Cuba Gooding Jr. remembers the night he met O.J. Simpson as if it were yesterday.
“It was the early 1990s and I was in a nightclub and O.J. was there,” he says. “I was a bit of a celebrity then because I did a film, Boyz n the Hood, and he came and shook my hand.”
Simpson, football legend-turned-showbiz personality, had a superstar aura about him that evening.
“He had black leather pants on, chains around his neck and a girl on each arm,” Gooding recalls.
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It was only a moment and it was over in a flash. But Gooding often went back to that memory while portraying this iconic and polarizing figure in The People v. O.J. Simpson, the riveting FX drama that allows TV viewers to re-experience the 1995 murder trial of the century.
“That image — the superstar, as opposed to the shell of a man who’s incarcerated today — was the motivation for my performance,” Gooding says.
The actor was in Dallas a couple of weeks ago to drum up publicity for the show, which airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays and is halfway through its 10-week run.
The People v. O.J. Simpson is television at its best. Every episode is packed with the twists and turns from the real-life crime and courtroom drama that became a national obsession.
Gooding says he was no different from everyone else two decades ago. “I definitely followed the slow-speed Bronco chase,” he says. “I saw every moment of that. But when the trial started, I was off filming somewhere, so I didn’t follow it quite as obsessively until the not-guilty verdict.”
Gooding says his feelings about the trial, in which Simpson stood accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, have changed with the passage of time.
My take on the whole thing at that time, as a young black kid from L.A., was to say, ‘Good. The LAPD didn’t get us this time.’
Cuba Gooding Jr.
“I remember feeling joy about the not-guilty verdict,” he says. “I’m ashamed to admit this now, but I didn’t even care if he did it or not. My take on the whole thing at that time, as a young black kid from L.A., was to say, ‘Good. The LAPD didn’t get us this time.’
“But more recently, after the year of doing research and filming the show, I feel bad that I behaved that way, because to make it just about that, about race, is an injustice to the two families that were destroyed by the deaths of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.”
That said, it was easy to get caught up in the heightened drama of the case, which is still making headlines. On Friday, L.A. police said they were testing a knife allegedly dug up in the yard of a former home of Simpson’s. If a Hollywood scriptwriter had dreamed this story up, everyone would have said it was too over-the-top.
“While shooting the series, it was the strangest thing,” Gooding says. “There were weeks when I thought he was innocent and weeks when I believed he was guilty. It was such a roller-coaster ride.
“Some weeks I was like, ‘Well, based on this information, he couldn’t have done it.’ Then some other piece of information would come along and I would be like, ‘Oh, well, that proves it. He definitely had to have done it.’ ”
The curious thing about the Simpson trial, Gooding has concluded, is that the more you learn about it, the less you seem to know with any certainty.
But after watching the series, he adds, “You definitely understand how the jury made the decision it made.”
There’s a cluster of roles that I think defines me as an artist. . . . I think this is now one of them.
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Gooding’s work in The People v. O.J. Simpson is among his best in an Academy Award-winning career. “There’s a cluster of roles that I think defines me as an artist: Boyz n the Hood, Jerry Maguire, Men of Honor,” he says. “I think this is now one of them.”
Perhaps his greatest challenge in portraying O.J. was recreating a public figure that people still vividly remember.
“There’s a show on Netflix called Narcos about Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord,” Gooding says. “The actor (Wagner Moura) is doing a wonderful job.
“But I think they kind of throw him under the bus every time they show real footage of Pablo Escobar. Because then, when they go back to the actor, it’s like tapping you on the shoulder and saying, ‘Now remember, he’s just acting.’ Luckily for me, our show doesn’t do that.
“But I can’t concern myself with whether I look enough like O.J. My job is to take you on an emotional journey. If I show you a truth emotionally, maybe help you understand this character better, that’s all I can hope for.”
Nevertheless, Gooding was thrilled with the praise he recently got from one viewer.
“This person came up and said, ‘I was so convinced you were O.J. that now, when I see a picture of the real O.J., it doesn’t look like him any more.’ I said, ‘That’s the best compliment I can get.’ ”
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
- 9 p.m. Tuesday