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Leslie Odom Jr. Finds Sam Cooke's Voice In 'One Night In Miami'

Odom Jr. landed his first Broadway role at 16, and later starred as Aaron Burr in Hamilton. Now he's up for two Oscars, one for his role as Cooke in One Night in Miami.

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Other segments from the episode on April 12, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 12, 2021: Interview with Leslie Odom, Jr.; Interview with Emerald Fennell.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our first guest is Tony and Grammy Award-winning actor and singer Leslie Odom Jr. He's nominated for two Oscars for his work on the film "One Night In Miami." He made his Broadway debut when he was 17 and went on to star in "Hamilton." Leslie Odom Jr. spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Leslie Odom Jr. is halfway to an EGOT. He won a Tony and a Grammy for his lead role as Aaron Burr in "Hamilton," and now he is nominated for two Oscars - best supporting actor and best original song - for his work in the film "One Night In Miami." Here he plays another historic figure. This time, it's singer Sam Cooke.

The film imagines what might have happened on a real evening in 1964. Four friends, who also happened to be major public figures - Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay - had gathered to celebrate Clay's victory over Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight boxing champion. We don't really know what these men talked about that night, but the film imagines what conversations they might have had. Screenwriter Kemp Powers says he wanted to examine that and the question, what social responsibility do Black public figures have to support civil rights, and what's the best way to do it?

Leslie Odom Jr. is also an author, has three solo albums and has appeared in movies including "Harriet" and the upcoming "Many Saints Of Newark" and TV shows like "Smash" and "Central Park." We started with a clip from the film. Malcolm X and Sam Cooke are in the middle of one of their contentious exchanges. Sam, played by Leslie Odom Jr., is talking about how he's preparing to return to the Copacabana, a club where an all-white crowd was hostile to him. Malcolm is laying into Sam for caring about white audiences at all. Malcolm is played by Kingsley Ben-Adir.


KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR: (As Malcolm X) What kind of message are you sending, though, by doing one show for white folks and a completely different show for Black folks, Sam? No, listen to me. You're performing in places where the only Black people not on stage are the ones serving the food.

LESLIE ODOM JR: (As Sam Cooke) Don't you think I know that? I can't tell you how many times I wanted to reach out and punch somebody.

BEN-ADIR: (As Malcolm X) Then strike with the weapon that you have, man - your voice. Black people, we standing up. We speaking out. Sam, you have possibly one of the most effective, beautiful outlets of us all. You're not using it to help the cause, brother.

ODOM: (As Sam Cooke) The hell I'm not. I got the masters to my songs. I started a label. I'm producing tons of Black artists. Don't you think my determining, my creative and business destiny is every bit as inspiring to people as you standing up on a podium, trying to piss them off?

BALDONADO: Leslie Odom Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR.

ODOM: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

BALDONADO: Is there a certain quality to Sam Cooke's voice that you can describe, like something you had to emulate for this role?

ODOM: I think there's two, like, distinctive qualities of Sam. One is that soul thing that he was - he made no difference the way Aretha made no difference. He made no difference in the way he sang secular music than the way he sang gospel music, you know, which - to the people in the church, that is sacrilegious, almost. You know, you can't sing the two things in the same way. And Sam did. You listen to Sam "Live At The Harlem Square," and you - it sounds like a revival tent. But he ain't singing about Jesus in that club, you know?

So there's that as a hallmark of his voice. And then there's also - there's a sensuality to Sam's voice, and I think he found confidence there. I think he really understood the power of his voice when he tapped into that sensuality. And it was why young girls were falling out in the aisles when he was singing gospel music as a teenager. It was like he was singing to parts of them that they didn't quite understand yet.

BALDONADO: I'm thinking about, like, the gospel tradition of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. It's almost, like, visceral - and then, you know, that kind of thing applied to secular music.

ODOM: That's right. That's right. You listen to Sam Cooke "Live At The Harlem Square" in 1963, and you hear it (laughter). He takes "You Send Me," and he turns it into a sermon. He preaches "You Send Me." He talks about calling the operator and asking for his baby, and the operator can't get his baby. And he says, (singing) I want my baby. Like, you know, I can't. But he is - it's turned into something else. You know, there is a fervor and something that he can tap into, a gear that is available to him that is really not available to people that didn't grow up in that environment.

