When actors play real people, they'll often study tapes to master character traits or speaking styles. That's how Don Cheadle prepared for his recent portrayal of Miles Davis. Or, like Mark Ruffalo in "Spotlight," they may even meet with their characters for a face-to-face investigation.
Courtney B. Vance, who plays defense attorney Johnnie Cochran in FX's "The People v. O.J. Simpson," chose to go with his instincts. He didn't watch tapes of the Simpson trial, and even if Cochran was alive (he died in 2005), Vance says he wouldn't have sought him out. The actor simply wasn't interested in portraying Cochran with beat-by-beat accuracy.
Vance worried that such an approach would cause him to overthink the role, so he aimed rather to "catch the spirit of the man."
Did you have an impression of Johnnie Cochran at the time of the trial?
Not so much. I was a working actor so I was trying to make it out here. I knew of him. And I met him about '95 or '96. It was after the trial. At his house — we were invited. My wife, Angela Bassett, was there. We were all just chilling. Glad to be there and watch Mr. Cochran work the room in his own home.
How did this role come to you and what was your reaction at it being offered?
I was at my wife's premiere of "American Horror Story," so I know the [FX network] brass there. Then we went to the after party. Angela and I share a manager. He was walking around with me, and he said, "Courtney, there's one of the writers for 'O.J.' They're doing this mini-series next year, and I think you'd be perfect for Johnnie Cochran. Come with me." So we talked to him. He was very cordial, nice. Of course I didn't have the wig on so you had to use your imagination to see that I could be [Cochran]. So, I didn't think anything of it.
Fast-forward, November of that same year. I was told I had a meeting with Ryan Murphy. And then two to three days later I met with the producer Nina Jacobson. And about three or four days later I got a call from my reps and they said the role was mine. That was it. So I was in a state of shock. I had 10 seconds of Wow!, and then I [thought], How am I going to do this?
What gave you pause?
I know that Johnnie Cochran talked a lot. And if he's talking a lot, and there are 10 episodes, that means I'm going to be doing a lot of talking. And so that means a lot of lines and studying. From the outside, there's a lot of glitz. They see you on the red carpet but they don't see what it takes to get there. I juggle my family — my mother's staying with us and she has ALS. And I have my children and work, so there's a lot that I'm juggling. And so I knew something like this is not just a job where I go in and out. This is going to be six months straight.
Did you watch a lot of tape to catch Cochran's manner and his speech patterns?
You know, I made a decision. When actors have the opportunity to play a larger-than-life icon — my wife did it with Tina Turner, and Jamie Foxx did it with Ray Charles — you have to make a decision how you go in. What do you start with? Where do you begin? And I made the decision, I don't want to imitate, so I'm not going to watch any footage. If I watch footage, I'm going to be in my head judging whatever I'm doing or saying.
How about listening to him, though?
Ah, no. I didn't want to hear him. I [decided] I'm not going to try to imitate him. And the scripts are phenomenal — I knew that by then. I simply had to get my head in the right space. And if I caught the spirit of the man, I'd allow the audience in, and they'd forgive any shortcomings I had because they'd recognize I'm not trying to be him, I'm trying to suggest him.
Johnnie Cochran died in 2005 so you were not able to meet him and pick his brain. Was that an advantage or a disadvantage?
Advantage. I wouldn't have picked his brain initially anyway. Again, it would have been too much for me. That's what the producers encouraged [for] people who were still alive, their characters, to do. To wait, and do it after we're at least midway through.
How did you study for the role, then?
Anything I could get my hands on, I read. What I was trying to do was get a nugget or two. I found one: In Jeffrey Toobin's book I read that [Cochran's] mother had recognized early on that of all her children, this was the one she was going to push out. He would be able to go out into the world and forge a way. They grew up in the time of the Great Migration from the South — all the African-Americans from southern towns. They came from Louisiana. They went out to the West Coast. So his mother recognized: I'm going to put him in white schools. He'll make friends and they'll introduce him to a larger world, and the world is his oyster.
Next thing, he was at UCLA. He's pledging there and one of his pledge buddies was Tom Bradley, who became mayor, who funnels all the police abuse cases to [Cochran's] firm. And he's off and running.
The trial is so rife with overtones of race. There's that scene in episode five in the courtroom where Chris Darden has appealed to the court to disallow the use of racial epithets. After Cochran responds to that appeal to the court, he mutters an aside to Chris Darden: "N-----, please." Did that really happen?
Yes, that really happened. They were in a mentee-mentor relationship. [Darden] was very naive. He wasn't used to the courtroom world. He hadn't tried many cases at all. So he had no idea what was about to happen to him.
And I think that was a problem with the prosecution in general. They had no idea what this case was really about. In a perfect world, it was about the facts. But it very easily and quickly got away from them. They couldn't corral it. Johnnie understood more than anyone that it's about everything, and every little thing should be focused [on].
There are words spoken that are the transcript from the trial. And then there are lines that are really beautifully written. There's one in this week's episode, spoken by Johnnie Cochran's wife. She tells him: "O.J. is an imperfect vessel. But you got your message out there." For me, that was a beautiful distillation of Johnnie Cochran's role.
We've allowed people in. Before, they were just on the periphery, just watching the trial. It was flat. We've allowed them 3-D, to see, potentially, how these decisions were made. And for that, we're rewarding us by their viewing and their passion.
And that's why I applaud trial lawyers, because it's a marathon. For a month, it may be that you have nothing to say. It's the prosecution's turn and it's all verbiage and minutiae and you have to sit there, and make notes and listen, and prepare for when it's your time up there to refute. That's the beauty of our system. Our job, as a defense side, is just to poke holes in this beautiful picture that the prosecution is trying to paint. I don't have to prove guilt or innocence. I just have to make people go, Hmmm...
Does it ever make you wish you'd become a lawyer?
No! Actually, when I was a senior in high school I did an internship with a law firm. And it was very clear that I did not have what it took to do that kind of work.
Has this experience changed the way you think about the Simpson trial?
It was all new and wonderful and educational for me. One of the nuggets was the whole idea that the jury consultant told both sides that the case was about race. And that one side, the prosecution, put their head in the sand. [They needed] an area that reflects Nicole Brown Simpson's environment. It has to be in Santa Monica. They would have fought for that if they'd understood. Those two things would have potentially changed the complexion of the whole trial. That is amazing to me — one decision. It was those kinds of things that Johnnie understood more so than the other side, and that was the difference.
The finale episode of "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson" airs April 5 on FX.