Leslie Odom Jr. on Central Park: ‘We’re trying to make a bright spot on the television horizon’

Apple TV +

Back when Apple Tv+’s original animated musical series ‘Central Park’ first came out, the cast and crew were anxious to see how it would be received. The series from musical titan and actor Josh Gad follows Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his family who live in the green oasis of the park in New York City. Owen lives with his wife, a journalist named Paige (Kathryn Hahn), daughter Molly (voiced by Kristen Bell in season 1, with Emmy Raver-Lampman taking over in season 2), and son Cole (Tituss Burgess). As the Park’s manager, Owen is tasked with keeping the space in order and also to protect it, which we saw in season 1 as he goes up against an heiress who wants to turn the park into a building ground for condos.

After the first season came out with rave reviews, the crew came back for season 2, and star Odom Jr. says is going to be bigger than ever with a more diverse group of songwriters (under the direction of Bob’s Burgers creators Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith) and more antics with the Tillerman family trying to protect the park where they live. Even with the story moving along, it’s that familiarity of characters that Odom Jr. says will bring people back, a comfort that only shows with animation can truly provide.

Odom Jr. sat down to delve more into why ‘Central Park’ is a bright spot on TV that we all need.

Apple TV +

Going back to season 1 of this show, what was it that made you want to sign on? 

My good buddy Josh was calling to ask me to do it, and Josh and I have known each other since college, so we do know each other very well. Nobody makes me laugh like Josh, so I usually jump at the chance to share space with him, because at minimum I know that I’m going to laugh until I cry the times that we’re together. That’s what made me say yes, but then it was an embarrassment of riches when you put on Katherine Hahn, and Daveed Diggs and Stanley Tucci, Tituss Burgess… so it’s like, of course, absolutely. 

For season 2, what can you tell fans to expect for your character specifically and what he goes through? 

I think that animation is this wonderful thing—the evolution is obvious and it is slow, but obvious. When I look at my favorite animated shows, the long-running ones like ‘The Simpsons,’ or ‘Family Guy,’ with a lot these series, if you go back to their season 1 or 2 or 3, they’re a bit of a mess. They’re all over the place and they were really still honing in on it, who the characters were and the voices and the tone of the show. But they do find their way and their lane and when they do, it’s glorious. They can be relevant for decades so there is an evolution, but there’s also this thing where they’re stuck in place.

I haven’t watched ‘The Simpsons’ in a while, but I bet Bart is still in the fourth grade. It’s all these decades later, and it’s a comforting thing that they stay where they are and they get more entrenched and more confident where they are and the space that they hold. If and when you fall in love with these characters, it’s really comforting to know that they’re not going to change. We’re going to continue to go back and find them as ridiculous and as entrenched as they’ve always been.

‘Central Park’ is no different—but we are going to evolve and that I feel with season 2…I felt that the team was more confident and we understand what we’re creating so much better. I remember thinking in season 1, if Apple does give us a chance to grow, and if the audience does give us a chance, in these subsequent seasons we really could have something special here. 

On that note, after the year that we’ve gone through pandemic-wise, do you think the show will bring comfort? 

Oh, I certainly hope so. We’re trying to make a bright spot on the television horizon. We want to make something joyful and positive and comforting and entertaining. All of those good things, animation is a wonderful container of all of that. And it’s a musical, so you add that into it. We are shameless in that pursuit, [which is] to put a smile on your face and leave you with the warm and fuzzy feelings. 

What does the musical element bring to this animated series?

Music makes everything better. I put music on while I cook, and it makes the experience of cooking better. We put music on having these long costume fittings—I’m doing this movie right now where there are two-hour costume fittings, and I put some music on and it makes it better. I certainly have experienced that on stage and in film.

In film a lot of times it’s imposed when they add music to underscore these moments, it heightens the whole thing so this little animated show is no different. It underlines the emotional moments and it makes sad things sadder and happy things happier…That’s the trick of great music. We’ve been able to attract really great and diverse songwriters this season because of the work on season 1, where everyone was just taking a chance on you. But then the show did turn out so well, so, yeah everything is better and funnier. 

Apple TV +

What goes into preparing to head in the booth to record?

Once I locate a character within myself, I can find them quicker each time. Once I found their coordinates within me and locate them, I find the path back to them easier, if that makes sense. Owen at this point, there’s not much preparation. I know where he lives within me, the discovery though is in these scenarios they put in.

In [this season] meeting my mother and getting to go through those situations with her, the scenarios they put me in with the kids and discovering different sides with him in these situations. We put these characters in these situations, and I locate Owen and I know his relationship with Paige, but what I don’t always know is how will he react under extreme stress? Or what about when Owen has to stand up to a bully? So I learn more about him through the situations that the writers put him through, which is so wonderful and cool. 

What makes the physical place of Central Park such a colorful character in itself where you do have a whole show wrapped up in it? 

In that city, that city is desperate for green space and nature. Man do I miss New York, it’s the longest I’ve been away from the city and I can feel my heart leap out of my chest as I talk about New York City. But it’s a little holy space in that city and Owen has made it his life’s mission to protect that park with everything he’s got.

I think everybody’s got that somewhere in their lives that’s also super relatable. He’s got his family in that park, and that’s all that matters to this guy. I think the park is just an equalizer that’s also in a city where there’s a certain kind of entertainment. There are real economic barriers all over that city, but Central Park is one of those places where the best of it is free for everyone. 

‘Central Park’ season 2 drops on Apple TV+ June 25.