Leslie Odom Jr. On Being of Service to Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet Tubman

Interview   Leslie Odom Jr. On Being of Service to Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet Tubman
 
Plus, how playing Hamilton’s Burr prepared him for his role in Harriet.
Leslie Odom Jr. in <i>Harriet</i>
Leslie Odom Jr. in Harriet Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Leslie Odom Jr. grew up in Philadelphia. So although Philly native William Still may not be a familiar name to most, it was to Odom; and when director-writer Kasi Lemmons asked him to play the role of the free black man, conductor on the Underground Railroad, member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and a trusted friend of Harriet Tubman in Harriet, he said yes.

Odom was excited to offer a foil to Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet. “He was born a free man and hadn’t experienced the chains of slavery first hand like Harriet,” says Odom of Still. “So I liked bringing that combustion of that—those different experiences—whenever I could.”

READ: How Playing The Color Purple’s Celie Prepared Cynthia Erivo for Harriet Tubman

Though the movie focuses on Still as a businessman and abolitionist, the actor dug into Still’s childhood in preparation for filming. “I learned more about his family,” he says. “His mother and father were slaves and had four children. And she escaped with them but then was caught and brought back down. But she escaped again, and this time she took two of her children; she took her daughters and left her two sons behind. So [I] think of that history he carries with him.”

Odom portrays approached his role as one of service “to support Cynthia.” But Still doesn't fade into the background. “This might be from my work at the Richard Rodgers [in Hamilton], but when I play an historical character I really want to make them alive—because we’ve turned these historical figures into statues.”

As he winds down the simultaneous press tours for Harriet and his new album Mr (which he describes as “definitively me”), Odom considers his future. He dabbled a bit in executive producing for television alongside Kerry Washington (though “that’s pretty much dead”), which opened him up to new possibilities, and he’ll continue working on screen.

“I have to think about, what’s something I want to invest in for six or seven years—you know, if all goes well,” he says. “That I want to put other things on hold, that I want to play. I wouldn’t say I have 10 ideas like that rolling around in my head. So it’s about finding the right thing.”

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