What starts out as a lavish train ride through Europe, quickly unfolds into one of the most stylish, suspenseful and thrilling mysteries ever told. From the novel by best-selling author Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells the tale of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. Kenneth Branagh directs and leads an all-star cast including Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad and Tony Award-winning actor Leslie Odom Jr. Leslie is taking the lead in his first feature post-Hamilton and we got a chance to chat with him about his role as Dr. Arbuthnot, a character originated by Sean Connery in the 1974 original.
BlackGirlNerds: Hey Leslie thanks for chatting with us. So I’ll start is it intimidating or liberating joining a cast with—as you like to say such heavies?
Leslie Odom: It was probably a little bit of both depending on the day, right. I shot a lot of my big stuff before, I like to say Josh, Daisy, Tom and I got to London last year in October, Halloween I think I flew out there. And we shot all of our stuff, all of our big scenes before the famous people got there in January. See, the famous people didn’t come until January – that is Penelope and Johnny and Michelle and Judi. Once they got there, the heavy lifting really that I had to do was over. On those days, it was liberating because I’ve been a part of really well-oiled incredible ensembles before. I’ve been a part of championship teams before, so it felt familiar in that way. And what that feels like, you just have to hold up your little end of it. You just have to do your part, but right across from you are people who have your back, if for some reason you can’t hold up your end of it. You know, you’re such a part of an ensemble. When you’re sitting two feet away from Willem Dafoe and Michelle Pfeiffer and Penelope Cruz, you can really lean on the person next to you.
BlackGirlNerds: Yeah. And I feel like it’s also great that you guys had such a great player-coach, if you will, with Kenneth taking both as the director and the actor. And I’ve heard from other times where I’ve interviewed casts of his, that he’s really collaborative with his actors in that. So what was it like working with him? I would imagine it almost felt like a theater company in a lot of ways.
Leslie Odom: Yeah. No, you’re exactly right. It’s so meaty. It’s the second movie that I’ve ever done and it’s very different than the first movie that I did ten years ago. Coming from the theater where we were not really discussing or changing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dialogue. It was very much about saying the words exactly, You wanted to say to them exactly how he had written them, the words in the order that he had written them with the intention that he desires. I couldn’t tell you whether it’s just Ken’s set or whether it’s just the film as a medium. I had to learn by the end of the process, I had caught on, but at the beginning when Ken was asking me, “So what do you feel about the scene? Do you think that’s exactly what he would say? What do you think? Do you think that you could change it at all?” I was kind of like, “Yeah, Ken. No, I’m good to say exactly what’s on the page. “By the end, I caught on. I caught on after I’d seen Michelle work with Ken. After I’d seen Michelle work with Ken, how Michelle and Penelope and some of the other more experienced people, because what I got was the sense that he really wanted, he wasn’t just asking. He wasn’t just lip-servicing. He really wanted your input. And if there was a suggestion that you made, any suggestion, he would take it. He wanted us to feel like all of our fingerprints were on it. We’d all touched it. We’d all done what we could to make the scenes as rich and as honest and full of life as we could. So, I caught on by the end.
BlackGirlNerds: You can tell cause I have to ask this as kind of a jovial thing. I feel like there had to have been a mustache-off. You guys must have had one because everyone had to up their mustache game in this role a little bit. I kid but you guys just look like ya’ll had so much fun. I mean, I know people had to be asking you about that video that Josh did with Daisy, where he’s kind of hammering her. But my question for that is, were you guys playing Werewolves that night when you filmed that?
Leslie Odom: Yeah, we were. We were playing werewolves that night and that was late in the shoot. Michelle came that night. We had guest stars J.J. Abrams, Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and our whole pack. It was a fun night.
BlackGirlNerds: Well, we love those kinda games. Tell our readers what werewolves is because this has become the inside scoop on Murder like you can feel like you’re a part of the cast.
Leslie Odom: Werewolves is a parlor game that we would play every Friday night. It really came from, the vibe on the set, that’s our top down, right? So that Ken is responsible for that, but after that, it’s those top-line movie stars. It’s Penelope. It’s Johnny. It’s Michelle. So their generosity on set, they really helped to engender that spirit of collaboration and comradery. So, it was Penelope’s idea. Her first week she was like, “We’re getting together Friday night. We’re gonna play this game. We’re obsessed with it in Madrid. We’re gonna play this game on Friday night.” And so, she came and Javier Bardem, her husband, was our very first moderator. He led us through the game. So Javier is there leading us through each game. And if you’ve ever played mafia, it’s very similar to mafia. But it’s a parlor game that people take very seriously, where there’s a very short story. There’s a town and there are werewolves in the town. And so, there’s day and there’s night, and the werewolves kill at night. And during the day, the townspeople try to hunt the werewolves. So you’re trying to figure out who the werewolves are in the group before they kill everybody.
