Courtney B. Vance on becoming Johnny Cochran

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

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 Johnnie 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 awhile for you to show up but once you show up …

Courtney B. Vance: I show out.

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

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.

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?

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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