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

Sarah Paulson On "Carol"
Sarah Paulson On "Carol"

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.