Leslie Odom Jr. (286517)
Credit: Facebook photo

Leslie Odom Jr. who earned a Tony- and Grammy Award for his role in the groundbreaking musical “Hamilton” is a young man who made it clear, in our phone conversation that he owes a lot of gratitude to being trained at Freedom Theater, in his hometown of Philadelphia. It’s one of Pennsylvania’s oldest African American theatres and is known for its excellence.

It’s also a bond that I share with the award-winning actor having entered the famed theater, at the age of 8, with a lisp and a stutter and leaving at 18 a confident young woman with no trace of the aforementioned affliction.

“That’s the thing about Freedom Theater, I owe them a lot,” Odom Jr. shared. “The teachers cared and I feel like I take all of their lessons wherever I go.”

I can only imagine his lessons learned there because Leslie Odom Jr. has blown up! In the new film “Harriet” directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons he plays William Still, a free Black man and conductor on the Underground Railroad, member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and a trusted friend of Harriet Tubman.

In remembering his first thought on being offered the role he confessed to just saying “yes” because of the subject matter [Harriet Tubman], the actress playing her, British born and fellow Tony- and Grammy Award-winner Cynthia Erivo and director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”).

This marks the second time the gifted thespian has played a historical figure, the first being the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton and now, William Still.

“[William Still] was born a free man. He did not experience the brutality of slavery firsthand like Harriet did,” says Odom of Still. “So I worked on delivering that combination of those different experiences in the role.”

The filmmaker and the producers paid close attention to historical accuracy and Odom Jr. himself dived into research exploring Still’s early life. “I learned a lot in my research about his family which was surprising and helpful,” he says. “His parents were slaves. They had four children. The mother escaped with them but then was caught and brought back down. But she escaped again, and this time she took two daughters and left her sons behind, so, I think that history stayed inside of him.”

As the film approaches a holiday opening, of Nov. 1, many insiders are tossing around Cynthia Erivo’s name to look for as award-season approaches including snagging a possible Oscar nomination for her performance as Harriet, and for co-writing an original song titled “Stand Up,” which dropped Oct. 25. The track is currently available on all digital platforms and the full soundtrack of the movie will drop Nov. 1.

Erivo’s “Stand Up” will be eligible for the Best Original Song category at the 2020 Academy Awards.

A fan of the film for a myriad reasons, Odom approached his role as one of service “to support Cynthia and Kasi.” He adds “When I play a historical character I want to make them alive—because we’ve turned these historical figures into forgotten names in history books.”

A creative on the move his new album “Mr” is the next thing that he’s excited about and a sound that he describes as “definitively me.”

Leslie Odom Jr. recently completed a lead role in “The Sopranos: The Many Saints of Newark,” David Chase’s movie prequel to the award-winning HBO series. He also wrapped production on the feature film directorial debut “Music” from recording artist Sia, and “Needle in a Timestack,” written and directed by John Ridley. He is also voicing a character in Josh Gad’s animated musical comedy “Central Park for Apple.”

When I asked him about the idea of turning William Till’s book, “The Underground Railroad” into a play complete with original music Odom challenged me, adding “you’re a writer … make it happen.”

“Harriet” is now playing. https://www.focusfeatures.com/harriet/