One reason FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is so damn compelling is that most viewers are already very familiar with the characters. For someone my age -- I was in middle school during the trial -- watching the show feels like some sort of a strange reunion. But which of the series' actors are doing a good job capturing the essence of these real-life people, and which are just acting?
To sort it out, I spent hours watching old trial tapes and post-trial interviews with all of the major characters, and paid particular attention to the way they talked and moved and joked. And then I rewatched the show with those things in mind. It's also important to note that I'm not judging the actors on how much they look like the characters (they can't control that), but by their mannerisms and inflections and all the little things they can control. I'll be updating and re-ranking the characters as more are introduced or begin to play larger roles; I've omitted a few characters that don't factor in much.
But enough small talk! Check out the list below, and tell me how you think I did in the comments.
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Unfortunately for journalism, no one cares whether Conner nails the role of the New Yorker journalist who wrote the book the series is based on. Or maybe fortunately for journalism. Anyway, SPOTLIGHT WON BEST PICTURE!
18. Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler)
Sure, Harry from Sex and the City, you can be Dershowitz with a porn mustache.
17. Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow)
The fact that they got the dude from Northern Exposure, which was big in the '90s, to play Barry Scheck, who was also big in the '90s, is not lost on me. Unfortunately, he says no more than 50 words in the first four episodes.
He doesn’t play a big enough role to really contribute much here, but in the process of trying to find clips of him in real life, I came across many theories about how Jason is actually the real killer, and it’s making me nervous.
15. The Kardashian kids (Veronica Galvez, Isabella Balbi, Morgan E. Bastin, and Nicolas Bechtel)
I know they're denying it, but I’d have to think that the most real part of the entire Kardashian kids cameo series came when they all started chanting their own name. Even if that never really happened, it totally happened.
14. Al Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal Warner)
Theo Huxtable really only has one big line, but it’s one of the most iconic: "My name is A.C. You know who I am, goddammit!” And though he delivers it a little bit more harried than the actual recording, Theo’s version is perfectly workable.
13. F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane)
I’m 87% sure Nathan Lane did not watch any footage of F. Lee Bailey before doing this. He might’ve read his Wikipedia entry and then skipped over the part where he’s from Waltham, MA, or maybe he misread it as “Anywhere in North Jersey.” He is quite good at playing Lawyer Nathan Lane with a gray dye job, though!
His son is currently the mayor of LA! And he’s played by the main character from John From Cincinnati, who does a very serviceable job getting his slightly hoarse voice and tone down. Also, might be the first time the person being portrayed is better-looking than the actor. '90s Garcetti already looked like an actor playing a DA.
11. Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi)
Ito always had a weird, quirky sense of humor that seemed vaguely inappropriate for his office, and an unmistakable voice: kind of nerdy-sounding, and with a strange timbre. Choi, who played Henry Lin on Sons of Anarchy and one of Leo’s lackeys in The Wolf of Wall Street, does a strong job capturing what seems like Ito’s central thesis, which is a somewhat incredulous and at times exasperated person trying to figure out how to contain a legal and media clusterfuck.
10. Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer)
It is very clear that Ross wants everyone to know Robert Kardashian is sad and confused about his friend Uncle Juice. It is not yet clear what else he wants us to get from this role.
9. Faye Resnick (Connie Britton)
Britton is all camp, basically a camp counselor, for this role, but in a grand way, firing off lascivious details about Nicole and her interest in “Brentwood Hellos” and her fake boobs while enjoying a platter of crudités. And then in her next scene, she’s drinking Champagne and smoking and pacing the room, talking about O.J. watching Nicole have sex with other people from the bushes. And then she’s on Larry King, loopy and possibly on Xanax. It’s ridiculous and over the top and stupid, but isn’t that actually the perfect summation of who Faye Resnick is?
I know I’ve already explicitly said that these rankings have very little to do with physical appearance, because that would be unfair. But dammit, O.J. was a big man, with a giant Bonk-in-TurboGrafx-16-size head. Cuba, God love him, has a normal-person head and just kind of looks average-size, and that feels strange. As for actual things he can control, he misses a few: there is a bass in O.J. Simpson’s voice. Cuba has the nervous energy down, the paranoid speed-talking and chuckle he does that give the impression that he’s being self-deprecating. There is a certain point when O.J. is imitating or when he’s excited about something where his voice goes high. You can hear it in that 2004 Fox News interview he did with Greta Van Susteren, right around the 4:05 mark. Cuba has all of that down. But the issue is: O.J. only sounds like that some of the time, and Cuba is basically only doing that, making him sound like his character from Jerry Maguire when he feels like Jerry’s not getting him his contract or paying attention to him.