BlackGirlNerds: Excellent. And who was the best at the game?
Leslie Odom: Penelope’s pretty, as you can imagine, Penelope’s really good. There were times when Penelope was the last, you know, down to her and one other person. And you are sure that like, well I think if I track this there’s no way that Penelope is not the werewolf. And you would somehow still question like, “Am I right about this?” She’s really good. She’s got a really good poker face.
BlackGirlNerds: That’s awesome. Yeah, when I read that I was just like, “This sounds absolutely hilarious.” Cause that video, obviously, went viral of you guys all sitting together, I feel like between people asking Daisy about The Last Jedi stuff and people hitting you up for Hamilton tickets, it’s like the work never ends. You’re clearly the most popular people on the set right? But seriously, what’s been your funniest fan interaction since you left the play or most surprising fangirl? Who walks up to you like, “Oh my God!”, and you were like, “Really?”
Leslie Odom: I remember. It might sound so silly, but I went to the L.A. opening night to enjoy the show. I just went to sit in the audience and watch the show. And I just was not expecting that my presence would be a thing at all. You know, I thought people were all about the new cast. And so I went to the show and at intermission, it was like one person came up, and then a little group of people came up, and then it got crazy very, very quickly. Daveed used to say, “Coming out of the stage door at the height of the show’s popularity while you are in it, you’re a Beatle for a block”, which is very good. It would be pandemonium right outside that stage door. You get a couple of blocks away from the theater and it all leveled out. It’s fine after that. In the center of that lobby on opening night in L.A., I was like, “Oh man.” It looks as if I’ve asked for this, but this isn’t what I was expecting it. I’m sort of always surprised, I remember the first time TMZ showed up at the airport to ask me a question. I was looking at him. I said, “Are you kidding? Where is the Kardashian that you are looking for? You couldn’t possibly be looking for me, right now. Was Kanye on this plane?” I’m surprised every time it turns into those kinds of things. That kind of, you know, celebrity thing because that’s just, It was a theater piece, you know. I’m grateful for it, but I just was not expecting that to come from theater.
BlackGirlNerds: Well, I will tell you I’m one of those crazy theater people. It’s a good thing we’re doing this by phone, so my fangirl doesn’t show too bad. But I think you very much underestimate yourself, because yes, it was a theater piece, but I think you guys already know it touched so many people. I appreciate it. And to kind of sum it up, it goes without saying that we Black Girl Nerds love everybody in that production, and we love everybody has gone out and done so much. It just seems like everybody’s getting put on in every form of media like television, film and you know. But I gotta ask if they give you the call for Hamilton the motion-picture, are you like, “I’m there”?
Leslie Odom: Oh, for sure. If I’m not old and decrepit, for sure. Speaking of everybody going on, Say this just because. There’s no reason to do this but I went to see Daveed and he has a film that he made with his best friend, called Blindspotting.
BlackGirlNerds: Okay, yeah, tell us more.
Leslie Odom: It’s just a little independent movie that they’ve been working on for ten years. It’s going to be out next year. It’ll be in the festivals and stuff. It is astonishing. It’s so inspiring. But like you said, that’s an example of something. They’ve been writing that script for ten years and the moment Daveed got put on, it’s like great, now we can make our movie. This movie that is so full of so much art and heart and music and it’s so topical. It’s incredible. The way the world has embraced this show and the original cast members that were a part of this show is something that I’ll be grateful for, for the rest of my life.
BlackGirlNerds: Yeah I can’t wait to see it. Well, thanks so much Leslie.
Leslie Odom: Thank you.
Interview conducted by Jacqueline Coley
Murder on the Orient Express is currently playing in theaters.
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Jacqueline is the Director of Festivals and Conventions for @BlackGirlNerds and a film correspondent for @RottenTomatoes. She is also a Gamer, Cinephile, Theater-kid, internet addict, and lover of all things geek. Follow her on Twitter @ThatJacqueline