Interview: Leslie Odom Jr. on character and suspense in ‘Glass Onion’ and working with Rian Johnson
The beauty of murder mystery movies largely stems from the ensemble cast. Who winds up dead? Who is the culprit? Are there accomplices? Among the suspects, each one has a reasonable motivation to kill, but a great murder mystery would further complicate that by making each suspect a victim of circumstances.
Rian Johnson captured lightning in a bottle with the first Knives Out, a film that openly embraces the whodunnit subgenre but with a cast of loud, awful people who believe they are entitled to their inherited wealth. Now, with Glass Onion, he successfully replicates the absurdity of the predecessor but raises the stakes. The cast this time may still consist of loud, awful people, but they find themselves all tethered to one person in the room – tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton).
And now, Miles has invited them all to his remote island for a party. With that, the desire to cut ties is as strong as ever. One of these characters is Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), a scientist who works for Miles and has seen his integrity tested over and over again. Is it enough to warrant murder?
There may be only one truth to every murder case, but to Leslie Odom Jr., it is the responsibility of the actor to capture your own subjective truth to every scene. In the conversation below, I spoke to Leslie and talked about his experience being involved in murder mystery movies, his interest in Lionel’s situation, and his ability to maintain a level of suspense throughout the filmmaking process. Last but not least, he answers a fun question at the end!
Kevin L Lee: Mr. Leslie Odom Jr., thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s a really, really surreal experience.
Leslie Odom Jr.: Oh man, that’s very kind of you to say. Thanks.
KL: So, I want start with the fact that you’ve been in not one but two murder mystery movies now! First with Murder on the Orient Express and now with Glass Onion. So, I’m curious to know, what did you learn from Murder on the Orient Express that you took into Glass Onion? And what was different for you when making these two murder mysteries?
LOJ: Every single thing about them is different. The tone and the time period and the role, obviously, and the directors, all that stuff… Movies are just about the most collaborative art form of them all. I mean, it takes hundreds of people to make these things. It’s not the same as a painting or Broadway show or even TV. I mean, when it comes to the background actors and all the people that touch the film in post, and all the PAs, it’s just in the result.
All of those things make up the experience, so this couldn’t have been more different. Murder on the Orient Express was my very first film and Glass Onion is the last film I’ve completed. Obviously, I came into those very differently. What makes this one so unique is Rian Johnson. Rian Johnson… There’s nobody like him in the business, and I think it takes a long time.
I hope I don’t sound like… like a know-it-all or something, but I think it takes a long time in this business to really look to develop a relationship with an audience to really… I think… get a handle on exactly what it is that you bring to the table that is unique, what it is that you can say, that only you can say. And that relationship with the audience piece is a big part of it.
Anyway, I just think that… I just feel so lucky to have crossed paths with Rian at this stage in his career because I think that the surprise success of that first film gave him a lot of information about what he brings to the industry that is unique and what people love about him and what he does. And so I think we’re at the beginning of a Rian Johnson renaissance. I mean, I think he’s going to delight us for years and years to come. I just feel lucky to have crossed paths with him at this moment.
KL: I am absolutely here for the Rian Johnson renaissance. You mentioned earlier about how this is a different experience from something like Hamilton, like a Broadway production. So, every day for you, coming to set, what was it like working with Rian and the day-to-day operations of working with a large ensemble cast like this?
LOJ: It was just about the most creative, submissive, fun, wacky experience that I’ve had in my career. And that’s really… It starts at the top and filters down from there. It’s really hard to read effectively from the back of the line or the bottom of the call sheet. Rian and Daniel [Craig] made this set a joy to show up to every day.
And before seeing it, I was nervous only because I felt like… man, I really hope that some of the joy we had making this thing shows up on screen because if it doesn’t, it would feel selfish, it would feel wrong. If that is not captured somehow, I was just going to feel bad. And when I saw it, obviously, my shoulders relaxed. In the first five minutes, I realized I had nothing to worry about. All of the joy is preserved up there.
And in post, Rian and the team added to it with Nathan’s [Johnson] incredible score with the gorgeous, seamless special effects. It was a joy and I highly recommend it. If you get a call from Rian Johnson, I highly recommend saying yes and going to be a part of Camp Rian because it was really a blast.
KL: Well, if I’m ever going to be in Camp Rian, I will be on the producer’s side!
LOJ: I highly recommend it, man!
KL: In this film you play Lionel, who is a scientist working for the billionaire, Miles [Edward Norton]. And I’d just like to say that within the first couple scenes, I instantly related to your character’s position. Can you talk a little bit about what drew you into playing this character? Is there a part of his backstory that really motivated you to play him?
