'People v. O.J. Simpson's' Cuba Gooding Jr. on Polarizing Verdict and Why the Trial Still Resonates

"The verdict had a lot to do in representing the state of race relations in 1994-95 and looking back on that verdict today, we still have similar feelings," the actor tells THR as he looks back on the FX mini as a whole.
Courtesy of Prashant Gupta/FX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from The People v. O.J. Simpson finale, "The Verdict."]

Over the past nine episodes of FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, much of the focus has been on the legal teams, the judicial system and the jurors who were tasked with deciding the fate of the Hall of Fame football star. During Tuesday’s finale, that all changed when the focus returned to Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) himself.

“O.J. got what he thought was a victory, but [we wanted to] illustrate that his life was going to be ruined; he could never go back to being the guy he once was,” series co-writer Larry Karaszewski told The Hollywood Reporter. “This was a bit of a tragedy for everyone, even people who thought they were the victors at the time. The only person who could possibly make a claim for any kind of real victory was Johnnie Cochran, who used O.J. as this imperfect vessel to get a bigger message out about police and the African-American community.”

Sure enough, as Simpson attempted to return to his regular life in the final episode, it was clear between the protestors, lack of friends and the fact that his own children weren’t allowed to welcome him home that his life would forever be changed.

To break down those scenes and revisit the entire 10-episode run, THR caught up with Gooding to dissect the finale.

Has your perspective of the trial changed at all through this process?

Every day. With every script, every day of research that I did. There were things that I specifically thought I knew were facts that weren’t; there were certain facts that I thought were rumors that were confirmed. It was one of these journeys that you go down with preconceived notions and as you get into the minutia that was not only the trial but the events of his life and his relationships with certain people and his behavior and the behavior of the lawyers and the things that were admissible as evidence and inadmissible and the relationship the judge had to certain members … it was really everything. It always was something else that I would hear that would truly blow me away.

What kind of feedback have you been getting for the role?

The fact that I lived in the Brentwood area where the crimes took place, I would go to restaurants and certain establishments and people would just tell me their personal encounters with O.J., encounters with Ron Goldman or Nicole Brown. It’s a theme of my life that has continued since the onset of this project, where people now come up to me and they either tell me their opinions of the show or their personal interactions with O.J. back in the day. Certain things that they saw and experienced. One that blew me away was a personal conversation with a director who was driving and saw the police and the commotion out in front of the condo. He was picking his kids up from school and saw what appeared to be a body in a black gown with a leg sticking out and people marking the area off. He asked his kids to look the other way. Little things like that really shocked me to my core as I walked through this journey.

Did any of the facts that you came across particularly shock your or stand out?

A lot of stuff. We shot this thing over six or seven months and there were 10 scripts that came down the pike. I remember shooting the scene where he was writing a suicide note, and I was getting into character and pacing the room, and I asked them to just bring me the real note so that I could take a look at it. I said, “No, no this one isn’t it, this one has a happy face on it.” But he did, he drew the happy face. Little things like that kind of suggest the psychosis that he was in during that time and really affected me.

You didn’t reach out to O.J., but have you heard any reactions from him or other players in the original case?

No, not personally. There’s been no direct contact or requests to me personally from them.

A lot of the series has been about people reacting to O.J. and the trial, but there were a lot of weighted scenes in the finale with you. How did you prepare for that?

The way you might have felt given my performance in that 10th episode was the culmination of me; I’m assuming the accumulated effect of the performance through the previous nine episodes. The culmination of that performance might have given you a visceral, emotional response to my performance. That was the mindset I had to be in the entire six months. There was no additional preparation for that episode, it was just another day’s journey going down that dark path. The request of me from [executive producer and director] Ryan Murphy on that particular day shooting those scenes had resulted in what he needed to relay the intent of what my character was feeling and expressing. But there was no additional, "OK, here we go with this emotional moment." That was just that journey. It’s almost like asking somebody after they finish laughing, “You know that second chuckle, what was that second chuckle motivation?” No. Through 45 seconds of laughing you can’t explain each particular chuckle.

What about in the final scene with the statue. What sense were you hoping to leave viewers with?

It took me a while to finally step out of that darkness. I remember the A.D. walking me across the lawn and up to that statue and Ryan saying, “OK, it’s going to be on a crane and there will be close-ups so we’re going to get you as soon as you exit the house.” I remember exiting that house and thinking back on O.J.’s fate, the tapes and the videos and how his posture was, and I focused on that. Him looking around the backyard and seeing the pool and finally as he approached the statue and beyond that to the courts and maybe placed some memories, wondering if he thought of the last time he played tennis there — if it was a happy time and how in contrast it was to what he was feeling now. That’s what acting is, asking questions and then living up to the face; what he must have thought.

Do you think he was expecting the reaction he got when that not guilty verdict was handed down?

I think he was handed the tip that the jurors were going to come in with a not guilty. ... That’s why when I saw it years ago, I remember thinking it was more of a relief as opposed to a thank you. I wanted to make sure I remembered his reaction as close as I could with my performance.

Looking back, do you think the verdict had any lasting effect on the issues of race the trial presented?

At the time, that verdict polarized many people, people on certain sides of the joy at hearing it and the angst at hearing it. Those feelings were racially motivated, and having been 20 years removed now and going through the recent events of police corruption and whatnot, the dissection of that time period — not just the Simpson trial but the Rodney King beating and certain governmental actions back in the day that are still present in our society today that cause people to want to know more about that time period. Last summer, we had Straight Outta Compton and people were shocked that it made so much money in the box office. But I believe people were touched again at all these issues of race relations in Los Angeles during that time period. The verdict had a lot to do in representing the state of race relations in 1994-95 and looking back on that verdict today, we still have similar feelings. But in addition to those feelings we have a lot more information about society and society’s behavior.

What did you think of the finale? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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