OnlyOnAOL: The star of 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' explains why the series nails it

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BY DONNA FREYDKIN

This reporter was a newbie production assistant in the CNN newsroom when the verdict was read, to wide-eyed silence. Not guilty.

It was a trial that captivated and obsessed a nation, that dominated the news cycle, and that introduced us to the reality juggernaut that became the Kardashians.

We're talking about legendary football star O.J. Simpson, who was accused of murdering his wife and her friend. Both were found stabbed on her property. And the legal twists and turns of the case are the subject of "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." The premiere set a ratings record for FX. And for very good reason.

The show is a perfect blend of credibility, authenticity, and gossipy, lurid entertainment. Based on the nonfiction book by Jeffrey Toobin, "The Run of His Life: The People V. O.J. Simpson," the series stars David Schwimmer, Nathan Lane, John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance as the key members of Simpson's legal dream team. Simpson, for those who somehow lived inside a yurt for the last two decades, was charged with the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. After a televised trial that captivated the country, he was found not guilty in October 1995.

The heart and soul of the series, executive produced by Ryan Murphy, belongs Vance, who captures Cochran's flamboyance, his folksiness, his legal savvy, and his passionate embrace of the fight for equal rights. In one particularly searing scene, Cochran gets pulled over – for no reason – and handcuffed, while his two little daughters look on in horror from the backseat, then the front seat. In another, Cochran, with his unfailing ability to read a room, redecorates Simpson's house, removing the photos of Simpson with Caucasian friends and women. Instead, where a photo of Paula Barbieri once sat, goes a picture of Simpson's mother.

The second episode airs at 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

Vance's opinion on Simpson's guilt or innocence isn't relevant, he says. "It doesn't matter. The tragedy is not O.J. The real tragedy is Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. That's what got lost. There was so much at stake. The trial became about so many other things," he says.

Indeed, the murders took a backseat to the courtroom shenanigans and infighting. Prosecutor Marcia Clark (a staggeringly gifted and nuanced Sarah Paulson) grappled with an ugly custody fight and mundane childcare issues while taking on the case of her career. Cochran, meanwhile, saw beyond the murders to the bigger picture: a referendum on race and how African-Americans were treated by police.

"The case became a circus. Johnnie Cochran knew all he had to do create the atmosphere so that everybody is looking at so many other things than the guilt and innocence. Nobody knew what DNA was at that point," says Vance. "Johnnie Cochran started out with these cases where he was out there defending the defenseless, who had no place to go. He knew the landscape. The prosecution didn't understand what they were up against. Everybody had an agenda in this trial."

To prep for the role, Vance read. And read some more. "I made the decision – I didn't want to get overwhelmed. My plan of attack was not to watch the trial. I didn't talk to anyone. I wanted to capture the spirit of him. I put that wig on and that transformation happened physically," says Vance.

As for his wife Angela Bassett, who was also working with Ryan Murphy on his other series, "American Horror Story," she mostly stuck to her own job.

"She had her own ensembles to try to figure out and keep straight. She didn't see me. She wasn't on set much. She's in awe now. Just like I am. It's an amazing transformation for all of us. I would go on set and look at people and go, 'Whoah,'" he says. "We knew when we finished that all things being equal, we did something extraordinary. The fashion, the depth of feeling, the outrage, it's all in there."

Take a look at the key players in the trial below.

