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Remaking a Murder: Inside The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

(ART STREIBER for EW)

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29 edition of Entertainment Weekly. For the full issue, buy it here.

Non-spoiler alert: The gloves still don’t fit. It’s a September afternoon on the Los Angeles set of FX’s new miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and star John Travolta is shooting the courtroom scene where defense lawyer Robert Shapiro realizes the bloody gloves, supposedly worn by O.J. when he allegedly stabbed his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman to death, are too small for the football player’s hands. As anyone alive in 1995 knows, the gloves’ size became a pivotal event in the trial, leading to Johnnie Cochran’s famous line “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit!” Travolta excitedly runs back over to Simpson’s Dream Team of defense lawyers, including Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), and summons their attention by clapping his hands. “Anyone interested in anything other than conspiracy theories?” he asks the group. “Some real demonstrable evidence? A little actual lawyering? Those gloves are too small.”

From the televised white Bronco car chase to Kato Kaelin’s highlights, no detail from the most infamous crime in modern history has been spared in the making of American Crime Story, set to debut Tuesday. Based on the book The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin and adapted by screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (The People vs. Larry Flynt), ACS is an epic 10-hour event that aims to take viewers behind the scenes of the 1994-95 case, as well as into the lives of its most famous players—including assistant district attorneys Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), defense lawyer Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), and of course Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.). A bizarre mixture of tragedy, celebrity, and sleaze, the case both enraptured and polarized the world as it played out in real time in the media for 16 months until Simpson was eventually acquitted.

“When we say we’re doing O.J. Simpson, the first thing you hear from everybody is where they were [when it happened],” says executive producer Brad Simpson (World War Z). “It’s a unifying event. There are few events in culture that are like it, where for people of a certain age you remember where you were.” It’s also a case rife with relevant and provocative themes well suited for a miniseries. “Doing it over 10 hours allows us to explore all the interesting topics that make the case what it is: the LAPD and race, women in the workplace, the birth of media culture, and 24-hour television,” says Karaszewski. Adds Gooding: “When you see these 10 episodes, you will come to the realization of ‘Yeah, I understand now why it was a not-guilty verdict’—it’s because of the insanity of what went down.”

The people behind ACS hope that wherever you fall on the verdict (or the players), the series will give you another perspective into history. “Whether you think O.J. did it or not was never what fundamentally interested us,” says executive producer Nina Jacobson (the Hunger Games franchise). “What interested us was to understand how that verdict was reached and what it meant to the people involved.” Adds executive producer Ryan Murphy, “It really shows you how we got to the place we are now in our culture. It changed the world in a very big way.”

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Sarah Paulson smells just like Marcia Clark. Literally. To get into character as the famed prosecutor, the actress decided she wanted to wear the exact same perfume Clark wore in the mid-’90s. So she paid a little visit to eBay, and now a glass bottle of Lancôme’s Magie Noire sits on a ledge in her trailer, within arm’s reach if she needs some inspiration. “I did a lot of research about it,” says the American Horror Story actress, wearing the last of her three Clark wigs during a break on the Fox lot. “Apparently it’s been reformulated many times, and I wanted the formulation in the ’90s. Who knows if that eBay person was lying? I try to wear just a little bit of it because it doesn’t smell lovely. But I actually find the smell kind of moving.”

The actress’ dedication to portraying Clark is in line with one of the major goals of the series: to show a different—and in some instances more human—side to these larger-than-life participants. After being riveted by Toobin’s book, producing partners Jacobson and Simpson pitched it to FX and brought on Karaszewski and Alexander to adapt. Like their scripts for Ed Wood and Flynt, American Crime Story has a surprising tone that shifts between light and dark. Meanwhile, Murphy had been seeking a challenge after directing HBO’s The Normal Heart and was slipped the scripts by his agent; he immediately wanted in. ACS was originally set up at Fox but got stuck in development, so network co-head Dana Walden suggested Murphy take the project to FX. It helped that Murphy and the network were looking for a sister series for American Horror Story. (Similarly to AHS, ACS will reboot each year with a new crime-based plot; next season will be set around Hurricane Katrina.) “What I loved about those scripts was how much I didn’t know,” says Murphy. “That was the hook for me. There was something prescient about them.” The series is particularly resonant when it comes to the portrayal of race relations and the police. “When we were in preproduction and working on it, the Ferguson stuff was going down and the Black Lives Matter movement had begun,” says Murphy. “We were shooting stuff that had already been written months before, and we were like, ‘Wow, the more things change, the more things stay the same.’ It was heartbreaking. I think all of us felt an obligation to get that stuff right.”

