PASADENA, Calif. -- Cuba Gooding Jr. feels Buffalo’s pain in more ways than one.
Approached by this Buffalo reporter after the end of a press conference for the upcoming FX miniseries, “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Gooding immediately started talking about the “30 for 30” documentary “Four Falls of Buffalo” that he had seen two days earlier.
“It is amazing,” said Gooding. “When you think of sports, you think the game ends and you move on. But those players are dying by those … losses. Can you imagine going to a Super Bowl four years in a row.”
What did he think the highlight was?
“What do you mean, highlight?” said Gooding. “It was all so intriguing. It all was information that I didn’t know.”
Then he started talking about Scott Norwood, who missed a 47-yard field goal that would have won the first of the four Super Bowl losses.
“The first thing that really hit me was when the kicker who lost and goes to the parade and they start chanting,” said Gooding. “And he came out and he cried. Oh, that broke my heart. It was so sweet. It was great.”
Gooding was then reminded of another huge Buffalo loss. The loss of O.J.Simpson, the former Bills superstar he plays in the 10-part FX series that premieres Feb. 2, as an icon for Western New York to be proud of. The image of the Hall of Fame and Wall of Fame star running back was shattered in the 1995 murder trial that commanded the world’s attention a year after the Bills' fourth Super Bowl loss. On Oct. 3, 1995, Simpson was found not guilty verdict of the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in the so-called "Trial of the Century." However, the controversial verdict was viewed through very different racial prisms and the great majority of white America viewed Simpson as guilty despite the verdict.
“It really is a curse when you think about it,” said Gooding. “They talk about the curse of not winning. But every aspect of being in Buffalo. . It is every aspect. You can’t win, even a hero like that falls from grace. But people are resilient.”
Gooding saw highlights of Simpson’s football career, which ended when Gooding was a young child. He met him once early in his acting career.
“I was the hot black actor in the nightclubs when ‘Boyz in the Hood’ came out and he was introduced to me and went, ‘hey, young buck,’” said Gooding. “I knew who he was. I met him. I didn’t really know him.”
Gooding has one of the toughest jobs in the FX miniseries produced by Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story,” “Glee”), who also directed several episodes. It isn’t easy projecting the charisma of Simpson that made him so admired before his fall.
“He was such a dynamic personality,” said Gooding. “I think I got the role because Ryan said specifically that I bring to it Cuba Gooding Jr.’s 'light, friendly persona and high energy,' which was what O.J. Simpson was at the time of the murders. He wanted to take me there and bring me to that dark place.”
He said there were several tough scenes.
“The courtroom stuff was brutal,” said Gooding. “The jail cells scenes were particularly. The visitation scenes with Robert Kardashian, It brings you to a dark place.”
Interestingly, he said Murphy asked him to play some scenes in very different ways.
“At any take at any given time Ryan said,’ I want to play this scene as innocent, then I want you as guilty,’” said Gooding. “And he took the takes he chose in the editing room.”
Before the one-on-one interview, Gooding told the gathering at the Television Critics Association meetings here that he wasn’t going to reveal what he thought of the not guilty jury verdict.
“Well, the question of his guilt is my own personal opinion,” said Gooding. “And I don’t want to have that reflected in when you watch my performance, and say, ‘oh, yeah, but he thought he was guilty, or he thought he was innocent.’ So I leave that to myself. I don’t think that was Ryan’s intent when he tackled these 10 episodes, to sway your opinion in any way. I think people believe one thing or another, and that’s not going to change.”
Like many of the actors in the series playing living people, Gooding said he felt no need to talk to Simpson about playing him.
“I had no desire to visit him in his present condition, being incarcerated, being a shell of a man,” said Gooding. “I have relatives who are incarcerated and friends, and it breaks a man’s soul and spirit. And at some point you start to believe whatever reality that you, you know, went in there thinking, even if it isn’t the truth. So if Ryan wants to do next season as, you know, O.J. today, and he casts me again, then I’ll sit with him every day and research. But until then, I knew that this portrayal in 1994 was a flamboyant, charismatic movie star, slash, you know, marquee athlete. So I would, you know, use the research materials from that time period in his life, and I let that not only propel my research in terms of his walk, his gait, his physical appearance, but, you know, that braggadocious, egotistical manner in which he carried himself then is what I was looking to achieve.”
Gooding, whose won an Oscar for his role as the football player in “Jerry Maguire” who shouted “show me the money,” added he had no hesitation playing Simpson.
“Absolutely not,” said Gooding. “My agents called and said ‘Ryan Murphy wants to meet with you,’ and I was, like, ‘I am in.’ And they were, like, ‘Well, wait, it’s O.J. Simpson.’ And I said ‘okay, I get it, but, you know, I’m in.’ I don’t judge my characters. When I played Ben Carson, I had heard what he had done with these miracle surgeries, you know, separated Siamese twins. So to meet him I was, like, in awe. And then I got to know him.”
Everyone in the room laughed at that deadpan line about the now Republican presidential candidate.
“You don’t want to get into that place where you start to let it influence the psyche of the emotional (place) your role is in creating that character. And, you know, Ryan knew he could come to me and manipulate me emotionally in any way…. And that’s my job as an actor. So I stay away from forming an opinion or speaking of how I feel.”
“It’s part of the process not to judge your character,” said Gooding, who later drew laughter when he said he had a mental problem after playing the role.
“This was probably the hardest character I’ve ever played,” said Gooding. “It was six months of an emotional roller coaster. It took me a month or so to finish this ride, emotionally. Even physically. I gained a bunch of weight, and whatnot."
He said his body and mind were transformed over the six months in which the 10 episodes were filmed.
"In March I was in shape, I was tanned, I was this," said Gooding. "I was just playing this guy who was, you know whatever, and then by October ... It took me, like, a month to get that out of my mind-set, you know.... And I tell you this, I’m serious. I have a mental problem now. No. But I’d go back and forth from week to week. Each script that would come in, (there would) be more information of stuff that was admissible and not admissible, and I’d go, well, ‘maybe he did it, well, maybe he didn’t do it’ so it was literally that thing for me.”
He emphasized the goal of the miniseries wasn’t to change anyone’s mind after 10 episodes. Like “Four Falls of Buffalo,” the goal was to give people information that they didn’t know.
Gooding summarized the job of the miniseries this way: "Whether you think he’s innocent or guilty, and you say, well, 'I still think he’s whatever, but I know how they came up with that verdict.'"