Tony winner and Law & Order: Criminal Intent alum Courtney B. Vance plays famous defense attorney Johnnie Cochran on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, FX’s dramatization of the trial of the century. Cochran, who died in 2005, became the star of the trial, and that’s not lost on Vance, who decided not to review trial footage or videos of Cochran in preparation for the role. “He was iconic, and I didn’t want to trap myself in that image of him,” he explained. “I preferred to do a lot of research so that I could capture his spirit and get out of the way.” Vance spoke to Vulture about meeting Cochran once, the on-set parties that helped the cast de-stress, and why a scene he shared with Cuba Gooding Jr. in Tuesday night’s episode became one of his favorites.
You were a big fan of O.J. Simpson in his football days, and you followed the trial. Did any of that factor into your decision to be a part of the show?
Not at all. All the actors who did the project, everybody had their personal feelings and personal sentiments about where they were, what was going on in their lives at the time. It’s just one of those events like 9/11. Where were you when? It came up for me. It does any time you attempt to do iconic figures. It was a seminal event in our country’s history, and everybody knows them or thinks they know them, so it’s very difficult to say you’re going to portray one of these characters because we all assume we know them.
On the set, all of us were amazed every single day when we saw each other. It’s mind-boggling that we all looked like those characters. It was so frightening that we couldn’t stay in it all the time. We had to do something to poke fun at it because it was unreal. We had four or five cameras, and you have to concentrate so hard for so long. It was scary. We would shatter if we weren’t able to laugh. We were in that courtroom for so long. You have to be able to laugh; you have to be able to involve other people. The directors made sure that the galley and the jurors were all a part of it. There was a young man who during lunchtimes would say, “We’re going to have a five-minute party,” and he had all these fun little gadgets and themes for the people who showed up. I took pictures and emailed it to everybody. It was a huge family thing that kept it alive and fresh for us so when we went back into the courtroom, we were like, Okay, let’s go. Back in now. Otherwise it gets stale. I think that’s part of what the audience sees is our commitment to it, our freshness.
When you said four or five cameras, was that how it was always filmed? There was never coverage first on this actor, then coverage on other actors? It was always all these different cameras running?
Well, when you get into a big room like [the courtroom], covering a concert or covering a basketball game, you have to make your days. If you have a 12-hour day, you got to find a way to get all your coverage but still make your day. Generally, you make your day by having multiple cameras in there. While one thing is going on, you got this person’s coverage, that person’s coverage, and that person’s coverage so that when you turn around all you owe is two more people’s coverage, and then you’re out. What that means, unfortunately, is that if it’s your day, your big speech, your three-page scene or whatever, that means you have to deal with four, five cameras in your face as they’re pushing and pulling and going back and forth and you’re trying to stay focused on talking to one person. It’s a different thing that you have to prepare your mind for. Once you’re ready for it and you’re prepared with your lines, you’re okay, but the first time it’s unnerving, and we were all unnerved by it at one time or another.
I can see for you, especially, that it would be because Johnnie had the gift of gab. There are some long scenes where you’re the only one talking.
I had to get myself together for the marathon of that. Eventually you know the rhythm of your character, of the set of the piece. It takes less energy for you to hit that point, and then everything resonates. But initially it takes a tremendous amount of energy. You just hope it’s gonna be okay and you don’t forget your lines and those cameras.
Had anyone ever told you that you looked like Johnnie Cochran?
I would’ve never thought that until I saw you in the show.
I never even thought about it. Even when I was casting for it I was like, This is going to be interesting. Okay. I put that wig on, though, and stood in front of that mirror, and I just went, Oh, boy. It was pretty amazing, and how they saw that, I don’t know. I don’t.
And you had actually met him?
I did. I was a young actor at a house party at his house. I was invited. A good friend of mine was a very good friend of Mr. Cochran, so he invited me.
Did you get to talk to him much?
No, not much. I was off to the side. I was just glad to be there and watched him holding court, pontificating with all his people. It was amazing to watch. It was amazing to say I have been in his home and was there and heard him and saw him.
And that was after the trial?
Yes. It was after the trial. A couple years after the trial.
What research did you do to prepare?
I wanted to make sure I did not fall into the trap of imitating. I didn’t want to watch footage. I didn’t want to talk to somebody who knew him and get their take. I said, “I’m gonna go right to the power book,” which was Jeff Toobin’s book. I read that a couple times and everything else I could find on him; his book and other things I would read just so I could try to capture the spirit of the man. I felt if I could get his spirit I would be able to be ready. That was how I thought I would give myself the best chance for success.
Was there anything you learned about him in your research that really helped you shape the performance?
I learned that his mother recognized early on that it was going to be education that took him into a whole new world. She said, I gotta get him out of here. She made sure he went to a mostly white school in a different area, and from that school he made different kinds of friends, and from those friends he was encouraged to go to UCLA and met a whole other group of friends — the eventual mayor Tom Bradley. From there, his whole world opened up from her decision to take her son out of his comfort zone, out of a neighborhood and into another kind of world.
Were you drawn to the project because you really wanted to play him?
My manager and I were at a party a year or two ago, and he saw one of the writers. He said, “Courtney, that’s one of the writers for the O.J. Simpson [show] … you are Johnnie Cochran. I’m going to go up to him. Come with me, come with me.” We went over and he said, “This is your Johnnie Cochran.” The guy was like … Okay. I’ll pass it on. I shook his hand and we talked for a minute, and my manager said, I’ll follow up, and I’ll get you all of his information blah blah blah. I know that that’s how things work in this town. He put me in his mind, and when they were about to look for this particular character, I was in the forefront of their minds. It happened because right place, right time. The rest is history.
You had so many great scenes in this week’s episode. Do you know if Johnnie Cochran really held a press conference while having his shoes shined?
I don’t know if that was fact or fiction, but it made sense to me. He knew there were certain things he had to take out and try to push the envelope of this case. He and [Robert] Shapiro were doing those kinds of things because they were both alpha dogs. They both knew then that [Judge Lance] Ito allowed this thing to become the circus that it is by putting it on television. Johnnie was the perfect mixture of bravado and passion and spirit and skill. His skill set was second to none because he had cut his teeth in this area of police brutality against African-Americans. He represented these people, rich, poor. He knew them; he knew their journey. He knew what the police responses would be and could be, and they knew they had a formidable opponent in him. It’s like Marcia [Clark] said when she found out he was on the case, she said, Ugh. They knew when Johnnie showed up it was on.
There was also a powerful scene in this episode between you and Cuba Gooding Jr., where Johnnie gives a speech to O.J. to pull it together, that this is the run of his life, and shares how O.J. inspired him. Was that one of your most challenging scenes?
It was because it was so big and I was driving it. I knew with all the cameras that were going to be in the room, and the fact that I’m driving the scene, I had to have the piece down cold. I had to know it backwards and forwards, inside and out, so we could get in and out of there; otherwise, we would’ve been there forever. I was super prepared, as was Anthony Hemingway, the director, and Cuba. We jumped all over that scene, and it became one of my favorites that happened. We knew when we left that room that day that we just did something special.