A surprise hit for the FX network in the U.S. and the BBC in the U.K., “American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson” has returned many of its stellar cast to the spotlight in quite extraordinary guises: notably John Travolta as DA Robert Shapiro and David Schwimmer as OJ’s suave attorney and confidante Robert Kardashian. But the show’s most compelling performance comes from Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr, who gives an affecting portrayal of the former American footballing hero whose spectacular fall from grace almost tore the country apart.

Beginning with the brutal double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J.’s wife, and waiter Ron Goldman, the show is a meticulous tracking of O.J.’s downfall, leading to one of the most controversial verdicts in American legal history. Coincidentally, it was another football movie, “Jerry Maguire”, a light romantic comedy, that won Gooding his Oscar in 1997, in a role that has more in common with The Juice than you might think. The actor came to Series Mania to show the first two episodes and discuss the after-effects of playing such a notorious character…

When was this idea first put to you?

Cuba Gooding Jr: Funny enough, in 2014, maybe, a script came to me from my agents, an independently financed script, to play O.J. in a script about his innocence. It was a 170-page script. So I read it, and I said, “Who’s directing it?” They said, “They don’t have a director, they’ll hire one once they get you.” I said, “Pass. I’m not into that.” I’ve got to that place in my life – and my career specifically – where the most important part of film- and television-making is the director, the actual person who orchestrates the performance in the editing room. I didn’t want to cover something as controversial as that trial and the verdict with a director that I didn’t trust and connect with. A week later, my agents called me again and said, “Ryan Murphy would like to meet with you.” Now, I’d known of his work and his power as a show runner for a long time, and I said to them, specifically, “Anything Ryan wants me to do, I’m in.” They said, “Well, funny enough, he wants you to play O.J. Simpson.” So I had a meeting with him, it wasn’t very long, about 45 minutes, and we talked about my process and… here I am.

And these were completely different projects?

Cuba Gooding Jr: Completely out of the blue, just by coincidence – happenstance – one offer came in and went away, then Ryan’s came in.

So what is your process? How do you prepare for a role like O.J.?

Cuba Gooding Jr: The roles that I always get attracted to are roles where the material is based on an actual person. It gives me evidence or some clues to his emotional core. With every role you want to have an aesthetic that is as close to the real person as you can. But I think once you win over the audience with a bit of truth, be it a scene that they connect or identify with, then it opens the door for them to go on the rest of journey with you. I use this series “Narcos” as an example. It’s a good show, but something was rubbing me wrong while I was watching it. I finally came to realise that every so often they would cut away to the real Pablo Escobar, and every time they cut back to the actor it’s like a reminder that he’s acting. It felt like a betrayal for that actor, to keep doing that, because once we get an image locked in, and we accept a truth to that image, an actor can take us anywhere. So that was my approach to this guy. I knew his emotional state of mind in the back of that Bronco, I heard those 911 tapes, I knew some of his behaviour in the press, so I knew the psychosis he was going through, to some degree.

How did you communicate this to Ryan?

Cuba Gooding Jr: I said to him, “I can give you an emotional truth that I don’t know any other actor could.” And he agreed. I think the only other aspect to this journey with him was that I didn’t want to make a statement about his guilt or his innocence. I didn’t want people to get caught up in that. I wanted people to bring whatever emotional baggage they could to this show and hopefully understand how that verdict came out, based on the temperature, the climate, of society at that time, the personalities of the defence and the prosecution, the family environment that O.J. was in – if we could get them to focus on that, then we would win. And it feels like that’s what happened.

The beginning is very powerful – we often forget the context of the trial, which came relatively soon after the Rodney King beatings and the LA riots.

Cuba Gooding Jr: That’s exactly what Steven Spielberg said. Steven Spielberg and his wife Kate watched the show, and I ran into them at the Baftas. They said specifically that those first images are what draws us into the show and that it’s the perfect platform for us to accept the journey that we’re going on. So it’s cool that you said that.

