Some actors would take a beat before deciding to take on the role of one of the most infamous names in U.S. History. But Cuba Gooding, Jr. didn’t even have to think about it before accepting the lead role in The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
“Absolutely not. My agents called and said, ‘Ryan Murphy wants to meet with you,’ and I said, ‘I’m in,'” Gooding said during the 2016 TCA Winter Press Tour. “And they were like, ‘But wait, it’s O.J. Simpson.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I get it, I’m in.’ I don’t judge my characters. Ryan knew he could come to me and manipulate me emotionally in any way, and that’s my job as an actor. I stay away from forming an opinion or speaking of it.”
And during the panel for FX’s new scripted true crime series about the 1995 murder trial, Gooding refused to reveal whether he thinks the real Simpson is guilty or innocent.
“The question of his guilt is my own personal opinion and I don’t want to have that reflected in when you watch my performance,” Gooding said. “I leave that to myself. I don’t think that was Ryan’s intent, to use these 10 episodes to sway your opinion in any way. I think people believe one thing or another and that’s not going to change.”
While some of Gooding’s co-stars spoke with the person they were portraying (or their spouses if their character was no longer living), Gooding himself didn’t reach out to meet Simpson in person.
“I had no desire to visit him in his present condition being incarcerated, being a shell of a man,” Gooding said. “I have relatives who are incarcerated and friends, and it breaks a man’s soul and spirit and at some point you start to believe whatever reality that you went in thinking even if it isn’t the truth. So if Ryan wanted to do the next season as O.J. today and he cast me again, then I’ll sit with him every day and research. But until then, I knew that this portrayal in 1994 was a flamboyant, charismatic movie star/marquee athlete. So I would use the research materials from that time period in his life and I let that not only propel my research in terms of his walk, his gait, his physical appearance but that braggadocios, egotistical manner in which he carried himself in was what I was looking to achieve.”
Over the course of filming the 10 episode season, however, the way Gooding portrayed Simpson changed drastically as the show covered the entire span of the legal battle, and it affected him personally.
“This was probably the hardest character I’ve ever played,” Gooding said. “It was six months of an emotional roller coaster. It took me a month or so to finish this ride emotionally. Even physically. I gained a bunch of weight and what not. I was a shell of a man. It took a month for me to get that out of my mind. I’m serious, I have a mental problem now.”
Gooding’s co-star John Travolta, who is playing Simpson’s defense attorney Robert Shapiro, went through a drastic physical change to take on his role, including makeup and questionable wigs.
“I actually couldn’t wait to look like that and perform in that voice because that’s part of the joy of acting,” Travolta said. “When I was offered this challenging role and investigating the reasons why I should do it or shouldn’t do it and found out it was not going to be a guilty pleasure but instead something meaningful, I decided to tackle it with the full court press, if you will, and really try to give as much reality of Robert Shapiro as needed. You have to do enough as an actor to invite the audience in to take the journey and tell the story. I felt like I had to do enough of him because he is a famous character and one that we remember visually or at least a good majority of the public remembers visually. I felt a duty to certainly adhere to aspects of his physical presence.”
Since the show is about real-life events (and highly publicized ones, at that), executive producer Ryan Murphy made sure to double and triple check every line, every look, everything that they did on the show.
“Every line of every script has been gone over by at least five lawyers,” Murphy said. “We’re really proud of how much we did do our research.”
And while the amount of research required for this project might have seemed daunting to any other showrunner, Murphy was actually excited to dive into the subject material.
“It was something I was very interested in when it was happening,” Murphy said. “Like all of us, I remember exactly where I was when the Bronco chase happened. I read the scripts so quickly and I thought they were so brilliantly done. The thing that I was struck about how much I didn’t know was particularly with the Marcia character for one. I didn’t know a lot about what she was going through personally. I didn’t understand at the time or know the sexism that she endured.”
He continued, “There was literally something from every script that was new to me, like the amount of blood evidence, the DNA story, the story of how the glove came to be. We’re doing a whole episode from the perspective of the jury, which I thought was absolutely so fascinating to me and I didn’t know that.”
Since Murphy has come under fire for how his previous projects have handled the issue of race, he made sure that The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story dealt with it appropriately since it plays such a huge part in the story of how the trial unfolded.
“I think this show tackles it and is incredibly responsible about it,” Murphy said. “In the case of Scream Queens, I found that criticism to be valid and interesting at the same time. I think that’s an interesting dialogue to have. I think we could always be doing better. I was very aware of that when we were working on O.J. I really tried to make sure that we did show all sides and that we did try and be balanced.”
Are you excited about or wary of Murphy’s take on the O.J. trial? Let us know what you think of FX’s new drama in the comments section below.
The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premieres Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 10 p.m. on FX.