One of the most highly anticipated series of the new season is FX’s “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story,” the re-telling of the trial of O.J. Simpson, based on the book “The Run for His Life” by Jeffrey Toobin. The cast spoke poignantly about the challenge of bringing the real people to life in a panel Saturday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, Calif.
“It’s the hardest character I’ve ever played,” said Cuba Gooding Jr., who portrays O.J. Simpson. “It was six months of an emotional roller coaster.”
He said, though, he had no desire to meet the man himself, given that he’s playing him as he was in 1994 — “charismatic, flamboyant, braggadocious, egotistical” — and not as he is today. “I had no desire to visit him in his present condition being incarcerated, being a shell of a man,” he said. “I have friends who are incarcerated and it breaks a man’s spirit. At some point you start to believe whatever reality, even if it’s not truth. If (executive producer) Ryan (Murphy) wants to do next season as O.J. today and he casts me, than I’ll sit with him.”
The series’ executive producers — including Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski — agreed it wasn’t necessary for any of their cast to contact the real-life people portrayed in the series.
Murphy recounted his experience on “Erin Brockovich” with Julia Roberts, who delayed meeting the woman she was portraying until halfway through filming — “until she felt that she couldn’t be swayed” — and shared that with his cast, which included John Travolta (Robert Shapiro), Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark), Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran), Sterling Brown (Chris Darden), David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian), and Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Al Cowling).
David Schwimmer sought out the advice of Kris Jenner to help him better understand Robert Kardashian, who passed away in 2003. “She was incredibly generous and very open,” he said, offering insight about how religious he was. “He prayed every day, several times a day. For me, that really informed the character and helped me understand that decisions he made.”
Cochran died in 2005, but Vance said, “I took the pressure right off myself. I said I’m me, he’s him. I’m just going to do as much research as I can. I didn’t trap myself in the image of the iconic figure of him.”
The producers, too, decided to distance themselves. “We chose actually not to contact any of the people involved in the case,” said Jacobson. “We adapted Jeffrey Toobin’s book which we greatly appreciated for character and context, and we weren’t seeking to make a docuseries.”
When it came to building the cast, the producers said they weren’t looking for “stunt” casting — instead looking for the best actors for each role. Brown landed the key role of Chris Darden through an audition process — and Travolta admitted it took him four months to be convinced to come on board, once he was assured it wouldn’t be a “guilty pleasure.” He was granted a producer title as added protection, he says, but never invoked its power.
“I was only doing it as an insurance method to assure that the product would be going not in a sensationalist way,” he said, “but in a way that communicated something to an audience that was enlightening and at the end of it, they would understand why the verdict ended up the way it did.”
Schwimmer said the appeal of the role to him was when it was presented to him “as Robert being the heart and the conscience” of the case. “He’s the only person of the key players who has nothing to gain,” he said.
Murphy said Sarah Paulson was the only one who was a “given” for the role — “she didn’t have a choice,” he said. For her part, Paulson said, “I was elated and completely worried I wasn’t able to pull it off. But I trusted Ryan.”
Gooding says, “I knew I was on the right path when John Travolta said yes. We scored!”
Twenty years may have passed since the original trial, but the producers said the themes are still as relevant today as ever: the rise of reality TV, the 24-hour news cycle. It’s telling, for sure, that the series begins with the Rodney King verdict.
As much as the case has been well-documented, the producers did meticulous research in adapting Toobin’s book for the screen, uncovering new details. “There was something in every script that was new to me,” said Murphy, singling out especially the sexism that Marcia Clark endured throughout the trial.
And while they assert that it’s a drama, not a documentary, the producers assured reporters of the accuracy of the series. “I never worked on a project that had more legal vetting than this,” said Murphy. “Every script has been gone over by five lawyers.”
The producers defended the appearance of the Kardashian kids in the early episodes. “We thought it’d be valuable just to have them there for a little sprinkling,” said executive producer Alexander. “They were emblematic of the beginning of this era, when someone like Kato Kaelin or Faye Resnick would become famous, and no one was really sure why they were famous.”
The 10-part series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” premieres on FX on February 2.