‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’: How Courtney B. Vance Mastered Playing Johnnie Cochran

On FX’s ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson,’ Courtney B. Vance steals the show as lawyer Johnnie Cochran. After Tuesday’s powerful ‘The Race Card’ episode, he explains how he did it.

Prashant Gupta/FX Networks

Once in a while a bit of TV or film casting is so perfect—miraculous, even—that watching a performance has you marveling at the stroke of casting genius as much as the actor.

Courtney B. Vance never imagined that he’d play famed O.J. Simpson defense attorney, the gregarious Johnnie Cochran. After three decades in show business, the veteran actor had gotten pretty skilled at nailing down his wheelhouse.

But once he sat down in the make-up chair on the set of FX’s event series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, suited up in Cochran’s flashy wardrobe, and saw himself transformed into the Trial of the Century icon responsible for one of the most memorable lines in modern history—“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”—his reaction to the sight mirrored our own amazement.

“I’m thinking, ‘How did they know? How did they know I’d look like him? How did they know this? This is amazing,’” Vance remembers. “It was a wonderful, wonderful feeling. That’s when I realized that I just need to get out of the way. The visual is already there. I need to just be.”

Of course looking like someone as legendary as Cochran is one thing; capturing the spirit of a man who did not just serve as a cultural lightning rod for his showy defense tactic during Simpson’s murder trial, but who spent a career advocating for justice on behalf of the black community, is another.

When I first meet Vance he is at a press conference in New York promoting The People v. O.J. Simpson alongside co-stars Cuba Gooding Jr., Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, and David Schwimmer. When Vance is introduced for portraying Cochran, he stands and waves his hand in the air, mimicking Cochran’s legendary glove defense to uproarious laughter from those in attendance.

Suffice it to say, the showboating spirit was captured.

But speaking with Vance again months later in advance of Tuesday night’s big The People v. O.J. Simpson episode, “The Race Card,” it becomes clear that the two share more than just a superficial resemblance or spirit. They share a bit of the same soul.

Our conversation is framed around his own memories of watching the 1994 media circus.

He remembers everything from watching the Bronco chase in a hotel lobby alongside wife Angela Bassett, to reacting to the verdict alongside Scandal star Tony Goldwyn while the two were filming in Toronto, to even attending a party at Cochran’s house with Bassett early on in their careers—before they were a Hollywood power couple and before he was the world’s most infamous litigator.

In the context of Tuesday night’s People v. O.J. Simpson episode, which begins with Cochran being racially profiled during a traffic stop and includes a searing courtroom face-off about race between Cochran and prosecutor Chris Darden, he talks about the series’ remarkable and unnerving relevance given race relations in the U.S. today.

Is Johnnie Cochran someone you ever imagined yourself playing?

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Oh, no! Not at all. I had met him before at a party as a young actor, at a house party. I didn’t know him. I was invited through a friend of myself and my wife’s. We were just glad to be in the room and there was Johnnie Cochran—the famous Johnnie Cochran! We were like, “We’re at Johnnie Cochran’s house, wow!” We were budding actors, and wanted to go around and make sure we were seen, going to this premiere and that premiere, just showing our faces. That’s what we were doing and there he was.

How did you react, then, when you were approached to play him? This is someone that everyone has an image of in their minds.

Fear. It was fear. You never know. It’s all about the approach and what’s the obstacle and overcoming that obstacle. The obstacle was, “How do I get in? How do I find his center, so that no matter what I say I’m in the zone with him?”

Does that mean doing a lot of research and watching old clips?

I chose to try to do it through just reading as much as I can. I didn’t want to get into the imitation game. I knew once we started Episode 3 we’d be running full-tilt so there wouldn’t be time to be like, “Hold up, let me check the tape to make sure I’m saying this right.” I had to be. I had to just be him and not concern myself with it. I was looking for his spirit. I wanted to catch his spirit and recognize that he and I had the same journey.

How are your journeys the same?

He’s a little older than me, but we had the same journey in that our parents recognized that in education, the journey out would come. I saw that his mother placed him in a wonderful white private school and my parents did the same. I was able to get a scholarship to a white private school. And from there everything happened. I came through the Boys and Girls Club. The Boys Club I was in, the counselor was a teacher at Detroit Country Day and he advised my parents to apply for me as a scholarship student. I got in and then everything else came. Once I recognized that we had the same journey I thought, I got him. I got him! The rest of it was just reading about his past and seeing little kernels of this and that and seeing how he was the life of the party and all his wonderful flaws. He was beautifully flawed like all of us.

What about his legacy? He accomplished so much in his career, especially advocating for the black community, but I think for many people he is remembered as the O.J. lawyer with the catchphrase about the glove.

We’re all more than a moment in time. Always, he’s a huge personality. Huge life he had. He was all about dealing with the trauma of past wrongs and current wrongs with African-Americans. He was in the trenches. As Chris Darden said to Marcia Clark early on in the trial, “Don’t sleep on him. He’s not who you think he is. He knows this arena. He cut his teeth in this area. He’s savvy as they come and you better be on your A-game.” She thought he was a buffoon, a lot of hot air and suits and flashy ties. Could she have been further from the truth?

The show does a really good job at showing how underestimated he was.

