How I'm Living Now: Leslie Odom Jr., Actor, Singer, Songwriter

Leslie Odom - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Jimmy Fontaine

The Tony winner opens up about his new normal, which includes home schooling, virtual concerts and making the kitchen his new stage.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the coronavirus crisis, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's top writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.

Leslie Odom Jr. had just hit the road in support of his latest album, Mr., a chance, for the first time, to experience a full-fledged tour with a bus, band, lighting, the whole package. Then the pandemic hit. Forced to postpone, Odom Jr. traveled back to Los Angeles, where he's been isolating under safer-at-home orders alongside his wife, Nicolette, and their toddler daughter, Lucille, with Nicolette's parents within walking distance. The Tony Award-winning performer, actor and singer-songwriter talks to THR about pivoting to virtual performances (not his favorite), turning the kitchen into his stage and how he feels about the surprise move to debut 'Hamilton' on Disney+.

Let's start easy: How are you?

I'm mostly good. That is a tricky little question mainly because I say that I'm good and then I have to check in with myself to make sure I'm not telling a lie. I was on the phone with my friend the other day and we spent the first five minutes of the call talking about [this question]. This thing that we're living through happens once every hundred years, if that, so you have to check in with yourself. We're on an emotional ride that changes daily.

There's got to be a fair amount of grief that comes along with closing your first tour. How did that feel?

There was quite a bit to do at home, a lot of action around bracing [for isolation]. It wasn't just an internal thing; it was also, "OK, how much do we need to stock the shelves? What are we going to do about schooling for Lucy? What about my parents?" We didn't know how fast this thing was going to move. None of us have ever lived through anything like this, so we didn't know anything. If there was any grief, it happened a few weeks later.

Even then it was tempered by the fact that while this is still going on, I have a single on the [Hot Adult Contemporary] charts. We've had to figure out how to promote the record virtually because we had stops at radio [stations] scheduled to meet people, shake hands and sing — all of the stuff that you do when you're promoting a record. [Now] I was on Instagram Live this and Zoom that and doing little concerts. The same thing we were going to do on the road, I was doing from home. I really had to fight for my time to grieve. I have a team that works very, very hard, and they weren't so interested in how long I wanted to sit at home in my feelings. [But] so much of my life is about making noise, so [in the beginning], I wanted to honor the converse of that and shut my mouth a little bit.

As a performer, part of what you do is respond to an audience and feed off the crowd. What has it been like to pivot to virtual performances?

It's not my favorite. I imagine the longer we do it, the better we'll get at it. I imagine internet connections will get faster and clearer, and cameras will get better. We will adapt and make it the best that it can be. My favorite part of what I do is the connection — connection with people, my collaborators, the band, the audience, my scene partners. That's what I'm in it for. It doesn't feel the same over a wireless connection.

But I am also inspired by friends like Michael Urie, Bill Irwin, Jermaine Dolly, all of whom do great online content. I'm inspired by theater artists in particular who are trying to innovate and keep things moving forward for the craft and the art form. On some level, we've been watching and experiencing concerts in this way for a long time, same with television and film. But being isolated is a challenge for theater. I am inspired by the people who are taking up the challenge with gusto.

Speaking of the pivot to virtual, I have to ask about Hamilton and the news that the filmed version is going to Disney+ instead of having a premiere and a theatrical rollout. You tweeted that everything about the experience of Hamilton has been a surprise. How much of a surprise was this?

I woke up to the news like everybody else. Lin [-Manuel Miranda], Tommy [Kail] and Jeffrey [Seller] and obviously Disney — these are the most savvy people in any industry and [certainly] the most savvy people in the entertainment industry. I never question whether they're making a smart decision.

There are some things that are lost. A lot of the cast, we checked in with each other. And Renée Elise Goldsberry said that, like everybody, she'd been having challenges, but this is the first time during the pandemic that feels similar to what kids are going through in missing graduation or others having to postpone weddings. We won't get to show up at a premiere and hug one another, take silly selfies on our cell phones and celebrate this all together in person. This has been a thing we've been looking forward to since we all left the show years ago, whenever it was that we were going to be able to celebrate the release of this film. So it was a surprise. You have to understand, too, it was a surprise when it was released that it was coming out next year. We didn't know that. We were looking forward to that, like, "Oh dope, we have a date and it's going to happen."

I said all of that to say that any of those feelings are wiped away immediately when I think of the fact that [Hamilton] is coming out could bring some joy and light into someone's living room right now when people are going through such loss and hardship. Broadway is my first love in this business, so with Broadway being dark, the fact that we get to be part of bringing Broadway into people's living rooms is a really wonderful thing. I'm so honored, as always, to be part of it and associated with Hamilton, a show that belongs to a lot of people and means a lot to so many people. It is not mine to hold on to. We give the thing away.

What have you learned about yourself during this period?

I don't know what day this is in quarantine, but I have made every single dinner that we've eaten. At first, we didn't know about ordering in or if that was safe. We've been quarantining with my in-laws, who live a few blocks away, so we had to consider their health and wellness. I have been cooking all the meals. It's not really my wife's thing, so if you want to eat well, you have to cook well. I have been having great fun doing it. I realized three or four weeks in that this is my creative outlet. I get a certain amount of gratification watching people taste it and say whether it's good. I get a very similar joy that I get when I sing a pretty song or somebody tells me that a moment in a scene touched them. So in the absence of an eight o'clock curtain, I will create one for myself in the kitchen.

