According to a 1995 Washington Post poll 71 percent of African-Americans believed that O.J. Simpson was innocent of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. In 1995, actor Sterling K. Brown was one of those people. In 2016, though, that’s no longer necessarily the case. That’s because Brown just got done playing Christopher Darden, one of the prosecutors who represented the people in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the first installment of the Ryan Murphy-produced anthology series “American Crime Story.”
As Darden, Brown is a quiet yet fierce figure caught between the pursuit of justice and the black community which rallied around the opposing side. Darden also, as depicted in the series, developed a close bond with co-prosecutor Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson) — a relationship which had even co-stars John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance speculating about what might have really happened. It all comes together for a performance which might be the real anchor of the entire series; a performance from, in Brown’s words, “the one lawyer on this thing who actually had to audition for his role.”
Sitting down with Indiewire at the TCA Winter Press Tour, Brown recalled the process by which he got the part, his memories of just how profoundly the real Simpson case impacted him and all the things he would want to thank the real Christopher Darden for surviving. An edited transcript is below.
So, congratulations on all this coming together. I imagine there’s a weird thrill in watching an episode and seeing your name first in the credits.
You know what’s interesting? I haven’t watched any. I’ve seen nothing. I tried to get a link but I didn’t have it, or somebody used up all the links for all the other computers they were watching it on, so I’ve seen absolutely nothing. But my friend [Bryan Tyree Henry] who’s on the TV show “Atlanta” for FX, saw it, and he’s like, “Dude, your name’s first!” So, that’s exciting to hear.
I love that you guys know each other. It’s a nice little FX family.
Dude, the fact that we both booked shows on the same year, on the same network — we go back 10 years. It’s incredibly thrilling for the both of us to be here today, together.
Congratulations! I mean, in general, talk to me about how you ended up in this role.
Oh, god, I mean, it was pilot season. Literally a year ago, I remember going into Jeanne McCarthy’s office to audition for this role. That’s right, I’m the one lawyer on this thing that actually had to audition for his role. And I remember thinking, when the audition came, and I started going on YouTube and looking up Darden and what not, I went and looked at myself in the mirror, and I was like, “Huh?” and I immediately cut my hair off. I immediately shaved my head, and I said, “I think this could play.”
I went and got my fake audition glasses that I wear to auditions — they’re fake, because they’re just the frames so I don’t cause any reflection for the camera — I went over the material and I listened to his voice and the way in which he spoke and I said, “Okay, this seems like something that could work.”
I went in for the audition, like any other pilot audition. Every actor during pilot season sees that brass apple hanging up above them, hoping that they can pick the fruit and take a bite. I auditioned and I felt good about my audition. Then it wasn’t for three or four months that I heard anything, at all. And then all of a sudden I heard, “We want you to do a chemistry read with Sarah Paulson.” Then that got canceled and they said, “Well, we have to fly you back to LA” because I was working on a Tina Fey movie, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” at the time. And they went, “We’re going to fly you back to LA to read with Brad [Falchuk] and Nina [Jacobson],” who are two producers on the show. And I came back, I’m sitting at Fox and I’m looking around to see what other brothers are here to audition to test for the role. Any time a black guy walks by, I was like, “He doesn’t really look like Darden.”
You know, that’s a different choice, that’s a different way to go with it. [laughs] But I was the only person they had brought back to read for the network. And this was my second time with FX — being the only person who they had seen for a role. My first series regular was on a TV show called “Starved,” which was so many years ago, and I was the only guy they brought in. So I go in, I read, it goes well. The next day I hear I got the job, and I rejoiced. [laughs]
It’s interesting that you didn’t end up having to do the chemistry read with Sarah Paulson, because your relationship is so central. Was that something you were anticipating, going in?
Absolutely. I mean when you read the books and you remember, 20 years ago, the jokes that people would make about Marcia and Chris, et cetera — even reading his book, he says that at the beginning of the trial they had a cursed relationship, but by the time it was over they were wonderful friends who loved each other dearly. And that was sort of my relationship with Sarah. I knew her work, I was a fan of her work and had a huge talent crush. But I can call her my friend right now, and I am so pleased I got the chance to work with her. And very pleased we got along with each other, because if we didn’t, that would have made for a very difficult working experience. [laughs]
Very much so.
Very much so. [laughs]
I talked earlier to [Paulson] about how this particular experience was such a tough one, especially with everything that gets heaped on your characters — I heard her compare it to being war buddies. [Paulson’s exact quote: “I don’t think enough of us know too much about what they felt for each other in their hearts. What I can say with confidence is that they were in a war together and that bond will forever be.”]
Yeah, we went through the trenches. I mean, there were times where we, as co-prosecutors for this case, we would look at the choices that were made by the defense — some of Ito’s rulings in terms of allowing the defense latitude to do X, Y and Z — and we would look at each other like, “This is some BS, why is this happening the way that it’s happening?” And we had a line in the script at one point in time, that I don’t think made it to the final draft, where we said, “No one will ever know what this experience is like, except for the two of us.” I think it was ultimately cut but I stand by that line. Nobody could know what that experience is like, except Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden.
