Leslie Odom Jr. has perfected the role of the bad guy. Or, more accurately, the guy who did some not-so-great things, but maybe doesn’t totally deserve the title of “bad guy.” The actor who shot to fame originating the role of Aaron Burr in the Broadway smash Hamilton has now caught The Sopranos fans’ attention as Harold McBrayer in The Many Saints of Newark. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Odom Jr.—fresh off a year of critical acclaim for his portrayal of Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami...—discusses why his mom might not be too happy with two of his standout roles, his not-so-gifted childhood, and his date with Ne-Yo.
Your costumes in The Many Saints of Newark, which is set in the 1960s and ’70s, were crucial to the character. How did they help your performance?
The clothes were all very tight, very, very hot knits. They were all vintage, and it was tough to fit in them because our body types are different now. That amount of period detail is almost like cheating. You step on a set, and you’ve got the cars and the buildings and the wardrobe, and you have to use very little of your imagination. It’s so evocative.
Was it hard to play a character with a dark side?
You know, when I was a kid, my parents didn’t let me play with guns. No water guns or anything like that. Now, every time my mom turns around, I’m brandishing a weapon on film. I get paid to do it! That’s David [Chase’s] sweet spot as a writer. He gave us one of the greatest antihero characterizations we've ever seen with Tony Soprano. I think there's something about that theme that runs through all the characters. Everybody's a little bit like Tony Soprano.
Did you create a soundtrack for your character?
Music was hugely important to building my character, Harold. I wanted to listen to what I thought he might be listening to, and I thought he might be a bit sophisticated. I was listening to lots of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. The music gave me something of a bop in my walk.
What was your favorite movie growing up?
My favorite film growing up will probably throw you for a loop, but it was The Making of Thriller. I was a huge Michael Jackson fan, so I loved “Thriller.” The movie was my first real glimpse into how the sausage got made, my first real glimpse into rehearsal. The monsters I had just seen three or four weeks before in the music video were in their street clothes, in a dance studio, learning the moves and cracking jokes and messing up, figuring it out. It really was a transformative experience. I wanted to be in that room more than I wanted to be in the music video. It looked like a family or a community that was inviting and fun.
Did you sing as a child?
No. I don't think I was particularly gifted as a kid, actually. I think at a certain point, I became curious about it, so I put in the hours of practice. But at about 8 or 9 years old, I sounded like every other 8- or 9-year-old. [Malcolm] Gladwell talks about needing 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. There was something in the repetition, in the obsession. Maybe I pulled ahead of the pack after those 10,000 hours, but I don't think I started as a particularly gifted kid.
What scares you the most as a performer?
These days, what scares me is not achieving whatever potential I have, not continuing to grow. There are a lot of things that seduce you as you climb a ladder. You can do things for notoriety or for fame or for a little bit of dough. There are a lot of distractions. And I like all those things, or at least some of those things. But the thing that is most important to me is that I get the most out of myself, that I continue to grow. And it scares me that I might not do that.
Have you ever been starstruck?
I get starstruck all the time. I remember I was doing a movie a long time ago with the R&B singer Ne-Yo. It showed me there's movie star fame, and there's pop star fame, and they're not the same. Ne-Yo's famous all over the world. We were in Prague, and Ne-Yo could stop traffic in the street.
Grooming by Eliven Quiros for Dior Beauty; hair by Anittria Wicker. Produced by Wes Olson and Hannah Murphy at Connect the Dots; production manager: Zack Higginbottom at Connect the Dots; photo assistants: Antonio Perricone, Jeff Gros, Morgan Pierre; digital technician: Michael Preman; lighting technician: Keith Coleman; key grip: Scott Froschauer; retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; senior style editor: Allia Alliata di Montereale; senior fashion market editor: Jenna Wojciechowski; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Antonio Soto, Nycole Sariol, Sage McKee, Josephine Chumley, Rosa Schorr; production assistants: Tchad Cousins, Juan Diego Calvo, Gina York, Brandon Fried, Nico Robledo, Kein Milledge; hair assistants: Tommy Stanton, Sol Rodriquez, Andi Ojeda; makeup assistants: Tami Elsombati, Bridgett O’Donnell; manicure assistant: Pilar Lafargue; set assistants: Olivia Giles, Sarah Hein, Seth Powsner, King Owusu; tailors: Suzi Bezik, Cardi Mooshool Alvaji; tailor assistant: Elma Click