Cuba Gooding Jr at Morehouse explains challenges of playing O.J. Simpson

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sterling K Brown with me at Morehouse College Tuesday March 1, 2016. CREDIT: Helen K Ho

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sterling K Brown with me at Morehouse College Tuesday March 1, 2016. CREDIT: Helen K Ho

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Thursday, March 3, 2016

About seven years ago, Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. was in a career rut, “stuck in direct-to-DVD hell where I was working with first-time directors and guys who had never been on sets before” creating “subpar product since the director had no vision.”

So he told his agents: “Time for TV!”

Indeed, the cliche nowadays is TV is going through its own golden age, providing greater opportunities than film for many actors. Several – including Gooding Jr. – were drawn to FX’s 10-part mini-series “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” which just hit the halfway point on Tuesday and stars a range of big names including John Travolta, Nathan Lane, Sarah Paulson and David Schwimmer.

On Tuesday evening, Morehouse College hosted Gooding and Sterling K. Brown, who plays prosecutor Christopher Darden. They were joined by John Singleton, the Oscar-nominated director who oversaw the dynamic fifth episode that aired that night and featured the opening of the case.

“I asked to be involved,” Singleton said. “Once they were starting to do this, I knew it would be a great project. This was only the second TV show I’d done” after “Empire.”

For Singleton and Gooding, this was a 25-year reunion since “Boyz ‘n the Hood”debuted. And Gooding said he hadn’t seen Brown in months. We talked to the trio for 20 minutes before the screening and Q&A with Morehouse students.

The Simpson criminal case in 1995 was a massive cultural phenomenon, drawing the nation in with its sordid matrix of celebrity, race and murder.

Director John Singleton talks to me during an interview at Morehouse College March 1, 2016. CREDIT: Helen K Ho

Director John Singleton talks to me during an interview at Morehouse College March 1, 2016. CREDIT: Helen K Ho

A generation later, FX is garnering big ratings with a star-filled 10-part mini-series on the subject, bringing more than 8.3 million viewers for the opener last month, its biggest debut in history. Viewership has slipped since then but it was clearly a worthy risk for the network and it’s flying several stars around the country to different universities to talk to students who have no memory of the case in real time.

The episode that aired Tuesday featured the start of the trial, with Johnnie Cochran (played with confident energy by Courtney Vance) taking over the Dream Team of Simpson attorneys and facing off against his former protege Darden. There’s a powerful pre-trial scene where Darden tries to get past evidence of cop Mark Fuhrman using the N-word taken off the table, garnering Cochran’s ire and derision.

Darden “was very upset by the animosity between him and Cochran being played out so publicly,” Brown said.

Gooding, who is following the public reaction closely, heard Darden’s daughter had reached out to Brown and liked his portrayal. Brown said Jenee Darden wrote in her blog about the difficult time her family had at the time with people calling her father a sellout to his race.

And sometimes, fans can’t differentiate actor from the real person. One person on Twitter sniped at Brown about being an Uncle Tom for even taking the role.

“He’s acting like you’re the real guy trying to take O.J. down,” Gooding marveled.. “That’s hysterical!”

Gooding said a wealthy financier wanted him to play Simpson for a direct-to-video film but Gooding said no because they had no director attached. “A week later, my agent told me [producer] Ryan Murphy wanted to meet me,” he said. “He wanted me to play O.J.! What is it about O.J. right now?”

Prepping for the role, Gooding cleared his brain of all preconceptions and won’t reveal his personal opinion about Simpson’s guilt or innocence.

THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY "From the Ashes of Tragedy" Episode 101 (Airs Tuesday, February 2, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, Joseph Buttler as Polygraph Examiner. CR: Ray Mickshaw/FX

THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY “From the Ashes of Tragedy” Episode 101 (Airs Tuesday, February 2, 10:00 pm/ep) — Pictured: (l-r) Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, Joseph Buttler as Polygraph Examiner. CR: Ray Mickshaw/FX

Gooding acknowledges the obvious: “I’m never going to look like O.J. Just like Jamie Foxx is never going to look like Ray [Charles.] But the minute that you believe the truth of the intent and integrity of the performance, you can buy it.”

He recalled a journalist telling him that after previewing the first six episodes, she saw a picture of the real Simpson and said, “Hey! That’s not him!” “That’s a compliment,” he said.

“Your change their reality,” Brown said.

Gooding added: “If you want an impersonation, go see a stand-up comedian. This is a performance. This is what we do.”

Singleton: “He made my job so easy.”

My colleague Ryon Horne, who videotaped the interview (and I will post the video when he has it ready), noted that Gooding’s “Boyz n the Hood” character Tre Styles ended up at Morehouse. And now, Singleton and Gooding are there 25 years later.  “I made it y’all! I made it!” Gooding yelled. Singleton added: “You made it to the house!”

And since this was just two days after the Oscars, I asked them what they thought of Rock’s hosting gig:

“He took no prisoners,” Singleton said with approval. “He kicked everyone’s a**.”

“He held nothing back,” Gooding added.

“He voiced the opinion of a lot of people,” Singleton said. “Now people have to do the work.”

ON TV

“The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX


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