The People v. O.J. Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown on the ‘N-Word’ Scene and Playing the Trial’s Most Polarizing Lawyer

Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Playing Christopher Darden on FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story took Sterling K. Brown to painful, unexpected places. He stood for months in the shoes of a man branded an Uncle Tom just for doing his job. In Tuesday night’s episode, we saw his most pivotal scene yet: Darden’s famous N-word courtroom argument, which he lost miserably to Johnnie Cochran. The actor ultimately got the job because he was able to portray Darden’s quiet rage and frustration. “A lot of great actors can’t not be charismatic; they can’t not be the star,” explained executive producer Nina Jacobson. “There was a point where I went to go look at Sterling’s other work, and I actually couldn’t believe it was the same person. He had transformed himself so much for his audition and somehow made himself less imposing.” Vulture spoke to Brown about his unconditional respect and empathy for Darden, the ugly truths he has learned about the justice system, and a recent racially charged incident that left him feeling dejected.

The role of Chris Darden might be the toughest one because he is such a conflicted man. He was caught between what his community was telling him versus what he felt in his heart regarding the case. How did you go about personifying that inner conflict?
First things first: I read Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The People v. O.J. Simpson: The Run of His Life. And that’s sort of an overview on which our show is based. And then I was able to get a hand on Christopher Darden’s book, In Contempt, which wasn’t easy to find. It wasn’t in circulation. But a friend of mine who knew I had just recently booked the role was at her mom’s house, and her mom had the book and graciously passed it along to me so I could highlight it until my heart was content.

Reading his book was really interesting, especially in tandem with Toobin’s book, because you have one person’s perspective of how they see it from the outside and then your own perspective of how you see yourself in the same set of circumstances. There’s this idea out there that he was inept or not good at his job. But that wasn’t something I was working with. I thought he was very good at his job, and he did the best job he could, given the circumstances. He was very cognizant that the idea of a black prosecutor prosecuting a black defendant would not necessarily be something that would be popular amongst African-Americans. He did feel, however, that if he was able to present the evidence to his people in the reasonable way in which it was presented to him, they couldn’t help but reach the same conclusion he did. He was just trying to do his job in prosecuting a man who he thought was guilty of a double homicide. But the excommunication he underwent in terms of being called an Uncle Tom and a sellout, I think it hurt him deeply.

Was it difficult not to take on some of those feelings yourself?
I was watching a scene the other day in the show where Johnnie Cochran was sort of embraced by the black church. And, you know, they’re praying for him and for his success in the O.J. Simpson trial. And to see that stark contrast with Darden being a raisin in the sun, you know? An island to himself. It was very, very interesting to bear witness to that because it was a very lonely road for him to tow. Because he’s the only black prosecutor working on that case at the time, so it’s not like he had somebody to turn to and be like, “Hey, I can’t believe what we’re going through here. This is tough.” So more than me feeling bogged down, my empathy for him and what he had to endure was augmented by having gone through this process.

I know you’ve tried to reach him and he didn’t respond, right? 
That’s right. I’m curious to see what happens. I’ve had a couple people reach out to me on Twitter, a former associate of his in law took a picture of herself and said, “Sterling K. Brown, I’m here with your doppelgänger. Your twin! #ChristopherDarden.” And she’s taken an actual picture with Darden recently! And I said, “Please tell him I said hello.” And then his daughter actually tweeted me and said, “You look a lot like my dad.” And this was his daughter who was 16 years old at the time of the trial. She actually wrote a blog talking about her experience of the show and what it was like to live through that, live through her father getting death threats and her family being threatened as well. And then seeing us portray it. So I know that there are people that are close to him who have been watching. As to whether or not that means he’s watching himself, I’m not sure. But I hope he sees something that he can admire in the portrayal that rings true for him. And maybe one day we’ll get a chance to sit down and break bread.

Did working on the show give you a different perspective on the trial?
Well, Cochran was talking about trials not being about evidence, trials being about narratives and who tells the better story. That’s something that really struck me because information can be told in a multitude of different ways and evoke completely different responses. The prosecution had what they thought was an insurmountable amount of evidence: DNA, blood, a history of violence towards the victim by the defendant. And Cochran was able to turn this from a double homicide case to a case about the indictment of the Los Angeles police department. I remember Chris Darden talking on Charlie Rose about how truth has very little to do with receiving justice in the criminal-justice system and how he felt the system had let down the victims. If Rodney King had not been two years before, if it had been another part of the country, it could’ve been a completely different outcome. That was the world in which we were living in at the time and the black population of Los Angeles was all too willing to find a reason to punish the Los Angeles police department. This is a case of the right message with the wrong messenger.