I think that was a good deal of Ms. Clark’s journey, just trying to catch up and catch her breath. She had no idea what the landscape of this arena was. It was about black and white. It was not about anything else. It was about race. She said, “I don’t know this area. I’m at sea. I’m adrift.” Then you add the media scrutiny on top of that. She was completely unprepared for what was ahead of her. She did not understand what she was stepping into. She thought it was about the facts. It wasn’t about the fact. It wasn’t about the search for the truth. It wasn’t about the truth.

She was so scrutinized. You almost forget until watching the show how scrutinized she was.

The media is not our friend, unfortunately. If you have any kind of flaw or foible, they will be exposed. If you want to run for public office you better be ready for it. If you want to get out there in front and be the man or woman out there in front, you gotta know they’re coming after you. She was completely unprepared for that. And Johnnie had been in that landscape. He knew he had skeletons in the closet and he knew how to deflect and return back to the story. He knew the long game and that eventually they were going to come back to the story and didn’t panic. She didn’t know how to handle it.

You’ve gone on record saying you think O.J. did it. What is filming this show like, when you have such opinions and visceral memories of that time?

On expressing guilt, I always come back to that it’s not about what I feel about the trial. I portray a character. I’m playing a defense attorney, so my feelings don’t come into play. It didn’t effect what I felt. I was cheering when the verdict came down on O.J.

You cheered when the verdict was read?

We weren’t cheering O.J. O.J. is not black. He told everybody, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.” We were cheering that Johnnie Cochran just struck a blow in the arena of the legal area. We, as African-Americans, knew that when you go legal it’s not going to go well for you, especially not on a huge case like this. The question of what was the truth? That’s only a part of what the whole picture was. The truth, unfortunately, was not in the forefront of how the trial ended up.

What is the truth in regard to this case? Two people were killed. My opinion on what justice was served? Two people were killed. Was that justice? That O.J. got off and they’re dead? Who killed them? If not O.J., who? Besides the parents of those two, the Browns and the Goldmans—especially the Goldmans—nobody was focusing on that. Everybody was focusing on O.J. and Nicole. Nobody focused on Ron Goldman. Who killed him? If not O.J., who?

How vividly do those memories come back when you’re shooting the show?

I didn’t really follow the trial that much. It was a little overwhelming for me because I was such a huge O.J. Simpson fan. When it went down we were in Sacramento shooting Panther. We were in the hotel lobby watching the NBA Finals and it was pre-empted by all of this, and I went into my own little state of shock. When it ended up on television I couldn’t handle all that. It was too much for me. This is all new information for me, being able to relive it was actually living it for me, going through it all.

Where were you when you heard the verdict?

I was with Tony Goldwyn in Toronto doing Boys Next Door when we sat down and watched the verdict. I was like, “I’m so nervous,” and he was like, “Me too.” But we didn’t talk about our feelings about when it came down, how are you going to feel? When it came down I was cheering and he was in horror, and we both looked at each other in horror and realized, “Whoa, this is deep. It’s visceral.” Everyone had a strong opinion about what it was and it came down on the racial divide for most folks. There was no guide for dealing with that. Tony and I just sat there and we dealt with it. We talked about it.

It became about more than the verdict.

All of a sudden the guilt or innocence of O.J. Simpson was not what we were dealing with. We still recognized that two people were dead, and we grieved. But that’s why the dialogue needs to happen between black and white. Because the divide is so deep. We’re in 2016 with a two-term African-American president, but it’s still so deep. That’s why these things are happening now. It’s not been dealt with. Literally it’s not been dealt with.

There’s a poeticism, in a way, that right before you filmed The People v. O.J. Simpson you shot the “Lawn Chair” episode of Scandal, which Shonda Rhimes wrote after being inspired by the events in Ferguson and the pain over Michael Brown. What was it like to shoot that, and then go shoot this series about the Simpson trial, and realize how resonant the issues then are still today?

I’m such a blessed man just to be able to do roles that speak to what’s going on right now. That came to me and then this came to me. It allows what you and I are doing now, Kevin, have a dialogue, and then you’ll do what you do and the dialogue will be able to hopefully happen. Just the dialogue about a man who said [in that Scandal episode], “I’m not taking it anymore. I’m going to sit over my son until the person who killed him comes forward.” But that’s what I was thinking about earlier—that it’s so deep and so undealt with that it’s going to come to that. In this country we don’t tend to deal with things until there’s an emergency and then people run to the churches and the televisions and our politicians: “We’ve got to do something.” We’ve had to do something for years. But we’ve put our head in the sand.

The diversity issue and all that, it’s not new. It’s been happening. Just because the Oscars are here and the whiteout happened. What about the whiteout that happened three years ago? Or five years ago? At a certain point people say that’s enough and we gotta deal with something. When the Oscars go away the problems will still be there. It’s not going to be dealt with by Oscars time. And when the lights go off and everyone’s got their statues, it’s still going to be there. And the work has to be done. It’s about the day-to-day grind-y grind work. And people sitting down and talking and bringing it up and talking about slow solutions, because solutions are not fast and have to happen on both sides.

Before I let you go, one last People v. O.J. Simpson question: What was it like to deliver the iconic “If it doesn’t fit” line?

I can’t keep it iconic. It was in the context of the build of the closing argument. It wasn’t iconic to me. I had a page and a half of verbiage and a day to get it together. I had to get myself together so that when I got to that line, it fit. [Laughs] It fit with what I was doing. The glove fit and the dialogue fit in my mouth, so I was just happy.