In any given awards season, whenever a movie studio or TV network has the goods, they show it. If it’s bad, they hide it. And with Fox 21 Television Studios and FX, they knew well in advance they had Emmy gold with their limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and began banging the drumming as early as late autumn 2015 well in advance of the show’s Feb. 2 air date.
Some members of the media were slipped early copies of the FX series and began marveling about its sublime acting, an ensemble which helped fuel 22 Emmy nominations today, repping close to 40% of the network’s 56 total noms; the most ever for a basic cable network in single year.
By Christmas, a box set of the first six episodes were sent out. At FX’s winter TCA presentation, the series was their centerpiece at an hour long discussion with EPs Ryan Murphy, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, author Jeffery Toobin (whose book The Run of His Life served as source material), Nina Jacobson and stars John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Schwimmer and more taking the stage in Pasadena. And when the series finale aired back in early April, FX went out with a bang with a downtown Los Angeles screening followed by a massive cast Q&A.
At times some series can deep six because there’s too many cooks in the kitchen, but in this case the TV adaptation of the most notorious trial of the latter 20th century was a well-oiled machine.
But talk about high stakes. O.J. Simpson fanatics knew the trial inside and out as much as Batman fans could recite Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns backwards and forwards. In giving the Simpson trial some extra juice, American Crime Story EP Karaszewski says, “Our complete marching orders the entire time was to tell the audiences things they didn’t know (about the case). Everyone watched the Bronco chase, but they didn’t know what O.J. and Al Cowlings were talking about inside. Then there was the connection to today’s issues, the gender politics and the rise of celebrity culture.”
“Everyone watched CourtTV which gave a flat impression of the trial, but we were interested in the backstage behavior. What these characters went through every week; their personal crisis,” said Alexander. This included dramatizing such things as a romance that might have flourished between prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, Clark’s divorce which she weathered during the trial and Robert Kardashian’s arc from Simpson supporter to detractor post-verdict. One set of details unbeknown to Karaszewski which he folded into episode five was how the defense team redecorated Simpson’s mansion prior to the jury paying a visit. “They decided to take down photos of him with his buddies in Brentwood and golfing, and staged it to make it look like O.J. was more connected to the African American community. That was something really rich,” said the Man in the Moon co-scribe.
When it came to harnessing their characters, the actors were advised by Murphy to largely avoid their real-life subjects for preparation until quite late in the game. It was to prevent any situation whereby the actual people might dispense performance notes to the actors. Read, Sarah Paulson didn’t have dinner with Clark until the production was close to wrapping.
While Paulson prepped for the role by watching footage and reading Clark’s book, there came a point when she just had to simply go with her gut. To get an idea of her range, the actress within a finite time was jumping back and fourth between two roles at the same time: the button-down Clark and Hypodermic Sally in American Horror Story: Hotel (for which she also received a limited series supporting nomination). “It would be Marcia, Marcia, Marcia for two weeks. Then I’d go to Horror Story for two days, finish at an un-Godly hour and then the real horror show would begin. I’d walk into hair and makeup (for American Crime Story) with my crimped Sally hair and mascara running, and they couldn’t fit my hair under the Marcia wig. They’d have to fully comb out the rat’s nest. I’d spend the morning detoxing myself, going from schizophrenic to serious prosecutor. But there was a great gift here. Rather than overthink a beat or motive in my performance, I just went with animal instinct. It was a great way to get my brain out of the way.”
Vance met his alter ego Johnnie Cochran once at a party years ago, but not to the point where it would hold sway over his characterization of the lighting bolt lawyer. One of Vance’s takeaway scenes is of course the final “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” scene. “I was so pleased that the producers allowed us to find the freedom. I didn’t watch any footage of the trial. It would have been in my head and overwhelmed me. I read Toobin’s book which was very thorough and there were one or two kernels that anchored me,” explained Vance.
When Schwimmer approached the role of Simpson friend and fellow defender Robert Kardashian, the actor said, “I wanted to make sure his arc was really clear and dramatic.” What spoke volumes to Alexander and Karaszewski was the final scene of the trial where the camera reveals Kardashian’s sunken face after hearing that Simpson is cleared. “It gave Robert an arc that never occurred to us; and from that point on, the series was about us working backwards from the closing shot of the trial,” explained Alexander.
One of the biggest reveals for Schwimmer about Kardashian was “he was such a religious man. He had a personal relationship with God and family was everything to him. He lived for family vacations and being around the dinner table. He was fun, extroverted, generous, goofy and loving.”
And in a trial where everyone had an agenda or book to sell, “Kardashian had nothing to gain by taking part in this whole ordeal,” explained Schwimmer. “It cost him his health, his family and his friends.”
The People v. O.J. Simpson‘s 22 Emmy noms include best limited series, two best actor limited series (Courtney B. Vance and Cuba Gooding Jr.), lead actress limited series (Sarah Paulson), three supporting actor limited series noms (Sterling K. Brown, John Travolta and David Schwimmer), three outstanding limited series directing (Ryan Murphy, John Singleton, Anthony Hemingway); three outstanding single camera editing (Adam Penn, C. Chi-Yoon Chung, Stewart Schill); hair styling (Chris Clark, Natalie Driscoll, Shay Sanford-Fong, Katrina Chevelalier), makeup for limited series (non-prosthetic) (Zoe Hay, Luis Garcia, Becky Cotton, Deborah Huss Humphries, Heather Plott, Eryn Krueger Mekash), sound mixing limited series (Doug Andham, Joe Earle, John Bauman), three limited writing series (Karaszewski & Alexander for “From the Ashes of Tragedy”, Joe Robert Cole for “The Race Card” and D.V. DeVincentis for “Marcia Marcia Marcia”), casting limited series (Jeanne McCarthy, Courtney Bright,Nicole Daniels, Nicole Albellera Hallman), cinematography limited series (Nelson Cragg) and costumes (Hala Bahmet, Marina Ray,Elinor Bardach).