THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
10 p.m. Tuesday, FX.

It's been a little more than 20 years since a Los Angeles jury pronounced Heisman Trophy winner, NFL star, and actor Orenthal James Simpson not guilty in the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and waiter Ronald Goldman.

Starting Tuesday, FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story will bring it all back for us - the Bronco chase, the televised trial, the media circus - in a 10-episode series whose stars include Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) as prosecutor Marcia Clark, and Courtney B. Vance (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) as Johnnie Cochran, the late defense attorney who was arguably the MVP on Simpson's legal "Dream Team."

I spoke with all three last month about the people they're playing and about their memories of the so-called trial of the century.

The defendant

Gooding remembers cheering when the verdict came in Oct. 3, 1995.

"I was in New York when the L.A. riots hit" in 1992, in response to the acquittal of the officers in the beating of Rodney King, "and I had buddies who lived in South Central, and when I came back, I was just angry, you know? And I remember when they said, 'Not guilty,' I cheered, just as much as everybody else around me."

His thought at the time: "Even if he got away with it, good."

He'd watched "the day the world was watching the Knicks game [Game 5 of the NBA finals], the Bronco image in the corner, saying, 'O.J. Simpson with a gun to his head,' and watching it till he got out." But Gooding had tuned out for the televised murder trial that followed.

Did he think Simpson, currently imprisoned in connection with a 2007 robbery, committed the murders?

"I didn't know. I was like, maybe he didn't, because they didn't find him guilty. And still my opinion is my opinion. I keep it to myself because I don't want people to be influenced by what I would think was his guilt or innocence and then watch my performance and say, 'Whoa, this is how he really felt when he did it.' Because I didn't portray him that way."

He and executive producer Ryan Murphy, who directed four of the 10 episodes, agreed "this is not about his guilt or innocence," but about showing viewers how that not-guilty verdict came about, Gooding said.

Each take, he said, Murphy would give him a different possible thought his character might be having, some indicating his character's guilt, some not. "And it would put me in a different frame of mind. . . . And he would get in the editing room and he'd make his own decisions."

Whatever he believed about Simpson's guilt, Gooding said playing him weighed on the actor.

"It's the darkest role I've ever done. . . . I remember feeling guilt and frustration and shame, based on what I knew to be facts surrounding the case," he said, "and finding out I was wrong with certain facts."

After shooting the scene in Tuesday's premiere in which Simpson attends his slain ex-wife's funeral, Gooding said he wept in his trailer "because of the celebration when I heard the not-guilty verdict. Even if he is not guilty . . . I never grieved for these families."

Afterward, "I literally said to Ryan . . . 'I think I had a nervous breakdown during lunch.' And he laughed."

He met the man he'd one day be playing as a murder suspect - just once, years ago - "when he was his most flamboyant self. I'll never forget him walking into that nightclub and everybody abuzz. 'The Juice is here.' He's in leather pants with this silk shirt on, and his chains are like that," he says, indicating his chest.

Someone introduced Gooding to Simpson, saying, " 'This is the kid from Boyz n the Hood.' He said, 'Hey, youngsta!' " Gooding recalled. "I'll never forget that."

The prosecutor

"I really feel, as women, we failed her," Paulson said of Clark, whose pummeling in the media and subsequent attempts to soften her image are part of the series.

"We were so quick to agree with what was being told to us, by the media, that she was this, that, and the other thing. And I think, therefore, we thought: That kind of woman I don't want to be. . . . I don't want to be that strident, you know, ambitious bitch. And the truth is, what's strident and aggressive about trying to get a man you believe committed a double homicide . . . [put] behind bars?" said the actress.

"Marcia had won 19 of 20 cases prior to this case, which was her 21st," Paulson said. "She was competent. She was good at her job. What she wasn't was prepared for being in the national spotlight, and being ripped apart."

Did Paulson herself consider any of this at the time?

"No. I was like, 'Why is her hair like that, and what is she doing?' "

She acknowledges some nervousness about what Clark, whom she's met - "I loved her. She's witty, funny, charming, smart as a whip" - will think of her performance.

"I want her to feel I did right by her."

The defense attorney

"I watched . . . as we all did, the Bronco chase, and then the verdict. But in between, it was too much for me," said Vance.

"I remember O.J. when he was the USC star and then Buffalo Bills star. So I purposely chose not to go day to day" with the trial itself.

He'd met Cochran once, a few years after the trial, at a party at the lawyer's home, and recalls his being "gregarious" and a "people person." Beyond that, Vance said, "I didn't know anything about Johnnie Cochran" before taking the role.

"I mean, he was a beautifully flawed person, as we all are. . . . I was very intrigued and attracted to his journey," Vance said, "and how he cut his teeth on these police-brutality cases."

When the time came to join Simpson's defense, "he was a step ahead of everyone because he knew what the landscape was, what the costs were, when it was time to take a step up, when it was time to take a step back. Because he knew that, ultimately, this was a case about race."

He didn't study Cochran's courtroom performance.

"I said I want to just read and then jump in. I want to immerse myself in his history and his life. I'm not Johnnie Cochran. But if I can give a sense [of him] so that people can enter the story, I will have done my job."

Email: graye@phillynews.com
Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray
Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray