent me to New York. I met with Alan and David. I read the script, so I knew what I was doing.
DEADLINE: You level with them that you hadn’t watched the series?
ODOM JR.: I kept that close to the vest, but in hindsight, I think that my experience might have been something akin to the actors in that original run, in that there was nothing for them to watch. But they were getting great scripts. They were getting great original David Chase scripts and they were trying to play those moments as honestly as they possibly could. So, that was my task.
DEADLINE: When Deadline did a 20-year look back on The Sopranos, Jamie-Lynn Sigler who played Tony’s daughter said she went in knowing the title and little else. She’s a singer and she kept asking, “Do you want me to sing?” So, your notion seems spot on. After you got the job, did you immerse yourself in the show?
ODOM JR.: I had very little time to prepare, and I knew my character wasn’t based on anybody in the series. So, watching the series top to bottom wasn’t the priority. I watched some episodes but didn’t have the 60 hours to really truly do that in that moment. I have since watched it, twice, during the pandemic. That was a time to watch all the great series I never got around to in the first go round. But David gives you so much. like I said, he gives you so much upon the page, and then, there really is, in a wonderful and strange way, there also is so much that is up for interpretation. There’s so much of my [character’s] back story that I did feel comfortable adding personal touches to, and I worked with my acting coach to flush out a history for Harold that felt personal to me. David, he writes in such a sweet spot.
DEADLINE: Contrast the difference between Dickie Moltisanti, and your character Harold. Dickie’s blinding temper ruins his life. Harold starts as his employee, but by the end, he’s emboldened to go against Dickie, with the help of the heroin kingpin Frank Lucas.
ODOM JR.: I kind of thought of them as, I don’t know, brothers like Caine and Abel, or distant cousins. Something familial because of that thin line that we all know so well. When you care about someone deeply, when you love somebody, that sensitivity to triggers and betrayal and slights is the stuff of great drama. I wanted to make them as close as possible, and obviously, it was on the page already. It was inspired by David’s script. What I understand very well from the life that I’ve lived and also what’s been shared with me by generations before me, what I understood very well is that question that Harold has.
I was talking to a writer friend of mine, really talented dramatic writer, and she said that she believes that every project has those central questions, and every character has a central question. I think for Harold, it might have been, but for the color of my skin where would I be? What can I achieve? What might I be capable of? You know if that is that character’s central question, yeah, it’s going to eventually lead to tension with him and his brother, with him and the guys that bait him and berate him constantly because of the color of his skin and where he grew up.
DEADLINE: You could see that at play in the series with Tony’s sister Janice. She did terrible things and acted like a mob boss, and I’m sure she felt if she had been born male, she would have been the boss.
ODOM JR.: That is a really good observation. Yeah.
DEADLINE: Set during the Newark riots, this movie is such a study in class distinctions. We saw here and, in the series, that the Italian soldiers pictured themselves at one level. But the people who lived near Tony were infatuated by knowing a criminal, and they pictured themselves above him. In the movie, your character was as ambitious as the Italian mistress who comes between Harold and Dickie. Clearly the mobsters felt that women, and people of color, were well below them. It made the film more than a simple mob story. Were you cognizant of that?
ODOM JR.: Oh. Sure. I think David writes with a whole lot of symbolism. David’s writing too is so much about what’s happening in between the lines. Knowing at the center of the story, the original inspiration, was that it was about this mob boss goes to a shrink and sits on the couch for analyzation. A character like that would need to be complex enough to keep us interested enough for us to be curious about, season after season.
Having watched the series, certainly I can confirm that I think if that is the case with Tony, it really needs to be the case for almost everybody in The Soprano’s universe. That any one of them could be on that couch. They all need to be as psychologically complex as that character. So, of course, I thought about what David was doing symbolically and thematically and that really sets you free as an actor because so many different interpretations would work from moment to moment.
DEADLINE: You’ve played famous characters in Aaron Burr and Sam Cooke. Why were you reluctant to play the singer, in One Night in Miami?
ODOM JR.: I mean, wouldn’t you be?
DEADLINE: Not if I sang like you…
ODOM JR.: It just felt like… I thought there must be somebody better suited than I. But Regina King believed in me, so I had to find a way to believe in myself. The most surprising thing, I think, was I don’t think that I had ever really considered until then this thing my dad had told me about. I was 10 or 11 and we were watching swans in a park and my dad said, “Do you see that swan in the water? Do you see how graceful it is?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Underneath the water is this [mimics the swan’s feet churning].” He was talking about the effort, the tremendous effort underneath grace. I’d just never considered that where Sam was concerned. Publicly, he was so polished, and professional and unflappable. I’d never considered as deeply the tremendous effort that was underneath that until [I saw] Kemp Power’s script.
DEADLINE: This is probably a wonky parallel, but Sam Cooke was pressured by his friends Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X to fight the impulse to please everyone and sing things that needed to be said in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Harold in The Many Saints of Newark was basically goaded into killing an employee who got out of line, by Dickie Moltisanti, to save face with the white mob family.
ODOM JR.: I think the things about the world that he’s chosen… there’s things about that world that Harold has accepted are a part of it. On some level, he has made peace with an untimely demise, you know, his own untimely demise. I think that for whatever reason, he’s chosen this world and the reward is worth the risk for him. I think he feels like he’s smart enough and savvy enough to survive it. That said, as a father, as a conscientious citizen in 2021, whenever I pick up a shotgun in a film and allow myself to be used to depict that kind of violence, I want to consider the costs. You know, I want to consider the cost in the performance, meaning I want the character to weigh the cost. I consider the cost as an artist, you know, what am I putting out into the world and why and do I think that it is useful in some way.
I thought that the best way that I could make use of myself in that moment was to consider it, to really think about what it means to take a life and are you gleeful when you do something like that. Is there pleasure in it? Is there joy in it? I don’t think there’s any of that for Harold. I think that there’s a cost. I wanted that to reside somewhere. I certainly wanted it to exist in the performance, and so, hopefully, it would reside somewhere and that this wouldn’t be about encouraging that. This wouldn’t be about glorifying that kind of violence. Yeah.
DEADLINE: They are discussing the continuation of the story line of those characters, either in movie or series. Is that something that you might be interested in?
ODOM JR.: I might be. Sure. If David calls me… I’d do just about anything to work with David Chase. He made me better. It wasn’t easy. David’s not easy but there is a divine tension, I think, that can yield powerful and memorable results if you make yourself available to it. So, I would make myself available to that tension again.
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