'The People v O.J. Simpson' Star Weighs In on "Damage" Mark Fuhrman Tapes Had on Trial

"He had the weight of the world on his shoulders,” actor Kenneth Choi talks to THR about Judge Lance Ito's controversial decisions and surprising emotional state during the trial.
Prashant Gupta/FX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the ninth episode of The People v O.J. Simpson, "Manna From Heaven."]

As anyone who followed the O.J. Simpson case at the time knows, there was a surprising number of twists and turns throughout the entire ordeal. But none sparked the type of public outcry as Judge Lance Ito’s decision to allow damaging tapes of Mark Fuhrman be heard by the court — and therefore the world — even if the jury itself was only allowed to hear two lines.

Those tapes became the subject of Tuesday’s penultimate episode of The People v O.J. Simpson. In it, Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and the rest of the defense fought to have Fuhrman’s (Steven Pasquale) tapes played for the jury, while Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) accused Ito (Kenneth Choi) of turning the entire trial into a circus, nearly landing themselves in contempt.

Adding to the melee was the revelation that Fuhrman had a past run-in with Ito’s wife, nearly causing a mistrial that would have swayed the entire course of history.

To break it all down The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Choi, who discusses Ito’s surprising emotional state, preparing for those tense scenes and how these decisions potentially affected the outcome of the trial.

What did you do to prepare for the role?

I started with Jeffrey Toobin's book, that was my bible. Ito was one of the only major players who hadn't written a book about the trial so I pored over the Internet to find any information about him. I watched hours and hours and hours of trial footage. You can pretty much watch the entire trial online so I went through a lot of footage and then videotaped a lot of the bits with Ito so I had about 30 continuous minutes of just Ito so I could observe him on the bench. I also reached out to him in hopes of meeting with him. Apparently, there was a suggestion that came from [executive producer] Ryan Murphy about actors not contacting our respective counterparts, but I didn't get that memo which turned out fine anyway because Ito politely declined.

How did your impression of Ito change throughout filming the show?

I had always thought of Ito as being very professional and very stoic, emotionless, almost robot-like with his speech and demeanor. My impression of him actually changed during my research. Watching so much footage of him, I felt a sense of an actual personality coming through him. He had a very good sense of humor and at times a sardonic wit. Then I came across the footage where Ito talks about his wife, Peggy, which I had never seen. This moment is in episode nine. You can actually hear him choking back tears on the bench in front of everybody. I was surprised.

Do you personally question some of the decisions he made throughout the trial?

Throughout the trial, there was a lot of criticism of Ito and a lot of the decisions he made. As an actor, I have to do the opposite. I can't criticize or be judgmental of the person I'm playing. I have to do my best to understand him and what he does. I personally think he had the weight of the world on his shoulders as this sort of ringmaster in this circus played out on such a huge scale. Could that have affected some of his decisions? Absolutely. But, he has always been regarded a very good, very smart, very fair judge, and I think he did the best that he could.

Can you break down the significance of the hourglass as he’s coming to a decision in that one scene?

Ito turning the hourglass over represented a second chance. He was so close to having to recuse himself which could have resulted in a mistrial. Our incredible director, Anthony Hemingway, wanted to dramatize that realization from Ito of having a second shot, and he brilliantly linked it to the hourglasses which Ito was famous for having on his bench.

Can you also break down what it was like filming the scene in the courtroom when he threatens to hold Marcia and Chris in contempt?

These kinds of scenes are always intriguing to me as an actor. You have people squabbling with each other, there's a lot of conflict, and you have to really get in the headspace, which means you have to actually generate these feelings and emotions from what's happening in the scene. Sometimes that can be challenging for a number of reasons. But when you're acting opposite Sarah Paulson, or Sterling Brown, or Courtney Vance, half your job is done. As long as you've done your work and know your lines, all you have to do is strap in and listen and watch and react because they are coming at you with everything. So it becomes uncomfortable and exhilarating at the same time.

What do you think it was like for Ito to deal with such contrasting personalities as Marcia and Johnnie?

I don't think their contrasting personalities would have affected him one way or the other. He was very good at his job, a total professional. As a judge, you face any number of different lawyers all with different personalities, it's par for the course. That being said, I am sure they all grew tired of seeing each other for such an extended period of time. 

Ultimately how do you think the decision to release the tapes to the public but not the jury affected the outcome of the trial?

I don't know that it affected the outcome. The jury heard the two snippets from the tapes, and I think that was enough. The damage was done.

There have been a lot of reveals during this series about things that happened behind closed doors. Has anything in particular surprised or shocked you?

When I read that Ito, both legal teams, the entire jury, and O.J. visited Bundy and Rockingham, I couldn't believe it.

Looking back, what do you think Ito’s motives for wanting this case were? Did he really mug for cameras and love celebrity?

I couldn't tell you what Ito was thinking in regards to getting/wanting this case. Same with the celebrity. Toobin hinted at these things in his book, but that's conjecture. Only Lance Ito knows what Lance Ito was thinking.

Was his decision to televise the trial really “one of the worst moves in American judicial history,” as some have said?

I think it had some adverse effect, absolutely. It allowed for anybody to automatically have an "educated" opinion on the case because they were able to watch the whole damn thing including every media outlet which then caused the circus.

The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story wraps next week on Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.

What did you think of the episode, Lance’s decisions and the Fuhrman tapes? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling