We caught up with actor Leslie Odom Jr. to discuss his work on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and hit broadway show Hamilton.


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First off Congratulations on a “SVU” can you tell us more about your character the reverend?

Thanks, The reverend likes to show up, and cause a little bit of trouble. He’s a catfish. He likes to show up and prod the police department, and prod city officials to take action really in matters of race relations in the city. I have a whole lot of fun with it. I’m so happy whenever they invite me back. I’ve known Warren a long time. We did a Broadway show together years ago and we just like working with each other so much so I’m always so happy when they have me back.

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What initially attracted you to the show?

Well,  it’s a flagship show in New York City, you can’t really call yourself a New York actor until you’ve done at least one SVU. So I was thrilled when I got the call to do it. Initially, Warren created the part with me in mind, but then you get there and you never know what kind of chemistry you’re going to have with the regular cast and the crew and I got there and it was just a really good fit. And so I think this is my 6th or 7th episode now for the last couple of seasons and like I said it’s always a really good time. It’s a really weird dichotomy over there because the stories that we tell are always very serious, they’re ripped from the headlines, and they’re always emotionally charged, and as human beings and citizens in this country and in the city there are things and stories on our minds and on our hearts always.  So it’s weird that we have a good time on the set but between action and cut we try to tell as much truth as we possibly can, and try to bring as much of our honest feelings to these stories as we possibly can.

 

Can you please speak about working with Mariska Hargitay?

I’ve never seen in the business, we call it a number one on the call sheet. It literally means her name is first on the list of actors. But I’ve never seen a number one like Mariska. She is generous and magnanimous and kind. I’ll say my first day on that set we … it was a scene with about four of us and Mariska was in the scene and at that point I think she had been doing the show for about 15 years and somewhere in the middle of the scene Mariska stopped it. She called cut. She wasn’t directing that episode but she stopped the scene because she said it didn’t feel right she said “I need it to be messier” we needed to be more honest and “we need to be talking over each other, we are being too polite” and so we did the scene again and it got better. But you very rarely find that care and that kind of attention to detail from somebody who’s been doing their job that long. But I offer that really that’s the only way you can do a job that long, is if you stay curious if you stay present Mariska really cares about that show and making sure the quality stays what it has been for so long for the fans. That’s why people continue to watch it because they’re not slowing down, and the quality is where it’s always been.

 

Can you also speak about working with Ice T?

Oh sure man he’s a legend! I grew up watching Ice first as a musician then transitioning into acting. You know Ice will throw you in a scene because he’s so honest he’s so … ICE, that a lot of times coming as an actor first, believe it or not we can bring a lot of BS with us in our work. Sometimes we’re not always as honest as we can be, when you start off as an actor you bring a lot of bad habits with you but if you’re in a scene with Ice he’s going to drop you into the truth he’s going to drop you into what’s happening inside your guts because that’s what he’s bringing all the time.

 

Also congratulations on your role in “Hamilton”! Can you reflect on being on the show?

Yeah, you know you never know what something is going to turn into. Mariska talks about it with SVU how they kind of went after her to be a part of that 17 years ago and she didn’t know the phenomenon it was going to be. She just knew it was kind of interesting to her and she was going to stick around as long as she was having a good time, and that’s how I feel with Hamilton. I knew how it made me feel when I encountered the material but you have no idea if it will connect to an audience, or find an audience so this thing that we love so much first, the fact that our little show is connecting with thousands of people and now hopefully millions of people with the cast album being out and stuff, it feels like a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in every way.

 

So can you speak a little bit more about the album?

The other weird thing about Hamilton is that our creator Lin found the sweet spot. There’s something ingenious about the idea of telling the story of our founding fathers and the birth of our nation through hip-hop music. So it’s just that sweet spot between art and politics you know the most forward thinking leaders of our time are loving this show. Any show that can connect with the POTUS in the same way it connects with Questlove in the same way that it connects with Cornell West in the same way that it connects with Charlie Rose is doing something right. People come, and it’s just such a beautiful example of what art can do and what America can do at it’s best. So it’s just this beautiful living example at the Richard Rodgers every night of what’s possible in art, how art can bring people together it’s really quite extraordinary!

 

The soundtrack also broke records can you reflect on that a little bit?

I mean Hamilton has since I first met it, since I first encountered this piece — it’s been a rule breaker and has done things that not many other shows can do so I think the soundtrack is continuing in that tradition. It is connecting with as many people as it possibly can and you know we’re not done. We’ve got some live performances planned of the show to promote the album. We’re going to do the talk show circuit in the coming months. It’s just very exciting and the album is so wonderful because there are millions of people that won’t be able to get to the Rodgers for a very long time because of ticket prices, and quite frankly because of the limitations of the theater we can only seat 1,300 at a time, so the album allows people all over the country, and all over the world to experience the show right in their living rooms, and in their cars, and on their way to work, so that’s a real wonderful  opportunity that we have to reach out.