Some of your most poignant scenes are with Courtney B. Vance (who plays Cochran). They’re a little shocking sometimes in the way Johnnie responds to Chris. Mr. Darden has talked about how hard it was to deliver the N-word argument in court. How did you feel filming that scene?
That scene was one of the scenes I auditioned with. Gosh, it’s such a fascinating thing because I agree with what his sentiment at the time was, like how people might respond to the N-word. I think he was ultimately right. And then Johnnie retorted and it was so shocking on so many levels because we set it up as though it was a mentor-mentee relationship. And Johnnie Cochran was a very prominent lawyer in Los Angeles at the time. A lot of black lawyers looked up to him. So, to be accustomed to being on the same team with your mentor and now having to joust against him, I think was possibly intimidating for Mr. Darden. The way that Johnnie was able to spin that whole incident and make it look as if Darden was an embarrassment to his people frustrated him deeply. And I’ll also say this: Playing that scene, I was so angry! Like there’s very little acting I had to do because it was just, How dare he!

When Chris is making his arguments, it all makes perfect sense. But then Johnnie gets up and it makes sense what he’s saying, too. And you’re just left with this feeling that the one who was more forceful and charismatic is going to win.
That’s exactly it! When I was watching the scene, I was noticing the way in which John Singleton edited it together and it really made Mr. Darden seem as if he wasn’t as polished as I thought he was going to come across when we were shooting it. And then Johnnie was just so slick and so passionate and so eloquent. And it was just like, ugh! Everything I tried to do with such earnestness just got obliterated. And I felt for myself. I felt for myself! I was like, What is going on here? I know I didn’t do what he’s saying I just did! And now because he said it, people are going to take it as gospel.

But it really went down like that in real life, I think.
Yeah. It was shortly after the time that the poll was out, you know? Seventy-six percent of African-Americans thought Christopher Darden wasn’t doing a good job. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He talks about it in In Contempt. He says, you know, the public animosity that played out between him and Cochran was one of his great regrets throughout the trial, and that he wished it had not become so public. It became about one person being on the right side and one person being on the wrong side. That was particularly painful to him.

When I interviewed the producers, they talked about how the role of Chris Darden was so difficult for them to cast because they met lots of really good actors but felt people were doing it a little bit too intense and you had succeeded at making yourself less imposing. Do you see that in yourself?
That’s so interesting. I’ll tell you, the first thing I did was cut my hair off. Then I watched a lot of YouTube footage of the trial and interviews of Chris’s and just tried to get inside of his vocal dynamic, his different intonations, which aren’t necessarily mine. If you can find somebody’s voice to a certain extent, it explains a lot of how people responded to him. His voice isn’t as full as mine is. It isn’t as resonant as mine is. It’s more nasal and it’s more back in his throat. Finding that voice and using that voice in the audition really helped me unlock a lot about who his character was. He didn’t have the dynamic sort of personality that Johnnie Cochran had. The mistake I think a lot of people make is trying to play him like he was a bad lawyer. The thing about that is that it’s a negative choice. When you’re an actor, you try to find positive choices. Jeffrey Toobin came on set and he was very complimentary to both Sarah Paulson and myself, telling us what a wonderful job we were doing on the show and then he said something like, “It’s just such a shame that they weren’t very good lawyers.” Both Sarah and I had to walk away because we didn’t want that sort of resounding in our consciousness.

Chris Darden can take heart that there is at least one person more reviled than him: Mark Fuhrman. Here he’s played by a very likable actor, Steven Pasquale. Did you enjoy those scenes?
Darden talks about meeting Fuhrman for the first time in his book, and how his Spidey sense was tingling from the very beginning that something was off about this guy. Something was not right, so I knew that was going to be present from the beginning. His level of ire that he has with Mark Fuhrman is very, very high.  It was really interesting to play those scenes with Steven, and he was great. Fantastic. Very understated. It was one of those things I’m sure the editors had a lot of fun with because they could’ve gone in many different directions. We didn’t want it to be openly hostile. We wanted that simmer to be underneath all of the interactions between the two of them.

