From anthology master Ryan Murphy, American Crime Story examines the dark underbelly of America’s passions and prejudices. Beginning with The People V. O.J. Simpson, which made the nation reevaluate the O.J. Simpson murder trial, stars Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Courtney B. Vance, and producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, explain why crime isn’t the exclusive preserve of criminals.
Sarah Paulson is Marcia Clark
One day on set, Sarah Paulson checked her email more than she usually did. She was sitting on location in Los Angeles, not far from where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman had been murdered, and she’d mentioned that fact in the message to which she was waiting on a response. People in the crew asked her—all day—whether she’d heard back yet. “It was like I’d written to someone I had a crush on,” Paulson says, “wanting to know if they’d go on a date with me.”
But she did have a crush, of a sort. When Ryan Murphy approached her about The People v. O.J. Simpson, she had consumed every book on the trial she could find. “I read Toobin’s book, I read Darden’s book and I read Marcia’s book, grabbing information wherever I could.” The Marcia Clark she found within the pages of the former prosecutor’s account of the trial had not been the dowdy incompetent the news media had painted. “I came to have so much respect and admiration for her,” Paulson says now. “But I feared if I met her, I would all of a sudden feel like I had to tell every part of this story from the actual Marcia Clark’s point of view, which might have got in the way of telling the story as it was written.”
So she delayed sending an email to Clark until she was well into shooting. By that point, there were only three episodes left, and she’d just wrapped the hardest task she faced on the show: the episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”, which was all about Clark’s own trials as she prosecuted this case. She offered dinner, lunch, a drink, a coffee; anything that would have resulted in a scrap of Clark’s time.
Marcia Clark opted for dinner. “And it was a surreal, out-of-body experience.” When she walked into the restaurant, Paulson’s immersion in all things Marcia meant she recognized her instantly from her gait and the way she used her hands. Clark had wanted to be a dancer and had done a lot of training in her youth that had informed her posture. “I did all those physical things in the show, and I don’t think anyone noticed them,” Paulson laughs. “We had a wonderful evening together, drank plenty of tequila, and closed the restaurant down.”
They talked about life, they talked about art, they talked about the O.J. trial; and Paulson noted the emotion in Clark’s voice when they settled on the latter. Professionally, O.J. Simpson’s acquittal had been a blow to Marcia Clark. But personally, the work that had gone into building the prosecution’s case, and the way the world scrutinized its execution on live television, had been devastating. “If I loved her before, I loved her even more after this dinner,” says Paulson. “The thing that mattered most of all to me was that there was integrity and honesty in the performance, because she had so much integrity, and her own moral compass was of paramount importance to her.”
When it started airing in February, The People v. O.J. Simpson became as much of a watercooler topic as the trial it was depicting. Through the meticulous research of the writing staff, which extended well beyond the pages of Toobin’s book, the show felt like it was breaking news every week: sending facts into the world that the media of the time didn’t know—or didn’t care—to report. “There was only so much a camera in a courtroom was going to pick up on,” notes Courtney B. Vance, who plays defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran. “We weren’t following them home. We weren’t with Darden and Marcia, or Johnnie, or any of the other participants. We wouldn’t have known the drama. Via the news media, it looked like these dream teams were at each other’s throats, but we didn’t know any details.”
“[The trial] was the first celebrated reality show extravaganza of its era,” notes Gooding. “Out of that trial were born a number of facets of celebrity that are still dissected today, from the Kardashians to Judge Judy and all of these shows.”
It’s funny,” adds Paulson, “because people have said to me that, if the trial were to happen today it would be very different for Marcia. She would have had more support. I completely disagree. There are so many platforms, now, from which to stand and bash people. Can you imagine the blare of it now with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram? The cacophony of sound?”
Still, the glare of the trial at the time, and the way people remember it, presented a unique challenge for the cast, who had to battle the preconceptions of a world that had dined out on Simpson’s legal troubles for almost a year. For Gooding, this meant tapping into O.J. Simpson’s emotional core, and discarding the rest. But he was surprised with the voracity of the enquiries he’s had about his own take on what went down on Bundy Drive that one fateful night. “It’s the first time I’ve played a character where people want to ask what my position is on his guilt or innocence more than they do my performance,” he laughs. “But it’s my job to give the director the tools he needs to manipulate the performance in the editing room, and that puts me in an almost schizophrenic frame of mind where I can go from guilty to innocent in any moment. The hardest part was playing this split personality. It was almost like playing twins.”
It wasn’t until Paulson did her deep dive into Marcia that she even knew it would be possible to play the part. “Everybody enjoyed the pastime of making fun of her, belittling her and joking about her appearance. Myself included, by the way. How was I going to be able to offer up anything new? I was scared—which typically is a sign that I have to do something. I had no idea the scripts would be so enlightening, and show a whole entire side of her that no one even thought about at the time.”