Leslie Odom, Jr.‘s career is on the rise. As Sam Strickland on “Smash,” he plays the boyfriend of “Bombshell” composer Tom, played by Christian Borle. Last season, Leslie was a recurring character on the show, but this season, he has been “upgraded” to series regular.
This means we’ll get to see more of him, and he’ll perform an original Marc Shaiman /Scott Wittman song later in the season. (You may remember his gospel performance with Katharine McPhee last season on the song, “Stand.”) He won’t be in the next few episodes, though. Can I stage a protest with the powers that be?
But knowing we’ll get to hear him sing more on the show is excellent news for me because I’m a fan. I saw him play a leading role in the Broadway musical, “Leap of Faith,” last year alongside Broadway star, Raul Esparza. “Leap” wasn’t Leslie’s first Broadway show, however.
At the tender age of 17, he was cast as a replacement in “Rent” and continued in the show for three months before entering the theater program at Carnegie Mellon University, where he met fellow student Megan Hilty, who just happens to play his best friend on “Smash.”
I had a lovely chat with Leslie about his career and nearly lifelong interest in performing that began in his hometown of Philadelphia.
“I got a scholarship when I was around 13. Philadelphia has a really wonderful, fertile training ground for young artists of color,” Leslie says. “So, there were places where I could go that dealt with me as an artist and as a human being and as a young black man. They helped lay that foundation of pride…. I like to say quite fondly that we took it for granted that we were supposed to be young and black and talented and intelligent and get good grades. That was a given.”
Getting cast in “Rent” gave him the confidence to pursue acting, singing, and dancing professionally. “Nobody was more surprised than me. I thought it would come much later, but when it came, it freed me up and gave me that confirmation that it was something I could do,” he says. “I came here [to New York] thinking I was going to do it for a month which was longer than I’d done a show ever…. It was a wonderful gift.”
I told Leslie that I think of his “Smash” character, Sam, as the voice of reason among a host of characters who make poor decisions. “I just think that he’s the best friend that anybody would want,” he says. “I’d like to think that I’m that good of a friend. But I’m not Sam. I think he certainly has more of a halo than I do, but I see him as a guy who understands the big picture. And he tries to be a good best friend to Ivy [Megan Hilty’s character] and tries to be a good partner to Tom [Christian Borle’s character].”
Leslie has nothing but praise for his cast mates and finds them all easy to work with. He’s married in real life to actress/singer Nicolette Robinson, but on “Smash,” he plays a gay character who is far from the usual stereotypes we see portrayed on screen.
“Theresa Rebeck [the show’s creator and original executive producer] set out to create a character that we haven’t seen before on TV,” Leslie says, “a character that certainly if you’ve worked in this world, in the theater like we do, you know these men.”
Besides “Smash,” Leslie was in the George Lucas-produced film, “Red Tails,” with Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr. He has also appeared in such TV series as “Supernatural,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “CSI: Miami,” “Gilmore Girls,” and “House of Lies.”
On “House of Lies,” he held his own in scenes with Don Cheadle, an actor Leslie calls “gracious.” “That was probably the freest set I’ve ever worked on because if Don’s going to come to TV from the feature world, it’s got to keep him interested,” Leslie says. “They make sure it’s free and creative and spontaneous and fun. They never said no to anything I wanted to bring to the table, and cable gives them that freedom.”
Leslie says he learned a lot from that experience, and not just from Don Cheadle but also from cast members Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson. He shot his first couple of episodes of “Smash” right after working on “House of Lies.” “I distinctly remember thinking to myself, ‘What would Ben do? What would Josh do?’ Just to make sure that I came into the process really free,” he says.
Leslie is currently preparing to give a solo concert in Indianapolis February 22 and 23, 2013 at The Cabaret at the Columbia Club. “I’m really excited about it,” he says “I’m going to teach a master class as well, which is my second passion after performing – passing it on.” He hopes to take the show around the country.
There are also plans to record a CD. “I hope that people will be interested, and I hope that people will support it because I’m taking it very seriously,” he says. “I want to bring a message that will inspire people, that will entertain people.” It’s important to him that the recording is the best it can be, so he’s taking his time to do it right.
I asked Leslie about his future career aspirations. “The thing that television and film offers you is the name recognition that then will allow you to do the things that are really important to you and also to be a vessel to create opportunities for other people. So, I certainly aspire to write,” he says.
He also loves to teach his craft. “I would love to eventually not be focused on acting as much, and to have teaching as something that could support my life because it gives me back so much and isn’t so much about me,” he says. He’s also supporting Nicolette in pursuing her own career and hopes to have a family eventually.
Mostly, these days, Leslie is just gratified that he’s working a lot. “I love when the phone is ringing, and right now, it’s ringing,” he says. “There are some exciting things in the works, and it feels great to finally be there. We’ve got a ways to go, but it feels great that people finally go, ‘I kinda know who that is.’ Not like ‘Oh, yeah, we gotta have him’ but, “Yeah, I kinda know who he is; we’ll see him.’ I’ll take that!”
Check out the video below for a taste of what you’ll hear later in the season on “Smash.” Not only is he a talented actor and singer, but Leslie also won an Astaire Award last year for his dancing on Broadway in “Leap of Faith.” He’s the epitome of what they mean when they say “triple threat.”