BALDONADO: You talk about, when you were preparing for - to play Sam Cooke, about how you would listen to recordings. And some of them, when there were recordings that were for white audiences, it was like Sam Cooke at work, you know, and how you kind of turned to some of his recordings where he's in front of a Black audience because that felt more to you, like, maybe how he would be when he was hanging around with his friends.

ODOM: Well, I know it. Yeah, that's code switching, you know? Yeah, we live that, you know? And that's what was so dangerous and exciting about Kemp's script. You know, I thought Kemp's script was making a private conversation public in a way that I'd never quite seen before. "Live At The Harlem Square" was a way for - that was a link, I thought. The way he was speaking to that Black audience would be a link to the way he was speaking to this Black audience - you know, this audience of brothers that he had in this room.

And I don't think - forgive me, but, you know, I don't even know if that's something that Sam, especially an artist of that day, would have resented - you know, the code switching of it all. I think that that was a part of his gifts, though, you know? Part of - a part of his gifting was that he knew that he could speak a few languages really well. He just didn't want to be limited. He knew what success at the Copa meant. That was not about white approval for some deep psychological need or - you know, it wasn't about that. It was about the doors that that would open around the country.

What he had to do on the road - you can only imagine, you know, the schedule and the work that would - the toll that it was taking on his body to have to tour in this way to make a fraction of what you could make if you could win over rooms at the Copa. You know, he understood that, and he knew he could do it. And you listen to Sam at the Copa and Sam at the Harlem Square, and you can hear how well he speaks these two very different languages.

GROSS: Let's hear you singing us Sam Cooke. And this is you in the movie and on the soundtrack singing "You Send Me."


ODOM: (As Sam Cooke, singing) Darling, you send me. I know you send me. Darling, you send me. Honest, you do. Honest, you do. Honest, you do. Whoa, you thrill me. I know you, you, you, you thrill me. Darling, you, you, you, you thrill me. Honest, you do. At first, I thought it was infatuation, but, ooh...

BALDONADO: That's Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke. He is nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for the role of Sam Cooke in the film "One Night In Miami." He's also nominated for co-writing an original song for the movie. It's called "Speak Now."

Now, Kemp Powers is the writer who wrote both the play and the movie "One Night In Miami," and he says he read about this meeting, and he imagined what these four men could have been talking about. And he used the opportunity to have these men have a conversation that's an important conversation. It's happened before. It's happened since. And that's what's the social responsibility - what social responsibility do Black public figures, artists of color have? And Kemp Powers says he kind of used the men to articulate these different perspectives. Can you talk about what you think Sam Cooke's perspective was? Like, in your conversations with Kemp Powers and the director, Regina King, like, where did you guys land on where Sam Cooke was coming from?

ODOM: You know, Kemp used his training and expertise as a journalist to write this screenplay, and so the men are so well-researched. So I think that he comes pretty damn close to what Sam might have said if someone challenged him on his record of what he'd done for his community, for his people. Sam was a businessman, and he thought that the best way for him to use his gift and his platform and, you know, all that he'd been given to help his people was to help them put food on their table, you know, to give them a gig, to give talented musicians jobs and careers, recording careers. Sam owned a record label, you know? And where he - he owned it himself, you know, where he almost exclusively worked with Black artists, by the way, that he grew up with. You know, he was going back. It wasn't like - he never left his community. He never sort of abandoned them, you know. He was married to his wife, who he met in grade school. They met in the fifth or sixth grade. And a lot of the artists he was signing at SAR Records were the gospel groups and the gospel artists that he toured the country with.

BALDONADO: And Kemp Powers has also said that in a way, he feels like this conversation is a variation of the conversations he's had his whole life, like dating back to his college dorm room. Do you remember having these conversations early on in your life?

ODOM: I do. I remember watching conversations like this be had as a little boy. And, yeah, I started to have them myself. We were having these same conversations backstage at "Hamilton." You know, we're asking ourselves when Sandra Bland is mysteriously murdered in police custody, when Philando Castile is murdered on the side of the road in front of his girlfriend and her little daughter - we're asking ourselves, what is our responsibility? You know, is there anything we can do? Can we raise money for any organization? Is there anybody we can throw attention to because the show has that power to shine a light on things that are important to us as a collective.

