Leslie Odom Jr., who rose to fame playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton — and who is now nominated for a best supporting actor Golden Globe for his portrayal of Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami (his original song for the film was also nominated for a Golden Globe!) — says he's forever grateful for landing his first role on CSI Miami.
"It was my first job, my first job in entertainment," Odom, who moved to L.A. shortly after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, tells PEOPLE. "Lucy Cavallo was a VP at casting at CBS, and I've thanked her many times because I didn't have a ton of response when I first came to Los Angeles. But she matters, because she saw me [at school] and asked when I was moving to L.A. She said, 'I want to put you in T.V.'"
And that's what happened. Odom, 39, was cast as lab technician Joseph Kayle in CSI Miami in 2003, and says although many things have changed in Hollywood since then, at the time, those were some of the few shows that were casting BIPOC actors.
"This was the same year Grey's Anatomy premiered, so just when Shonda Rhimes was becoming Shonda. Before Ava DuVernay, Donald Glover, Lena Waithe. They weren't on the scene yet. It was only shows like CSI that were, to their credit, diversifying their casts."
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Odom is forever grateful for the role ("I was able to eat," he says) but notes that the diverse characters didn't have a lot of personality. "It didn't really matter what color the person was — Asian, Black … there was no real cultural specificity. There was no sexuality. There was nothing really. They were just non-white."
Odom says that now starring in the film One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King, is so important. The movie, based on the fictional Kemp Powers play of the same name (now streaming on Amazon Prime), is based on a real-life night that Civil Rights activists Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown spent in Miami, talking about being Black in America during the racially conflicted '60s.
"All these years later, to be making work like One Night in Miami, that is so culturally specific, allows me to use so much more of myself to tell these stories. I'm able to discover a deeper usefulness," says Odom. He knows it's important. "I always hoped and believed that art is a conversation, and the art you create is the first half of it. How the audience responds to it is the very, very important other half of that exchange."
The audience — and the critics — have spoken.
Regina King was just nominated for a best director Golden Globe for the film, and Odom was nominated for best original song for "Speak Now," which he sings as Cooke.
He says that playing Cooke, his own real-life hero, was at first a little scary. "I'm embarrassed to say I turned it down at first!" he says, with a laugh. "He has the kind of legacy where he influenced my heroes' heroes. And really, he is the blueprint for modern Black men singing popular music. It's daunting playing a hero."
Re-reading the script gave him new perspective. "I saw that Kemp wanted to tell a new story about our humanity and about our vulnerability. He wanted to make a private conversation public. So, that felt daring and exciting. And I obviously wanted to be a part of something daring and exciting."
He says that being part of such an inspiring film was so thrilling that it might be hard to take on less interesting roles.
"I called my agent and said, 'They all have to feel like this now!' I know it's going to be tough. I know it's going to be hard to keep finding a One Night in Miami, but I just felt so thoroughly used," he says. "There's no better feeling as an artist."
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