Of all the cast members in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Cuba Gooding, Jr. may have the toughest challenge: He has to embody someone everyone has an opinion on.
But guilty or innocent, Gooding says he’ll never reveal his true feelings about the case — or the former Heisman trophy winner, who’s now in prison on an unrelated charge. In this week’s episode, we’ll see the infamous Bronco chase — which reveals Simpson at his most vulnerable, threatening to commit suicide as pal A.C. Cowling drives along the 405.
Here, Gooding tells Variety about the role he calls the hardest he’s ever played.
Why did you decide to take on this role?
Two words: Ryan Murphy. True story: My agent called and said there’s a script here. It’s 167 pages, some guy with a lot of money in Australia wants to tell the story of the innocence of O.J. Simpson. But it doesn’t have a director yet, and I said pass. Guys with that much money just bully their way into it. Those projects go straight to video. No one ever sees it. Weeks passed. Then my agent calls and says, you got a call from Ryan Murphy. I said, whatever it is I’m in. And he said, he’s telling the O.J. Simpson story. I said, what’s in the water? (Laughs.) I said yes because it’s Ryan Murphy. From the work I’d seen him do, his attention to detail — that would make a big statement. The Francis Ford Coppolas, the Martin Scorseses — you can feel their fingerprints over every aspect of the frame. That’s what Ryan does with his productions. I just knew that this in Ryan’s hands was going to make people sit forward again and ask tough questions.
Were you concerned about taking on a larger-than-life character like O.J. Simpson?
No, because I can’t be judgmental on a character that I play. I think it’s my job to find a truth in every scenario of this character. I knew people were going to ask me if I thought he was guilty or innocent. Whatever my opinion is, I’ll never share it because I don’t want you to look at my performance and say he felt this or that. Ryan had that same opinion. I’m not here to prove his innocence or his guilt. If we do it right, at the end of 10 episodes, you’ll say “I totally understand the not guilty verdict.” We have the opportunity to expose people to the facts and evidence that wasn’t even admissible in court for whatever reason. We’re stirring the pot and dissecting the time period. I knew if people were willing to sit through these episodes and if we did it right, I didn’t have to worry about doing an impersonation. I think the biggest compliment an actor can have is if people forget who they’re watching and get lost in the character.
How did you find your way in to playing him?
Physically I wanted certain things to resemble him so it didn’t pull people out — his hair, his face, the clothing he wore were identical to iconic images we knew. And then you just kind of have to brainwash yourself and go into a mental psychosis. It’s my job. Ryan and I had a secondhand way of communicating — the way he manipulated me mentally when he was directing. He’d tell me, shoot this scene as if you did it. And then shoot this scene as if you believe you didn’t. I couldn’t ever come to a conclusion on anything. This was the hardest character I’ve done, emotionally. It took me a while to let it go out of my psyche. I’d been in a character for six months —I’d never done that for so long. With a film, you shoot it for three months. Any day you could be doing the ending or the beginning. When you’re doing 10 scripts, you walk through it. I started at one weight and ended 20 pounds later at a different weight. You literally transform throughout this journey. That was an interesting process for me.
How did you balance your role with the rest of the cast?
You couldn’t ask for a better dream cast. It’s almost like when people put together a football team, any type of sports team. They have the young talents that make the rookie mistakes and then they have the veterans. We had the perfect chemistry. We had stage veterans. We had iconic figures. And everything in between. People would come in for a day or two and work and do their role. I know they would do the best work they had every done in their career. Because they would look out and us and see people bringing their A game. And then there’s John Travolta. I’ve been given that gift of working with Jack Nicholson and James Coburn and certain people who just out of nowhere break into stories — talking about working with Alfred Hitchcock or Kubrick. That’s my real reward of my career. The physical rewards are nice. But those are the ones that inform me and make me a better artist. To know that they felt the same anxieties we did.
Does any scene in particular stand out for you as particularly tough?
Every other day. The days in the courtroom were emotionally draining, The stuff in the jail cell. The guilt and frustration I felt at celebrating the not guilty verdict. I’m not saying I think he’s innocent or guilty. I’m just saying I never grieved for the loss of those families. You’ve gotta feel that. If I’m going to be that involved and not take into consideration those lives were lost — I feel guilt from that.
What did you learn about the case through the process of filming the series?
I had formed my opinion of what I thought happened based on facts I assumed to be facts, and when I researched it I was just wrong about a lot of stuff. I don’t want to tip it. But when you see the episodes you’ll come away with the same feeling. When he dies, if they’re allowed to autopsy his brain, they’ll find the concussion syndrome. I believe that. If you listen to the 911 tapes, his violent behavior. You look at his pro career in high school records that stand today. In college he broke rushing records. He won the Heisman trophy. In the NFL he rushed for 2000 plus yards. And it’s only been done by six other people. Those people did it in 16 game seasons — he did it in 14 games. The abuse his brain took… I’m not saying that should excuse him or prove he did or didn’t do it. But it definitely explains the final behavior that he expressed, the braggadocious aggressiveness in his demeanor.
Did you reach out to him?
No, because I wasn’t portraying him. I wasn’t portraying an old broken man in jail who believes he’s innocent. I played him as an egotistical flamboyant movie star slash marquee athlete. Someone said, “If he reached out to you today would you go visit him?” And I said I would. Because now it’s not going to influence my performance. But I don’t know what he’d want to say to me. And I have nothing to say to him. Except whenever you play a real character you want the audience to know you’re as truthful as you’re directed to be. It’s the director’s job to piece together my performance, his interpretation of my takes, each take and string them together and make a statement. I’m red paint on a canvas for a painter.
Why do you think this series is relevant today?
Because it speaks to the issues we’re still dealing with — like police violence. There’s something healing in that. I saw that movie “Straight Outta Compton.” You need that artistic outlet. People can sing that song and feel like that they don’t have to be violent to a police officer. I think police officers are modern day heroes. I think they protect us. There are bad in every profession. People lash out because they feel they’re not heard. Artistry enables people to understand “we hear you. We’re as frustrated as you are. Let’s talk and open this dialogue.” I think that’s what this show does.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.