Cuba Gooding Jr. on Playing O.J. Simpson: ‘Not My Job’ to Say if He Was Guilty

The cast and creative team of FX’s People v. O.J. Simpson talk re-creating the Trial of the Century, Simpson’s guilt, and the trial’s surprising cultural relevance today.

12.08.15 10:26 PM ET

O.J. Simpson is about to cause a media circus.

Sound familiar? 

It’s been two decades since the former football and film star led a low-speed chase in a white Ford Bronco, captivating an estimated 100 million people who all glued themselves to their TV screens to watch it unfold—and then continued to be transfixed in record numbers during Simpson’s trial for the double homicide of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, the so-called “Trial of the Century” that ended in a not-guilty verdict with a cultural impact that reverberates today. 

Perhaps not 100 million, but blockbuster numbers are expected to be similarly glued to the screen in February for the premiere of FX’s buzzy new miniseries American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, Ryan Murphy’s (Glee, Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story) retelling of the sensationalized events of 20 years ago based on the book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin.

Still two months from the series’ premiere, the entire cast and creative team gathered in New York on Tuesday for a lunch to promote the show in front of journalists and industry professionals, who had just screened the first two episodes: Murphy; Cuba Gooding Jr., (who plays Simpson); Sarah Paulson, (district attorney Marcia Clark); John Travolta (defense attorney Robert Shapiro); and David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian). 

Courtney B. Vance plays the gregarious Johnnie Cochran. When he was introduced, he gamely mimed Cochran’s “If the gloves don’t fit…” gesture with his left hand.

Reviews and reactions from the first two episodes are embargoed until next week, so we’ll let John Solberg, FX’s executive vice president of communications, who spoke at the lunch, give an on-the-record assessment: “This is arguably the best thing we’ve ever done,” he said.

“What’s amazing about this series is how incredibly relevant it feels today,” Toobin said. He remarked on the high/low balance of tone audiences should expect. “You want stories that are about something important, but have humor in them as well. That’s what O.J. was. And that’s what this series is.”

To that regard, “Connie Britton as Faye Resnick is worth the price of admission itself,” Toobin said. But there’s weight and astonishing resonance to the story in today’s world, too: “It’s about domestic violence, it’s about what the media does to people, and it’s about race in our society.”

But will it come down one way or another on the big question: Did he do it? 

After the lunch we tracked down Gooding, who will likely spark a media frenzy of his own with his performance, to ask that very question about the character he portrays. 

“It’s my job to divorce myself from that,” he told The Daily Beast. 

“If I think you are one thing and I’m playing you with that in the back of my mind, I’m missing all the other things you could be,” he said. 

Two weeks prior to receiving a call about American Crime Story, Gooding said he received an offer to play Simpson in a different indie movie but declined. When the series came up, however, he said he signed on because he knew the story would be in responsible hands with Ryan Murphy.

While shooting, Murphy had him do takes playing Simpson as both guilty and innocent. “He says to you, ‘On this take, I want you to play it this way,” Gooding said. “That way might be showing O.J.’s guilt, or it might be portraying the frustration of his innocence. I have to be true to what he’s asking me to do. So I can’t let myself be too convinced in one frame of mind or one way of thinking.”

With each bit of research and even each new script he’d receive, Gooding said that he would “go back and forth” on what he thought about Simpson and his guilt. But he didn’t play Simpson with any angle as to whether the former NFL star was guilty or innocent. He would do different takes playing Simpson as each, and then left it up for Murphy to craft the angle in the editing room.

“This show isn’t saying O.J. did it, he didn’t do it,” he said. “We’re not about the verdict. We heard the verdict. They found him not guilty. But if you watch all these episodes I truly believe everyone will say, ‘Of course they found him not guilty.’ That’s what the focus is: to show you the absurdity of the life events surrounding that trial.”

While Gooding says he doesn’t plan to share publicly what he thought about Simpson and the trial’s verdict at the time 20 years ago, he does unintentionally slip up a bit when telling a story about the day of shooting that had the most profound effect on him, at least in terms of ever-changing opinion of the trial’s outcome. 

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It was the day he shot a scene depicting Nicole Brown Simpson’s funeral, in which O.J. kisses her corpse.

“I broke for lunch and wept in the trailer,” he said. “I looked at myself in the mirror and went, ‘What the hell are you doing? Why are you so emotional?’”

The reason, he said, was because he suddenly felt guilt.

“Because when that verdict came out not guilty, I jumped up. I was yelling and screaming,” he said, betraying slightly his pledge not to reveal his feelings on the original verdict. “The man who tried to do another black man wrong, and I never grieved for those two families and their loss. It all hit me that day with that scene, the Goldmans, the Brownstheir children are gone. If you believed he did it or not, that was something that I personally didn’t care about. I felt guilty about that.”

As for what else to expect from the series, we got some scoop last month from Sarah Paulson, who shot many of her scenes as Marcia Clark while simultaneously filming the current season of American Horror Story: Hotel

Recounting the brutal schedule of wrapping Horror Story at 1 a.m. and furiously scrubbing off her drug-addled character Sally’s track marks in order to put on Marcia’s wig by 8 a.m. the next morning on the Crime Story set, she teased that the latter season “is not an extended episode of Law & Order.”

Instead, “it’s about the lawyers and the people and what their particular trials were like out of the courtroom.”

She met with Clark before filming, and exhausted herself with research into the role and the events of 20 years ago. 

Because of that, “I feel so much empathy for what she went through,” she said. “We’re talking about a woman who’s a civil servant, who was thrust on a national stage and was expected to weather all that with grace and aplomb. It’s just not possible to do.”

“She just didn’t have that flashy Johnnie Cochran drama in the courtroom,” she went on. “She was just the mother of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, going through a terrible divorce, who was a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles, trying to put bad people away. Then all of a sudden she’s being criticized for the length of her skirts, the style of her hair, how tired she was, the color of her lipstick. It was really rough from a female perspective to be judged and ridiculed that way.”

Both Paulson and Gooding—and everyone involved in the project who have spoken about it thus far—were also insistent on another crucial thing: the surprising relevance that the trial, its ensuing frenzy, and the culture wars and debates that it caused still has today. That, they say, will be a very big part of American Crime Story.

“Wait until you see episodes five, seven, and nine,” Gooding said. “When I shot those episodes I was like, I don't know if people are ready for this…There were aspects of this moved me to my core. Hate, anger, frustration, grief. It was just so upsetting.”

With events in Ferguson, in Chicago, and, depressingly, too many other cities to list, People v. O.J. Simpson is still timely, 20 years later. 

“I think we as a people we’re frustrated, we’re scared, we’re told not to be fearful today,” Gooding said. “And yet something’s gotta give. We as entertainers can only say, ‘Let us project your fears and frustration.’”

Of that, in the very least, he’s guilty.