Malcolm-Jamal Warner on ‘People vs. O.J. Simpson,’ the Bill Cosby Trap, And Complicated Legacies
How Malcom-Jamal Warner’s intense role on The People vs. O.J. Simpson is helping him to both embrace his Cosby Show past—and the legacy of its creator—and leave it behind.
It’s a weekend in May in Los Angeles and two miles of the 710 freeway are shut down—completely.
More than 200 extras, 170 crew members, dozens of prop cars, and a white Bronco are there, waiting to re-create the iconic June 1994 chase that glued nearly 100 million Americans to TV screens as NFL legend O.J. Simpson led a caravan of police officers in a race toward what would become the Trial of the Century.
When Malcolm-Jamal Warner stepped on set, he got chills. “To be on a show that has enough budget to shut down a leg of the freeway for the weekend? To be able to literally walk on the freeway? That’s cool,” he says. “That’s some real Ryan Murphy shit!”
That Ryan Murphy shit is The People vs. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story, Murphy’s FX event series restaging the bombshell trial through the prism of its cultural and racial aftershocks.
A sharper, more rounded look at the trial’s major players reintroduces the likes of Simpson (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.); attorneys Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown); Simpson’s defense team of Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance); and the man with maybe the most pivotal role in kicking the whole circus off: Al “A.C.” Cowlings, O.J.’s friend since childhood and the driver of the white Bronco, played by Warner.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence and the fact that we got them to agree was a miracle and we spent over a year [trying to get permission for] it,” Murphy told Entertainment Weekly, just hinting at the scale required to re-create the chase.
In fact, four accidents reportedly occurred on the opposite side of the freeway, with drivers distracted by the déjà vu spectacle of a white Bronco speeding down a Los Angeles highway with a swarm of patrol cars in hot pursuit.
“Surreal is definitely the word I’ve been using,” Warner says of the shoot.
The interactions between Cowlings and Simpson, who spent much of the car chase in the backseat of the Bronco with a gun to his head contemplating suicide, were pieced together using audio recordings of cell phone conversations that were actually placed from the Bronco.
In the scene, Cowlings is in hysterics: panicked that he’s leading a police chase, scared that his friend is about to kill himself, and nervous about what might become of him. He’s yelling at everyone—sweating, screaming, and stressing, on the brink of his own breakdown.
“Knowing the production that went into it. The fact that we had to do it so many times. The frustration of being in that truck for two fucking days. The drain of having to keep that emotionality up for so long. All of that went into that scene,” Warner says.
“What’s cool for me is that people see the show and are like, ‘Oh man, it’s so intense. To see that side of you is really cool,’” he goes on. “It’s great because as long as I’ve been in this business, as long as I’ve been in television, it’s rare that I get to show that kind of side. So the fact that people get to see that side exists and see it on such a large scale, I hope that can change some people’s minds about how they see me.”
Malcolm-Jamal Warner knew he had to talk about Bill Cosby. And he does: graciously, thoughtfully, and provocatively.
He is here to promote his role in The People vs. O.J. Simpson—and he deserves to, for accomplishing that thing that pop culture has said is impossible: pulling off a performance so unexpected that it allows those who view an actor as a single character to see him in a different light.
That character—son Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show, whom Warner played for eight years—has followed Warner like a shadow in the 26 years since the groundbreaking sitcom went off air. It’s also, arguably, been his handicap: a wholesome time capsule of a performance precluding Hollywood from appreciating the full breadth of his now matured talents.
Being on The Cosby Show is something that Warner has, in the years since, been outwardly proud of. But lately, too, it’s been a bit of a pain in the neck.
Bill Cosby has been accused of alleged sexual assault by at least 50 women and is facing criminal charges in one of those cases for which the statute of limitation has not yet expired. The legal back-and-forth and headline-making developments are, at this point, dizzying.
With the scandalous fall from grace of one of pop culture’s biggest heroes dominating the conversation—in a coincidence, much the way O.J. Simpson’s did—Cosby’s former cast members are finding themselves routinely grilled about their former co-star.
“It’s been frustrating,” Warner admits, referring to the countless times one throwaway quote about Cosby at the end of an unrelated interview ends up used as a traffic-baiting headline of the piece.
