Hamilton Mega-Talent Leslie Odom Jr. Talks His New Exorcist Sequel and Broadway Return

The Masterman and CAPA alum takes the stage this month before co-starring in the frightening film.

Leslie Odom Jr., who returns to Broadway this month in Purlie Victorious before co-starring in the new Exorcist sequel

Original Hamilton cast member Leslie Odom Jr., who returns to Broadway this month in Purlie Victorious before co-starring in the new Exorcist sequel / Photograph by Robin L. Marshall/Getty Images

Singer and actor Leslie Odom Jr. became a household name when he played Aaron Burr in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton. Since then, he has done a bevy of projects. This fall, Odom is busier than ever.

He’s returning to Broadway, starring in Purlie Victorious. Previews began on September 7th. And in October, he’s co-starring in the new Exorcist sequel. From his home in L.A., Odom talks about where he came from and where he’s headed next.

[Ed. Note: We spoke with Leslie Odom Jr. the day before the actors’ strike began. During the actors’ strike, actors are, with few exceptions, prohibited from speaking to press about upcoming Hollywood movies. In Odom’s case, he is currently unable to speak about the new Exorcist sequel.]

Hi, Leslie.
Good morning! How are you?

I’m fine, thanks for asking. Just trying to keep up with my kids.
How old are they again?

They’re 16 and 17. And if my math is correct, yours are two and six?
Yes. It’s pretty crazy to think about it, as a father of a two- and a six-year-old — to think about my little ones as old as your kids are or as grown-ass people. But that’s the gig! Teaching them all these baby lessons that can become foundational and last a lifetime, even though I know they’ll forget the vast majority of what I try to tell them.

Right before we jumped on this call, my 17-year-old forgot something I told him two minutes prior.
[Laughs] I used to think that we need to teach our kids 1,000 things. But I think what we really need to do is pick five things and find 1,000 different ways to teach them those five things. They all need different things. How can I be most helpful to you? How can I take you the way that you arrived to me, the way I received you, and help you learn these five things? That’s what parenting is about to me.

The last time I talked to you was in 2021. I was in a noisy New York hotel lobby, waiting­ out a magnificent storm. And you were in Serbia, of all places, filming the sequel to Knives Out. Since then, you’ve released your first children’s book and a boxed set of you singing Christmas songs. You’ve been filming a much-anticipated sequel to The Exorcist. And then there’s your big Broadway show, Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate­ Romp Through the Cotton Patch, . Do you ever just, you know, chill?
I chill! I recharge! You have to. I’m actually liking the rhythm of life I am in right now. There are people in the biz who do three movies a year, and there was a little season of my life where I got a taste of that. I guess I can say this in print: I didn’t like it so much. I didn’t like how thin it spread me. So now I am concentrating on one special film a year, if I am lucky enough to get one, and one Broadway show or one album that I spend a couple of years doing.

It’s been seven years since you left your role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton on Broadway. What took you so long to get back?
After Hamilton, there were simply opportunities I never had before. This is what happened to those of us who were lucky enough to be a part of the original Hamilton company. Hollywood came calling. And we didn’t know if these opportunities would ever be available to us again. So we tried to make good use of that sort of golden window of time and opportunity.

You actually mentioned Purlie Victorious in interviews way back when you were still doing Hamilton.
Yes, and I didn’t expect it to take so long to happen. But I had conflicts; the rights were tied up for a while. But I knew it would happen when it was supposed to happen. I find that when I trust in a bigger plan, when I surrender my ambitions and my need to control to God and let it happen the way it’s supposed to, it does.

You once told me you hate it when reporters ask for the synopsis of your next project, because if you get one little detail wrong, the writer or director will be infuriated.

All I can do is find the things that move me and give them all that I have and wait and see. Nobody could have possibly predicted that ‘Hamilton’ would touch people in the way that it did. — Leslie Odom Jr.