Image Credit: FX

While he typically takes on the showrunner role of his projects (Glee, AHS), this time Murphy acted as a mentor for TV newcomers Jacobson and Simpson, and focused more on directing and casting, curating a perfect A-list look-alike cast for the sprawling ensemble, including Selma Blair as Kris Jenner and Connie Britton as Faye Resnick. The actor who needed the most convincing to sign on? John Travolta, who hadn’t appeared on a series since Welcome Back, Kotter ended in 1979, and was hesitant to return to the small screen. “I was trying to do the unexpected,” says Murphy of chasing Travolta. “I gave up points to get him. I just wanted him. I think it was a smart decision…. He adds some great sizzle to it.” Still, it took three months for Travolta to agree to play Shapiro. “I thought, Well, I’ll probably only do TV once, and if you’re only going to do it once, why not do it at this fantastic level?” says Travolta. “The thing that sold me finally was not the sensationalism of the piece but that it was going to be an echo of how it changed society.”

The producers and writers were intent that everything shown on screen be rooted in reality (every script was vetted by Fox lawyers). “We did tons of research,” says Alexander. “I think we’re very proud of how close we stayed to the truth while creating drama out of recent history.” The stranger-than-fiction lunacy of it all (Judge Lance Ito receives a fan letter from Arsenio Hall) did sometimes even shock the producers. Says Murphy, “You just can’t believe what happened. Some of it is so absurd, even I was like, ‘We have to check this again. I can’t believe this happened.’” Viewers will not only see re-creations of the famous trial moments but also get a peek inside the personal lives of the main characters, including Kardashian’s relationship with his now very famous children (younger versions of Kourtney, Kim, Khloé, and Rob all make appearances) and, in particular, Clark’s struggles with being unwittingly thrust into the spotlight. “She had two young children,” says Paulson. “She was going through a terrible divorce. She was on the cover of tabloids. There was a human being behind the person you were watching. She became a cartoon or a caricature. You think about a silly haircut. We’re talking about a person with a beating heart and two young boys to take care of.”

Image Credit: FX

Despite all this dedication to the truth, Murphy and the producers discouraged the actors from meeting their real-life counterparts until at least halfway through shooting so their objectivity wouldn’t be clouded. Eventually a few of the cast members reached out. Paulson had dinner with Marcia Clark. Says the actress, “It felt like I was meeting Meryl Streep or something – somebody I truly admired.” Schwimmer had a lengthy phone call with Kris Jenner, ex-wife of the late Robert Kardashian. “She was so warm and generous with her time,” says Schwimmer. “We spoke for a few hours in real detail because I wanted to know who he was as a husband and a father. He was a real family man, and he had a lot of strong values and ethics. There’s a lot about him that I actually can identify with and relate to—especially the loyalty.”

Not everyone felt the urge to stroll down memory lane, though. Brown says that he reached out twice to Darden to no avail. “I sent him a big text saying who I was, what I was doing, would love to get together if at all possible, and he didn’t respond. I’m not mad at him. After pseudo-walking in his shoes for a few months now, I can imagine that this is not anything he would be eager to relive.”

While most legal dramas thrive on twists, the difference with American Crime Story is that Simpson’s verdict is a foregone conclusion. But Gooding hopes the series will make viewers see that this case isn’t as black-and-white as they may have believed. “There are weeks when I go home and I think, ‘Wow, man, I guess he did it,’” he says. “And there are other days when I go, ‘If that’s true, he’s innocent.’ So I go back and forth. If we get the audience to forget about the end result and get caught up in the moment, then that’s why we’re here.”