'People v. O.J. Simpson's' Courtney B. Vance Breaks Down Dream Team's "Clashing" Egos

Vance talks with THR about how he captured Johnnie Cochran's "spirit" for the series despite not watching footage of the famed lawyer.
 Courtesy of FX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the fourth episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, "100% Not Guilty."]

As The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story plunges ahead into the middle of the season, viewers may begin to find that this is a story less about O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) than it is about those surrounding him in his fight to prove his innocence. In Tuesday's hour, that narrative began when Dream Team founder Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) slowly began to unravel and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) stepped up to the plate with O.J., the media and the like.

It was yet another turning point in the “trial of the century,” but one that was filmed with lightning speed thanks to quick TV production schedules and an abundance of material. For Vance, that left little time to study tapes of the case and forced him to rely on capturing “the spirit” of Cochran instead, especially for some of the upcoming integral scenes between himself, Travolta, Gooding Jr., and Sterling K. Brown.   

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Vance to break down exactly what went into crafting such a historic figure, his memories of watching the real-life verdict with then co-star Tony Goldwyn (Scandal), and the overall circumstances that led to O.J.’s eventual verdict.

What do you make of the relationship between Johnnie Cochran and Bob Shapiro?

They’re both alpha dogs. Bob Shapiro set it all in motion. He put that article in The New Yorker, and he sat down with Jeffrey Toobin and introduced the race card and the LAPD planting evidence and all that and then he brought Cochran on. But then he wanted to remain in control as he brought all these wonderful people together. The only thing about doing that is you have to make yourself lesser so that the people you brought on can do what you brought them on to do. It was an accident waiting to happen. And it kept happening until O.J. was able to reluctantly tell Shapiro to step aside and let Johnnie get in front. But then Shapiro kept going out to the media. It was two egos clashing.

Can you break down the emotional scene between yourself and Cuba Gooding Jr. when Cochran visits O.J. in jail?

That scene was huge. Anthony Hemingway, the director, recognized that it was coming up and he let me know two or three days before. I just had to be super, super prepared for it. In our project we were doing three episodes at the same time so you had to look ahead to see what big scenes to prep for as well as the little scenes in between. We had to work quickly. With this one I wanted to catch the spirit of Cochran. I knew it was going to go fast and I wasn’t going to have time to watch tapes to make sure I was saying things with the right affliction and the right tone. We didn’t have time for all that. You have to just jump and do it and be it, and that scene was huge in that I was driving it and I got in there and I just started from the first rehearsal on and I was ready. It was an amazing experience. But the end of it, it was like we had run a marathon. Everyone knew we had something there. We knew it.

Cochran’s speeches were very much like sermons. Did you do anything in particular to nail those?

It was the sheer volume of all it more so than the style of it. I didn’t have a chance to sit back and go, “So, that’s how that was crafted.” I had to get it down and get in there and recognize what the scene was as I was doing it and how it manifested physically. There’s a scene in the courtroom where I end up doing a lot of pointing back and forth and Jeffrey Toobin took me aside and said, “Courtney, physically the way you did that scene, that’s exactly the way Johnnie did that scene in the courtroom. That’s exactly what his physical gestures were.” I didn’t watch any tapes, I didn’t know that, so that’s why I needed to catch the spirit of him and I knew that everything else I did would flow the right way. There were certain scenes we had to match physically — the glove scene and the verdict when it was read, we had to capture that. But there was a lot of freedom given to us to interpret the characters as we saw fit.

What do you personally think Cochran’s motivations in taking this case were?

As we said in our piece, he didn’t want to do it; it was a case he didn’t want to lose. But his wife said, “They don’t have you. If you were in there, he may not lose.” So he had to really think about it. As she said, “Do you want to be on the sidelines if and when someone does take it and wins?” So that’s when he got in it. He was a fighter, he was a winner. He’d represented big name clients, Michael Jackson and the like. He knew what the landscape was like and what he was up against. But he knew at the same time that the LAPD was compromised. They were hanging out with O.J., hanging out at his place playing poker with him. So he knew he had them. It was something that he knew how to work. Then you add the media on top of that? He was in his element. Marcia Clark was not in her element in the media glare, with the divorce going on and all that she was trying to deal with, with her personal look and all that. The jury consultant told her early on that it would be about her and her look. She was unused to dealing with that. TV was a whole other thing and she was not prepared for this whole new landscape.  

What kind of tone did executive producer and director Ryan Murphy set for this?

He’s got a lot of different projects so he couldn’t be there day-to-day. But he set the tone for the whole project with the first two episodes, which were the most intense episodes we shot because there were so many setups, so many scenes. Usually there are 75-80 scenes in an episode and there were 150 in that first episode. Everyone was taxed to the max. If you just looked at the fact that this was the trial of the century, just that, brings about scrutiny.

The intro of Rodney King threw us into the mindset of people with the trial and how everyone was so sensitive. The police couldn’t just go shoot him because they didn’t want a riot happening. That was such a part of the mindset of the police, of the prosecution — the kid gloves with which they dealt with O.J. They were skittish. The prosecution thought they had control over it and all of a sudden it was out of their hands. It was in the media, the witnesses were doing interviews, it was a nuthouse. This was nascent reality TV. The prosecution said, “We don’t do interviews, period. We’re not the defense.” The defense was like, “No, we’re using this medium.” Today if it had been done everyone would be using the media to the max. Back then they were old school.

What are your memories of that time?

For the Bronco chase, I was in Sacramento and we were all in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at watching the NBA Finals and the game was preempted by the chase. I was in shock; it was my hero out there with a gun supposedly in the car. It was frightening. And then I didn’t follow the trial, it was too much for me. For the verdict, I was in Toronto shooting The Boys Next Door with Nathan Lane and Tony Goldwyn and Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Jeter. Tony and I were watching the verdict and we got food and were all excited… but we hadn’t talked about what if it went one way or the other. We were just two guys glad to be working. We had worked in Boston together so we were old friends and went running together and stuff. And when the verdict came down I screamed, “Yes!” and he screamed, “No!” and then we looked at each other in horror. And we began the dialogue – the entire country began the dialogue. Everybody went to their corners and it kept coming up again, the same issue. Ferguson, what went down in Chicago, shooting that teen 16 times. It’s crazy. Absolutely crazy.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

What are your thoughts on Shapiro’s meltdown and Cochran taking over the case? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

comments powered by Disqus