So let me see if I can summarize Purlie Victorious for the benefit of the reader. It’s the Old South. There’s a rich white plantation owner by the name of Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee. He owns everything in sight. A fast-talking, charismatic Black preacher named Purlie Victorious Judson — played by you — comes into town and shakes things up and becomes a thorn in the side of the captain, in the funniest of ways.
That’s good! It’s also about what it is that we own. What can we lay claim to? And there’s so much symbolism around what the church has meant and still means to the Black community.

Leslie Odom Jr. in a promo image for his Broadway show Purlie Victorious

Leslie Odom Jr. in a promo image for his Broadway show Purlie Victorious

The original version of this play was written in 1961. It was considered very cutting-edge because of themes like Black ownership and Black pride. How do you think a 2023 audience will receive Purlie Victorious?
I have no idea. The same was true with Hamilton. All I can do is find the things that move me and give them all that I have and wait and see. Nobody could have possibly predicted that Hamilton would touch people in the way that it did.

Right. I’m trying to imagine the meeting where someone said, “So what if we do a musical about the founding fathers but all of the performers rap?” I have to admit: If I had been at that meeting, I certainly wouldn’t have been the first person to raise my hand and say that is just a brilliant idea that will undoubtedly be a huge success.­
You really never know. Some plays, people just don’t really get. Look at Stephen Sondheim, one of the most prolific­ and talented theater minds of the last century. Many of his shows were colossal failures at first. And it was only when we look back on them 10 or 20 years later that those productions become revered. Look at his Merrily We Roll Along from 1981. It closed less than two weeks after it opened! But now, more than 40 years later, it’s coming back to Broadway with an all-star cast and has already been extended — twice. It was a failure in 1981, and now Daniel Radcliffe is putting his film career on hold to be a part of it. Abject rejection can turn into legend and lore and fascination.­

Leslie Odom Jr.

Leslie Odom Jr. performing as Aaron Burr in Hamilton for the 58th Grammy Awards in 2016 / Photograph by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

I can’t wait to see you as Purlie. It sounds like the perfect­ excuse for a fall trip to New York. But if I’m being honest, I’m even more excited­ about your Exorcist sequel.
I understand!

When did you first see the film?
I was 17. A friend of mine was a huge horror fan, and he couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen The Exorcist. So we got a VHS of it. That movie has such a disturbing property. People were never the same after seeing that film. The filmmaking is just painstaking, and there’s the gorgeous work of one of the most well-renowned and respected method actors of her time: Ellen Burstyn.

In the 1973 original, Ellen played the mother of a child possessed. In this Exorcist sequel, you play the father of the same. At the end of the day, what are these movies really­ about?
Vulnerability. The way we can leave our children vulnerable to the … the … the awful. With the first one, they put so much work into the realism of it. And it became one of the scariest movies of all time. But was it possession, or was it something else? Was the child unwell? These shades of gray are in our film, too.

Can you put a finger on what it was that made the original Exorcist so scary?
The relationship between the parent and the child, particularly a young child — how believable that relationship was. So ordinary. The ordinariness makes it so relatable. There’s no distance between us, the viewers, and the movie’s characters. And this new movie features the expansion and continuation of this type of storytelling. Our film is grown out of similar soil.

Leslie Odom Jr. in the new Exorcist sequel

Leslie Odom Jr. as freaked out dad Victor Fielding in the new Exorcist sequel (Image courtesy Universal)

If you ask people what scenes they remember the most or what they found the most horrific, I imagine many would mention the vomit or the spinning head or the — well, I guess I will just say, for the sake of decency, the girl-with-the-crucifix moment. But for me, it would have to be some of those intense medical scenes with the girl. You?
For me, the most shocking thing was actually the language.

Really? How interesting.
There’s certain language used in that film. I don’t want to say it in print. But there was always this unspoken rule — even in horror — that you don’t use certain words. And this movie was breaking those rules for me. And it wasn’t just anybody saying these things. It was a child. A child couldn’t, shouldn’t, say those words. There’s a really powerful impression on my brain from that.

