Laila Odom on Bringing Salt-N-Pepa to the Screen
Laila Odom believes it’s important to give people their flowers while they’re still here. The actor proved it when she signed on to play Sandra “Pepa” Denton in Lifetime’s Salt-N-Pepa biopic, which premiered over the weekend. Executive produced by Queen Latifah, the film tells the story of two friends, Sandra and Cheryl (“Salt”) James, who met as nursing students and then went on to become the First Ladies of rap and hip-hop. While the film pays tribute to the legacy of Salt-N-Pepa, they are far from gone. The duo behind hit singles like “Push It” and “Let’s Talk About Sex,” is set to receive their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this spring. Ahead of the film’s release, Odom spoke to Interview about how she prepared for the role, the intimidation of dance boot camp, and the pressure to bring one of the most successful groups of all time to the screen.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: How did the role of Sandra “Pepa” Denton come to you?
LAILA ODOM: This happened the summer of 2019. I just auditioned as an actress. I’m very familiar with the group and all of their accomplishments. I had a friend [Woody McClain] that played Bobby Brown in The New Edition and Bobby Brown Story. So I saw what it did for him. I just remember thinking to myself, that’s awesome as an actor when you get to use other talents besides just acting. You dance, you sing, you can rap. It’s such a dream. I remember saying that to myself, and I had to have said it to the universe because the universe heard me. Three years later, I’m in the same situation. So it’s been a really big blessing to be part of this project. We started dance boot camp in L.A. Then we went to Toronto to shoot it and we were there until the end of 2019, so we just missed COVID. Thank god.
UKIOMOGBE: What was the dance boot camp like? That sounds intense.
ODOM: It was. In a day, we would do time in the studio learning the songs, the cadence, and the rhythm. Then after that, we would head to the dance studio and dance for the rest of the day into the evening. It was very intense to be dancing for five to six hours, but it prepared us so that when we got to Toronto, we were completely ready. So it was definitely a great experience. I took a lot of Epsom salt baths at that time. Everything hurt at the end of the night. But when you do something that you love, you can get up and do it again.
UKIOMOGBE: Were you able to spend any time with Sandra to prepare for the role?
ODOM: Yeah. I met Pep in L.A. and we spent some time together. She was staying relatively close to my house, so I would go see her. We would just talk. Before I’d met her, I read her book [Let’s Talk About Pep]. That was my framework of getting to know who she was, but it’s nothing like meeting someone. A book is great, and secondhand information is wonderful, but just spending time with the person and soaking them in is the best thing to do.
UKIOMOGBE: Is it daunting to play a real-life person as opposed to a fictionalized character?
ODOM: Of course. As an actor, you build your own backstory for whatever character that you’re playing. Any information that you don’t have, you have the liberty to build yourself. Well, that’s not the case for this situation. Especially for a group that’s still touring and doing music. So it was a surreal experience. On my first day of shooting, people kept saying, “Your mom is here.” I’m like, “No, she’s not. My mom doesn’t even have the address.” They were talking about Pep. I felt really connected to her and I was really happy to have her there. We have a very similar energy and upbringing. At first, you do feel like your mom came to watch you, and you better not mess up. But after a little bit, you don’t. The pressure was off. And then after you shoot a scene, you can go to the person that you’re playing and ask them, “Was that decent? Did I do what you were looking for?” How often does that happen? Almost never.
UKIOMOGBE: What was the most important part of her story that you really wanted to make sure translated to the screen?
ODOM: Out of Salt-N-Pepa, she was the first to become a mother. It was really important for me to show that. I don’t have any children, so I had to really bond with the young actor who played my son [Levi Dombokah]. At the end of his time on set with us, he walked away and said, “Bye, Mommy,” and I gasped for air. It was such a great experience. But, to get back to your question, it was important to show how Pep got into the business aspects of their contract and renegotiating. We see that she was learning and doing the best that she could do for her group and making sure that they were getting the proper money on the back end for their albums. We definitely go into that in the movie.
UKIOMOGBE: You and G.G. Townson, who plays Cheryl “Salt” James, had great chemistry together. Did you spend time together prior to filming to strengthen that bond?
ODOM: Well, we already knew each other because we were both at All That’s Digital creating content. Our paths would cross and we would shoot a sketch together. We knew a lot of the same people. I remember when we were both going in for callbacks, I called her and I was like, “Hey, what do you think? What’s your feeling on this?” And she was like, “No, I feel good. I think it’s going to be good.” Then that day we had to get together and shoot “Push It” as an audition because the producers wanted to see it. They wanted to see our chemistry and it just came across so naturally. I think shooting in Toronto helped. She’s not from there and I’m not from there. We were forced to bond because that’s all we had. We spent so much time together that it just translates so well, because we were building our friendship at the same time. That type of bond makes the process easier. It makes it sweet.
UKIOMOGBE: The wardrobe plays a huge role in the film as well. Do you have a favorite outfit?
ODOM: I love sneakers. I’m a bonafide sneakerhead. The thing I love about this group is that they got dressed, but they were still really grounded. We wore a lot of Doc Martins, sneakers, and boots. I loved literally everything about our clothing. It was always really funky leathers and sweatsuits, too. There’s a scene where I had a bathing suit under a sexy robe. That was a different look for me outside of the ones that I normally had. The costumes were thought out so well. So much time and work were put into recreating the looks that the girls had. Think about it: we went from ’86 to ’96 to 2006. So we’re going in three different decades of clothing. I enjoyed all of it. If I could put my hands on all my clothes that I wore in the film, I would want every piece of it, to be honest with you. Everything.
UKIOMOGBE: I don’t blame you.
ODOM: Seriously. Sony was like, “Thank you very much. We need all the clothes.” G.G. and I were like, “But what about that?” I really enjoyed all the looks.
UKIOMOGBE: How did you get into character?
ODOM: I think that it starts with your at-home study. I watched a lot of movies from the ’80s and the ’90s, trying to just get the vibe of what was happening back then. Then I spent time with Pep and Salt. When the movie starts, we’re about 19-years-old. We’re already 35 years away from where the girls are today. So we did a lot of work and tried to put those pieces together, and make it very cohesive where it makes sense. We had to keep the lingo of those times, which wasn’t easy because you naturally want to say things that we say now. We say “bomb” and nobody said “bomb” in 1986. So it’s doing that type of work to make sure that everything is very genuine and authentic.
UKIOMOGBE: What was your favorite part about filming?
ODOM: Definitely the performing aspect. I danced for many years so this felt like when I was in high school and college. There’s just a camaraderie that you have with other performers when you’re doing a show or some type of production. That was a good time. There were a lot of scenes that G.G. and I did that were really fun. We were definitely connected, and it comes through. That’s the most important thing of making sure that people feel the friendship, because that’s really what the movie is about. These two women, and their friendship for over 35 years.
UKIOMOGBE: How would you like to see this film impact the legacy of the group?
ODOM: It’s so important to celebrate people while they’re here and while they can take it in and appreciate it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s great when you celebrate people when they’re 90. But it’s something different when they still have all of their faculties. They’re still young women. So I think that this is a great time to give them their flowers. We have a woman of color in office now, we have so many female emcees that are definitely going down the path that these women opened doors for. I just think that it’s a great time. [Salt-N-Pepa] will do their star on Hollywood Boulevard really soon, so I think that this is just a good time for them and to celebrate them while they’re here and while they’re still beautiful and able to perform rather than waiting 70 years to show people that you love them and you appreciate what they did.
Hairstylist: Mideyah Parker
Makeup artist: Jamal Scott