Marcia Clark on What Episode One of The People v. O.J. Simpson Got Right and Wrong

The People v. O.J. Simpson lead prosecutor Marcia Clark on Sept. 27, 1994. Photo: Bill Nation/Corbis

Twenty-one years after the O.J. Simpson jury handed her the most painful loss of her career, Marcia Clark still cares — very much — about the families of Nicole Brown Simpson, Ronald Goldman, and the justice they never got. Clark, who is now a successful author of crime novels (her latest, Blood Defense, comes out in May) and works on appellate court-appointed cases, agreed to speak to Vulture after watching the first episode of FX’s new series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, even though her initial reaction was to “duck.”

“This is such a weird time,” Clark, now age 62, said. “It is extremely painful to live through this again. But I understand the series is going to explore the racial aspect of the case, which is very important. I just hope that in addition to that, it reminds us there were two victims here. Everybody seemed to forget throughout the trial that there were two innocent people who lost their lives. And whatever you think of Simpson’s guilt, it’s a tragedy because no one has been brought to justice for it.”

The producers of The People v. O.J. Simpson did not ask Clark to consult or assist with the FX series. In a wide-ranging interview, Clark spoke about working on the trial of the century, how she views it now, and what the show gets wrong.

What emotions ran through you when you watched the first episode?
It was very surreal. There's me! But I'm right here? But I'm right there. It felt a little out-of-body, you know? I have to say, when I first heard about this series, I was so wishing it would go away. I was so wishing it wasn't going to happen. And then I heard Sarah Paulson was going to play me. And I thought, Well, you know, that's a pretty big honor. I've been a big fan of hers for many years, and I think she's a brilliant actress. But for me, this is not entertainment; it’s extremely painful. And I'm reliving now a horrible time in my life — the nightmares I lived through that felt like [they] would never end. And by definition, because it's a ten-hour series and it was a 15-month case, it's not going to be right. There are going to be inaccuracies, and the whole subject is going to hurt. It hurts already. The silver lining is I'm played by someone who is a genius, and I love her. I saw her and I thought, Thank goodness it's her playing me.

The show aims to do a couple of different things — examine how racial issues influenced the case, but also give us an inside, more sympathetic view of the people involved in the trial. Did you feel that way?
I would never be able to judge that, right? Because it's me. And I didn't know how people were seeing me. I didn't pay a lot of attention to that because I couldn't. So that's good! I'm glad to hear it’s doing that. 

You met with Sarah Paulson, right?
It was pretty much already in the can by the time I met her. But, yes, we had dinner. And you know, that can be scary — meeting the people you are a fan of. You never know whether you're going to be disappointed. With her, it was the exact opposite. She was wonderful: brilliant, funny, insightful, empathetic. She's a wonderfully amazing combination of phenomenally talented and a terrific person. So in this case I was delighted that my hopes were not only fulfilled, but surpassed.

She had a funny anecdote about meeting you — she said you apologized to her for your hair. 
Yeah, I did. Oh man, sorry about that hair, man. And I have to tell you, the people I've met after the trial, when they found out I didn't have curly hair, that that was just a perm, that my hair is naturally completely straight, wanted to kill me. How could you do that? You're so lucky to have straight hair.

Well, you know, in the late '80s and early '90s, we were all perming. 
Thank you! Maria, I need that. I did need that — because right now I'm looking at myself. I'm looking at Sarah and I'm going, What the hell was I thinking? I mean, I know what I was thinking. I wanted wash-and-wear hair. I had two little boys in diapers, and I did not have time to mess with that stuff. But still, thank you. Thank you for giving me cover.

Was there anything glaring you hated in the first episode? Anything you thought they got wrong?
You know, it was one of those, Ugh, God, this is so gut-wrenching. Not because of what necessarily was in that first episode, but just bringing back memories of what it was. And, yeah, glaring errors. You know, I picked [Bill Hodgman], Bill didn't pick me. The minute I got the case, I ran to Bill and said, “Please do this with me. Please be my partner.” I begged him. I begged him. And he had to go home and talk to his wife and think about it. And I'm like, Oh God, ahh!

It was also depicted in Jeffrey Toobin’s book as if you had no choice but to work with Bill.
That was what I was going to tell you. It's not the writers’ fault, you know. They didn't know. They based the script on a book that has glaring inaccuracies. Toobin got a lot wrong because he's not behind the scenes. He's not there. And so he has third-party sources he talks to that don't care about getting it right, or deliberately lie.

