From anthology master Ryan Murphy, American Crime Story examines the dark underbelly of America’s passions and prejudices. Beginning with The People V. O.J. Simpson, which made the nation reevaluate the O.J. Simpson murder trial, stars Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Courtney B. Vance, and producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, explain why crime isn’t the exclusive preserve of criminals.
Cuba Gooding Jr. is O.J. Simpson
Cuba Gooding Jr. was in South Central L.A., sometime in the early ’90s. He had just had a massive success with Boyz n the Hood, the John Singleton film about three men’s lives in the Crenshaw ghetto, and it was coming to HBO. The HBO house style of the time was to take the cast of whatever series or film was premiering that month, deposit them at a location that had something to do with the project with which they were associated, and have them film a bumper teaser promoting the airdate. If it were a film about lifeguards, for example, the cast would turn up on a Santa Monica beach and frolic in the sand for 30 seconds at a time. But Boyz n the Hood wasn’t a film about lifeguards. And so he found himself shooting a bumper teaser for his movie in the ghettos of South Central.
“I was very nervous of being in that area,” Gooding recalls now. “It was a hotbed of racial frustration and anger.” The shoot was doomed from the start. The Nation of Islam had been hired to secure the set, but there were no police on hand to keep things calm. “People just started grabbing lights off the truck,” he laughs, remembering the chaos. “It was a disaster. It was crazy. We had to jump in our cars and drive out of the city. That’s how racially tense it was back then.”
The O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1994 was then just the most recent incident in a flurry of racial tension that had been building in Los Angeles since Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers at the intersection of Foothill and Osborne in East LA, sparking the LA riots. “There were certain areas in LA where you knew if you were driving down the street as a black man, and you passed a cop, he would do a U-turn and pull you out of the car to find out why you were there. I remember feeling that, back then: just driving in L.A. was a very tense thing.”
It’s this tension that informs the 10-part FX limited series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. To the predominantly white-run media of the time, Simpson’s arrest for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, sent shockwaves because Simpson was one of the most famous people on the planet. A beloved football star and actor, Simpson was a mul- timillionaire and a national hero. Innocent men don’t run, went much of the thinking at the time, and yet O.J. had boarded his white Ford Bronco truck and taken off down the freeway, sparking a low-speed chase that was televised live to the nation.
Two decades later, producer Brad Simpson had found Jeffrey Toobin’s 1997 book about the trial, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, in a used bookstore in Vancouver, where, along with his partner Nina Jacobson, they were doing their usual day job: producing feature films like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Hunger Games. They would trade deep-dive journalism with one another whenever they found something that piqued their interest, as much to satisfy their curiosity as to scour for material to adapt. Toobin’s book had been out of print for years, but Brad Simpson was fascinated by the detail within it, and by how this contemporaneous account changed his view of the case. He shared it with Jacobson. “We never thought about doing anything with it, because it was too big for a feature,and this was before the limited model of television had come back.”
Later, after Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos had rewritten the landscape of television, their company Color Force signed a first-look deal with FX, and the pair met with Gina Balian, who was scouting for series. They thought about The People v. O.J. Simpson and pitched it as a one-off. Balian bought it in the room, and connected the producers with Ryan Murphy, who had tremendous success at FX with the anthology series American Horror Story. “He read the script, and wanted to be involved,” Jacobson recalls.
The producers chalk it up to their naïvety about television production that the first two scripts they’d commissioned, from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, were too grand for television, and Murphy worked with the writers to tighten them and make them network-ready, without stripping the key theme of the show, which is that for a trial we all remember, we know so precious little about it.
The show played on that know-but-don’t-know nature all the way to its casting. Gooding is amongst the names brought on for The People v. O.J. Simpson as much because of his rise to fame in the ’90s as his abilities in front of the camera. The ’90s was also the decade that David Schwimmer—who played Ross on Friends—became an overnight household name. And it was when John Travolta—who played Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994—experienced a career resurgence. “The thing about this trial is that people became so famous,” notes Brad Simpson. “You felt like you needed people who had that sheen of fame about them in these roles. For O.J. Simpson, Robert Kardashian and Robert Shapiro, it was important to have people who were in the public eye at the time.”
“These were all number-one-on-the-call-sheet actors,” says Jacobson, “and yet, what this show required was almost like a play, because they all have to be in the courtroom with each other, witnessing each other’s performances most of the time.”
They were all, rightfully, hesitant to sensationalize an already sensational media event, but Ryan Murphy, and the material, won them around. “It’s testament to Ryan to have convinced John Travolta—when he’d refused to play the part for a long time—to play Robert Shapiro,” says Gooding. “And to see the brilliance of Courtney B. Vance’s channeling of Johnnie Cochran. To discover Sterling Brown, as Darden, and the conflict and torment that character goes through. And to continue this relationship he has with Sarah Paulson, who is giving a masterclass performance as Marcia Clark in this piece.”
