It’s hard to imagine now, but the Kardashians weren’t always a household name. It all began with dad Robert, who was close friends with O.J. Simpson — and got pulled into his case as a counselor, legal and otherwise, to his longtime pal.
David Schwimmer tells Variety it wasn’t an easy decision to take on the role for “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” given the notoriety. But once he did some research, he was surprised to learn that Kardashian — who died in 2003 — was actually the “heart and conscience” of the series. “Frankly, I was moved by the fact that he was the one character who had nothing to gain from his involvement in the trial,” he says.
Why did you decide to accept the part?
Three reasons, really. The first is the pedigree of the people involved. I’ve always wanted to work with executive producer Ryan (Murphy), as well as Nina (Jacobson) and Brad (Simpson). I’ve known Nina coincidentally since I was 8. She’s been my sister’s best friend for many years, so I’ve always wanted to work with her. Also the writers, Scott (Alexander) and Larry (Karaszewski). I’ve been a huge fan of their screenwriting.
The second was the challenge of the role. I really knew nothing about Robert. I had no real memory of him other than that white guy who stuck with O.J. and was on the defense team, too. I really didn’t know his deal. The more I read, the more I talked to the writers and Ryan, and understood in his role in the series, I really was intrigued. And frankly I was moved by the fact that he was the one character that had nothing to gain from his involvement in the trial.
And the last thing was when I read the first two scripts and talked to the writers and Ryan about what kinds of themes they were exploring, I felt like this was a project that had the potential to contribute to the conversation we’re having right now as a country and brought into question whether things have really improved at all in 20 years.
How do you think this series manages to raise those issues?
The fact that so much police brutality and injustice has been happening for a long time, and has come to light in such sharp focus the last couple of years. It’s a really upsetting reminder that we have a lot of work to do. I think that this case and the trial and the climate of that time allows us to reflect on how and if things really improved in the last 20 years when it comes to the experience of black America and white America. There seems to be a real disconnect in the experience and the understanding of the other.
What challenges did you face taking on a real-life character like Robert vs. other characters you’ve played?
For me, there’s a greater responsibility to get it right and honor the person, especially when they’re not here to defend themselves. Robert’s passed on. There’s more gravity to it, in my opinion, to get it right and tell the truth. To be faithful to his memory. I guess I’ve only done that one other time in “Band of Brothers.” But I did feel a greater kind of pressure in that way. The good thing about it is there’s a lot more available in terms of research and to really understand, to try to put together who he was. I talked to Kris Jenner, and that was a great, great help to hear from her who he was as a husband, as a father and as a family man.
When in the process did you decide to talk to Kris? I know Ryan had discouraged the actors from talking to their real-life counterparts.
I had never heard that! So I reached out right away, before we started. As soon they offered me the part, and after a few creative conversations, I said I’m in. So I immediately started to get to work. I reached out to Kris. She was incredibly generous with her time. We’d never met, I don’t know her from Adam. And I basically cold-called her. I said I’d love to talk to you for a few minutes and I expected to maybe get 15-20 minutes out of her. We were on the phone for two hours. It was wonderful. She obviously loves him still, and loved him very, very much. She thought he was a great, decent man.
What did you learn from that conversation with her?
I learned that he was a real family man. That was what he lived for — family time, his parents, all the kids, Kris, big meals with family and friends. That he was quiet, but in the privacy of his family and friends, he was quite gregarious. He was quite funny. He was very charismatic. At the same time, he was also humble and very private and very modest. He had no interest in the spotlight. The whole celebrity thing was an inadvertent byproduct of this unfortunate ordeal. The other great thing, and really the key to the character, came out of the conversation with Kris, was that he was deeply religious. He was a man of great faith who had a strong personal relationship to God. And his actions and decisions were really guided by that.
We really see that at the start of the second episode, when you pray for O.J.’s safety. Was Jeffrey Toobin’s book helpful at all to you? What other research did you do?
Jeffrey’s book, which I read twice, was of great help just to understand the trial and the context and all the agendas. It wasn’t that helpful for Robert, actually, because Jeffrey was kind of dismissive of Robert. He’s hardly mentioned in the book, maybe a couple of times. So it was really digging deeper into watching his interviews and reading every article I could find in which Robert was referred to or in which he was quoted. I researched his business dealings with O.J. and how he came into money, his family being in the meatpacking business. Just to understand his history and who he was as a person, his education, his character.
Was there one thing in particular that most helped you get into character?
Early on, I got for myself a leather Bible with his name on it. I understood he had one, with his name embossed on it. I just started carrying that around a lot and reading it. Just thinking more closely about what his relationship to God must have been like.
We see you get emotional at several times, trying to stay strong for your friend without getting caught up in the insanity. Was any scene particularly challenging for you?
There were several scenes. One of the most challenging was when he was trying to kill himself in Robert’s daughter’s bedroom. Another one for me, was later on, in episode 7 or 8, when Robert really is going through a crisis of faith, and he comes to Kris’ house to pick up the kids. He breaks down and admits he’s lost. That was a tough scene.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.