In terms of the actual trial, what was your personal connection to the case? Were you following it at the time?
I followed it. I was a freshman at Stanford University, so I didn’t follow it too closely, because I didn’t want to flunk out of school and embarrass my entire family, but there’s no way that you could avoid it in its entirety. I will say when the verdict came out, the world stopped, essentially. I was living in the African-American themed house at Stanford University, called Ujamaa. And every one of the theme houses have 50 percent of the ethnicity and then 50 percent “other.” So we were in the large lounge in Ujamaa watching this verdict come down, and the black people in the university cheered. Overjoyed. And the “others” looked at us like, “Why are you cheering? This is crazy.” So it was the first time I can remember seeing so decisively, on a magnum scale, the divide between how black America experienced that case and their perspectives of America in general, and how white America had a very different experience.
It’s really been interesting to look back on.
I will say this: It has been a very interesting conversation starter, any time I go to a party where people ask me, “What’s your current project?” Across the board, people love to introduce their theories of how it all went down. I would say that that pans out in terms of black folks and white folks coming up with theories for why he didn’t do it and theories for why he did.
Having gone through all the research, having gone through this production, has your opinion about the case changed?
I believe it has. I mean first and foremost, it’s my responsibility to be an advocate for my character, so it’s hard for me to see things different than how Christopher Darden sees him. And Christopher Darden sees O.J. Simpson as someone guilty of murder, twice.
I believe, as a young black man, it was very easy to get caught up in the frustration of just being a black male in America and not seeing myself as being protected or served by the police in general. It was very easy to see how police misconduct could have easily played a part in the attempt to frame someone.
You know, you have these experiences where you’re driving in a car, you’re minding your own business, going to a friend’s house and you get pulled over by a cop because you’re the wrong color and you don’t seem to fit the profile of who should live in this neighborhood. And people are angry. It was two years after Rodney King and the Los Angeles Police Department was caught on tape — for one of the first times — brutally beating a man who couldn’t even defend himself. So at the time, I didn’t know if O.J. Simpson was guilty or not guilty. But I knew that the criminal justice system in my mind had finally worked for someone who looked like me, and that was the thing that was most important.
Twenty years later, having the opportunity to walk through Mr. Darden’s shoes, the thing that was missed then — something that I acutely feel now — is that two people had their lives brutally taken away from them. And that shouldn’t occur as an afterthought. That should be the thing that is first and foremost in the consciousness of all Americans. These people, who could not defend themselves, were brutally murdered and according to Mr. Darden, they were brutally murdered by O.J. Simpson. So yes, my opinion has changed.
You have a couple of really key scenes early in the series, especially before you’re officially on the case, where you’re expressing a lot of really interesting ideas about what O.J. Simpson represents in black America. When you first read those, what was your reaction?
It made sense. There’s a time when it was an event for a black person to be on television. Where black households would gather around, “Oh, you know, Sammy Davis is going to be on ‘All in the Family’ tonight! Let’s go check it out!” It was a big, big thing. So here you have this man who is a larger-than-life icon, who is a Heisman trophy winner, rushing leader in the NFL, who’s a star of TV and commercials and films, et cetera. He was an icon. So whether or not he gave back to the community, as Mr. Darden so aptly points out that he really did not, his image was still very powerful in terms of representing what was possible for black men in this country. As a young kid, the Juice was the Juice!
I think something that’s captured really well in the show is the fact that, for many people, he was an idol — and then the first time you meet Marcia Clark, she doesn’t know who he is.
It makes perfect sense for Sarah because she knows football from nothing.
Would you be explaining stuff to her on set?
I would explain some things and then she would say, “I don’t care.” [laughs]
I read that you weren’t able to talk to Christopher Darden at all. Is that something where if you would have had the opportunity, you would have really wanted it?
Absolutely. I would have wanted it and hopefully, if and when he watches the show, maybe there’s still an opportunity, even though it won’t affect the performance now — because the performance is done. But I would still love to meet him. I have tremendous respect for Christopher Darden and I recognize him as an individual of integrity, who did his job to the best of his ability, and I want to tell him thank you. Thank you for enduring hatred from his own community, for being ostracized, and called an Uncle Tom and a sellout. Things that he did not deserve because he cares for and loves black people so much… I would just like to tell him thank you for that.
At the end of this, where do you hope people land in terms of the story?
I hope people are entertained because it is a show, but I also hope that the entertainment can hook them into being educated and I hope mainstream America recognize privilege when they have it and admit to that. Recognize racism when they see it and admit that it’s real. And it’s not always one of those things that is in the forefront of people’s consciousness. Sometimes we have unconscious reactions to people that we’re not aware of, but you have to check yourself when you see that reaction and ask if it’s founded or unfounded and see that your experience of the world is different than somebody else’s. We need to start having legitimate empathy for the way in which we all experience this world. If the show can help that conversation, then I think it’s a show well-made.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10pm on FX.