In the first episode, they show that when the police first called you about the murders, you didn’t recognize O.J. Simpson’s name. Did that really happen?
Yeah. They made me take a little longer in the show than it took in life — but yeah! It took me a second, you know, and then I realized, Oh yeah, Hertz commercial. I wasn't a sports fan.

In the series, you are presented as someone who was so secure in the physical and scientific evidence — because there was so much — that you didn’t give much credence to the racial issue that kept coming up in the press, through the lawyers, or the jury consultant. Is that accurate?
Oh God. That is so not true. I'm sorry, the truth is, we were not [confident]. We've got to look confident, though. I'm not going to go out to the press and say, Oh, we're going to lose! I have to present a confident case. It was clear months before the trial started that we were in big trouble. The focus groups were, I hate to say, a godsend, but they were very helpful because when the defense came out with the story of [LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman] planting the glove and calling Mark Fuhrman a racist cop, I knew it was big trouble right there. The question was, this was a theory that was actually physically and logically impossible, but would people buy it anyway? Because they wanted to? And I saw from the focus groups that, yes, they will; yes, they are. They absolutely are. Now what do we do?

So were we confident? Oh my God, no! No. Because we saw what was happening. We saw the racial divide. And we knew we were going to have African-American jurors. You always do downtown. We knew there was big, big trouble. All I can say is, I don't know where that whole meme got started. I don't know why anyone would say that, because if you talked to anyone on the prosecution side, they would tell you that we knew were up against it. All along. 

What did you think was the biggest misconception about you when this was all over? What did you struggle with the most in terms of the public perception?
I know I came across as tough. I guess some would call it bitchy. And I have to say, I can't go into court wearing a pinafore and curtsy. I mean, I'm up there and it's a murder trial, and it's not a dinner party. At the end of the day, at the end of the trial, I was in a lose-lose position. If I go soft-voiced and, you know, very ladylike, they call me a cream puff and say, "She's not up to the task." I go in and I'm tough and I'm strong and I'm a bitch. I do think that what's unique about being a female prosecutor, especially in a big case like that, is most people go to work in the office, and they act in the office the way they do outside the office. They're pretty much the same. But that's not true in trial work. You have to go into court, and you're at war. I have to go in and I have to fight. There's a different persona you have to have. So there was the feeling that that's who I was. You know, that I'd go home and argue and fight the same way at home that I did in court. No, there are two sides to me. There is more than this. So if Sarah is able to show that, and if anyone can, it's her, that will be nice. By no means do I consider myself to be a particularly important issue. There are much bigger fish to fry here. And the race issue, if they're going to pull that out and deal with it, then I think that's terrific.

The producers didn’t time the series to be topical, but it turns out that it is. Is that why you think it’s an important discussion to have now?
Yes. In the immediate aftermath of the trial, there were a lot of people who did not want to believe race played as big a part of the verdict as it did — and not necessarily because it was payback for Rodney King. I know that for some jurors, because they said so, it was. One of them left the jury box with a black-power salute. But I felt others didn't necessarily feel that way. With the Furhman tapes and all of the racially incendiary testimony that wound up coming in that should have never come in, I think they got to a point where they just couldn't trust anything, they couldn’t believe anything without a reasonable doubt. And so that's the verdict. Now, that played directly to the black experience, which is legitimate. We call it in legal circles “the race card,” but that pejorative sits on top of truth, of real truth, and we're seeing it now on cell-phone cameras, with all the dashcam footage, surveillance footage, we're seeing why. It works because there's a truth there — because black men have been unjustly convicted and treated and mistreated by the police. And these shootings are a graphic illustration of why there’s this mistrust of law enforcement. And Johnnie [Cochran] knew it, and he played to it, and we knew what he was doing. But what do we do about that? He's not wrong. It's just not true in this case. And so that was our challenge, and our hope that the jury could see past all that and realize that it was true in other places but not here. These cops loved Simpson. It was an irony in the case that he was really beloved by the police. They didn't want to bust him. We did what we could to try to show the jurors that in this case, we don't have that problem. But they're not going to conspire against this guy who is their hero.