“When my record, my CD, came out a couple of months ago there were outlets that wouldn’t even cover me unless I agreed to answer some Cosby questions,” he says. “When you’re an independent artist you need as much play or promotion as you can get. So you agree to do that and then it comes out and it’s mostly about Cosby and not the music. So, yeah, it can be frustrating.”
Then the most self-aware, if even a little depressing, assessment: “But I have accepted that even when Mr. Cosby is long gone I will still get asked about him.”
In the past, Warner has criticized the media for turning the scandal into a circus and for mischaracterizing some of the allegations. He has also talked about The Cosby Show being pulled off the air in the wake of the allegations against Cosby, and said that the move has tarnished the legacy of a show that had a profound effect on history.
Of course, those comments have proven controversial themselves.
But it’s that latter bit—the legacy of the show and the influence that it had on his life—that Warner ponders now, when he is on a press tour for a project that could mark a new phase of his career.
“Just today driving over here I had a really interesting experience,” he says, his speech becoming more methodical and pensive. “Sometimes when you’re in the middle of something it’s hard to get a complete grasp of everything that’s going on. So even the experience of being on that show, being on this No. 1 show, I didn’t really get a full appreciation of what that show was about and what was happening with that show until years later.”
He pauses for a beat: “I think coming over here today—it really began to hit me in a different way, what’s really happening to this man.”
“I’ve talked before about—and Phylicia Rashad has talked about it, too—the dismantling of this man’s legacy,” he continues. “But today it really hit me in a different way because through the years, through my whole career, there’s so much that I have been able to attribute to the experience of being on the show. So much of who I am and how I carry myself in this business has been influenced by him. A lot of things that he has taught me just by example, I carry so much of that with me. There’s a sense of integrity. There’s a sense of dignity that I’ve been able to attribute largely to him. I still attribute a lot of that to him.”
I ask him what’s changed.
“Now being able to talk about those things and attribute them to him lands a very different way,” he says. “So, yes, I can still reflect on those things and attribute those things to him. I’m just not sure how significantly it lands on other people.”
“They want to diminish it,” he finishes. “So there was, I think for the first time, a sadness that I got about that.”
He calls the sadness part of the “yin and yang of life and the business,” offset by the happiness, adrenaline, and career momentum he’s building with his role on The People vs. O.J. Simpson.
Theo Huxtable, as proud as he is of the character and its—that word again—legacy, is a ghost he’s had to shed in order to be taken seriously as an actor, which he’s been steadily doing in recent years with turns on Community, Sons of Anarchy, and Murphy’s American Horror Story: Freak Show.
He’s desperate to show more of what he’s capable of and still struggling with casting directors who underestimate him, or who don’t take him seriously because of his Huxtable roots. There were two roles this pilot season he was up for, he says, but at the last minute he didn’t land either.
“The last few years my experience has been that I’m always in the top three—always close,” he says. “I audition my ass off,” he underlines, saying he knows that if he can just get in the room, he’s capable of bucking directors’ preconceived notions of him.
That’s what happened with The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Warner had actually auditioned to play Chris Darden originally. It was maybe the best audition he’s ever given.
“You could feel it in the room,” he says. “We were all on the same page. I felt like this might be one. And then”—he erupts into laughter—“I didn’t hear anything.”
Ultimately Sterling K. Brown was cast, and months later Murphy called to offer Warner the role of Cowling. He’s watching The People vs. O.J. Simpson live with the rest of the world, and has no hard feelings. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I would’ve cast that guy, too.”
Inhabiting that yin and yang, the shift in Warner’s mood is palpable when the conversation turns back toward American Crime Story. He’ll appear in two more episodes, though he says his best work was in the Bronco chase scenes.
The Bronco. We go back to talking about how surreal it must have been shooting those scenes. Forget just stepping on an empty L.A. freeway. What was it like to see a replica of the Bronco, this iconic piece of cultural lore, for the first time? He starts giggling maniacally.
“It’s a halfway funny experience for me because one of my closest friends at the time actually went out and got a white Bronco,” he says. “He specifically sought out a white Bronco and we used to roll in it all the time.”
There’s an unshakable glint of Theo Huxtable in that sly smile as he grins and tells the story. Though it’s different: nostalgic and, obviously, all grown up. “By that time, of course people knew it wasn’t the Bronco, but you’d see it and roll your eyes. ‘Oh, shit.’”