Sarah Paulson is Marcia Clark
One day on set, Sarah Paulson checked her email more than she usually did. She was sitting on location in Los Angeles, not far from where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman had been murdered, and she’d mentioned that fact in the message to which she was waiting on a response. People in the crew asked her—all day—whether she’d heard back yet. “It was like I’d written to someone I had a crush on,” Paulson says, “wanting to know if they’d go on a date with me.”
But she did have a crush, of a sort. When Ryan Murphy approached her about The People v. O.J. Simpson, she had consumed every book on the trial she could find. “I read Toobin’s book, I read Darden’s book and I read Marcia’s book, grabbing information wherever I could.” The Marcia Clark she found within the pages of the former prosecutor’s account of the trial had not been the dowdy incompetent the news media had painted. “I came to have so much respect and admiration for her,” Paulson says now. “But I feared if I met her, I would all of a sudden feel like I had to tell every part of this story from the actual Marcia Clark’s point of view, which might have got in the way of telling the story as it was written.”
So she delayed sending an email to Clark until she was well into shooting. By that point, there were only three episodes left, and she’d just wrapped the hardest task she faced on the show: the episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”, which was all about Clark’s own trials as she prosecuted this case. She offered dinner, lunch, a drink, a coffee; anything that would have resulted in a scrap of Clark’s time.
Marcia Clark opted for dinner. “And it was a surreal, out-of-body experience.” When she walked into the restaurant, Paulson’s immersion in all things Marcia meant she recognized her instantly from her gait and the way she used her hands. Clark had wanted to be a dancer and had done a lot of training in her youth that had informed her posture. “I did all those physical things in the show, and I don’t think anyone noticed them,” Paulson laughs. “We had a wonderful evening together, drank plenty of tequila, and closed the restaurant down.”
They talked about life, they talked about art, they talked about the O.J. trial; and Paulson noted the emotion in Clark’s voice when they settled on the latter. Professionally, O.J. Simpson’s acquittal had been a blow to Marcia Clark. But personally, the work that had gone into building the prosecution’s case, and the way the world scrutinized its execution on live television, had been devastating. “If I loved her before, I loved her even more after this dinner,” says Paulson. “The thing that mattered most of all to me was that there was integrity and honesty in the performance, because she had so much integrity, and her own moral compass was of paramount importance to her.”
When it started airing in February, The People v. O.J. Simpson became as much of a watercooler topic as the trial it was depicting. Through the meticulous research of the writing staff, which extended well beyond the pages of Toobin’s book, the show felt like it was breaking news every week: sending facts into the world that the media of the time didn’t know—or didn’t care—to report. “There was only so much a camera in a courtroom was going to pick up on,” notes Courtney B. Vance, who plays defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran. “We weren’t following them home. We weren’t with Darden and Marcia, or Johnnie, or any of the other participants. We wouldn’t have known the drama. Via the news media, it looked like these dream teams were at each other’s throats, but we didn’t know any details.”
“[The trial] was the first celebrated reality show extravaganza of its era,” notes Gooding. “Out of that trial were born a number of facets of celebrity that are still dissected today, from the Kardashians to Judge Judy and all of these shows.”
“It’s funny,” adds Paulson, “because people have said to me that, if the trial were to happen today it would be very different for Marcia. She would have had more support. I completely disagree. There are so many platforms, now, from which to stand and bash people. Can you imagine the blare of it now with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram? The cacophony of sound?”
Still, the glare of the trial at the time, and the way people remember it, presented a unique challenge for the cast, who had to battle the preconceptions of a world that had dined out on Simpson’s legal troubles for almost a year. For Gooding, this meant tapping into O.J. Simpson’s emotional core, and discarding the rest. But he was surprised with the voracity of the enquiries he’s had about his own take on what went down on Bundy Drive that one fateful night. “It’s the first time I’ve played a character where people want to ask what my position is on his guilt or innocence more than they do my performance,” he laughs. “But it’s my job to give the director the tools he needs to manipulate the performance in the editing room, and that puts me in an almost schizophrenic frame of mind where I can go from guilty to innocent in any moment. The hardest part was playing this split personality. It was almost like playing twins.”
It wasn’t until Paulson did her deep dive into Marcia that she even knew it would be possible to play the part. “Everybody enjoyed the pastime of making fun of her, belittling her and joking about her appearance. Myself included, by the way. How was I going to be able to offer up anything new? I was scared—which typically is a sign that I have to do something. I had no idea the scripts would be so enlightening, and show a whole entire side of her that no one even thought about at the time.”