What's your specialty?

I never in my life had a reason to make Asian food at the house [before], but I'm a big fan of Asian food, so I learned how to make an orange chicken that's a big hit over here. My in-laws have an orange tree, so I picked oranges, and you make a reduction from [those] and add ginger and other ingredients. We can do it with rice or we can do it with lo mein. I'm having a lot of fun with it.

What's the best advice you've given or received about staying sane?

Somebody said early on, as a word to parents, go easy on yourself with the home schooling — you're not well-trained for it and you might not even be best-suited to do it. Trust that you can make all of life a classroom and that there are many, many things you can be imparting to your children throughout the day, so you don't suddenly have to put up charts and graphs and maps all over the house, if that's not how you're already living. Some people already do. We were certainly feeling the pressure right away to become preschool teachers because we don't want her growth and development to stop. So much is learned when she's just around other children. So that piece of advice was really helpful for us to hear. And she's continuing to grow and take in new information in a way that calms my nerves. We just make the whole day a classroom. Everything is a chance to learn, experience and play. When everything is over, we will bring that with us. We'll be better for it. We'll be better parents for having had this time.

What have you learned about yourself as a father?

I've really, really learned what a hero my partner is. I'm sort of ashamed about the amount of time that she has to do this on her own. She does all this by herself when I'm traveling and I travel quite a bit. I've learned the demands of a day with a toddler. It's a lot for two people. I've really gained an even deeper respect for what she does, which allows me to do the things that I do.

And specifically, what I've learned about myself as a dad — there's no substitute for the time and how that allows you to get to know your kid. I get so proud when I can anticipate her needs a little bit; if I know she's hungry before she does or if I know she's sleepy before she does. It allows me to be patient and hopefully step in and give her the things she needs. There's just no substitute for the hours and the days you can spend [with them].

What are you watching, reading or listening to as a reprieve?

The Sopranos. I went down that road because I didn't get to watch it the first time around. I'm in the prequel [The Many Saints of Newark], and that audition came around very quickly, as they do. I had a couple of days to prepare the material. I did my research to find out about the tone, and I watched a few episodes, but, you know, so much of David Chase's stuff works the way it does because the writing is so great. Even if you've never seen it before, you can say those words and commit to the world because of the writing. I'm on season five now, and it's been great and not unlike reading a novel because of the twists and turns and pacing.

You star in a movie filmed not that long ago called Only about a mysterious virus that causes a young couple to hide out in their sterilized apartment and fight for their lives. I've got to ask, how much have you thought about that film lately?

I texted the writer and director [Takashi Doscher] right when this first started. I was like, "Bro, I was not trying to live this thing out in real life." [Laughs.] The movie comes to Netflix on the Fourth of July, and it's a really beautiful film. It's uncanny in an unfortunate way, as it does mirror the times we're living in right now, though things are a lot worse for them in that movie. My character, Will, takes it upon himself to completely sterilize and lock down their apartment while taking his partner [Freida Pinto] prisoner in a lot of ways. The virus happens to only be affecting women, so symbolically, the film asks a lot of questions about a woman's autonomy over her body. I'm glad to not be living the exact same thing that they lived through.

Next up, you've got Central Park, Apple TV's first animated series. Tell me why you signed on to do this.

It's created by [Loren Bouchard, Josh Gad and Nora Smith], and when you look at the body of their work, you see such a kind streak running right down the center. This show is no different. It makes no apologies for being a lovely little fun rumination on family, nature, park space and protecting something that you love and that you hold dear. It's a very sweet show that just so happens to have at least two fantastic original songs in each episode. That was really important to Josh. He really wanted to make sure that each week felt like a musical. Josh and I were both in the conservatory program at Carnegie Mellon together. A musical put both Josh and I on the scene, so he wanted a cast of musical theater vets to see if we could make a little animated musical week to week. I signed up right away. I love Josh. I love his comedy. I love his heart, and we're having a ball making it.

Who or what has become your go-to news source during this period?

Twitter is my news source because it's a great aggregator and I get to hear from a lot of different people at once. I look for things that are reported again and again to find common threads to help decipher what is mostly true or what I need to be skeptical of. I trust The New York Times. I trust eyewitness accounts. Soledad O'Brien is probably my favorite [news personality]. I love her Twitter feed. She speaks from her heart, and I really appreciate that.

What are you wearing these days — your corona-era uniform, if you will?

I do jeans — that's a lie! I'm doing sweats and a T-shirt, maybe a cardigan. That's what I'm wearing right now. It's what I wear most days if I don't have a concert of something. When I do have an online performance, I dress it up a bit so that I feel like myself and less like a dad vibe and more like a pop star vibe. So I do actually put on pants. I do put on shoes and do the whole thing because it helps me get [into the mind-set].

Is there a cause that's become particularly important to you in these times?

The Actor's Fund in New York City and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS are two that I'm closest to. As you can imagine, every single Broadway theater company, every dance company, every actors group that mean the world to me are hurting and struggling, including my beloved Public Theater and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. These institutions mean so much to me. I'm doing all the online benefits and fundraisers, anything I can commit to because I want as many of these places still standing when this is all over.

What's moved to the top of your to-do list for when this is all over?

I will really look forward to putting my kid on a swing at the park. I'm looking forward to dinner and a movie with Nicolette. Who knew that we'd look back with longing for a time we could go out to dinner and a movie? I'm looking forward to the simplest, most regular things. I will have such a greater appreciation for when this is over.