The marquee outside the Theatre at Ace Hotel held a pretty strong clue as to just what kind of panel was sequestered inside: “The People v. O.J. Simpson: The Verdict,” it read. “For Your Consideration.” Going into Emmy season, there’s not a lot of suspense as to whether the celebrated miniseries will rack up a slew of nominations. That awards dominance seems like almost as much a fait accompli as the 1995 jury vote dramatized in the show’s finale, which screened for a full house of industry invitees the night before its FX airing.
The series’ ability to find suspense in the inevitable goes a long way toward explaining why there’s so little suspense over “People’s” awards prospects. A post-screening Q&A with the primary cast and creative principals revealed that there was some additional angst, however, about how to avoid a sense of 20-year-old been-there-done-that in the last of the show’s 10 hours.
“There’s been kind of a joke on social media the last couple months: don’t spoil it,” co-writer and co-executive producer Larry Karaszewski told the nearly 2,000 assembled viewers packed into the former movie palace. “In all honesty, it actually scared us, in the sense that… we had enough information that people didn’t know that we knew we could make those first nine episodes really compelling. But when you come down to the verdict, everyone knows the verdict. What we found was, strangely enough, by knowing what happens, it actually made it more powerful. It was in a weird sense like ‘United 93’ or ‘Titanic,’ where in knowing what the outcome was, it was this slow-motion train wreck that was happening, and you saw how people’s lives were about to be ruined. And we always looked at this story as kind of a tragedy for all the characters, except, I think, for Mr. Cochran.”
Exec producer Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”), who returned to direct the finale, brought up another antecedent that dealt with possibly overfamiliar source material. “All the President’s Men,” he said, “was one of the few movies that I saw with my dad. And the sense that I had from watching that movie as a child… was you knew what happened, you knew the people, but you were on the edge of your seat… Larry and Scott [Alexander] and I were talking about that — what was the approach about how to shoot it, the angles, the lighting, to make it feel like a thriller?”
Some of the thrills in “The People vs. O.J.,” such as they are, have come not just in revelations about behind-the-scenes maneuverings but unexpected empathy for real-life characters that got caricatured. Both Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown confessed that they hadn’t been huge fans of the attorneys they portrayed, Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, at the time.
Brown described himself as “someone who was very much a champion of the defense and was very, very happy 20 years ago with the acquittal of O.J. Simpson… My perceptions of Darden changed from someone who was on the wrong side of history to a man who was simply trying to do his job to the best of his ability. The way that he was excommunicated and Uncle Tom-ed with ‘sellout’ and received death threats — that’s not something that he deserved to have come across his table. So I hope people can see the performance and, if they have a similar opinion to me 20 years ago, hopefully they might be able to change their mind.”
Paulson hadn’t always had the same feminist take on Clark that the show engenders, either. “I certainly didn’t think about changing any perception,” she told moderator Jeffrey Toobin, “because I did have my own, which was what you spoke of, which was this sort of ‘strident’ bitch that I had from back when the trial was happening… I wasn’t trying to orient it around anything that involved sympathy or empathy or anything… I was just playing what was on the page… (But) it was heart-wrenching and harrowing and horrifying that anyone would be talking about this woman’s fucking hairdo! It really made my blood boil…”
“How do you really feel about it?” called Courtney B. Vance, from a considerable distance downstage, over the audience’s whoops.
“Why don’t you be quiet?” yelled Paulson, briefly recreating some series chemistry. “Listen, Cochran!”
Speaking of chemistry, Toobin, author of the source book (“The Run of His Life”) allowed that the question he most frequently gets is whether Clark and Darden had a thing. “Look, neither one of them have come out to confirm or deny in any unequivocal (sense),” said Paulson, “so therefore in this telling, and also in your book, although it’s sort of suggested, it’s not confirmed. So we’re not gonna present that as a fact. However, Sterling and I both read both their books… and we have our opinion about what we think might have happened” — an opinion not difficult to discern from the longing looks in that Oakland hotel corridor.
“There’s clearly a great deal of affection,” said Brown, to considerable laughter, before putting it in the most basic post-’90s terms. “People ask, ‘Do you ship Marcia and Chris?’ And I was like, I don’t know, but if I get a chance to work with Sarah Paulsen again, sure, I ship them.”
Brown said he never got a response from Darden when he made an outreach to the former prosecutor, “which is fine. No, I mean that sincerely. I can understand after spending a few months in his shoes why he wouldn’t be eager to check it out.” But Nathan Lane did recall an amusing interchange with his real-life model.
“I’m old enough to remember when F. Lee Bailey was the most famous lawyer in America in the ’60s and ’70s, on television all the time, and my mother loved him,” said Lane, “so I thought that my mother would be pleased that I’m playing him… I was a little nervous to talk to F. Lee Bailey. I called him [after filming was complete], and he was very charming and gracious. He’s about 82 and lives up in Maine. And all he wanted to make sure of was that Bob Shapiro was not favorably portrayed.”
Bailey is probably pretty happy, up there in the Northeast, on that count. John Travolta’s performance as Robert Shapiro has been one of the most debated, being a bit more comically stylized than some of the more naturalistic turns, although Shapiro became a more poignant character later in the series as his balloon continually got punctured by his fellow attorneys, like the world’s most egotistical Charlie Brown.
Travolta admitted he based his characterization as much on Hollywood types as the real legal eagle. “To be perfectly honest, I know people like him,” Travolta said. “It’s a collective thing — there’s through lines to other people that behave like Robert Shapiro. And being around a looong time like I have, I’ve sat and watched lawyers for 40 years, and I’ve sat and watched studio heads and directors and people who have idiosyncratic behavior.” Travolta then put the question to Karaszewski and Alexander about how they “differentiate the voice of each character,” since “there are beautiful, brilliant writers like Woody Allen, but you hear their voice in almost every character.”
Alexander responded that “we are frustrated bad actors, so we do play out the parts in the room, and we’re trying to give everyone a voice. But giving Bob Shapiro a voice was possibly the most fun. Anyone who is name-dropping Marlon Brando seven words into a scene, it’s going to be fun.”
But not as much fun as Faye Resnick, all too briefly essayed early in the series by Connie Britton. “I think that Faye would be absolutely thrilled to be referenced as a historical figure,” said Britton, responding to Toobin’s classification, “so, Faye, you’re welcome… I didn’t really know who Faye was… So I spent a lot of time with the ‘Real Housewives’ and all that historical stuff she’s done since then,” Britton quipped.
“Of course the first thing I read was ‘the morally corrupt Faye Resnick’ (a line popularized by Camille Grammer). I thought, ‘Well, this poor lady, that’s not nice.’ I said no no no, I want to do my own research, so I read her book — which is thrilling. Guys, it’s not easy to come by, but if you can track it down, do yourself a favor and get Faye’s book. It’s fan-TAS-tic. Brentwood hellos all day!”
The finale of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs tonight on FX.