7. Fred Goldman (Joseph Siravo)
One of the hardest-to-watch scenes so far in the show comes in Marcia Clark’s office, when she meets with Fred and Kim Goldman as way of introduction. When she says she knows what they’re going through, Goldman loses it and gives a heartbreaking monologue about his son’s final moments and how he’s just a footnote in this trial. Siravo (who plays Johnny Boy Soprano, aka Tony’s dad on The Sopranos) is a picture of sadness with a Chicago inflection, and a honking emotional cadence that gets quiet and then loud as he releases his anger and builds it back up.
6. Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown)
If you’re the type of person who feels awkward for other people when they’re speaking in public and not doing a very good job, I submit that you try to get through Darden’s actual closing argument on YouTube. His pauses are unnatural and illogical, he shuffles back and forth with scattered reminders for the jury, and he’s got just enough of a slight lisp that it becomes distracting. Brown nails most of this -- Darden's methodical way of talking, his lack of intonation -- but loses the lisp. Nevertheless, you get a sense from Brown that he understands how to show Darden being pushed into something he both wants and definitely can’t handle.
5. Kris Jenner (Selma Blair)
If you ignored her voice and that signature somewhat-pouty expression she’s been perfecting since Cruel Intentions, I’d be almost 100% sure Selma Blair actually is '90s Kris Jenner.
Magnussen plays Kaelin perfectly, as a good-natured, goofy guy who doesn’t even really realize he’s a pawn on O.J. and Nicole’s fucked-up chessboard of marital strife until much later. They might’ve overdone the highs and the lows of being Kato in the jogging scene, in which girls show him their boobs and then guys threaten to beat him up, but Magnussen is weirdly exceptional in a role he didn’t really have to nail.
3. Bob Shapiro (John Travolta)
Before I even watched the show, everyone was talking about Travolta’s performance. How he had basically become Shapiro. Really owned the role. Got really big, bushy eyebrows. Orange skin. Pursed his lips a lot. And I totally bought in. But then I watched the real trial, and Shapiro’s interview with Barbara Walters, and, um, Travolta is doing a masterful job at playing a character of sorts, but that man isn’t quite Bob Shapiro. An effeminate parody of Shapiro, maybe, but not the X-Men Mystique absorption of the role everyone had originally pegged. Still, it is something to behold.
Travolta’s best line so far comes when they’re reading through Resnick’s trash book of garbage calls and dissecting whether or not it will be damaging. After all the other lawyers have said their pieces, Travolta looks up: “Lesbian sex, 197.”
2. Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson)
Sarah Paulson gets it. Though no one could ever 100% accurately capture Clark’s frizz game, especially in the bangs, Paulson does her pretty-actress best. But the real game Paulson brings to Clark is that smoldering intelligence that tips into arrogance and blinds her better judgments. Clark is a good, smart lawyer who gets judged for all of the things that have almost nothing to do with her ability to try a case, but that shakes her, and ironically ends up affecting the way she tries a case. Paulson gets that dry humor with Darden, the quick, scathing glances when she feels she’s being wronged, the tiredness, the long pulls on cigarettes -- all of it.
1. Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance)
Courtney B. Vance is the man. At one point in the show, all the lawyers are in Judge Ito’s office arguing about whether O.J. can get a fair trial, and Cochran talks about race and says, “Now, if that is playing the race card,” and then pauses for several seconds to do this small shake of his head before finishing his line. “So be it.” The shake of the head is the thing here, friends. He has all of Cochran’s little movements down. The preacher modulations in his voice. His expressive use of his hands. The way he can get very quiet and make you lean in, and then boom out something unexpected to be memorable. Johnnie Cochran had the reputation of being a showman, all rhyming phrases and rhetoric, but one of the strengths of the show (thanks to Courtney B. Vance and the writers) is seeing that this guy isn’t smoke and mirrors, he’s an alpha dog, a cold-blooded legal assassin. And that goes for having to take out members of his own legal team, too.
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's national writer-at-large and wants to be a legal assassin. See videos of him practicing karate: @KAlexander03.