Tom (Christian Borle) and Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.) share a kiss on Smash
Our recent chat with singer/actor Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Sam Strickland on the musical drama Smash, is suddenly more than a little bittersweet. Just as filming was wrapping on the NBC series’ first season, Odom jumped into the new Broadway musical Leap Of Faith, which was based on the 1992 film starring Steve Martin and starred frequent Tony nominee Raul Esparza. However, initial reviews of the musical were not kind and the show, which just opened April 26th had its final performance yesterday. The good news, however, is that after tonight’s cliffhanger-filled season finale, Smash will be back next season with another chapter of bringing the Marilyn Monroe musical, Bombshell, to the Broadway stage.
We spoke with the thoughtful and gregarious Odom about his journey from his first role on Broadway in Rent to his latest experience, his showering ritual before he goes onstage, where things are heading for Sam and Tom (Christian Borle) in tonight’s Smash finale and his thoughts on the closing of Leap Of Faith.
AfterElton: You’re on TV in Smash, Broadway in Leap Of Faith and even film with Red Tails. When did performing come into your life?
Leslie Odom, Jr.: I was introduced to Rent, the Broadway cast album, when I was in eighth grade. I honestly thought that I would work until about 30 and then audition for Rent, get in that show and then be in that show until I was 40 and then retire. [laughs] What’s beyond that? I thought I should get the process started as soon as possible so I went to an open call in Philadelphia and I cut school – I was a junior in high school – and I got a couple call backs over the summer and by the end of the summer I was in the show. Not only was that that affirmation right away that this is something you can do and people will pay you to do, but it also challenged me, then, to dream a bigger dream and challenged me to think, ‘What else can I do?’ I was in the ensemble but I would’ve swept the floor, you know?
Odom in a photo taken by his Smash co-star Phillip Spaeth
AE: You started performing at a young age, so how is it different for you now that some time has passed?
LOJ: It’s amazing. I fought to get in that room and the project overlapped for about three and a half weeks so I was three days on Smash, four days on Leap Of Faith. It was crazy! But I fought to get in the room because this is what I have trained to do and wanted to do. I actually had moved to LA ten years ago because I knew if I had some television credits it would be easier for me to do the theater work that I love so much. It’s amazing to return to the New York stage. It is not so amazing not being received in the way that you want, but that’s part of it, too. You put it out there and you hope!
AE: A lot of actors have rituals that they do before every show. Do you have one?
LOJ: That’s a good question. I try not to have too many. For me, being too regimented can kind of make it feel like Groundhog Day. On Broadway we do the same show every night, and I like it to feel like it’s different every night. So one thing I do is I try to shower before the show because it makes me feel like it’s at the beginning of the day, if that makes sense. But what I do is that I vary when I take the shower. I don’t take the shower at the same time every day. Sometimes I’ll take it ten minutes before I have to go onstage or I’ll take it twenty minutes after the show starts. I do like to make sure I’m in the moment and in the present, and I’m not giving this audience last night’s show. New night, new show.
AE: How did Smash come along for you?
LOJ: Smash actually came as the culmination of Rent. It’s been 13 years [but] Bernard Telsey is the same casting director that I met that day when I was 16 in Philadelphia so he’s known me since I was 16. I had known our producers, Neil [Meron] and Craig [Zaden] for over two years. I met them in L.A. because I did Leap Of Faith and they saw me in that show, and we had a couple of meetings to see if there was anything that would work. Megan [Hilty] I’ve known since college… I sent my tape in like so many people did, but it was nice to know that I had so many people pulling for me in that room.
AE: Sam’s role really grew over the season, was that due to the writers/producers seeing something in you and what you were bringing to the role?
LOJ: That’s a good question and my attitude now in this business after having been a recurring character on several shows is ‘If you don’t kill me at the end of the episode, I’m coming back!’ That’s the way you have to think as an actor in this business because things change all the time. When I came out from LA to New York to do the show it was a four-episode commitment, and I was happy to take that, but my attitude was that I was going to make sure Sam sticks around until he breaks his ankle and can’t be in the show anymore. So in a really organic way they started to deepen his roots in the world and strengthen his connection to the other characters. They did it in a really beautiful way, and I’m so happy with the way it turned out.
Sam and Karen (Katharine McPhee) belted out the song, Stand, in last week’s Smash.
AE: You and Christian have such a sweet chemistry. I was surprised that the Sam/Tom relationship didn’t become a sexual relationship first. Can you talk about that and working with Christian?