Vance also understood the big shoes he was stepping into by playing Cochran, whose infamous “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” defense rang repeatedly in our ears. “I realized that I didn’t want to start imitating him. He had a very big life. He’s like Muhammad Ali, Ray Charles or Michael Jackson. I chose not to get engaged in that big life, and just try to cut him down to size so that I could see him.”
Courtney B. Vance is Johnnie Cochran
Courtney B. Vance was a budding actor when he received an invitation to a party at O.J. Simpson’s house. Vance was a huge O.J. fan, like so many at the time. To him, O.J. was an icon of sport and a hero. So he was just happy to be in the room as ‘The Juice’ held court. “Of course, he was the life of the party and a wonderful man,” Vance remembers. “In my mind, he was someone who did wonderful work in the community and he helped celebrities at the same time. In the black community, he was a superstar.”
Later, he’d been working on Mario Van Peebles’ film Panther when, gathered with his cast and crew in the lobby of a hotel after a day’s shoot, he tuned into the 1994 NBA Finals. When O.J. Simpson’s Bronco popped up in a box on the corner of the screen, he was concerned. The game was eventually preempted to go live to the chase, but Vance couldn’t bring himself to watch. “With the potential of this going down, I couldn’t take it,” he says. “It was too much for me.”
In fact, he avoided the entire trial, tuning in finally to watch the verdict. Like many in the black community, Vance cheered when the jury announced that Simpson was innocent of the charges against him. Because, like Gooding, Vance knew the challenges of being black in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. “O.J. was the right person, right time, right situation; the perfect storm for us all to see how deep the race issues were in this country. If it had happened to an average, everyday black Joe, it wouldn’t have garnered the attention.”
Johnnie Cochran was one of the few members of Simpson’s defense team who recognized the climate of the time, and how much it would bring to bear on the case. “He knew that this was the case he’d been waiting for,” says Vance. “Nobody else in the trial knew what was at stake. The prosecution didn’t listen when their jury consultant told them, ‘This case is about nothing but race, and since it is, you need to put the case in Santa Monica. Make sure you have white jurors.’ The prosecution said, ‘What are you talking about? This is about the facts.’ Johnnie was a step ahead, and a step above.”
Adds Gooding: “Whether he was guilty or not guilty, that whole aspect of the trial was left on the sidelines, because you had all of these other elements taking center stage. It was playing on people’s emotions,” about race, celebrity and the climate of the time.
In the wake of the Ferguson unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s small wonder, then, that the O.J. Simpson murder trial is back in the news. Prior to signing on for American Crime Story, Gooding had been offered a role as O.J. Simpson in a feature film about the case, which he had turned down. And ESPN started airing a five-part, nearly eight-hour documentary about the man and the trial this past Saturday. “People are starting to question authority,” Gooding says, “whereas before they just accepted the fact that it was easier to govern a people with fear. As we look back, hopefully we’re learning from the mistakes of our past.”
“You can’t deny that some progress has been made,” notes Paulson. “We do have a black man as president, and hopefully we’re on the verge of having the first woman become President of the United States. But all you need to do is go online and read the things people write to realize that, while there’s been forward movement, there hasn’t been enough.”
Indeed, racial tension is a fire that remains alight, says Vance. “It’s the river that runs through this country, just as slavery was. From the establishment and development of this country, race has been the most important, primary issue that affects our nation. It’s always been there; we just want to pretend that it’s not there, and that we’re all one. But we’re not all one. Until we actually talk about and examine our differences in a sit-down, calm discussion, we won’t be able to learn anything.”
It isn’t worth asking any of the people involved in this show whether it has changed their view of O.J. Simpson—it would have been impossible for it not to, given that, like us, they were casual viewers of the circus that ensued in 1994.
And perhaps it’s an actor’s job to identify—and maybe even empathize—with the characters they play, regardless of their origin. Gooding is circumspect about the man he has spent a year thinking about. “O.J. is just a sad f—ing victim of his own talents and profession,” he says now. “If he killed those people, it’s sad how that one act unraveled not just his own life but the lives of his children and everybody involved. But it’s twice as sad to think that, if he was innocent, his behavior, and the things he said and did, destroyed his career and affected his family for the rest of their lives.”
Simpson is currently sitting in a cell at Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada, in his eighth year of a 33-year stretch for armed robbery, kidnapping and assault committed in 2007. He will be eligible for parole next year. Gooding believes the murder trial and Simpson’s acquittal have a part to play in the length of his sentence for these crimes. “I can’t tell you how O.J. feels today because I haven’t spoken to him,” he says, “but I’m sure there’s a part of him that feels he got royally screwed on this latest conviction. If he was innocent [of the murders], now he’s being victimized. And if he was guilty, now he feels like he’s paying penance. To even wrap your head around that s— is mind-blowing.”