 

And do you see your character Burr as an antagonist or antihero or do people want to think of him as a villain?

I’ve sort of found it’s taken me about 15 years which is not really a long time but it kind of takes a while to discover what your specialty possibly is as an actor.  My role is not dissimilar on Law and Order or dissimilar on Person of Interest. I kind of take a liking to people who you could easily write off as a villain because I think what is interesting to me is finding out what makes those people tick, very few people come to this earth to be the incarnate of evil, very few people come to this earth to  — I mean there’s a few we could name a few but they’re not many most people who history paints as a villain or who history looks at with side eye. They’re just trying to do the best that they could. They had families and people who loved them and they were children once too so it’s my great joy in life to get at the heart of those people and to get at what motivates them. Yeah, it’s quite interesting to me that I’ve kind of found myself as the guy that gets cast a lot as the villain or the antihero as you said it. I’m having a ball!

 

How does Burr being a father play into the character?

I think that that’s where his—that’s what he was concerned about more than anything. That’s what Lin (Lin-Manuel Miranda) found about Burr in his research about the character and tried to write him with as much compassion as he could and found what made Burr tick. Burr got out of the bed every morning for his wife and daughter. He got out of bed every morning for his friends and his family. So his loyalty wasn’t as flawed as Hamilton’s was. I think Hamilton had more of a passion for the building of the nation and had more of a passion for the greater good possibly than Burr did. And I say that too without judgement. You know, Burr was an early politician and was in a lot of those same rooms that Hamilton was in, but the thing that was pushing them forward was slightly different.

 

Can you speak more about working with Lin-Manuel?

I hope that I’m lucky enough to continue to work with people like Lin in that Lin is a genius. It’s official now, he’s been awarded (laughs) the Genius Grant. But even before it was official, I certainly recognized him as a genius. And the thing that is most exciting about working with someone like Lin is that he wants everybody up on that level with him. He doesn’t want to be up there all by himself. And so he creates, he and Tommy (director, Thomas Kail) both, our entire creative team really, they create an environment where you feel it is your duty to tap into the genius inside you. And to bring all of that to the table at every moment that you’re on stage and every moment that you’re in that room and so we all felt like we were geniuses in that room and that we were working on a piece of material that could hold all of our greatness. And in the end you get something that is greater than all of us because it’s the sum of our parts. None of us is as good as that show is. None of us is as good alone as we are when we step on stage together and we do that show as a unit.

 

When approaching the duel scene, did you find any contemporary equivalent to what these men were preparing to do?

Oh yeah. I mean, I think it’s a tragedy. I think the loss of life is never something that I’ll celebrate. So yeah there’s a contemporary equivalent because we see this every day. We see it with war. We see it with gang violence and gun violence, you know, we see this all the time and it’s really unfortunate. It’s ego and it’s a lack of empathy. Because when you step inside another man’s shoes for an instant, it’s much harder to take his life. So I think it’s a tragedy that Hamilton and Burr could not find a way to not end up on those dueling grounds. And I think it’s a tragedy every time I read about, you know, people that couldn’t find a way to not kill each other. It’s a sad thing that’s been going on since the beginning of time and I don’t know if we’ll ever see an end to it but it always pains me greatly.

 

Could you speak a little more about your passion for acting and music.

I grew up doing them both separately. I grew up singing in church and acting in the Easter play (laughs) and the school plays and things like that. So musicals didn’t come along until I was a teenager, but the genre is a great fit for me because I get to do so many things that I love. I get to do them all at the same time. It feels like a really good fit for my talent. I have so much fun on stage every night. I don’t have to leave anything at the door. When I do TV, which is wonderful and TV economically allows me to do some of the passion projects I’ve had in theater, television economically makes that easier to do, but it’s really only theater that asks me to do everything that I can possibly do and some things that I never thought that I could do. So it feels good to flex those muscles every night.

 

What can we expect from you in the future?

I’m still learning so much at the Richard Rodgers (Theater). I think Burr is going to keep me busy for a little while. And the material is so nuanced and the well is so deep over there that I think it’s going to keep me curious and excited for a very long time. But I also have a recording career that I started about a year ago. I have a debut album out, a self-titled debut album. We’re going to do a re-release of that in the next couple of months and start working on a second album. So that we’ll get started, and we’ll see where Hamilton leads. You know, it has really been such an unexpected and deeply fulfilling journey up until this point and I look forward to all the roads and all the places that it leads to.