BALDONADO: My guest is Leslie Odom Jr. He's nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role as Sam Cooke in the film "One Night In Miami." He's also nominated for best original song, "Speak Now," which he co-wrote for the film. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado. Our guest is Tony and Grammy Award-winner Leslie Odom Jr. He's been nominated for two Academy Awards, best supporting actor for his role as Sam Cooke in the film "One Night In Miami" and for writing an original song for the film. It's called "Speak Now."

You were born in New York, but grew up mostly in Philadelphia. In your book, "Failing Up," you talk about this experience you had when you were a teen seeing the musical "Rent" in Philly. It was a touring production. Do you think that part of the reason why "Rent" was so important to you was because the cast was so diverse? You know, in the same way that I think why people love "Hamilton" so much - because they can see - like for people of color, they can see themselves, even if it's not - I mean, it's a story of the Founding Fathers, so that part of it isn't about them - but seeing that there are these people of color who perform like that.

ODOM: I do, for sure. I do think that that was attractive about it, for sure. I'll say - just to make sense of it, had the cast of "Rent" been all white people, I don't think it would have meant as much to me. That's for sure. Yeah, the representation in that sense mattered. It felt like - it felt a little bit - it looked a little bit like the world I was growing up in. It looked a little bit like my little middle school or my high school. It looked like my friends. That's what my friends looked like. You know, we weren't as cool. We were a little younger, but that's what I hoped we would look like when we were in our early 20s. You know, I hoped to have a little community, a little family of artists and passionate people that I was rolling with, that I was in connection to.

BALDONADO: Now, not soon after that, you were actually in "Rent" on Broadway.

ODOM: Yeah (laughter).

BALDONADO: Not everyone who, like, has those kind of feelings about seeing a show get to then be in the show. Can you tell us how that happened?

ODOM: So after I saw the show, they were in Philadelphia, and they had an open call, a cattle call. That's what it used to be called. And so, yeah, me and probably a thousand other people showed up at Shampoo, the club in Philadelphia, and we waited all day to be seen. And I sang my little - my tiny - my 16 bars or whatever, and I kept getting invited back. I thought that - the most that I thought would happen was that at the end of some process, my picture might go in a filing cabinet, and maybe I'd get a call one day when I was an adult - you know, when I'm 25 or I'm 30 years old. Like, they'll go through their filing cabinet, and they'll remember that kid that they met in Philadelphia - you know, 'cause I was 16 years old when I went to the "Rent" audition.

So they just kept inviting me back over the next few months. And I got a call at the end of the summer. You know, it was like August 20 or something like that, right before school started - right before my senior year started. And they had a spot for me in New York - in the company in New York. And I was just blown away.

BALDONADO: After you were in "Rent," you actually didn't stay in New York or stay on Broadway. And you had opportunities to do so, but you didn't go that route, you went to college for theater. Why did you decide to do that instead?

ODOM: Both my parents were college-educated, and so it was kind of, you know, just drummed into us ever since we were little kids that we were going to go to college. They didn't care what we studied, they just cared that we studied. And so I had been looking forward to the chance to go to college for a long time. And I went to Carnegie Mellon because there was a guy in "Rent."

Again, you saw - what? - representation. He was a Black guy, probably at that time 28, 29 years old. Michael McElroy was his name. And Michael was so talented, my goodness. And he had done - at that time, he'd done, like, four or five Broadway shows. And so I went to Michael before I left the show in November. I'd been in the show for about three months. I went to Michael, and I asked him what he thought I should do after - you know, how could I - essentially, like, how could I be you, Michael?

And he never even really looked at me. He kind of was putting makeup on in his dressing room in his - you know, in his mirror. And he said - because, yeah, I'd asked him, like, can I talk to you before the show? I'd barely talked to Michael, and he said, sure, you know, come. And he gave me a time to come. And I asked him what I should do, and he said, well, you know, I went to Carnegie Mellon. You should apply to Carnegie Mellon. And if you get in, you should go. And so I went to Carnegie Mellon because I wanted to be Michael McElroy. That's it.

BALDONADO: And you actually, instead of going to New York after you graduated, you did move to L.A., and you had a career in TV. And in your book, you write that there was a period when you were seriously thinking of giving up acting, like, when you were in L.A. focusing on TV. What was happening to you and your career at that time that made you think maybe I'm going to give it up?

