Mikal Odom: Searching the past for our future

210
Mikal Odom

“We believe that experiencing our voices, stories and visions on film from around the world, from birth to death, from the loved to the loveless, from youth to maturity, lifts us forward as individuals and as a community. Queer film inspires the imagination and encourages the journey of discovery and acceptance by both the ever-growing region’s LGBTQ+ and the mainstream communities.”

That is part of the mission statement of qFLIX, the region’s LGBT film festival starting March 22 and running through the 29th at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. The film festival kicks off on the red carpet for the hilarious opening night comedy: “Straight Up,” written, directed and starring James Sweeney as a gay 20-something who finds his intellectual soulmate in a 20-something actress. Other highlights of the festival include a tribute to Director Matt Tyrnauer who will be in attendance to receive the Artistic Achievement Award for Documentary Directing during a retrospective of his works:  “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, ”Studio 54,” and “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” Direct from Sundance, “Disclosure” examines how trans performers had their lives and perceptions shaped by television and film. And Laverne Cox will receive the first-ever Marsha P. Johnson Inspiration Award for her advocacy of the transgender community. I could fill this whole column on the amazing films being presented that reflect the whole of the LGBTQAI, etc. community but I need room for this week’s profile – writer, director, actor and producer Mikal Odom (pronounced Mick-el). Odom is going to be holding a live reading of his new screenplay based on the life of the late Philadelphia activist and author Joe Beam. 

Where are you from?

I’m originally from Philly. I went to high school in Philly and attended Temple where I studied film and media arts. Then I got a masters degree at American University in DC for producing film and video. I’ve always had an interest in filmmaking but in the past 10 years or so I’ve also developed a passion for acting. I’ve been getting a lot of theater work in the city. I’m also in the process of getting a 2nd masters in Theater at Villanova, but I’m living in Newark, N.J. teaching performance at an elementary school, so it’s a little busy right now. Especially with all the traveling back and forth, plus trying to get ready for this reading, casting and all of that. But I wouldn’t have it any other way! 

Tell me about teaching the little rugrats; that must be fun.

It is fun. I teach 3rd and 4th grade. The good thing about them is that everything is exciting for them if you frame it a particular way. We have a fair amount of students with behavioral issues, which can make things challenging. But you never have a shortness of energy when it comes to the kids. 

I used to do a kid’s show “Bozo the Clown” that taped on Saturdays. This was in my prime party days so there were times when I was pretty, let’s say overextended from the night before. I’d be exhausted until the kids would run up and then you’d get a burst of energy. 

I remember that show! Oh wow, there was a game that you used to play with buckets lined up, I used to literally play it at home, I’d find big cups and line them up and play along. That’s funny how that just flashed in my brain. 

Yup! The Grand Prize Game. Where did your interest in the arts come from? Are either of your parents artistic?

Not really, my mom had a knack for sewing and creating garments and my dad is a really good cook, but that’s about the closest they come to the arts. As a kid I was always drawn to television that had elements of the performing arts, anything with singing and dancing was entertaining to me. As I’ve gotten older storytelling became more of an interest to me. And that’s how I got into film. 

What TV shows did you like?

The Micky Mouse club, Kid’s Incorporated, and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego. That was interesting because it was a game show but it opened up with a musical number and then went into these little skits. 

What did you do first?

I started off with film, but I really didn’t start doing anything in the arts until I got to college. I studied film at Temple and then I got into theater about 9 years later. I was doing an internship at National Geographic Explorer and I was helping one of the producers cast a show on bio-terrorism, it was when everyone was afraid of anthrax and people were getting envelopes with white powder and it was a big thing. At the end of one casting session, the producer asked if I wanted to play a small part. I did it and caught the littlest bug for acting. I’d had inclinations for it along the way, but this time I decided to give it a chance. I enrolled at Villanova and it was a bit of a struggle so I took a little hiatus. I took the time to see what I could do on my own and not look to the school to provide me with opportunities. And now I’m going back to get my masters because I firmly believe in finishing what I start, no matter how long it takes. [Laughing] Not to mention I didn’t want to waste all the money I’ve given them! If all goes well I’ll be done in May.

You’re known in the community for the film, “Luv Don’t Live Here”, did you act in that too?

I did, I played a guy named Lenny. I didn’t get around to developing it until 2014, but the story had been in my mind since 2008. I was dating a gentleman who had a roommate that was really sick. He needed help to do pretty much everything, but he had the worst personality, he was ornery and rude and I was like, “Dude! You need help doing everything and you’re so mean to people!” But it fascinated me, how someone gets to that point. Being helpless to themselves and yet emboldened to take on anyone, with attitude. That was the seed for the character Luv from the movie. I used my imagination to explore how one gets to that point. That’s essentially where the story came from. Once I wrote the screenplay, I knew this was how I wanted to introduce my artistic voice. The opportunity came to film it so I went for it!

And congratulations, it seems to have done very well. 

