David Schwimmer on Why He Wanted to Play Robert Kardashian in The People v. O.J. Simpson

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Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

Among other things, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story reminds us of a time in American culture when the name Kardashian sounded foreign. The point is driven home in episode two, as the young Kardashian children watch TV reporters mispronounce their father’s name during a press conference. “Kardashian! Kardashian! Kardashian!” they chant from home. It’s a harmless embellishment designed to drive home the point: Things have changed.

The press conference scene in and of itself was anything but humorous in real life. O.J. Simpson’s loyal friend, the late Robert Kardashian, somberly took to the cameras to read what he believed was Simpson’s suicide note as Simpson and his friend A.C. Cowlings drove up and down Los Angeles freeways in a white Ford Bronco.

David Schwimmer, who plays Kardashian, says he was drawn to the project because it presents new insights into the people involved in the case. “We only knew the half of it, and that half was really dramatic and incredibly memorable, but this show really shows the other half of what was going on behind the scenes, and the humanity, how personal it was for all of the players involved. Every single person’s life was changed by this ordeal.” Schwimmer spoke to Vulture about what drew him to Robert Kardashian. 

When you were approached for the role, you had to think about it. What were your concerns after you read the first two scripts?
I thought it was incredibly well-written, and I was intrigued by who Robert was because I really didn’t know anything about him. That’s why I was hesitant. I didn’t know who he was, and I needed to do my homework. So I talked to [executive producer Ryan Murphy] and the writers and [executive producer Nina Jacobson] and [executive producer Brad Simpson] to understand a little better what Robert’s dramatic arc in the series was, and what his journey was. It seemed to be centered around his faith: his faith in God, his faith in O.J.’s innocence, and his faith in his own friendship with O.J. And once I realized that was the journey — and it comes to a point in episodes seven and eight where he has a crisis of faith, and he’s suddenly uncertain about everything — that, I thought, was really moving to me. I also thought it was really interesting that Robert is the only person who has nothing to gain. When I heard Ryan say that, I realized that’s extraordinary. He basically put a year of his life on hold, if not more, and was thrust inadvertently and unwittingly into the public eye. He lost a lot of friends and a lot of colleagues over the process of this trial. It was a great loss that Robert incurred from doing this, but he did it for very personal, I believe, reasons of faith. There was no upside, nothing for him to gain, like the rest of the lawyers. This was a career-making case for all of them. For Robert, he just felt that he had to be there for [O.J.].

To prepare, did you read other books or materials besides Jeffrey Toobin’s? [Ed. note: The series is based on Toobin’s 1996 best seller The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson.]
There is a lot of material. There’s almost an overabundance. I didn’t read Chris Darden’s books, or Marcia [Clark]’s. I took a peek at some other books, but Jeffrey’s was the most important to read, which I read twice. For me, a lot of my research was done online — any article that referred to Robert or in which he was quoted. Any interview he ever gave, including his Barbara Walters interview, the archival footage of the trial, and the footage of his reading the suicide note. Those were all great and very informative. But the single greatest help was my conversation with Kris Jenner, and just hearing from her who he really was as a man, as a father, as a husband, what his character was like. That was hugely influential.

We didn’t know that much about him, yet we can’t escape his name now. But he didn’t live to see that.
That, to me, is the most ironic thing about us today watching this show — to learn that Robert was actually incredibly private, not a public person, and a man of great humility and loyalty and faith. It was not something he ever sought, that kind of celebrity. The irony is this terrible trial, this ordeal, this harrowing kind of experience, and the tragedy of these two innocent people being murdered, led to, completely inadvertently, his family name becoming a household name.

When you were watching his interviews and studying him, was there anything you focused on — speech patterns or gestures — that you were really conscious of including in your performance?
I wasn’t trying to mimic him ever. I was more interested in his essence, his spirit, and what was really guiding him and motivating him. That’s what I was focused on.

The scenes in the Encino house before O.J. leaves in the Bronco were actually filmed in Robert Kardashian’s former home. What was it like to film where all of that actually transpired?
It was unnerving to know that the events that actually unfolded happened in the rooms we were filming in. It was a sense, for me, at least, of unease and sadness, that this could have been the room that O.J. had a gun to his head and was about to take his own life, and Robert was trying to save him.

There are some very emotional and poignant scenes in the episode for Robert Kardashian. America saw him read that letter on TV, but we didn’t know what he was going through at his house. It was sad to see he believed O.J. had already killed himself. What was that like to film?
The thing I realized when I was in the car is that Robert really believed O.J. was dead. I had just pulled up to the house and was about to break the news to the family that, as far as Robert believed, O.J. was dead. He really believed that O.J. had every intention of killing himself and then he drove off to do so, and then no one had heard from him for hours, and Robert was hoping to save the family, and especially O.J.’s kids, the shock and the indignity of learning that information from the television. He wanted to be the one, since he knew them so well and was so close to them. And, of course, as we all know, it was untrue, and Robert was more shocked than anybody. I imagine it was very painful.

Was there one thing you learned about him that was most helpful to you?
It was that he was a man of great faith. His relationship to God was a very personal one, and a very strong one. All of his decisions and actions were guided by that. Now that I know so much about him and what a man of great loyalty and faith and compassion he was, it makes total sense why he stuck by O.J. that entire time.

Were you interested in the case back then?
Absolutely, I was watching it like everyone else. It happened to be the same year we began Friends. It was a strange experience to be suddenly launched into the heightened and exciting world of this real break as an actor I was experiencing, and at the same time, remaining very aware and connected to being a resident of Los Angeles at the time. It was a time of great tension and unrest.

Did you watch the Bronco chase? What do you remember about that day?
Yeah. I do. A buddy of mine called me and brought it to my attention, and told me to turn on the TV. I did, and I watched. I couldn’t believe it, like everyone else, catching up to it and watching it for quite a while. It was unlike anything I’d experienced before and many people had experienced before. You were watching in real time the fall of an icon. It had the air about it of myth, of a Greek tragedy. This great kind of hero and icon falling, and you were watching it unfold in real time. And that was very, very troubling.