Emmys: Courtney B. Vance Hopes 'People v. O.J. Simpson' Is "an Opportunity for Us to Talk"

Emmys -Courtney B. Vance - People vs. O.J. Simpson - H 2016
Courtesy of Prashant Gupta/FX

Arriving two decades after the "Trial of the Century" and in the midst of a vital Black Lives Matter movement, FX’s limited series — in which Vance portrayed famed Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran — is "lightning in a bottle."

Audiences who thought they knew everything about O.J. Simpson and his trial for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman nevertheless found themselves transfixed when FX unspooled creator Ryan Murphy's limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. As charismatic and controversial defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, Courtney B. Vance had some of the heaviest lifting — a daunting challenge that he welcomed, he tells THR.

What were the first few days on set like with this impressive cast?

These were all very famous people [we were portraying], and we were all intimidated to varying degrees. Then you add to that the star power in the room. We were all a little nervous, and it happens in the beginning with anything, but because of the sheer amount of things that we had to do, it was good for us that we had to focus on a lot of verbiage. After the initial quick-cut scenes of the first two episodes, we hadn't gotten into the meat and potatoes of it. But in the third episode, it was on. It was like, OK, we got a three-page scene, we got a five-page scene, then we got a six-page scene. You had to really roll up your sleeves and get in it. Everyone knew when it was your day, and they'd kind of leave you alone because they knew you were getting yourself ready to get up there and do your thing.

Courtney B. Vance

What prepared you the most for playing Johnnie Cochran?

I think reading Jeffrey Toobin's book [The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson]. Jeffrey had his definite views about what O.J. did or not, and everybody I'm sure had their own opinions, but it mattered not to Johnnie. He was in defense mode, and his job was not to prove, it was just to poke holes — and that's what he did.

Did you have any idea The People v. O.J. Simpson would become this cultural phenomenon?

You never know. We knew what we had. We had become family very quickly, and everybody's birthday was celebrated with a cake in the middle of the shooting. We had contests. It just became fun. You just didn't want to leave even though we were dead-bone tired. We were family, and it showed on the screen.

How does the show reflect our lives right now, with the racial violence happening in the country?

I think there's so many positive and wonderful things about our technology and the advances that we've made, but 20, 30 years ago, my generation, we didn't have all the distractions. And our kids have grown up in this world. We can't slow down enough to catch up. The police [shoot two] black men, and then the next day, after Obama appeals for calm, a black man shoots the police. Now the potential conversation we could've had around the two black men that were killed has to be put on hold. It's madness.

Does this affect projects that you choose, knowing that you can impact people with your storytelling?

It doesn't happen often. It's lightning in a bottle, and when it happens, you can't do anything about it but just get on for the ride. You just have to let people enjoy, but at the same time, we know that there are larger issues involved in the telling of our story and hopefully, it's an opportunity for us to talk. That's all we can hope.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.