The original movie had such an effect on audiences, and much has been written about the effect it had on the people in the movie. The filmmaking­ was intense. The subject matter­ was intense. I’m gathering the same can be said for this Exorcist sequel. I have to wonder: Did you seek out therapy to cope?
Yes. Quite frankly, yes. And we talked a lot on set and as a company about the ways to protect ourselves and take care of ourselves emotionally and spiritually while and after doing this work. A film like this comes at a cost, for sure. But to me, the cost is worth it. I know the power of these images. I also think there is something in us that is healed, that is exorcised, by sitting and watching The Exorcist — a way in which we can be rearranged and changed for the better. A film doesn’t last 50 years if it was only damaging.

Leslie Odom Jr.

Leslie Odom Jr. and wife Nicolette Robinson at Vanity Fair’s 2022 Oscar party in Beverly Hills / Photograph by Rich Fury/VF22/Getty Images

I know Ellen is in your film, reprising her original role of Chris MacNeil, the mother of Regan, who was, of course, played by Linda Blair. You seek Chris out to get help for your own child. I imagine it must have been a pinch-me moment to film scenes with the woman — and the very character — that made such an impression on you when you were 17 years old.
Oh, yeah. Ellen is the mother of it all. The emotional core of her performance, the emotional power of her performance — keep in mind that an Oscar nomination in the horror genre is rare — is the blueprint for how it’s done. And I’ll be grateful for the rest of my career to share space with her. It was daunting. It was exhilarating.

As good as the original Exorcist­ was, the sequels were just awful.
Actually, you should watch part three again. It didn’t do particularly well in the theater, but since that time, it has been rediscovered and is truly appreciated among horror fans.

Your film doesn’t follow those sequels sequentially. It’s a direct sequel to the original Exorcist, correct?
That’s right. You don’t need to see those sequels — or even the original, for that matter — to enjoy what we have made.

Well, your acting career is certainly in full force these days. When you were a little kid growing up in East Oak Lane, was acting on your radar?
Not at all. I went to Masterman for middle school. My fifth-grade world history teacher, Mrs. Turner — Mrs. Frances Turner, who is no longer with us — identified me as more than just a troublemaker in her class. She believed that I could be a good communicator. She worked with me privately and changed the trajectory of my life. I participated in these oratorical competitions, and Mrs. Turner was my coach. The first year, I won, and the prize was a Macintosh computer. The second year, I won again, and they gave me a TV and VCR. I won yet again the third year, and they told me they couldn’t give me any more electronics, so instead, they gave me a scholarship to Freedom Theatre. That really changed my life. I also had amazing training under Joan Myers Brown at what was then known as the Philadelphia Dance Company.

And then you’re 17 and suddenly part of the Broadway cast of Rent. How on earth did that happen?
Rent came out when I was 14. You have to remember that Rent was the Hamilton of its day. It was viral before viral was a thing. There was a real energy surrounding that show. I would see cast members on the cover of Newsweek. There would be a feature on Nightline. I would hear about it on the radio. I went to HMV on Walnut Street and bought the cast recording.

You were a fan before even seeing the show.
I was! And then the touring company came to the Merriam while the show was still on Broadway, and I got a student rush ticket, probably for $10. And I heard on Power 99 or Q102 that they were having Rent auditions at the club Shampoo. So I showed up — as did 900 other people. We got to sing a song of our choice. They asked me to come back later in the day and sing a song from Rent, which I did. A couple of weeks later: Come to New York and dance for us. A couple weeks later: Come to New York and meet the director. And I got invited to perform in the Broadway show.

Amazing. But you were only 17. Did you finish school?
I was ready to drop out. I didn’t give a damn. Because I was on Broadway! In Rent! But my parents did their research and figured­ out that I was ahead academically and only needed two classes­ to graduate, so that’s just what I did. I had transferred to CAPA, and CAPA agreed that I could take the classes at the Community College­ of Philadelphia once my Broadway contract was up.

And after that, you left Philly and never looked back.
No. I always look back. I have friends and family in Philly and carry Philly with me everywhere I go. But the reality was, for the pursuit of my career, it was either New York or L.A. But I have not forgotten about Philly. Philly will forever be a major part of who I am. Always.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Published as “And For His Next Act …” in the September 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.