Thank you, it was the Indiest of Indie films, but I still get messages all the time from people who have discovered and were moved by the film. They ask if I’m working on anything new. 

And?

I’m doing a reading of a screenplay I wrote about Philadelphia’s Joe Beam. I discovered him a while back and was shocked that considering what a vital influence he was on LGBT culture, especially black gay culture, that we didn’t know more about him. I’d heard of the anthology, “In the Life,” which he compiled, before I heard of him. I remember there was a book event at William Way about an anthology that was written in his honor and I thought: ‘How do I not know about this man? He was such a pivotal figure in black gayness and literature, how do I not know who he is?’ So I took it upon myself to do some research on him, years of research. He has an archive at the Schomburg Museum in NY where I spent lots of time, and I discovered the archives at William Way. I started out just interested in how “In the Life” came to be but then got more interested in Joe, the person. He was a very complex person with very, very strong convictions. That’s ultimately what the story has become. I can’t wait to introduce him to a larger audience, because sadly, not too many people have heard of him. 

I was lucky enough to know him, not super well, but enough to have conversations. He had a smile that lit up the room. 

Yes, there was a whole black gay movement that existed that had a lot of interesting players that not too many people my age know about. My hope with this film is to introduce people to those folks and start a larger conversation. 

So, this is your 2nd time working with qFLIX. 

Yes, the first was when we premiered “Luv Don’t Live Here” at the festival back in 2015. I’ve been in touch ever since and when they heard about this project they offered me the chance to do a live reading before we go into production. 

What is the importance of having an LGBTQ film festival in an age when you can get gay content on platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime?

Films have to start somewhere, especially independent films like mine. And since they’re not traditionally going to start at someplace like Netflix or network TV, film festivals offer them a way to get some traction. I’m not old, but I consider myself old school and I understand the importance of seeing a film in a theater as opposed to sitting at home and watching it on your TV or laptop. Seeing a film in the theater is a communal experience that brings people together in a way that viewing content at home doesn’t do. So I’m a big supporter of film festivals and public film screenings. It imparts an extra layer of connection that we really need. 

Another benefit is the access that you have to the filmmakers and other film afficianodos. Especially at something like your reading where it’s a two way street, people have a chance to meet you and other creators and actors and you may meet someone interested in supporting your work and helping transfer it to the big screen. In fact, I understand that you’re still looking for people to play some of the roles for the reading so people can go to the website find out how to audition.

Exactly! And as actors and filmmakers we love to come out to these events. I’m sure there will be a good amount of actors in attendance that I’ll meet who could possibly be cast when we get to that phase.  

What was the toughest obstacle you face when filming your movie?

My production manager quit midway through production. I felt like I couldn’t continue and actually shut down production for a few days to get myself together. It was crazy but ended up being a blessing. He’d taken a few people from the crew with him and what it did was it left a small but motivated team. It got rid of the negative energy and there were no problems from then on. 

I read that you were involved in a production of Aida, not many people know, but that’s my mother’s real name. What role did you have? 

I was the director, I did choreography, staging, producing…

Wow, you’re a one-man band.

It’s not something I set out to do, but when you’re an independent production that doesn’t have a lot of capital you have to take on a lot of roles. It’s something that I’m looking to not do so much of moving forward. 

When did you come out?

It was probably when I was about 24. I have a half brother who’s gay, he lives in Florida but we used to talk a lot. He was very, very open and much more identifiable as a gay man. At the time I wasn’t out to my mom and one day I just decided to send her an email explaining it to her. She told me she cried, but that I was her son and she would always love me. She was the only person that I ‘came out’ to. Everyone else just found out as time went on. If you’ve seen me or the work that I’ve done, it’s pretty self-explanatory. I don’t know that it’s necessary to ‘come out’ anymore, I think we can just be. 

Now for some random questions, are you a pack rat or purger?

A purger, mainly because I don’t have a lot of space, so I’m always looking for ways to get rid of stuff.  

People often mistake me for…

Samuel L. Jackson! I just got it yesterday. 

Person who cheers you up the most?

My mom. 

Someone’s diary you’d love to read?

Janet Jackson. She’s such a private person but she’s been through so much throughout her career. I’d love to know how she views herself, as an entertainer and as a business mogul and as a person. 

Something stupid you’ve done for love?

Probably spent way too much money on things I shouldn’t have. Not that I have regrets, but there are some gifts where I got a little too generous and it would be nice to reverse that! 

What song or genre of music would people be surprised to know you listen to?

Classic rock, I listen to a lot of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, even Aerosmith. I think people would be surprised to know how much I revere their work. 

What was the first R rated movie you ever saw?

Nightmare on Elm Street. 

What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?

To the Bahamas, but I’m looking to change that. I’d like to do some traveling. 

Do you have a favorite saying or motto?

When I was very young I made a vow with myself to live life with no regrets.  That if there’s something you’re interested in doing, don’t let fear get in the way. At the end of the day, I don’t want to feel bad because I didn’t at least try. If it doesn’t work out, there’s always a lesson learned to help you the next time.