ODOM: It's no secret to anybody that this is a - it is a very fickle business, and it's hard to wrap your arms around even when you've had some success as I had. You know, it was just so unpredictable. I did not understand how you gain any real footing, how you - most people, if you work a job, you get a check on Thursdays and, you know, you - so that's how you know how much rent you can afford.

You know, "Hamilton," which, you know, I was in my early 30s when "Hamilton" came along, that's the first - or mid-30s - that's the first job that I've ever had for a year in my life. I've never had a job for a year. That's just not the way my business works, you know? Everything ends. So, yeah, it was just that.

BALDONADO: You got involved in the workshops for "Hamilton." How did that come about?

ODOM: I got an email. I got an email from Lin-Manuel Miranda asking if I want - the email was called Oktoberfest. They were doing about four or five days of work on Act II. He'd just started writing Act II. And I had seen it. I had seen an early reading of a show called "The Hamilton Mixtape," so I knew what I was being invited to do.

BALDONADO: And did you know you always wanted that part?

ODOM: I would have taken any part to be honest, but I knew what a special part Burr was. I remember seeing the - I saw Act I, and I do remember distinctly Utkarsh was in the role when I saw it, and I thought he was beautiful in the part. And I - "Wait For It" finished, and I just like, you know, exhaled. And I was like, well, whomever gets to sing that song eight shows a week is going to be a very lucky actor.

It was a quiet song. It wasn't a showstopper of a song. I just recognized how special it was. I recognized what a magnificent piece of writing it was. You know, to have something that marries character, which you need in a musical - you know, to make something really compelling on stage, you got to be revealing character in a song. It needs to be moving the plot forward, so you got to give new information, new information. I need - you know, every time you, you know, repeat one of these choruses, I need to be learning something new. And what a gift if it's actually catchy, if it actually is catchy, but if the melody is actually beautiful. And wait for - I mean, "Wait For It," it's just all of those. It was a revelation. Yeah, I knew (laughter).

BALDONADO: Well, Leslie Odom, Jr., thank you so much.

ODOM: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Leslie Odom Jr. is nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Sam Cooke in the film "One Night In Miami." He's also nominated for Best Original Song. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.


ODOM: (As Aaron Burr - singing) I'm willing to wait for it. My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher. But there are things that the homilies and hymns won't teach ya. My mother was a genius. My father commanded respect. When they died, they left no instructions, just a legacy to protect. Death doesn't discriminate...

GROSS: After we take a short break, we'll hear from Emerald Fennell. She wrote and directed the film "Promising Young Woman," which is nominated for five Oscars, including best film, director and screenplay. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


ODOM: (As Aaron Burr, singing) I'm willing to wait for. I'm willing to wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. I am the one thing in life I can control. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. I am inimitable. I am an original. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. I am not falling behind or running late. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. I'm not standing still, I am lying in wait.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The darkly comic feminist revenge film "Promising Young Woman" has five Oscar nominations - best picture, director, screenplay, actress and film editing. That's pretty remarkable considering it's the first feature film made by Emerald Fennell. She spoke with our producer Sam Briger, who can fill us in about the movie.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Emerald Fennell wrote and directed "Promising Young Woman," which stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie. Cassie's in grief over the loss of her best friend, who the movie implies died by suicide after her rape at medical school, a rape witnessed by other students and ignored by the school. Since then, Cassie's life has been put on hold. She dropped out of the same med school, works at a coffee shop and hasn't moved out of her parents' home, who are very concerned about her.

However, at night, Cassie hunts sexual predators. She goes to bars and clubs and pretends to be falling-down drunk. Invariably, a man will offer to help her when, in fact, they take her home and try to take advantage of her inebriated state. When it's clear what's happening, Cassie snaps out of her drunken act and confronts them. Here's a scene where she's rebuking one of those men, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse.


CHRISTOPHER MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) I just thought that you were...

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Drunk?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) Yeah.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Really drunk?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) Yeah.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Well, I'm not. But that's good, isn't it?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) I think you should leave.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Oh, now you want me to leave?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) No, I just - I'm really high. Like, I'm really high right now. I don't know what I'm doing. I think you should go.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) But a second ago, you were determined for me to stay. You were pretty insistent, actually.