There is also a surprising element of humor in the show…  

Cuba Gooding Jr: Oh yeah. [Laugh] Well, now I feel like I’m trying to teach you about acting. With all due respect, I think people love to put things in a box – comedy and drama. As an actor, when you’re winning the moment over, there’s a truth to your intention. You might laugh at it or you might cry at it, but I think your visceral reaction to it is a reaction to the truth of the moment. I mean, I get it. I don’t believe that Ryan set out to make people laugh. He set out to find the truth in the moments and string them together. I’ll tell you this quick story. I did my first lead in the film “Boyz N The Hood” and I was doing my second film, this thing called “Gladiator,” in Chicago, and the producers flew into town. They invited me to a test screening, snuck me in after the lights went down, and I sat at the back of the auditorium and watched the movie play out. And every emotional scene I had, the audience roared with laughter. And I was fuckin’ horrified!!! Afterwards the producers came up to me and said, “What did you think? It’s great, right?” I said, “What do you mean – my career’s over!” They said, “What do you mean?” I said, “They laughed.” And Jon Singleton famously said, “Cuba, what do you expect them to do? You’re acting, but they’re living that shit. They’re not gonna cry – they have to laugh, that’s their reality.” And it hit me. I never thought of it that way. Was it a comedy to them? Or was it truth to them?

Did you ever have O.J. on a pedestal when you were young??

Cuba Gooding Jr: I was a fan of football. I was more of a Raiders fan but I knew who O.J. was. I knew The Juice and I remember the Hertz commercials with him running to the airport and whatnot. So he was a highbrow celebrity in my eyes. Oh, absolutely.

What were you doing while the trial was on?

Cuba Gooding Jr: I was making another movie. I was travelling round the country doing this thing, “Lightning Jack.” I didn’t follow the trial. I remember the low-speed Bronco chase, I remember that. We were watching a hockey game, a play-off game, and they cut in with an image of the Bronco. I remember all of us just sitting there in quiet awe. We were like, “That’s O.J. with a gun to his head??” And then eventually when it got to Rockingham, and the sun went down, and it was the helicopter lights washing over the top of the Bronco, I thought that at any moment they were gonna pull his lifeless body out of the back of it. So when he surrendered it was such a relief.

Was it hard to switch off from those real-life memories, because it was such a well-publicised story?

Cuba Gooding Jr: No. That’s a weird terminology – “switch yourself off”. When I auditioned for “Jerry Maguire,” Cameron Crowe told me later than one of the reasons I got the part was because other people would walk in the room and see Tom Cruise and lose their shit. I never saw that. Now, I’m a big Tom Cruise fan. I saw “Days Of Thunder” eight times. “Top Gun” eight times. In the theatre, as a kid. But when I walked into that room, I didn’t see him as the actor in any of those movies. He was my agent, and I had to treat him that way. That was my job. Same thing any time I do research for a role. With O.J., I don’t switch off. If it helps me, if not, it doesn’t go into my filter. It’s not about switching off, it’s just part of your gig.

What kind of research did you do? What did you look at?

Cuba Gooding Jr: Oh, everything, ad nauseam. I remember, I played the performance down the middle and let Ryan dictate the guilt and innocence in the editing room. So if I was feeling overwhelmed by his guilt, I would research evidence of his innocence, and vice versa. That’s kinda how I walked that line. I still, to this day, don’t tell anybody if I think he did do it or he didn’t do it, because I don’t want them to be influenced either way when they watch my performance. I think that’s healthy in terms of digesting this journey.

Did you read the crazy book he wrote?

