Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

Stars of American Crime Story talk O.J. Simpson

The tale of a fallen American icon is set to grip the world for a second time, Cuba Gooding jnr and David Schwimmer tell Dominic Corry.
David Schwimmer and John Travolta star in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
David Schwimmer and John Travolta star in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.

More than 20 years since O.J. Simpson was tried for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, many of the issues his case highlighted - endemic racism, police misconduct, domestic violence, TV news - remain as contentious as ever, some even more so.

Which makes the events ripe for re-examination via the new star-studded 10-part series The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, premiering next Wednesday on SoHo.

Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding jnr plays the title character, and as he tells TimeOut, his principal recollection of the saga as it originally played out is the elation he felt when he first heard the verdict in 1995.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. stars as O.J. Simpson.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. stars as O.J. Simpson.

"I remember celebrating, because I had done a film, Boyz in the Hood, and we had a scene in that where my character had a gun stuck in his face.

And I had been in that scenario, prior to that growing up in LA. I was a break dancer, and I've had cops pull me over all the time just because of the way I dressed and so on. And then the Rodney King beatings. Everybody felt a sense of tension and frustration due to police harassment."

The series does not portray the murders, and maintains a (technically) neutral stance on whether or not Simpson actually committed them. Gooding declines to offer his current position on the topic.

"I don't want people to know what Cuba Gooding jnr thinks and then watch my performance and go 'Oh that's why he did that'. I want you to have that blank canvas."

It is said actors must not judge their characters, which must have been extra difficult when portraying a figure that invokes such extreme opinions.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.

"It's my job," Gooding tells TimeOut. "I wanna give my director the ability to say 'Play this take where he did it. Now play this take where he's frustrated because his son did it' or whatever the scenario is. And if I've judged him, I might miss some nuance of an expression or something because I don't believe it. I have to give myself that blank canvas. And interestingly enough, reading these scripts, my opinions of his guilt and innocence went back and forth all the way through shooting this."

Gooding decided against attempting to arrange a meeting with the currently incarcerated Simpson. "I wanted to capture, personally for my portrayal, that moment in time when he was his most flamboyant and charismatic and still very egotistical in his demeanour, so I didn't want to reach out to him in his current state as a caged animal.

"This might've been the hardest character I've ever portrayed, emotionally. I've done some heady stuff before, coming from the film world, the longest role I ever lived in was four months, and even then, it was not this emotionally gruelling. So going six months trapped in this man's mentality, it took me a while to get out of it, to excise it from my soul."

David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.

Gooding's co-stars in the series include John Travolta as high-powered lawyer Robert Shapiro, Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark and David Schwimmer as Simpson's friend Robert Kardashian, a former lawyer who stood by the football star after his arrest. As a window into the events that happened behind closed doors, Kardashian almost functions as the audience proxy.

"That was how it was presented to me," Schwimmer tells TimeOut. "That he was gonna be the heart and conscience of the piece. Because so much of the show is about hubris. And he's the only guy who really had nothing to gain by being a part of it. He really was the guy who was just trying his best to serve his friend in the way he felt was best."

Schwimmer's memories of O.J.'s slow-speed car chase and eventual arrest are tied to the show for which he is still best known.

"I was living here in LA, we had just shot the pilot for Friends, and I was very aware, as someone living in the city, of the tensions, the climate of LA at the time, given the riots and the Rodney King incident. And so it was a very strange time for me because as I said I'd just got really my first big break as an actor, and just going through that kind of heady experience, but at the same time I was very aware of the real world and where we were living.

"So when this happened, and I remember watching it on television in my apartment in West Hollywood, it had all the makings of myth really, of Greek tragedy, this celebrated iconic hero, falling. A fallen hero. I don't think any of us realised at the time what it was going to turn into, but everyone felt like this was to be remembered."

David Schwimmer stars as Robert Kardashian in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
David Schwimmer stars as Robert Kardashian in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.

If you pay attention to certain aspects of contemporary society, you may recognise the surname of the man portrayed in the series by Schwimmer.

Kardashian's three young daughters make brief appearances in the series, but don't come looking for any kind of tabloid origin story.

"People might tune in because it's a guilty pleasure," says Schwimmer. "But five or 10 minutes into the show, they're gonna realise this is not a sensational piece of television. This is serious and thorough. Incredibly thorough in terms of sticking to the facts, but also in really trying to capture the humanity of every key figure involved, and what was happening behind the scenes, the politics."

"Robert was a very modest, private person.

"He had no interest in publicity or celebrity, it was completely inadvertent, and to us of course it's now kind of salacious or ironic that these terrible events and this devastating trial and the tragedy of those murders kind of thrust Robert unwittingly into becoming a celebrity."

Who: Cuba Gooding jnr and David Schwimmer
What: The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
When and Where: Starts SoHo, Wednesday February 3

- TimeOut

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