It’s been more than 20 years since the O.J. Simpson saga gripped the nation. For the producers of FX’s upcoming 10-part limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the time was right for a dramatic re-telling of the “Trial of the Century.”
The spectacular downfall of NFL legend and occasional actor O.J. Simpson as he stood trial for the horrific murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman was compelling television then, from the 60-mile white Bronco freeway chase to the wall-to-wall trial coverage, and it’s compelling television now.
“This story is one of the great American stories,” says author Jeffrey Toobin, whose 1996 book, The Run of His Life: The People V. O.J. Simpson, serves as the main source for the project. “It’s about everything that obsesses the American people. This is the story about race, sex, violence, sports, Hollywood, and the only eyewitness is a dog.”
I’ve seen six of the 10 episodes made available to reviewers, and they are absolutely riveting and all-around entertaining. The behind-the-scenes perspective may offer a few new details about the case that might surprise viewers. Racial issues feature prominently, of course, and as a reminder of the social climate at that time, the series opens with images of the Rodney King beatings and the L.A. riots that followed. (The O.J. Simpson trial took place two years after the controversial King verdict.)
Most important, the series does not sensationalize the harrowing events of the case and is devoid of the pitfalls that usually trip up a Ryan Murphy production, which are often known for veering wildly off-course into campiness. You won’t find that here.
Everyone in the stellar cast brings their A-game, and everyone came into the production with a mindset of being respectful to the real-life people who were deeply affected by this tragedy.
“Much care, love, respect and appreciation on every level was given,” Sarah Paulson told Bio of everyone involved. “It was of paramount importance to them that they honor them, and there was much respect, across the board.”
Paulson, a marquee player in the Ryan Murphy acting stable, “had no choice” but to join the cast, according to Murphy, who says Paulson was the first and only choice to play the role of prosecutor Marcia Clark.
Murphy knew what he was doing. Paulson’s performance is outstanding as she completely embodies Clark, from an overconfident lawyer to a vulnerable one as she watches the case crumble at her feet. If the often-nominated-but-never-won actress doesn’t finally get an Emmy for this role, it will be a crime.
Becoming Marcia Clark started with the hair. “I had four different wigs, and I named them all,” Paulson told Bio. “One was Winston, and my very favorite one was the very, very short one from the first makeover, that was Shortie.” When Paulson donned the full look in costume for the first time, it was a little shocking for her.
“I did have a little bit of, not a cry, but I made a face, like, this is really going to be something,” Paulson told us. “But I came to feel naked without it on,” she later added.
To prepare for the part, Paulson told us she “spent a lot of time reading Clark’s book, the Toobin book, watching the interviews, anything candid thing I could find, and I’ve just come to completely revere her.” But it wasn’t until shooting wrapped on episode six that Paulson met Clark for the first time. “It was a very extraordinary experience,” Paulson said, “It was like meeting a childhood idol.”
Courtney B. Vance is another actor who should win all the gold statues come awards season. His portrayal of charismatic defense attorney Johnnie Cochran is so brilliant I forgot entirely about the real Cochran.
“Johnnie Cochran is iconic,” Vance recently told TV critics at the TCA Winter Press Tour in Pasadena. “I didn’t trap myself in the image of the iconic figure of him. I tried to do whatever research I could and then tried to get out of the way so the audience could get involved in the story.”
Perhaps the biggest name in the cast is John Travolta, marking his first return to television since starring in Welcome Back, Kotter over 40 years ago. Travolta plays lead defense attorney Robert Shapiro – and he’s the one that has the critics the most divided. With his mega-eyebrows, clenched-jaw and stiff mannerisms, some say Travolta is distracting as the savvy Shapiro, but I found his performance mesmerizing—every time he was on-screen, I couldn’t look away.
Travolta told Bio that he based his portrayal of Shapiro on his powerful image: “Robert Shapiro is a type of man that other people are familiar with. He’s not just a lawyer-type, he’s a studio-head type, he’s a producer-type, an editor–type,” Travolta said, adding, “[playing] someone behaving like this was an interesting adventure.”
The star-studded ensemble includes familiar faces at every turn: A brash Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey and a barely unrecognizable Evan Handler as Alan Dershowitz both nail their roles as part of Simpson’s “Dream Team,” while Sterling K. Brown plays prosecutor Christopher Darden. Robert Morse appears as writer Dominick Dunne; Connie Britton is a breezy, dazed Faye Resnick; Selma Blair plays Robert Kardashian’s wife Kris Jenner; Malcolm-Jamal Warner turns up as the Juice’s best bud and Bronco driver A.C. Cowlings; and America’s most infamous houseguest, Kato Kaelin, is played by Billy Magnussen.
As for the man at the center of it all, Cuba Gooding Jr. does a solid job as O.J. Simpson in a role that he says was one of the hardest things he’s ever done.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” Gooding Jr. told Bio of the intense role. “I wasn’t right mentally for a few months after [filming ended].”
“Some people will tune in as a guilty pleasure, and I believe, within 10 minutes, they’ll be tuning in for a very different reason,” Schwimmer told Bio when we chatted with him. He revealed that he spoke at length with Kris Jenner to get some insight into her late husband, who, ironically, despite not being a fame-seeker, is the father of THE Kardashians, Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob. “Robert Kardashian became an inadvertent celebrity. It was something he never sought. He was a very humble, private, religious man,” Schwimmer said.
Of Kardashian’s loyalty to “Uncle Juice,” even as he faced a crisis of faith over Simpson’s guilt or innocence, Schwimmer said, “Robert is the one person who has nothing to gain in all this and I was really moved by that. That’s why I wanted to play him.”
For Paulson, she hopes the miniseries reveals a side of Marcia Clark that might be new to viewers. While the public viewed her as a “bitch” and she became a tabloid target, Clark was also a struggling single mother going through an ugly divorce and custody battle at the time, and faced sexism both in and out of the courtroom.
“For a person who’s basically trying to do her job and find justice for two people who have been murdered, it was a hard thing to be dealing with criticism and harsh comments on your hair, clothes, and lack of make-up—things that had nothing to do with the case itself,” Paulson said.
“People blame her and the rest of the prosecution for losing the case,” Paulson continued, “but Marcia and Chris were really fighting the case in the court of public opinion. In that climate, post-Rodney King, and with O.J.’s fame, and some of the bungling by the police department, I don’t know that it would have been a winnable case at any time.”
The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premieres, Tuesday, February 2, 10/9c on FX.