The show will cover the glove fiasco in the seventh episode. What was it like to relive that in Darden’s shoes?
Oh man. So, in each interview I’d watch of Darden’s he was obviously asked about the glove, and on Oprah in particular, I think she asked him, “Did you know it was going to be this huge mistake?” and he said no. He even says it was obvious to him that O.J. was faking and that the glove fit. Shooting that was very, very powerful. The way we set up the narrative in our story may not be exactly the way it happened in real life, but I think we set it up in a very interesting way. It was one of those things as an actor, you have to be in the moment. As Sterling K. Brown who knows what happened, you have to throw that all completely away and believe in the bottom of your soul that you’re about to get a slam dunk, that when you put that glove on that man’s hand, it’s over. It’s done. The ocular proof is right in front of the jury, and I’m about to bring this thing home for everybody. I’m gonna be celebrated. It’s a very interesting Vulcan mind trick that one plays on himself while he’s doing that scene.

Did Cuba Gooding Jr. have a really good time with that?
Oh, God. That dude, Cuba, man. He’s such a natural-born fool anyway that the opportunity for him to ham it up in front of the whole set, in front of the guys and the jury, he was pretty much born to do this scene.

Chris and Marcia are portrayed to have a flirtatious relationship, which in real life people have been trying to get to the bottom of for decades. What do you know?
I’m starting to gather that. I didn’t even realize how present that was during the trial but people may have their little jokes that they would make about them and comments that other people would make. I think Johnnie Cochran even said, “it looks like the relationship between the two of them has gone beyond the platonic point.” So we do tease that out a little bit within our show. In episode seven, you get a chance to see a little bit more of what transpires between the two of them outside of the courtroom. On the record, I don’t think either one of them has ever confirmed nor denied anything beyond being friends.

I understand there’s an epic fight scene in episode nine between you and Sarah Paulson. Chris has had it. He feels used.
Man, Sterling blowing up at Sarah, Chris blowing up at Marcia, was hard because I love her so much. That whole day I didn’t talk to her and she would come up to me and be like, “You’re not talking to me right now, are you?” And I’m like “nope.” I had to build up the animosity, the frustration of the whole thing. I couldn’t do that and just be giggling and chuckling with her all day. We shot it a few different times. I remember the last take that we did Sarah had said, “That was really good, so probably that’s the one that they’ll use.” But after it was over it was such a relief to be done because I just wanted to go back to loving some Sarah Paulson. That’s all I wanted to do. 

We talked about how angry you were when you did the N-word scene, that you actually felt angry yourself. Were there other feelings of Chris Darden’s that you ended up living with temporarily that were difficult for you?
You know I can answer that like this, and this is a very interesting experience that happened to me just yesterday. I was in Philadelphia doing a re-shoot on the M. Night Shyamalan film that I shot at the end of 2015, called Split. I was down in the hotel restaurant and I heard a group of people talking about The People v. O.J. Simpson. I got a chance to be a fly on the wall. It was a group of black folks talking about the show and they were talking about how they enjoyed it and how they learned all these things about [Robert Shapiro] and [Robert Kardashian]. And then they said something like, “Who’s that coon nigga? That coon nigga for the prosecution? Darden, Darden, right?” You know, it hit me that there are people who may still feel very much that this man was a race traitor or a sellout or an Uncle Tom or a coon, if you will. My heart broke a little bit because I realized Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark were trying to speak up for Ron Goldman and for Nicole Brown Simpson. Johnnie Cochran had the whole black community trumpeting him and lifting him up. Christopher Darden never really had anybody speak up for him and the level of empathy that I’ve gained for this man and the ordeal that he had to go through and the fact that he endured it to the end, that he didn’t shirk his responsibility to the prosecutor, that he saw it through in the face of death threats and hate mail — my level of compassion for him is infinite. And it hurts my heart when I hear things about him that make him seem like he’s a one-dimensional man, that don’t give him the credit for the wholeness of who he is and what he did during that trial.  I care about him and that people see him for the 360 degrees of humanity that he is on this planet. I hope that watching the show may possibly change people’s minds who felt a certain way about him 20 years ago.

Did you respond to those people?
No. I thought about it. They were far enough away from me that I wasn’t really in their conversation, and they didn’t know that I was in the show or anything so I just took it on as a reconnaissance.

No wonder Chris Darden is unwilling to revisit this period of his life.
I completely understand.

PVOJ’s Sterling K. Brown on the ‘N-Word’ Scene