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For his first TV role in three decades on FX’s highly anticipated The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, John Travolta went all out.
“I decided to tackle it with a full-court press, if you will,” the Oscar-nominated actor told reporters Saturday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
In the 10-part anthology series exec produced by American Horror Story mastermind Ryan Murphy and The Hunger Games‘ Nina Jacobson, Travolta plays one of the many defense attorneys on Simpson’s “dream team.”
In the role of Shapiro, the actor undergoes a physical transformation that includes markedly different eyebrows as well as a notably different cadence than most are used to hearing from the veteran actor. Travolta says he “felt a duty to adhere” to how Shapiro really looked at the time of the very public trial.
“I actually couldn’t wait to look like that and perform in that voice because that’s part of the joy of acting,” he said. “I felt like I had to do enough of him because he is a famous character and he is one that we remember visually.”
In other aspects, Travolta said he was able to slide into Shapiro quite easily thanks to his previous times playing lawyers. “Over the last 40 years, I’ve had quite a bit of dealings with lawyers,” Travolta said, eliciting laughter from the Pasadena ballroom. “It felt like the back of my hand.”
Additionally, Travolta read his real-life counterpart’s books about the trial — a strategy many of the castmembers shared — as well as the Jeffrey Toobin book on which the drama series is based and a third book written in defense of Simpson. “I tried to take a middle ground,” Travolta said, adding that he also looked up vintage video from the trial. It was “a mix of all that and then building a character which is always the fun part of acting in lawyers that evolved and by the time of shooting, I was ready to go.”
Travolta suggested the experience of American Crime Story was “very different” compared to his breakout role on the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter. “Its like comparing apples with oranges,” he said. “My whole memory of television didn’t really come back to me. It was more like working on a movie.” Asked later whether he’d do more television, he said he absolutely would if the project involved the same Crime Story producers.
Travolta also served as a producer on the series — at least partly because of his stature. “Other than some suggestions here and there, I never needed to assert that producer card because everybody was so excellent,” he said. “I was only doing it as an insurance method to assure that the product would be going not in a sensationalist way, but in a way that communicated something to an audience that was enlightening and at the end of it, they would understand why the verdict ended up the way it did.”
Joining Travolta on the series are actors like David Schwimmer, also in a rare return to TV, as well as small screen veterans such as Sarah Paulson, who has also starred on Murphy’s American Horror Story anthology series for the past five seasons. Paulson admitted she was terrified to play a real-life person instead of the crazy and fictional (and sometimes two-headed) characters she has played on American Horror Story.
“The most challenging part of it was just my own mental awareness that Marcia Clark walks the planet now,” Paulson said. “The responsibility of wanting to get it right. I had done so much research and watched some footage and read so many books… The idea that I was going to be representing her somehow was scary.”
Like Shapiro, Clark was also “a very iconic-looking person. The hair did a lot to identify that,” Paulson added. “I thought, ‘If I get this wrong, or my speech is weird or my hair is wrong,’ I knew I would be called out on it really quickly.”
Although there are so many who vividly remember watching Simpson’s car chase and the subsequent murder trial, there is also a huge population of Americans who either weren’t old enough to remember the events or hadn’t yet been born. Courtney B. Vance, who plays defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, said the anthology series is “for them,” too, adding: “I’m really excited to hear what they think.”
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premieres Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 10 p.m. on FX.
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