LOJ: Yeah, I was just thinking about… the moments that I’ve been out of line with my integrity, the reasons why we step out of line with our integrity. And sometimes it is because the company you keep matters. And Lionel’s in a… I don’t want to make excuses for him.
LOJ: But somebody with a whole lot of money is pulling his strings and asking him to, again and again, be a worse version of themselves. So, anyway. I related to him too. I, of course, gave it a serious look because Rian asked me to. Rian was interested and he thought that I could possibly bring something to it. I was just reading the script, on first read, just looking for the same thing. Do I relate to this guy? Is there something that I can bring to this role that could be special and worthy of the frame?
And so with Rian’s help and Jen Eagan, our costume designer, I think that I was able to… I hope I was able, through Lionel, to tell a story that somebody’s going to relate to. But in an ensemble cast, it’s not mandatory that people relate to all the people, right? That’s not the point. But yes, I do hope that Lionel does feel like a stand-in for somebody else’s experience. Somebody that we can put enough truth up there that somebody can be like, “Oh, that’s a really tough spot to be in,” or, “I can see why he made that choice. Maybe dumb, but I can understand why he did that.”
KL: Right. I applaud you for providing a lot of truth and narrative complexity to that character because I think there’s a lot of… I think Lionel’s character is very representative of other good, hardworking people in the real world today, but they’re in this thorny, spiky situation.
LOJ: That’s right. Yes. That’s very well said.
KL: So one thing I’m always curious about with these murder mystery movies and these whodunits is everyone in this cast, you guys are reading the script and – maybe, maybe not – everyone knows who the culprit is when they read the end of the script.
And it makes me wonder, does that make it challenging to film the earlier scenes in the film when your character is NOT supposed to know? So I’m curious, are there methods that you used to combat that? Were there techniques you and Rian worked out together to maintain that suspense on set?
LOJ: Great question. It was such a wonderful acting exercise that’s even helping me in the film that I’m shooting right now. It’s just really a daily reminder before the day’s work, you have to remember… before every scene really… you have to remind yourself of what you know *in that* moment, not what you’re going to know in five minutes. Certainly not what you’re going to know at the end of the film, what you know then, because all of us are making the best decisions we can with the information that we have.
So really, it’s just a good exercise in being present.
KL: I wonder if that created a fun atmosphere where you do have fun camaraderie with your fellow co-stars, but at the same time you can’t trust them.
LOJ: Oh, sure! Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! Yeah, of course! And you just can’t trust these people. You can’t. Those are the given circumstances. These people, I think, for Miles, they would’ve let these relationships go a long time ago. There’s a few of these characters that are sick of this. They don’t have a way out at this moment. And that gives us the great tension that we start the film with. These are tense relationships.
So no, I think that trust is eroded with these people. Spoiler free, I’ll say that Miles has already asked them to do some things that don’t sit well with them over time. There’s this guilt, this shame. And so yes, that’s the tension at the start of this thing.
KL: Will you do more murder mystery movies?
LOJ: Oh, of course! If I get an interesting script and chance to work with people that are going to make me better, absolutely.
KL: Part of me was thinking, because you’re so great in this movie, that part of me felt really sad that unless Rian specifically gets your character back, you can’t really be in the next one.
LOJ: Sure, that’s okay! There’s so many people that I would love to see in the world, in the form, in the medium. Like, Janelle [Monáe]… I think it’s widely known what a rockstar legend she is. And she brought Ms. Grace Jones, the legend herself, to our premiere in London!
I’m like, “I want to see Grace Jones in this world.” You know what I mean? Like, whenever, wherever Rian sets this thing next. I mean… There’s so many capable, exciting talent out there that I hope our movie… sort of rings that bell once again, that reminds everybody of the very unique qualities of Rian Johnson as a filmmaker, and just makes the calls coming from him really easy for Part 3. I hope that he can assemble another great cast and I will be there with my popcorn on opening night to see Part 3.
KL: So will I! So I want you to picture this scenario:
KL: You’re on set, you’re working on Glass Onion, right? You’re working with the cast and crew, everything’s going smoothly. And suddenly your phone is missing. Someone has stolen it. Who in that cast would be the first person you suspect and why?
LOJ: Now, is it the actual actors or is it the characters?
KL: The actors.
LOJ: Oh! The actors! So you mean who’s the sniveling little thief?
KL: [laughs] Yeah!
LOJ: I probably suspect Daniel [Craig], to be honest.
LOJ: Out of that cast because I feel like he’d be like, he’d be playing a joke. He’d be trying to fuck with me. And he would play it straight, of course! But my first… my suspicion would go right there, right to number one.
KL: That’s amazing, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. And congratulations on the film. I love it so much.
LOJ: Thanks so much. Have a great day!
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery will have a one-week theatrical run on 600 screens beginning November 23. It will begin streaming on Netflix December 23.