16 PHOTOS
Key Players in the OJ Simpson Trial
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OnlyOnAOL: The star of 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' explains why the series nails it
FILE - In this Wednesday, June 21, 1995 file photo, O.J. Simpson holds up his hands before the jury after putting on a new pair of gloves similar to the infamous bloody gloves during his double-murder trial in Los Angeles. The return of O.J. Simpson to a Las Vegas courtroom next Monday, May, 13, will remind Americans of a tragedy that became a national obsession and in the process changed the country's attitude toward the justice system, the media and celebrity. (AP Photo/Vince Bucci, Pool, File)
Defense attorney Robert Shapiro (L) sits next to O.J. Simpson during a preliminary hearing following the murders of Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman July 7, 1994 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Lee Celano/WireImage)
Johnnie Cochran Jr., left, and Gerald Uelmen leave the Criminal Courts Building following the arraignment of O.J. Simpson on murder charges Friday, July 22, 1994, in Los Angeles. Cochran, who is a high-profile attorney known for his trials kills and links to the city's African-American community, is the latest addition to Simpson's defense team, which also includes Uelmen. (AP Photo/Chris Martinez)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 27: Prosecutor Marcia Clark complains to the judge 27 February about a second statement by Rosa Lopez, a key defense witness, that was not released by the defense. Lopez, a housekeeper to a neighbor of O.J. Simpson's, claims to have seen a white Ford Bronco outside his home at around the time the prosecution claim the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman took place. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read POO/AFP/Getty Images)
Witness Brian "Kato" Kaelin testifies under direct examination during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial at the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building in this Tuesday, March 21, 1995 photo. (AP Photo/John McCoy, Pool)
FILE - This file photo combo shows O.J. Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, left, and her friend Ron Goldman, both of whom were murdered and found dead in Los Angeles on June 12, 1994. O.J. Simpson was arrested in connection to the murder and acquitted of the crime. Simpson is now serving nine to 33 years in a Nevada prison after a jury found him guilty in 2008 of leading the gunpoint robbery of two sports memorabilia dealers in Las Vegas, and he's seeking a new trial because he says his longtime lawyer failed to disclose that he knew about the plan in advance and told Simpson it was legal and provided bad advice at trial. (AP Photo/File)
FILE--Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman testifies in the Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles Thursday, March 9, 1995. The calm, controlled voice of Mark Fuhrman sliced through the O.J. Simpson courtroom Tuesday on racially explosive tapes offered by the defense to unmask the detective as ``L.A.'s worst nightmare,'' a racist, lying policeman. It was the same voice jurors heard months ago when the investigator who found the bloody glove on Simpson's property swore under oath that he had not used the word ``nigger'' in the last 10 years. (AP Photo/Pool, Kim Kulish)
Los Angeles Police Department Det. Philip Vannatter denied lying to the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial when he testified that he didn't consider Simpson a suspect when investigators entered his estate without a warrant Tuesday, Sept. 19, 1995, at Simpson's double-murrder trial in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy, Pool)
Los Angeles Police Department criminalist Dennis Fung, right, arrives with Brown family attorney, John Kelly, at the Los Angeles County Superior Court in Santa Monica, Calif. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1996 for the wrongful-death civil case against O.J. Simpson. Fung was on the stand on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Michael Caulfield)
Potential O.J. Simpson alibi witness Rosa Lopez testifies in Los Angeles Superior Court Thursday, March 2, 1995, without the jury present during Simpson's double-murder trial. The woman billed in Johnnie Cochran Jr.'s opening statement as the Maid With the Alibi came to court in late February, testified under protest, hopped on a plane to El Salvador and hasn't been heard from since. (AP Photo/Blake Sell, Pool)
Limousine driver Allan Park, left, testifies while attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. displays a bag during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles Wednesday, March 29, 1995. (AP Photo/Hal Garb, Pool)
Prosecutor Christopher Darden points at a chart during his closing arguments as Marcia Clark looks on, Friday, Sept. 29, 1995, in a Los Angeles courtroom during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial. Darden said to the jurors ``It's time to stand up. It is time to stand up. The Constitution says a man has no right to kill and get away with it just because one of the investigating officers is a racist.'' (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, pool)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 19: O.J. Simpson (R) whispers to Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey (L) during testimony of FBI special agent William Bodziak 19 June during the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles. Bodziak compared one of O.J. Simpson's tennis shoes to a model of the Italian-made Bruno Magli shoes, which left imprints at the murder scene of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read POO/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 16: O.J. Simpson defense attorney Alan Dershowitz (standing) gestures during a motion to Judge Lance Ito 16 June in which he said that the standard of juror dismissals must be changed. The defense has accused the prosecution of juror targeting and hiding witnesses. Seated are (L-R) prosecutor Marcia Clark and Scott Gordon. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read POO/AFP/Getty Images)
Defense attorney Barry Scheck, right, continues his cross- examination of Los Angeles Police criminalist Collin Yamauchi, Friday, May 26, 1995, during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, Pool)
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito yells in court during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles Friday, Sept. 29, 1995. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, Pool)
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