Twenty years ago, the entire country was riveted by the O.J, Simpson trial—107 million people watched the jury find him "not guilty." The drama was not all in the verdict, of course. The plot that led up to it—from the brutal double homicide to the white Bronco chase to the assembling of Simpson's all-star defense team—made for captivating television then, and it still does now, with the star-studded The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which premieres on FX Tuesday night. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, produced by Ryan Murphy and based on Jeffrey Toobin's 1996 book The Run of His Life, the 10-episode anthology series goes behind the scenes of the case, and reveals that one of its most fascinating and important players was Robert Kardashian, Simpson's confidant and the show's most conflicted character—and perhaps also its moral center. As played by David Schwimmer, the late father of Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, and Rob is bewildered and breathless as he tries to contend with the power struggle between the lawyers, the spotlight of the media, and what must have felt like insurmountable evidence against his best friend.
In the show, Robert Kardashian acts as kind of a surrogate for the public at the time.
Yes. The way the role was presented to me by Ryan Murphy and the writers was that he was actually the heart and kind of the conscience, in a way, of the whole piece. When you really think about it, he’s the one character who has nothing to gain. That was really moving to contemplate what kind of a person he was, to know this and still let his life be completely turned upside down for the next year. I think it’s because of how loyal a friend he was.
By his personal beliefs do you mean his religious beliefs?
I do. It was a really large part of his decision-making throughout the entire process, his decision to stick by O.J. and his faith in him. That whatever was in god’s plan would manifest itself.
And yet I’m not sure where Robert’s faith in O.J. comes from. But I’ve only seen the first three episodes.
That becomes a little clearer as you go deeper into the season, and you learn a little more about their history. They were friends for over 20 years. And the two couples [Robert and Kris Jenner, O.J. and Nicole Brown], when they were married, hung out all the time. They were at each other’s houses every day playing tennis, having dinners, traveling together. They were best men at each other’s weddings. It’s a long history.
Did you have any idea about their friendship going in?
No idea whatsoever. I really didn’t understand at all who he was, what he was doing there. I knew that he was a friend and a business acquaintance of O.J.’s, but I didn’t understand he was also on the defense team. I just didn’t know that much at the time.
You talked to Kris Jenner for a few hours on the phone. Did she tell you anything that surprised you about her ex-husband, or anything that confirmed some intuition you may have had about him?
There were a few things that I haven’t said in previous interviews, but you touched on one already—the biggest surprise was his faith.. He had his own bible that he kept in his briefcase everywhere he went. He prayed several times a day, at every meal and before every meeting. He had personal and real relationship with god. That informed a lot of the decisions I made as an actor.
I’m sensing that as the season progresses, Robert’s veneer of faith in O.J. will begin to crack.
Yes, Robert will have a crisis of faith: Faith in god, faith in O.J.’s innocence, and his faith in their friendship.
What else did you and Kris discuss?
Family was hugely important to Robert. He was very attentive, compassionate, and patient. According to Kris, he would leave little notes or cards for her, and would surprise her with gifts. I think he was just very doting and attentive.
In the third episode, Robert takes the kids—Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, and Rob, all still very young—out to eat on Father’s Day. They get to cut the line when Robert gets recognized, and they get very excited about this brush with fame. So at the table, he gives an incredibly solemn speech about the ills of celebrity, which now feels laden with irony. I imagine the writers had a fun time in the room with that one. How did you choose to play it?
We all agreed that it was an interesting facet of Robert’s character, his first experience with celebrity. He did not expect nor seek any kind of attention. It was kind of darkly ironic that because of this harrowing trial, and the tragic murder of two people, that he inadvertently became a celebrity. It was not something that comfortable for him. And I personally could relate to it, because when I first experienced it when Friends took off, I was also not comfortable with it. It felt inappropriate and distasteful. There was something not right about receiving special treatment for no reason than being on television.
Where did you direct this disgust?
It wasn’t disgust so much as feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable that I would be receiving some kind of favoritism. I think I didn’t like the injustice of it. It’s a product of how I was raised. It’s what I shared with Robert. So when he gives that speech at the lunch table with the kids, I played it like he was talking to himself. He’s reminding himself to stay true to who he is.
It didn’t really look like the message took with the kids. Not in the scene and certainly not in retrospect.
Well, we don’t know. You’re bringing your own thing to it. But they were pretty young—they were probably more interested in the Chinese chicken salad.
Have you gotten more comfortable with being famous over the years?
I still struggle with it. I feel now it’s more part of the job, to spend time talking about myself on the phone like this.
It’s odd, you know? [laughs] But it’s part of the profession. I’ve become more accepting of it. And certainly now it’s not like it was 20 years ago when Friends first came on the air.
But all the kids watch it now that it’s on Netflix.
[laughs] To be honest, it’s quite lovely to know that. I have a four and a half year old daughter, and I never introduced the show to her, or even the concept that I’m on television or what I do for a living. I’m like, ‘Well, do you like stories? I tell stories.’