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) I'm a nice guy.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Are you?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) I thought we had a connection, I guess.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) A connection? OK. What do I do for a living? Sorry. Maybe that one's too hard. How old am I? How long have I lived in the city? What are my hobbies? What's my name?

BRIGER: "Promising Young Woman" is a dark comedy that plays with genre and one's expectations. Emerald Fennell was also the showrunner for the second season of "Killing Eve," a position she took over from her friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She got her start in television as an actor, getting a lot of notice for her role as Patsy in "Call The Midwife." More recently, you may have seen her playing the real-life Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix show about the British royal family, "The Crown."

Emerald Fennell, welcome to FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: So you said that the idea for your movie came to you when you thought of a scene like the one we just heard. So had you been thinking about writing a movie that dealt with the subject? Or did the scene kind of lead you to the subject of the movie?

FENNELL: I think with these things, it's often so hard to really know what comes first. But absolutely, I'd been thinking about all of this stuff for a long time. And I think it had just been this idea that when I was growing up - and I think still probably it's the case now - you know, in movies, getting women drunk to sleep with them, filling up their drink more than you'd fill your own, waiting at the end of a night to see who's drunk at the club, girls waking up not knowing who's in bed next to them - it was just comedy fodder in, like, very mainstream comedies and on - you know, and really on kind of family comedy shows on networks. So I think for a while, I'd just been thinking about that stuff and the issues of consent, particularly around alcohol and kind of party culture.

BRIGER: Can you talk a little bit about writing that scene? Like, I think particularly interesting is the way that the men just react with such terror at the idea that Cassie isn't drunk.

FENNELL: Yeah. I mean, I think that - I suppose that was what interested me about the idea to begin with. And there's necessarily an empathy gap when it comes to seducing people. You know, how much do we lie? How much do we conceal of ourselves in order to sort of make them fall in love with us or sleep with us or whatever that is? But this stuff is much, much more in the very, very sinister side of things. And I suppose the thing is, is that the question that is thrown up by this, by the first scene, is if there's nothing wrong with it, if it's a loophole, let's say, if it's a cultural loophole that people use very often and very freely and it's kind of OK, why would you feel so, you know, at best mortified and at worst frightened if you found out the person you'd taken home was sober?

And I think the fear comes from shame. But it also comes from, you know, what this film also plays with, which is - in genre movies, people pull stunts like this before they tear your face off. So it inverts the power in the room so quickly that I think it is frightening. But certainly for me, the fear always was about the shame of being caught and of realizing what you've done.

BRIGER: And this character, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, like, keeps repeating that he's a nice guy, and I think that's repeated by other characters who are confronted in the movie. It feels like all of these men do think of them as good guys, despite their behavior.

FENNELL: Totally. I mean, I think that's the thing that interests me about all of this stuff, is that these are things that good people and people who identify as being good have participated in because if it's - you know, if you grow up with movies where this stuff is just a joke and where your friends talking about this sort of thing is banter and where women are forced to sort of, you know, throw it under the rug or, you know, laugh it off or pretend it didn't happen to deal with it, then it means we live in a culture where this sort of stuff is normalized. And there's nothing in this film that isn't regrettably, incredibly normal and certainly was when I was growing up. And anyone who thinks that these things weren't horribly common, I think, probably never went to a party or a nightclub or is kidding themselves.

BRIGER: Now, the movie's dealing with some very serious issues, but it's also a dark comedy, and actually, there's a romance element in it, too. And so as a viewer, I kind of felt like I was getting whipsawed about by the various emotions I was feeling, and I think that was intentional. Why did you want your audience to feel that way?

FENNELL: Well, I think there are a few reasons. I mean, you know, this is a film about a woman who is trying to find a way forward in a very grief-stricken and angry way. And part of her journey, part of her means of coping, is to present herself as incredibly functioning. You know, like a lot of addicts, I think she is somewhat addicted to these nighttime excursions which make her feel kind of fleetingly better. During the day, she wears a lot of pink. Her hair is always immaculate. Her nails are perfect, kind of whimsical pastels. She's weaponized her femininity, not just in a kind of aggressive way, but as a defense. Like, she knows that people won't ask too many questions of her if she's - hides in plain sight like this. And so much of the film for me was similar of saying, you know, if this film itself presents itself as innocuous and fun and kickass and whip smart and all those words we use when it comes to sort of, you know, female characters - and it's a genre that we're very familiar with that tends to be very violent and, I suppose, kind of fantasy wish fulfillment. I think it was important that the real film that it is is much darker and, I hope, more honest than that. But by the time we know that, it's too late (laughter).

