More than 20 years after some 107 million people watched a Los Angeles jury announce that it had found O. J. Simpson not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, are television viewers ready to see it all again?
From the discovery of the murder scene at Ms. Simpson’s Brentwood home; to the nationwide broadcast of Mr. Simpson’s slow-speed highway flight in a white Ford Bronco; to a monthslong criminal trial, meticulously chronicled and analyzed on TV, these vividly remembered, not-too-distant events are re-enacted in a 10-episode FX mini-series, “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which has its debut on Feb. 2.
This biographical drama (adapted from Jeffrey Toobin’s book “The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson”) features a high-wattage cast, including Cuba Gooding Jr. as Mr. Simpson; John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance as defense lawyers Robert L. Shapiro and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.; Sarah Paulson as the prosecutor Marcia Clark; and David Schwimmer as the Simpson confidant Robert Kardashian.
Perhaps the most surprising participant in this series, which is planned as an anthology, is Ryan Murphy, an executive producer and a director, who is better known for the feel-good pop of “Glee” or the gory melodrama of “American Horror Story.”
Still, Mr. Murphy and his collaborators (who include the producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson) say that the time is right to revisit the case, at a moment when the headlines bring daily dispatches of confrontations between white law enforcement officers and black civilians, and issues of race and police misconduct are as visible as ever.
“We had the opportunity to be part of a conversation that needed to be had,” Ms. Jacobson said. “While we were shooting, the drumbeat of that conversation just kept getting louder and louder and louder. We did feel a sense of purpose, to speak to a giant audience with a director who has an enormous following and access, and actors who have fans in every corner.”
In December, these members of the “American Crime Story” team gathered in New York for a conversation — sometimes lighthearted as they reflected on long months of collaboration; sometimes solemn as they contemplated the underlying subject matter — about the series and the questions it raises. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q. Ryan, this is a project that’s very different from the TV work you’re known for. What made you want to tell this story?
RYAN MURPHY I had finished shooting “The Normal Heart,” which was notoriously difficult to get made. As soon as it was finished, I went into a little bit of a funk. I called my agent, and I said, “Send me the best television scripts that you have that are not getting made.” Nina and Brad had this O. J. Simpson project, based on the Toobin book, and I read the first two scripts. I just thought they were riveting and brilliantly written. It wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be. It was a series about a violent incident that did not have violence in it. That was interesting to me and very smart.
BRAD SIMPSON The thing about Jeff’s book, it’s not about O. J.’s guilt or innocence. From this moment of the Bronco chase to the not-guilty verdict, Toobin had a real thesis, that the trial was about race from the very beginning.
Do you think there’s a potential for controversy because this series doesn’t take a position on Mr. Simpson’s guilt or innocence? Is there a risk in tying him to the civil-rights movement of the present day?
COURTNEY B. VANCE All that we can hope to do is to get people talking about it. Revisit it, to look at it. “Where were you when — ?” And what do you feel, in the context of what’s going on now? What do we do about it? That’s all I think we can hope to accomplish by revisiting this.
CUBA GOODING JR. “_____ tha Police,” remember that song? And remember how upset people were? They were like, “You’re going to have people go vigilante on cops.” I thought “Straight Outta Compton” was really a powerful tale, because it finally put into a movie why that song was so important. What that song did is it give an outlet to the frustrations we feel at police brutality. So instead of us going out and shooting cops in the street, you got to listen to that song, chant with that song. And then you were over it and you moved on with your day. That’s what we all want to do as actors and filmmakers. Give people something that happened, and let them dissect it.
What are your memories of how the events of the Simpson case intersected with your own lives?
GOODING Sitting in my living room, watching the game, and that Bronco image shows up in the corner of the screen. You see this Bronco sitting in Brentwood, and I’m just waiting for the [makes gunshot noise], and for them to drag his body out of there. I’ll never forget that feeling. I thought, here’s this guy who’s one of the most celebrated athletes and entertainers, and he’s about to kill himself.
JOHN TRAVOLTA My father was a football player, so he was obsessed with this case. Most of my updates were through Dad. I was celebrating the “Pulp Fiction” success from the Cannes Film Festival. I was on this high of having a new career, I hoped, and then feeling this tragedy. The dichotomy was really wild.
VANCE I was shooting “Panther” in Sacramento. I grew up with the Juice, watching him. I’m a football fanatic. I didn’t want it to be true. I kind of tuned it out, while praying that it would turn out for the best. It was too much for me.
SARAH PAULSON I remember the moment with the glove, and what seemed to me, the very curious positioning of his hands and the way it was being done.
DAVID SCHWIMMER I was living in Los Angeles, and I remember watching the chase on television. In L.A., they were starting to interrupt programs to show high-speed chases from a helicopter. But suddenly, this event had much more impact on me. I was really upset by the crowds cheering. There was something about this moment that felt like the birth of reality television, and I found that really distasteful. I thought, Oh, this is a new chapter for us as a country.
How did you assemble this cast? Were actors hesitant because of the subject matter?