Cuba Gooding Jr: Some of it. [Laughs] It’s crazy. Or not, y’know? I don’t if you know you heard me say this before, but he’s probably susceptible to CTE [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy], the concussion syndrome. I absolutely think that if he dies and they do an autopsy on his brain, they’ll see that damage. I think that is very explanatory about his behaviour. I think if you listen to the 911 tapes – the violence, the beatings – you might see that. If you imagine the abuse his brain took, I guarantee you he has this CTE. And if that’s the case, a lot of these athletes who have this syndrome, from football and, more importantly, boxing, they have violent ends to their lives, they have violent relationships with their spouses, and yet they recognise that they have this mental hygiene issue. And when they commit suicide, they always do it in a way that keeps their brain intact. That sheds more light on the subject. You could say, “Well, that justifies that he did it, because he was violent.” But maybe it justifies that he didn’t do it, because he recognised that he had this condition. So that’s something to take into account.

Was it hard to play the character, if only because of the state of denial that he seemed to be in?

Cuba Gooding Jr: Well, was there a denial, or an orchestration on his part to command control of a negative situation? That line where he says, “My teammates look to me for leadership. I lead. That’s what I do.” When his team is losing games, it doesn’t matter to him – he takes control of the game. And maybe that’s what he feels that he has to do. I always tell people: this is the part B to my part A of Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire. Because I believe both these athletes have the same characteristics, that braggadocios self-confidence to overcome any adversity. One story ended positively, the other tragically.

You’ve really thought about this a lot, haven’t you?

Cuba Gooding Jr: Oh yeah. Oh yeah! Trust me!

Was it a hard character to let go of?  

Cuba Gooding Jr: It was. Do you ever have bouts of depression? Like, you wake up in the morning, and you don’t want to go to work. Or you hear about something that didn’t go your way, and you’re like, “Fuck…” That feeling is something you talk yourself out of – you think of the positives and then you move on. But sometimes I find myself thinking about something and having to tell myself, “That’s not your negative, that’s part of your psyche that’s not really you – it’s something you’re projecting. Let that go!”

The ghost of OJ?

Cuba Gooding Jr: Yeah. I think all my characters haunt me. Especially the real-life ones, like Master Chief Carl Brashear, the Tuskagee airmen. Every time I see a military person it gives me such a sense of pride but also a sense of responsibility to project excellence when representing them. So that changes you, as a person, it changes your outlook on things. But in that respect, a dark character changes you as well. You ever had a bad dream? You wake up from it and you can’t unring that bell, it’s part of your psyche now.

And in this case, there’s also no closure. We still don’t really know what happened…

Cuba Gooding Jr: Yeah, we don’t know. And I think that’s what opened the door to empathy for my character. My wife said, when she saw it, “Ugh, you’re going to make me feel for this guy,” and she didn’t want to. And I get it. Because there is that bit of unknown, And it’s easy to ignore until you don’t ignore it.

What’s been the reaction to the show?  

Cuba Gooding Jr: Interestingly enough, Courtney B. Vance – or it might have been Sterling K. Brown – was saying that a pastor in his church, an all-black church, came up to him and said, “Thank you for the show. We needed to revisit this so that we could find healing.” Isn’t that cool? And it’s true. Because there was a racial divide with that verdict. A black friend of mine was working in an all-white office, and when the not guilty verdict came in, there was either an “aww” or a “yeah.” If you were black you were exalting, if you were white you were depressed, and all eyes went on my friend. And that’s deep, if you think about it. People took a stance based on their race, and as we walked through it again, 20 years later, people recognised their behaviour. And it was time to let go of that.

What’s next for you?

You’ll see.

You’ve come to Series Mania, a festival dedicated to the mini-series. What are your thoughts on the format?

I think there’s an act of discovery with a role like this, in a piece like this – people can come back again and again and find something new, more information about each and every character in the piece, whereas in a film you have to sacrifice backstory and character development. But with television you can really let people go on the journey with you. I went to Broadway in 2014 [with “Trip To Bountiful”], and I was on stage with Cecily Tyson and Vanessa Williams for almost six or seven months. I really understood the piece and that performance opened me up creatively in a way that I hadn’t been opened up before. And I think the closest I’ve gotten to that since is doing series television. So I think I’m kind of addicted now.