Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson
FX Networks

For those who have been faithfully watching FX’s ratings juggernaut, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and keeping up with recaps on The Root, waiting for Johnnie Cochran has been an exercise in patience. Well, the wait is over. Courtney B. Vance took a few minutes out of his promotional schedule to chat with The Root about meeting Cochran as a young actor, representing the legal eagle on the series and why it was important for him to do the show.  

The Root: It takes a while for you to show up, but once you show up …

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Courtney B. Vance: I show out.

TR: Did you ever have an opportunity to meet Johnnie Cochran?

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CBV: I did. I met him back in ’95, ’96, at his house at a party. A big party. I was a young actor just glad to have been invited, and just introduced myself. He was very cordial and wonderful to me, and then he went back to being the life of the party and being the host with the mostest, and I just went back to talking to my folks. I was just happy to be there.

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TR: How did you prepare to become Johnnie Cochran? What was your process?

CBV: I know how touchy and difficult it is playing someone who is famously in our midst. He’s certainly not alive anymore, but, God rest his soul, he is certainly alive in our hearts, minds and spirits, and people know him and remember him, and he was larger than life. So playing someone who was larger than life is tricky, and it’s possible to be overwhelmed and overrun by the journey and not knowing where to start and what to do. And I knew, for me, for my process, I knew that was going to be enough on me.

Once we started shooting, I knew I was going to be wall-to-wall for about four or five months every day. I said I’m not going to have the pressure of the workload on me, so I said I was going to do my research on him, since I’m a history major from Harvard. I’m going to get that out of the way and then I’m going to jump in. Once we get into the meat of it, there’s not going to be time for wondering about the inflections, the intonation; it’s just going to be you with the character and let’s go. … So, for me, the process was about the research and getting myself one with Johnnie so I could just start playing with the other actors with their characters. 

TR: One interesting aspect of The People v. O.J. Simpson is how Johnnie Cochran earned his slot at the top of the defense team. Were you aware of this?

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CBV: I knew nothing. I knew of him, but just like all of us, I had heard about him, knew his reputation preceded him. I knew that he was known worldwide for being a celebrity lawyer to the stars, but I didn’t know his police-brutality work. I didn’t know the everyday people that he represented. So he was a man of the people, came from the people and ascended up on high and was never afraid to go back down into the valley, and oftentimes did, and he brought that to his work on this case.

And he was, more so than anyone, he was ahead of everybody of what’s necessary to do next. He recognized that it was a marathon; it’s going to be long. As he told Chris Darden, “I’m not coming here to be friends; I’m coming here to win, and I’m doing whatever it is I need to do, and I’d advise you to do the same. If you get in my way, I’m going to step on you.”

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They [the prosecution] thought, from the beginning, it was a slam-dunk, just-the-facts-ma’am case. The facts were not really what the case was about. Celebrity, fame, 24-hour news, race, class, but the facts? Oh no, no, no, no. The facts? We’re going to cloud the facts and we’re just going to make this about so much information being thrown at the jury that eventually they just go, “OK, let’s just close this thing. I don’t think he did it. They didn’t prove it. OK, let’s go. I want to go home. I want to go home.” And Marcia [Clark] didn’t recognize it.

TR: Were you at all concerned about showing Johnnie Cochran doing some things professionally that some may consider questionable? Did you think it might taint his legacy?

CBV: No. That’s just what he does. That’s just part of his job. Fortunately, he was a master of manipulation, for lack of a better word. He realized that this case was about race and that you can’t have an O.J. who says to his attorneys, “I’m not black; I’m O.J.” You can’t have a black man who didn’t understand that he was black and that this case was about black people and white people.

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“And so we [slipping into Johnnie Cochran mode] had to protect him from himself. He didn’t know. He was not aware. I had to make him understand that we have an all-black jury and you can’t say you’re not black. Any sign of support you had from the jury will go poof. … And they’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Marcia, and I wanted the benefit of the doubt. I wanted O.J. to have the benefit of the doubt. As I told him, I’m not here to get respect from anybody; I got respect. I’m here to win.”

And, in the final analysis, history is told by the winners. It was about winning and losing. It wasn’t about facts and truth. It was about winners and losers.

TR: Why was doing this project important to you?

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CBV: One of the [reasons doing this project] was important to me … is because of all the drama that we’ve being going through with Ferguson [Mo.] and now Chicago and other things. … We like to think of ourselves as a melting pot in the United States. Everybody comes here for their field of dreams, but we’re not melting. The Popsicles are still frozen in the pot. Nobody’s blending together. The purple and the red and the yellow and the orange should melt, and we should turn into another color. …

We have to melt. We have to sit down and talk about how black folks are raised to see police as opposed to white folks, so that the police know … they have to approach [black people] differently. … You don’t shoot anybody 16 times who is your neighbor. You shoot an animal 16 times, and African-American people are not animals. They’re people. They may be wrong in certain instances, and you got to deal with them when they’re wrong, but you can’t shoot people just because they’ve done something wrong. And sometimes you need to talk them down so they can come to justice. But to shoot first and talk later, you cannot do that. You can’t do that. 

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Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.