BRIGER: You talked a little bit about how you had Cassie dress during the day in these sort of candy colors. Her fingernails are painted different colors. And there's a distinction between how she dresses in the day and in the night. And one of the things I thought was interesting is at night, she pretty much dresses in all sorts of different ways. Like, she's in a business suit. She's kind of dressed like a hippie. She's wearing sort of more traditional nightclub clothes at one point. But it doesn't really matter how she's dressed. There's going to be a man at some point that tries to take her home.

FENNELL: Yes. I think that's the thing. Cassie's an equal opportunities avenging angel. So she has quite strict rules for how things go. And I think those rules are, again, like many addicts, it's those I-don't-drink-until-6-o'clock rules that are the things that gives them the illusion of power and control. And so for Cassie, she goes to different places partly, you know, so that she's not tracked, but also because it's not the case that certain types of bars or nightclubs or parties will reveal predators. The truth of it is is that in any nightclub, if there is a woman who is too drunk to stand, there is somebody in there, most likely, who will see that as an opportunity.

BRIGER: It seems like you're playing with people's expectations in genre as well. Like, I think people, I've read, were surprised that Cassie is not more violent when she's dealing with these men. And in one scene, you're clearly playing with that. Like, she's walking home in the morning. And you're not sure if that's just ketchup on her arm or blood, right?

FENNELL: I think part of the film for me was taking the genre that I really love, which is the revenge thriller, and seeing if I could kind of have every piece of that kind of movie, use that structure, which we're all so familiar with, but do something unexpected with it and, most importantly, do something that felt feasible to me and female - because, I think, so often in these kinds of films, and particularly when it pertains to violence, it is not feasible that a woman commits acts of violence against men in the night. It is not fair (laughter). It's not a fair thing to expect. And I think this film is very clear about, you know, what happens if you were to try. And so, you know, I really started it by thinking, if I was going to go on a journey like this, what could I do? And if I couldn't shoot a gun and I'm too unfit to kind of wrestle someone, you know, what could I do to effect some kind of change or to punish people or frighten them? And I could do what she does, which is scare them.

BRIGER: Well, we need to take a short break here. We're speaking with Emerald Fennell. She wrote and directed the movie "Promising Young Woman," starring Carey Mulligan. The movie's up for five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're talking with Emerald Fennell, who wrote and directed the movie "Promising Young Woman." It's been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Movie.

You started, actually, as an actor. And I was wondering, you know, in the U.S., there's a lot of shows where actors get their first roles. They're, like, soap operas or, like, one of the many "Law & Order" spinoffs. Is there an equivalent in Britain? Is it, like, costume dramas? Or how do you get your start?

FENNELL: It depends. I mean, if you are a sort of posh white girl - I mean, things are changing a bit. Thank goodness. And things are becoming more diverse. But, yes, it will be the kind of - a period drama, I would say. There are some police procedural shows. So the first couple of jobs I did were - yeah, were kind of playing - well, in fact, the first ever job I did Carey Mulligan was also on. But we didn't remember it. And she played murdered girl. And I played bitchy friend, which was really - I mean, she then, quite quickly (laughter), went on to be nominated for an Oscar. But I definitely stayed in the bitchy-friend world...


FENNELL: ...Both in real life and professionally for quite a while. But then I did - I got to work on a show called "Call The Midwife," which is a BBC show which is now very long-running. But I started in Season 2. And it's just an amazing - it's an amazing - it's a very unusual thing in that it's about women at work who are friends. And, you know, you have the advantage of being on a long-running show like that, you can just see what works and what doesn't because you have different directors coming in working with the same crew and the same actors. So it's such a good kind of learning place to be.

BRIGER: Well, recently, you've been acting - you've been seen in the show "The Crown" playing Camilla Parker Bowles. I'd like to play a scene from "The Crown" where your character, Camilla, is having lunch with Diana, who's played by Emma Corrin.


