By the end of episode three of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Johnnie Cochran was no longer on the sidelines — he’d officially joined the infamous “dream team.” It only gets more intense from here, as in the coming weeks, he’ll command the courtroom — delivering those legendary one-liners.
The man who embodies him onscreen, Courtney B. Vance has won raves for his commanding performance. Here, Vance tells Variety how he prepared for the role, and the impact the series has on modern-day race relations.
What was the most challenging part of playing Johnnie Cochran?
The most challenging part was figuring out how I was going to approach it. I did a play, “My Children, My Africa,” years ago, and I knew nothing about South Africa, the dialect to do. I didn’t know how to begin. How much research do you do? How do you find your way in? What’s the first thing to attack? How do you cut it down to size? How do you make it manageable so you’re not overwhelmed? Johnnie Cochran is an overwhelming kind of guy. So I just began with his life. I just read as much I could, beginning with the Jeffrey Toobin book and found other books about him, what people said about him and what he said about himself. So then when I got into the arena, when I got into the cage of the courtroom, I had all the homework done and just let it flow, because he’s in me. I know him.
What did you learn about him through your research?
I learned he was an amazingly wonderful and beautifully flawed human being. I didn’t know him at all. I went to his house years ago for a party with my wife and I was in awe, like we all were. I just heard all the wonderful things he did, not only for O.J. and Michael Jackson but for common people, folks who needed someone to fight for them. I was impressed with his work against police brutality. He became well versed in the area. So when it became time for him to come on the O.J. trial, there was no better person to be there. He knew it better than anyone. He knew what was at stake. He knew the game had to be elevated. He knew why there had to be an African-American jury and he fought for it. If Marcia Clark had fought for the trial to be in Santa Monica, the trial would have taken a different direction. But she didn’t know, she didn’t understand. Because it was a black man and a white woman, there’s a deep history there. Everybody takes sides when it comes down to that. When she was going on about the domestic abuse, black women would just sit there and go, uh huh. It defies logic, but she didn’t understand. Johnnie understood.
In some ways, the case was almost over before it started, thanks to some of the strategies that Johnnie was able to see right away and implement.
So much so. It was over at the start because of what Marcia and the prosecution didn’t do. They should have fought to have the case moved. But it didn’t matter. Even if you had it in a makeshift tent — do not have in downtown [L.A.]. Do not have a black jury. Fight for a white jury. But she didn’t do it.
The prosecution didn’t know that race trumps everything. Even when they were listening to all the points that she was making about domestic abuse, the jury was listening to her and they were [not necessarily receptive]. They were thinking, “A white woman — she was with our man.”
It’s sad when Marcia says, “Black women love me.”
But in her past, they did. They absolutely loved her. But she had never had a case like this, when you have a celebrity hero who is the monster. How do you get people to not see the celebrity and see the monster?
What surprised you as you did your research?
It all surprised me. I knew nothing. I didn’t know [Judge Lance] Ito was such a celebrity hound. Imagine what kind of case this would have been if you didn’t have a judge who wanted it to be on television? Can you imagine what the trial would have been? CNN wouldn’t be what it is today. It wouldn’t have been the big deal it became because it was on TV for a year solid. It’s a lot for a whole world to chew on for a year. We’re still chewing on it.
Did it change your opinion of the case?
I didn’t follow it [back then]; I was just at the Bronco chase and the verdict. All I knew was I was so pleased that after 400 years that an African-American had worked the system in the biggest stage in the world. And a black man got off because the system was worked, the legal system was worked. Was justice served? I don’t know. Two people were murdered. If not O.J., who? In that sense, no, justice was not served. But we saw that we as African-Americans had to live for 400 years with all the many indignities. That’s why African-Americans were cheering. They weren’t cheering for O.J., because O.J. didn’t really have a sense of black people at all. He said, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” It wasn’t about him. He just happened to be the vehicle for which everyone had their own opinion. And because it was on TV for all to see, everyone had one.
Sometimes race will come up as a topic in popular culture, but then it will go away again. As a culture, so often we engage in …
Because it’s more comfortable to just let it go away again. TV has been a part of process of repetitive amnesia. It’s not enough to talk about it or deal with it periodically. The people with power need to do something about it.
But we don’t do anything in this country until it’s an emergency. We don’t really look 20 or 30 or 40 years ahead and put a plan into place. We don’t do that.
So often, real change is hard to come by.
People don’t do anything unless it’s an emergency, because it’s uncomfortable. We know that we need to do something about our consumption of gasoline and that we need to switch to wind power or solar. But it’s about money. Nobody wants to give up [the status quo]. There’s money to be made in confusion, there’s money to be made in all these oil companies. And eventually when there’s a tragedy, when the gas starts to run out, then we’ll start to do it. But by then, it’s too late.
That’s what all these incidents that are happening are trying to tell us — “Pay attention.” How does it happen that a young man [Chicago’s Laquan McDonald] was shot 16 times a year and a half ago — and we’re just finding out about it? The mayor can explain all he wants to about how he didn’t know and there were extenuating circumstances. You had the information. It’s like Flint and the water. Same thing. If it was white folks, they would have tested the water first, because you knew they would be on you to do that. But because it’s black folks, “Ah, it doesn’t matter. It’s just them. They won’t push back. We can save money. Just do it.”
What was the experience like on-set?
One of the challenges we all had was working with four or five cameras at the same time. Watching the piece you notice how the cameras are continually moving in and out. That is very distracting as an actor. There are five cameras around your face in a close-up. They are everywhere, getting your coverage. We sometimes shot three scenes in a row. We just changed clothes and kept shooting. You have to have a certain kind of actor who can work like that. Where am I now? Who’s speaking? OK, let’s go! We don’t have time to play.
How did you handle it?
When I first saw those cameras in my face, I just fell apart. When they turned on me and started swirling in front of my face, I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know the scene well enough to let them do whatever they wanted to do. I couldn’t maintain my focus. That was very disheartening. I said the next time I’ll be ready and I was.
It must have been a bonding experience for the cast.
We all recognized what we were up against. Everybody had their own private Idaho. Everybody had their own private challenges. And consequently we all had to be supportive because then it was going to be their turn to be up there with the cameras swirling. We all were very respectful of what we were all doing. We recognized the importance of this journey we were embarking on. It was going to require all of us to work together. None of us could work in isolation. It was a massive gig. If you don’t want to do the work to make that live and sing then you shouldn’t be in that hot kitchen. All of us wanted to be in there. We went through the war together and we came out victorious.
Did you have a favorite day of the shoot?
It maybe was the closing [arguments]. I didn’t get a whole lot of time to prep for it. [Originally] I had less than a day to prepare. The closing argument was maybe three pages. I jammed it in my head, and said, “I’m just going to have to get up there and make the best of it.” I went last — I was third.
By the time they got to me, they ran out of time. So they said, “We won’t be able to get back to it until Tuesday,” and it was Thursday. So I said, “Now I’ll be able to get it down.” By the time Tuesday came around, I was ready. I got four extra days to prep.
Why do you think audiences are responding to the series?
Because we really haven’t dealt with it. We keep going around the same bend. When there’s an opportunity to strike a blow to racism and sexism, we tend to pretend like it’s fine, there’s no problem. But there’s absolutely a problem because we keep butting our heads against it. We’ll get it, I think. Shooting a young man 16 times. Eventually we’re going to go, that’s enough. The entire world is watching. We’re preaching democracy throughout the world. They see what we’re doing and how we’re struggling. It’s very important that we deal with this.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.