The arguments by the defense made a lot of people believe he is innocent. But I’m wondering if, the way this show lays out the defense strategy, it might change some minds. Do you think it’s possible that some who thought he was innocent will now see his guilt, but also understand this is why this particular verdict was rendered in spite of it?
That's a good question. I just don't know what to say. For a long time, I thought that people think what they think about this case, and they're not going to change their mind. It doesn't matter what I say. And I can talk them blue in the face about how Fuhrman could not have planted the glove. He never got the chance. By the time he got to the crime scene at Bundy, there were 20 other officers there who all said there was only one glove. Not only that, but at the time he showed up at the crime scene, he didn't know if they were going to find an eyewitness and earwitness, or if somebody was walking into the station at that moment to confess. So how's he going to plant evidence on someone, right? It's physically and logically impossible, but it doesn't matter: People want to believe what they want to believe. I don't know if this show will change any minds or not. I'd be interested to see it. 

Has it given you any kind of comfort to know that O.J. Simpson is in prison for another crime?
You know, not really. People ask me that and I think, But he's not paying for the crime I believe he committed. He did commit [the Las Vegas] crime. He was caught on videotape. That was hard to defend. But I thought he should have been [sighs] … convicted.

What did you think of the other performances? Did you feel like you were watching Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) for real?
Yeah, it was cool. I think he's really good, Sterling K. Brown. And Courtney B. Vance? Amazing.

What did you think of Cuba Gooding Jr.?
He's really interesting. It's a problem because how much is true when it comes to Simpson is particularly debatable. Everything's privileged, the lawyers can't talk, he doesn't talk, A.C. Cowlings never talked, so I'm not sure where they're getting this stuff. 

When we first started talking, you mentioned what a difficult period in your life this was. Has the passage of time given you a different perspective?
I certainly have a deeper understanding of the racial issue now, and why that verdict came in how it did. I mean, I got it, of course I got it. I was there in court. I watched the jury every day as they folded their arms and sat back when I stood up and leaned forward and smiled when Johnnie stood up. It wasn't subtle. But especially now, in the last few years that we've seen these police shootings: Trayvon Martin, and then Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald. These things give me a more gut-level understanding of the mind-set that bought into the conspiracy theories. There was never any proof, and the defense never even got close to proving that evidence was planted. And every effort to do it became laughable. Which was really the reason why I argued before the trial started that they should not be allowed to bring in the race card, because there's no point in slamming Fuhrman for whatever he might be if he had no opportunity to do anything wrong. And initially, [Judge Lance Ito] ruled with me. And then the following day, F. Lee Bailey basically stood up and screamed at Ito, and Ito reversed himself. That to me was the turning point in the trial. Once you open the door and say, “Yes, we can bring in the race card,” it's the camel's nose. It became a donnybrook. And the whole trial got subverted.

That interview the police did with O.J. is one of the most infuriating things I think has ever happened in the justice system.
I actually felt my stomach twist in knots as I listened to it. I'll never forget it. I was like, "Are you kidding me? You don't pin him down? You don't ask him? What's this?" They had that scene. They got that right. It was upsetting because when I got to Rockingham that day, since I had already come home and gone to the police station with [detectives Philip Vannatter and Tom Lange] to talk to them, when I got back to the office, Vannatter and Lange came to see me and tell me what they got from the interview. And I said, "Okay, so where is he now?" thinking they were going to tell me where in jail [he was]. But they let him go. "You let him go? Why? Why would you do this? If this were anybody else, you'd have arrested him long ago. You've got so much evidence already.” And I was doubly upset because that's why the Bronco chase happened. That's why that crazy fiasco took place.

But then they blew one of the greatest lines in the show. Detective Ron Phillips, wonderful guy, he was the one who called to notify Simpson in Chicago. What he actually told Simpson was, “Your wife is dead.” And Simpson's response was, “Who killed her?” Wait a minute, how about a car accident? How about an overdose? [Ed. note: In the FX series, Detective Tom Lange calls Simpson at his Chicago hotel and says, “I have some bad news. Your ex-wife Nicole Simpson has been killed,” and later notes to his partner that Simpson didn’t ask how she died.]

Does it bother you that the creators are taking some dramatic licenses? They do present the facts, too, but they admit there are some fictional embellishments.
I just hope people realize this is a dramatization. It couldn't be a documentary. You couldn't do a documentary without talking to the people involved. They have a larger message here, it sounds like. And that's good. If this provokes important discussions about race and the impact it has on the criminal-justice system and the reasons why the black and white perspectives are so very different, then that's a very good thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Marcia Clark in 2015. Photo: Courtesy of Marcia Clark
Marcia Clark (left) and Sarah Paulson as Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Photo: Corbis; FX