MURPHY I think the very first person we cast was Sarah. It was like: “O.K., Paulson’s going to be Marcia. Let’s get to work.” [Laughter] I don’t even think I offered it to you.
PAULSON You called me and said, “You’re doing it.” [Laughter] “Just read it first.”
GOODING Weeks before my agents told me that Ryan had a project, they said, “You’ve been offered this film that they’re making about O. J. Simpson.” Some billionaire guy. And it was an obscene amount of money. I know guys like this — they’ll keep throwing money at whatever we make, and if it doesn’t make it into the movie theaters, it’ll just be swept under the rug. So, after that experience, my agents go, “You’ll never believe the conversation we just had. Ryan Murphy wants you to do O. J. Simpson.” My response to them was, I’ll do anything Ryan wants to do. But what the [expletive] is going on with O.J. Simpson? [Laughter]
TRAVOLTA When I knew it was between me and Faye Dunaway, I said, I want to win this role. [Laughter] It wasn’t an easy decision. How long did I take to tell you an answer? Four months? I was worried about the subject matter. I was worried it would be sensationalized. But I called probably four of the most powerful people in the industry, who will remain nameless. They all unanimously said I had to do this. It was not unlike my decision to do “Pulp Fiction.” I turned that down several times, because I was scared of the subject matter.
VANCE I’ve met Johnnie [Cochran], and I’ve met [Sylvia] Dale [Mason, his widow]. He was wonderful, and she’s an extraordinary lady. But I didn’t see myself as Johnnie at all, until I put that wig on. And then I said, Oh, my. You guys are smart.
SCHWIMMER I really had no idea who Robert was. Especially given what the Kardashian name means today. But really I thought this is an opportunity, given what’s been happening the last few years, to look back 20 years ago and see how starkly different the black experience and the white experience in America was.
Did anyone want to meet the real-life people they were playing?
NINA JACOBSON Initially we discouraged it. When you get to know a person, you feel an obligation to them. You know what their hopes and fears are for how they would be portrayed, and you have that in your head, that you owe it to them. And then they’re in there.
GOODING People ask me, did you go to prison to meet O. J.? No, I didn’t go meet him, because he’s a broken man, sitting in jail now, saying, “I’m innocent.” And I understand that — I have relatives in jail, and they’re in a desperate place. Even if they are guilty of certain things, they’ve convinced themselves that they’re the victim. So I don’t need that O. J. Simpson. I need the charismatic, good-looking athlete and movie star. That’s probably why I got cast. [Laughter] That’s the Simpson that I needed to give Ryan. Even though I know you want to know, because everybody comes to me: “What do you think? Do you think he did it?” But it’s none of your [expletive] business. Let me, as an actor, give him what he needs in the editing room. And then let’s talk.
Did you feel bound to recreate the courtroom scenes only as home viewers saw them? Could you take any artistic liberties?
TRAVOLTA I remember we were copiously going through the glove scene, because it was so specific — where we all were, and everybody’s reaction to him trying on the gloves.
GOODING We were in this [expletive] courtroom for six months. [Laughter] I was locked to that defense table.
TRAVOLTA You’d look over at Cuba, he was running out of this: [makes impassive O. J. Simpson face].
SIMPSON By the way, that’s what happened at the trial. These people were locked in this small courtroom. There were resentments; there were feuds; there were tears. It was a pressure cooker. Not that our set was exactly like that.
MURPHY There was craft service.
Are you hopeful that, in the two decades since the verdict was announced, viewers are willing to reconsider their perspectives on the case?
GOODING I started my career with “Boyz N the Hood,” and I remember when that movie opened, there were shootings in some theaters, and people were outraged. They were like, “How can you do this?” It really opened them up to what was going on in those inner-city communities that they didn’t realize. People could get shot for wearing certain colors. And as the 20 years moved on, not to say that violence is gone, but in those communities, they recognized how ignorant those acts of violence were. And they moved away from it. I want to hope there was real healing there.
TRAVOLTA And so much has evolved. When you see the rest of the shows, so much will be revealed that was not submitted in court. For instance, the totality of the [Mark] Fuhrman tapes [in which Mr. Fuhrman, a Los Angeles Police Department detective on the Simpson case, was heard using racial slurs].
VANCE Oh ho ho.
TRAVOLTA When you witness even the amount we were allowed to, you’ll be astonished.
Sarah, you’ve worked with Ryan on multiple seasons of “American Horror Story.” You’re O.K. that he can imagine you as a witch, conjoined twins and Marcia Clark?
MURPHY She is all those things. [Laughter]
PAULSON I’ll use a weird sports analogy, even though I’m not a sports aficionado. An actor can be an excellent actor, and be on the bench. If you don’t get to play on the field, nobody has any idea about what you can do. For whatever reason, Ryan continued to go, “I’m going to let you do this.” I just kept getting opportunities and chances from him. It gave me a different confidence, because I felt I had a big supporter who saw me in a way that I don’t think I even could see myself.
MURPHY I’m at a point in my career where I’m really just interested in cheerleading for people and projects I love. This was a project that I read it, like: This has to be made. These actors have to play these parts. And I want them to win.