casting couch

How The People v. O.J. Simpson Cast Its Jury

Your 24. Photo: FX

The People v. O.J. Simpson has largely focused on the prosecution and the defense, but with last night’s episode, the focus shifted to background players: the jury who endured a maddening, 266-day sequester. The episode, “A Jury in Jail,” based off of the chapter “Stockholm Syndrome” from Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life, takes the perspective of the jury, who were shut off from the rest of the world and locked in their rooms every night at 11 p.m., without any television and very little contact with the outside world. “That was an episode we wanted to do from the beginning because there’s so much crazy stuff,” said Nina Jacobson, one of the executive producers of the show. “Everybody in the world knows what’s happening in this trial except for them.”

Casting the jury was much like jury selection itself, because producers had to find actors who would be willing to do background work for much of the show but would also be able to act when the time came. So when the defense and prosecution selected jury members during episode four, the show conducted its own winnowing process. “We looked for people who can be on this shoot for the next four months and commit themselves as an extra to showing up every day,” said Brad Simpson, a co-executive producer on the show. From that pool, they held more auditions to determine who would have speaking parts in last night’s episode and again in episode ten. “There are people who are very good extras and can do reactions, but then give them lines, it’s awkward,” added Jacobson. “So we ended up auditioning our own already-employed extras to decide who to give dialogue to.”

They eventually cast people like comedian Cocoa Brown as Jeanette Harris, the juror known as “Queen Bee,” who gets dismissed because she had experienced domestic violence in her past, and actress Roslyn Gentle, the juror known as “the Demon” for her piercing gaze and constant knitting. Cassius Willis, as juror Michael Knox, had to be willing to wear a Speedo. They also inadvertently cast an actress who had worked with the actual O.J. Simpson: Susan Beaubian, who plays madam foreman Armanda Cooley, starred as Mrs. Nordberg, wife of O.J. Simpson’s Nordberg in the 1988 Naked Gun movie.

That coincidence notwithstanding, unlike the actors who would fill in for the prosecution and defense teams, the show was careful not to cast anyone famous for the jury. “Every time you cut away to a famous person in the jury box, I think it would have taken you out of it, because the point of it is our team is famous, the jurors are not,” said Simpson. But also, it would have meant long days with no dialogue. “They would have gone starkraving mad,” said Jacobson.