EMMA CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Now that you mention it, we've hardly been with one another at lunchtime, so I haven't really noticed. Fact is, we've hardly been with one another at all.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) That's not true.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) It is.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) You met at Badminton Horse Trials.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Yes.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Then Verdi's Requiem at the Albert Hall with a chaperone.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Granny, yes.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) ...Who didn't let you out of her sight for a second.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Not a second.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Then the weekend at Balmoral, where you were a complete triumph. It'll go down in history as one of the great Balmoral debuts, the perfect 10. And then Highgrove?


CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Golly. He obviously tells you everything.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Well, we talk most days. What do you think of it, his new house?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Highgrove?

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Mm.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) It's - it's lovely.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Isn't it?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Mm.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Mm.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) He asked me what I would do with it if I was decorating.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Did he?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Yes. I'm rather good at all that.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) And what did you say?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) I said I'd like to zhuzh it up a bit, make it a bit less stuffy, give it a bit of color, some yellows and peaches.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) And don't forget green, his favorite.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) And green.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Do you garden?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Not really.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) He's obsessed by gardening.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Yes, I know. He's already talking about either a wild garden or a wall garden.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Both.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Both.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) And a kitchen garden and a sundial garden. Do you fish?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) No, not really.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) What about hunting?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Not if I can help it - more of a townie, really.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) So you see yourself living more in London than in the country?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Why do you ask?

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Just curious. Now, I'm sorry. I can't stay for coffee.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Oh, well, then let me get this.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Absolutely not. I'm the senior party here.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Oh, please. Oh, let's go Dutch.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Good idea. I'm all for sharing.

BRIGER: So that's a scene from "The Crown." That was my guest, Emerald Fennell, playing Camilla Parker Bowles, and Diana was played by Emma Corrin. Many people consider your character, Camilla, as the villain in the Charles-Diana story. So how did you see her, and how did you decide to play her?

FENNELL: I mean, I definitely don't think of her as a villain. I think that, increasingly, what we're realizing - and certainly on the show - is that anything that touches the royal family, anything that is part of that, is so profoundly strange. It's not like any other world. It's not like any other family. The circumstances are just completely (laughter) extraordinary. And so that's kind of - the thing that was always interesting to me about Camilla was that she - you know, she's actually very, very private. The Camilla that I was playing was before there's - there's almost no footage, no photographs of her.

And I was just really interested in what happens when somebody like that, somebody who's really happy - you know, she was head girl of her school. She was incredibly popular. Everyone who's met her, you know, from the research, says she's incredibly funny and kind and, you know, good fun. And I was just so interested in what happens to that kind of person when they get sucked into this world. And then their biography is written for them by other people. I mean, I'm not saying that having affairs is a good thing, but a lot of people do it. And it takes more than one person to do it, too.

So yeah, I kind of - I mean, really, I went at it, to be honest, very much as a fiction. It's just an amazingly genius, you know, drama going with the knowledge that this was a kind of dramatized version and one I think - I hope - that was fair and certainly didn't seem unduly - she certainly wasn't, in my mind, in the writing, a villain.

BRIGER: Well, we need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Emerald Fennell, whose movie "Promising Young Woman" is up for five Oscars this season. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, in for Terry Gross. I'm speaking with writer, filmmaker and actor Emerald Fennell. Her first feature film, "Promising Young Woman," has been nominated for five Oscars, including best picture. Emerald Fennell was also the showrunner for the second season of "Killing Eve," a position she took over from her friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and recently played Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix show "The Crown."

So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about "Killing Eve." As I said, you were the showrunner for the second season of the show. And for anyone who hasn't watched it, it's a great show. It stars Sandra Oh as an American who works for the British intelligence service as a profiler. And then Jodie Comer plays Villanelle, who's a psychopathic assassin. And, you know, it's interesting. "Killing Eve" takes, like, the traditional cat-and-mouse romance thriller and puts it on its head by casting women in both of those roles. And you don't really know if they're going to kill each other or fall in love during the season.

I wanted to play just part of a scene from the last episode of Season 2, and this is between Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.


JODIE COMER: (As Villanelle) You're ruining the moment.

SANDRA OH: (As Eve) What do you think is happening here?

COMER: (As Villanelle) What? I think we'd...

