Although Sarah Paulson has gathered the lioness’ share of the plaudits for her performance in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the show is renowned for the amount of acting talent on display. Playing Johnnie Cochran, lead defense counsel for O.J. Simpson, Courtney B. Vance also stands-out and currently favors to win a Best Actor in a Limited Series at the 2016 Emmys. I spoke to Courtney while he was spending time in Africa what preparations he made for such a role, what he made of the success, and what in his acting background prepared him for this role.
At AwardsDaily TV we all published our favorite TV shows for the year, and the show [The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story] is my number one show for the year. And I mean that. So to get to talk to you is an honor.
How did you head towards the field of acting as you were growing up? Was it something you wanted to do? How did you get there?
No, I knew nothing abut acting. It was the furthest thing from my mind. I was raised by parents who valued education. My mother was a librarian, and my father was a manager in a supermarket. So both my older sister and I were raised to value education. We basically grew up in a library. It was a local library branch near the house.
At what moment in your career did you think “Ah this is where I wanted to be, this is what I was striving for.” Was there a point like that?
There probably was. At every stage I knew nothing about acting. I just knew as a student I would figure it all out. I knew that I wanted to start theater with each show I’ll meet different people, and I’ll figure out what to do. Of course after my second show I had so much fun. After a year at Harvard, I didn’t think of it as a career, so I was playing catch-up at that point. After I got into it I wanted to go to Canada. There was a big art scene over there at the time. I had a Plan B, which was to work a steady job, and get enough money for the summer so I could do workshops like the Shakespeare company and got into it that way.
What’s it like being married to Tina Turner? How did you meet Angela Bassett?
Ah, Tina Turner. [Laughs] We met at drama school, she was finishing up, and I was coming up to the drama school in April to try and figure out a way to pay for it after I had got accepted. After I finished talking to the finance estate officer, two students were in charge of taking me out and showing me the area, and Angela was one of those students. I met Angela. We talked about the school, read manuscripts, and we kept coming into the same circles.
So let’s talk about the show The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Has anyone ever bought you gloves that didn’t fit?
[Laughs] No, they haven’t.
How much did you watch of the O.J. Simpson trial? Did you follow the whole thing?
No, I followed nothing. I was a big O.J. Simpson fan. I was in shock. Back then I was shooting Mario van Peebles’ Panther, so we were there up there doing that. Everyone was very excited about that. We all gathered in the lobby of the hotel watching a game, and all of a sudden the O.J. Simpson thing came on, and everyone was like “Oh, what is this?” It was the shock, and I couldn’t watch it when they put it on the television. I knew nothing about the trial.
Exactly how did you get the part of Johnnie Cochran?
My manager and I were at my wife’s premier for American Horror Story, and we came out to the reception area and my manger saw the writers and producers. I had not heard about the O.J. project. It was a very cordial conversation at first. They said they’d put me in their minds, and when I actually met with Ryan [Murphy, producer] and Brad [Falchuck, producer]. We decided we were right for each other.
What was your interpretation based on for Johnnie Cochran since we only have the courtroom footage of him? How did you develop a sense of the real man?
You know, Robin, because I didn’t watch the trial or follow the trial I was a little intimidated by the whole process. I said to myself I felt I was not going to watch the tapes or watch all kinds off footage. I felt I would be imitating it if I watched this. I did what I needed to do to tune into him, so jumped right in. We knew we would be flying with ten episodes. We knew we would have a great time but didn’t know there would be four or five cameras on me. I didn’t have chance to read a lot of what happened, then I saw myself in the mirror, and I looked like him. I was going to make my choices in this film. I am me, I am not him – the people are great, the stories are great, the scripts are great, it was right on the money.
The scene were the cops pull Cochran over in a white neighborhood – have you ever personally experienced anything like that?
Yes, I did. It happened to me in front of my own house. My children were with me at the time. I thought I heard something, so tried to look outside the door and when I opened the door there were five police officers. They were like “Come on out. Get on your knees.” I had watched Law & Order, and all those sort of shows. I mean, we were talking midnight in all white neighborhood. I came out, got on my knees. One officer saw it was me, and they were like “Oh boy, I am so sorry Mr Vance.” It was very humbling. I was just glad my children did not wake up and see me on my knees.
Wow. So Ryan Murphy is white. Most of the screenwriters were white. Did you have any reservations about this story that is crucial to the American black experience handled by white guys?
No. John Singleton directed one of the episodes. One of the other writers is black. The stories were very, very well, thought out, and well documented. It was more about a story well told.
It was. What do you make of the amazing reception from critics and audiences for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story? Everyone usually talks about the Drama category with the Emmys, but people are talking about the Limited Series this year.
I think we were all shocked. The furthest thing from my mind, that everyone would praise it. You know, maybe a few, we really didn’t know. We had lived through it at a certain age, and those that were young at the time, this was a new experience for them. We just wanted to make the best project we could, and we put our money were our mouths were. It was getting the best cast, best directors, best crew, best sets and locations, to make sure we have the money to get it exact. There’s like five or six lawyers scrutinizing every line, making sure everything was accurate. After that we had the marketing. People would say that they don’t want to wait to see things, they binge watch – but this was so good according to the public, people would wait for it, and watch it week by week. Talking about it by the water-coolers, all these wonderful conversations and dialogue, people talking about the issues, the white, the black. It really made a difference.
The history part was accurate, but it was a really good drama in its own right, almost like watching fiction. It was that good. You could forget this actually happened.
That’s true, that’s true. That is how I like to see it. That’s how good it was, could have been a fiction story. Younger folks watching who didn’t know anything about it were like “This really happened?” or “You could not write this.” This really happened: a perfect storm of celebrities, race, family, sports heroes, marketing, the corporate world, the police. All involved in this story. It was all in there: this man, and the way he was from USC [University of Southern California] to Brentwood. In this bubble, the hero, the police loved him, white people loved him. With this case everything started to get real. This was the case will be talking about for years and years and years afterwards.
Did you get to keep any of those suits? Did you get to take them home?
No, it was the eighties, nineties. I didn’t really ask. What I really wanted to do was keep the wig.
Congratulations on the show, and the reception. And good luck with the Emmys and really to everyone who is nominated.
Thank you so much.
One of six Emmy-nominated actors from The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Courtney B. Vance is in the running for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie.