'American Crime Story' Producer on John Travolta's TV Return; Cuba Gooding Jr. Talks O.J. Simpson Prep
The 10-episode event series, which among other things explores the role that race played in the murder case against the former NFL star, is "a 10-hour trailer for 'Black Lives Matter'," consultant Jeffrey Toobin said at a New York dinner celebrating the show.
Cuba Gooding Jr. knows he doesn't look exactly like O.J. Simpson, but the Oscar-winning actor wasn't focused on physically mimicking the accused murderer for his role in FX's upcoming event series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
"I'm not a stand-up comedian who does impersonations, so for me to just do O.J. Simpson's mannerisms [based on] what we saw — get a guy that does O.J. Simpson impersonations," Gooding told The Hollywood Reporter at a dinner in New York on Monday night to celebrate the series. Instead, Gooding said he was trying to represent "the emotional core to the truth that surrounds that trial."
"There are certain mannerisms that I want to represent that I feel are him, but at some point either you think I look like him or not," he added. "I looked at footage of him in that time period, got an essence of that, but I wanted to know about the people who talked to him, I wanted to know about the people he interacted with, I wanted to know what he thought about certain things in this life and then I formed an emotional core."
Producer Nina Jacobson said it's this close look at the people involved in the case that the series provides that allows what seems like a familiar tale to still feel suspenseful.
"I think as much as we remember a lot about the case or we think we do, we never really got to know the people, and once you start to feel like you know them and you get connected to the humanity of their experiences, it becomes very suspenseful," Jacobson told THR at Manhattan's Monkey Bar restaurant. "You start to see what a pressure cooker they were in and how tense it was for each of the players. Honestly, I don't think anybody knew what was going on inside the Bronco. We were having our experience of watching it from helicopter footage and on the news, and it was so widely consumed as a news story, but I don't think we really knew the details or we didn't have emotional access to the people back then or the perspective of history, and with both of those things 20 years later, I think it feels very different."
Jacobson and Gooding were just some of the people behind the upcoming series who gathered with members of the media and entertainment industry for an intimate dinner following the screening of the series' first two episodes in New York. Also on hand were stars John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson and David Schwimmer as well as executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Simpson, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf and consultant Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote the book on which the series is based.
The 10-episode event series — which is intended to be the first installment in an anthology like Murphy's American Horror Story, taking on a different real-life crime story each season — explores the O.J. Simpson trial from the perspective of the lawyers, including behind-the-scenes maneuvering, designed to show how a combination of prosecution overconfidence, defense shrewdness and the LAPD's history with the African-American community gave the jury what it needed to acquit: reasonable doubt.
The show also marks Travolta's first TV role since Welcome Back, Kotter.
Brad Simpson confessed before the dinner that he "did not ever believe [Travolta] was going to do this TV show when Nina and I met with him." And indeed, as Jacobson explains it, Brad Simpson thought they "were on a fool's errand and that he would never do it," but the longtime film producer, who's making her first foray into TV with American Crime Story, felt she could convince her friend.
"John and I have known each other forever, because we worked together when I was at Disney. We made Wild Hogs together and we made Ladder 49 together. We've been friendly and had a really nice professional relationship for a long time, so he was our dream choice," Jacobson explained, adding that despite this Travolta didn't immediately say yes to the role he would ultimately take on, as Simpson's defense attorney Robert Shapiro.
"I think he was intrigued but uncertain and it took him a long time to decide. He really deliberated. He asked people he trusted for advice," Jacobson said. "Once I introduced him to Ryan, they hit it off … once they connected I think John saw that he would be in very good hands and he trusted me. And the material that [screenwriters] Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski wrote was really compelling, and John found a great way in to the character. But it did take him a really long time to deliberate about whether to do it."
Toobin, for one, seemed pleased with Travolta's portrayal — and extremely happy about the series as a whole.
The CNN legal analyst called Travolta's performance "wonderful and hilarious," and could be heard during the screening laughing at a number of the funny lines Travolta's Shapiro delivers.
As for the series as a whole, Toobin began his remarks to the dinner crowd with an enthusiastic rhetorical question: "Is that great or what?"
He clarified that he didn't make the show but said he was "happy to accept your praise and accept your congratulations" and of the star-studded cast, "To see all of these people in action has been such a privilege for me."
Landgraf, meanwhile, indicated that the show is better than any other FX original series, listing acclaimed shows like Nip/Tuck, Damages, Justified, The Americans, Louie, American Horror Story and Fargo and saying, "None of them are more exceptional than the [show] most of you were able to begin watching tonight."
Among the many themes that the series highlights is the role race played in the case and Landgraf said he hoped the show would lead to greater understanding.
"It's my hope that the retelling of the O.J. trial with both the hindsight and insight that great storytelling can bring will help us do a better job of seeing the complexities of our criminal justice system whose ideal is portrayed as blind justice but in fact respond so differently to different victims and different defendants," Landgraf said, reading from prepared remarks. "It's been uniquely thrilling to watch [Murphy], with Nina and Brad's intrepid support, use his unparalleled ability to captivate and entertain as tools to take on the issues of race and gender that are woven deeply into the fabric of this piece."
On the race issue and the series' timeliness, despite being about events from 20 years ago, Toobin said, "This is a 10-hour trailer for 'Black Lives Matter.' This is 10 hours that tells you why America is, at least in part, the place that it is today. That's a pretty amazing accomplishment for a TV show and I'm privileged to have been a part of it."
As for future installments of American Crime Story, Jacobson wouldn't reveal the specific stories her team's considering but did say, "Our aspiration is to find watershed moments. Moments that have a before-and-after to them culturally, and this is one where certainly nothing was ever the same after this."
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson premieres on Feb. 2, 2016 at 10 p.m. on FX.