LOJ: Christian is just a good actor. A lot of people have been talking about our chemistry, and humanity has a big thing to do with it. If you’re working with an asshole, a jerk, it’s hard to find chemistry. But if you’re working with a good person, which Christian is, and you’re working with a good actor, which Christian certainly is, it’s easy. It is so easy to play scenes with that guy. He’s a pleasure to work with, he makes me better and I hope I do the same for him. I just have to thank our writers for the way they’ve taken care of that character and relationship. All I tried to do was play the truth of who this guy was. I wasn’t interested in playing a stereotype in any way, and so I just tried to bring integrity and honesty to my work…in the same way that Christian and I found a language and a way to communicate with each other onscreen, I think that the writers find that, too. They found a way to communicate with the characters and the actors and how to bring out the best in them, the good parts, the interesting things.
I say that only because our first date scene [when Sam stops them from jumping right into the sack] went through several rewrites. At the table read, they did just jump right into it, and I can’t take any credit for that, but I love that they saw something in Christian’s and my work together that they wanted to prolong it, stretch it out and make it more special and more rare. I loved it.
AE: I love that we’ve met Sam’s family and his being gay is not an issue. What do you think about the fact that it’s not a coming story and it’s just a natural part of his world?
LOJ: I mean, it’s the way that it should be. I thought it was just so progressive. There are so many stories to tell and, of course, there is the coming out story and, of course, there’s the story of the family that doesn’t accept you for who you are. But there’s also the story of the people who are a little more progressive than that and I’m so glad we chose to tell that story. I found that being a black actor, so many things can stop there at the fact that you’re black, but I’m also this and that and I’m also educated, I’m also political, you know what I mean? You can be a fully fleshed out human being and tell more than one kind of story.
AE: In last week’s episode, the church brings everyone together and Sam is the nucleus for getting everyone there without a heavy-handed religion message. Faith is also a big part of your life, right?
LOJ: Oh, God, yes.It’s the first thing I tell the kids when I go to speak at Carnegie, or I even talk to kids at the stage door. I talk about a good basic training and I owe so much of my profession to my classes over the years but, in this business anyway, if you don’t have a relationship with God get one today. And it’s not about me telling you to who to pray to or who to pray for, but there’s so much that is out of our control, so you just have to make peace with that, make peace with the unfairness and the ups and downs and the hard knocks. Listen, it has taken out more talented, better people than me. This business is not a joke. In the last couple of years alone we’ve lost Michael [Jackson] and Whitney [Houston] and Amy [Winehouse].
Even with this Leap Of Faith thing. I love my show and I’m having a blast doing it, but we were not received well by the critics in New York City. We certainly see the people at night and how it affects people, but I had to take it to God because that’s rough. You’re putting your heart out on stage every single night and people just are not into it, or they’re not receiving it in the spirit that it was given. It’s rough. And that’s the kind of thing if you don’t have a relationship with a higher power and know how to deal with that, it can take you out.
Odom as Isaiah Sturdevant in the Broadway production of Leap of Faith
AE: And Smash has gotten mixed reviews, too, so obviously you do pay attention to what the critics say?
LOJ: I do. I don’t think you should ignore it. We’re not making this art in a vacuum. We make it and we want it to connect with people. On my Facebook and Twitter, I encourage the people who are following my work to please let me know what you think! Also, Red Tails came out, and in the community there was a whole big rally around the movie but the response was very mixed. I think you absolutely need to hear from the people what is working and not working, but I’ll also say that I have a circle of friends and family who I trust. A friend of mine told me that truth without love is brutality, and so I have friends and family, my inner circle, who tell me the truth with love. They love me. I absolutely do read the reviews, but more important than that I listen to and value the people I keep around me who tell me the truth with love.
AE: What can you tease about the Smash season finale? There’s a lot coming to a head!
LOJ: Like good television writers, they do leave a lot of things up in the air. What I will say is that Tom and Sam aren’t in a lot of trouble when the season ends. I think their relationship is going in a really nice direction. I like them together, I like their relationship, but the final script did trouble me. There is somewhere in my spirit where I worry about some of the characters. Like good television, there are people who end the season in crisis. I can’t wait to see what happens with Season 2.
AE: What’s a dream role for you? Something that you have to play sometime in your life?
LOJ: There’s a group of male singers that I feel like, in a weird way, I feel like they’re uncles to me. I’ve learned so much from Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye…they’ve all lived such beautiful, tortured, fantastic lives. Tragic and wonderful lives that I’d just love and be terrified to play any one of them. Those are the guys who really taught me everything I know. If could play Donny, Marvin or Sam I would probably retire. There’s nothing left to do after that!
…and in an email sent yesterday, Odom expressed his thoughts on the closing of Leap Of Faith-
LOJ: Show biz. No one escapes unscathed. I am so grateful to have been in the same orbit as the incredibly talented and generous human beings at The St. James Theater. Our hearts are maybe a bit heavy but our heads are held high. I’ll take the lessons learned and my new friends with me onto the next stop on the journey. Thank you, Leap of Faith.
The Smash finale airs tonight at 10/9c on NBC.