OH: (As Eve) You think we'd be what? Bonnie and Clyde? Just go on a killing spree, cut a few throats.

COMER: (As Villanelle) Stop it.

OH: (As Eve) You want me to be a mess. You want me to be scared. But I'm like you now. I'm not afraid of anything. This is what you wanted.

COMER: (As Villanelle) This is what you wanted. This is what you wanted. No, Eve. Eve, wait. Why are you being like this? You love me.

OH: (As Eve) No.

COMER: (As Villanelle) I love you.

OH: (As Eve) No.

COMER: (As Villanelle) I do.

OH: (As Eve) You don't understand what that is.

COMER: (As Villanelle) I do. You're mine.

OH: (As Eve) No.

COMER: (As Villanelle) You are. You're mine. Eve?

BRIGER: So that's a scene from "Killing Eve," and my guest Emerald Fennell was a showrunner for that season. Both actors are really terrific in that show, as we just heard. When you took it over, were there specific aspects of those characters that you wanted to explore?

FENNELL: Oh, God, definitely. I mean, it was just so thrilling. It was amazing to get to work on something like that. And I think the thing I was most interested in is - and the kind of question for that season was who or what is killing Eve? Because that, I suppose, is the sort of - the kind of fundamental root of all of this, which is, is it Villanelle? Is it the kind of job? Is it Eve, who's always kind of had this inclination towards the dark side? Is it her domestic life with her lovely husband, Niko, who's - which is becoming kind of increasingly stultifying? And it's such an interesting thing.

Villanelle is so tempting. She's so tempting to all of us. And I think, you know, when you look at the Eve-Villanelle dynamic, so much of it is - and you touched on it in that little clip you just played. But, like, part of you is thinking, there's no way; of course, you couldn't fall in love with this - you know, this assassin.

BRIGER: (Laughter) This killer.

FENNELL: But then you see her, and you're like, well, OK, I'm in love now, and I'll leave my life behind to marry her.


BRIGER: There's a lot of sharp writing in "Killing Eve." Like, for example, I really liked, from one of the episodes that you wrote, Eve asked a colleague, like, do you know anything about psychopaths? And he says, well, I went to boarding school.


BRIGER: So can you share a line that you wrote that you were particularly proud of?

FENNELL: Oh, God. Oh, no, that's awful because I'm so - I'm such an amnesiac that I can barely think of anything. But let me think. Oh, I tell you what, one of my favorite lines - and it seems incredibly embarrassing and artsy and pompous to choose your lines for anything - but I think what I loved was - Fiona Shaw, who's in "Killing Eve," who's just so wonderful. And she - I remember she called me, and we had a chat, and she was like, oh, can you just make this scene a bit funnier? And I was like, yes, of course, you're Fiona Shaw; I'll do anything you want.

And it was a scene - it was sort of one of those scenes you often get in a kind of - I suppose, I think it's, like, Episode 5 or 6, when there's quite a lot of procedural stuff that you want to make gripping, but it's sort of, you know, for want of a better word, boring but important. And so it was set in a kind of breakfast place. And the line was something like, breakfast - what's the point? It's just constant eggs. Why? Who decided?


FENNELL: And it just - it's just one of those things that I think is - it's those lovely things that I - and I think that Phoebe as well is just so brilliant at - is those character moments that feel - I mean, it just so happens that I love breakfast, and I love eggs, but it is also odd that we've just decided that that is what we have for breakfast (laughter) - or certainly in kind of, you know, England and Western culture, whatever it is. But so that kind of stuff is always so fun. And it's also really fun when you're working with actors, like you have on "Killing Eve," who do sort of - you know, they're so familiar with their characters, and they can ask for things like that, and it's a pleasure to kind of collaborate and provide it for them.

BRIGER: Well, I want to congratulate you for all the nominations and for the film. Emerald Fennell, thank you so much for being here today.

FENNELL: Of course. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Emerald Fennell wrote and directed the film "Promising Young Woman," which is nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, director and screenplay. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Henry Louis Gates. His new book "The Black Church" is a companion to his PBS series of the same name. He describes Black churches as the first institutions built by Black people and run independent of white society in the U.S. We'll talk about how the role of the church in his own life has changed over the years. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with engineering today from Adam Staniszewski and Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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