Culture

Out Of Her Justice League: ‘People v. O.J. Simpson’ Writer On Marcia Clark, Sexism, And The Haircut

CREDIT: Michael Becker/FX

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.

Before the scene even begins, “Kiss From a Rose” starts playing. Softly. Just that intro with Seal singing syllables: ba da da, ba da da-da ba-da, ba, ba-da-da.

A male hairdresser, whose face we cannot see, swivels his customer’s chair around. There sits Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) in a black nylon robe. She already has a perm. The curls hit the nape of her neck; about six tendrils, trying very hard to be bangs, are falling on her forehead.

“What do you really want, Marcia?” the hairdresser asks. “I’ll do anything for you.”

“Something different,” she says. “Softer. I never had to think about anything like this before, so, I’m a little nervous.”

“The only thing you have to be is the best version of yourself,” he assures her. “And that’s what we’re here to discover.”

A beat.

Oh, I’ve got it. I did it for Farrah, and I’m going to do it for you.”

His confidence makes you nervous, but Clark is so hopeful. “Farrah?”

“World, prepare to meet the new, reeeaaal Marcia Clark.”

Baby! I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the gray. Ooooh, The more I get of you, the stranger it feels…

“I wrote that song in as a joke,” D.V. DeVincentis said to me by phone. He’s the writer on the addictive, delectable, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story responsible for Tuesday night’s episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” The Seal smash was in DeVincentis’ first draft, “and thank God we were able to get it in there, because I thought it was so hilarious, and so sad.”

The hairdresser hits the on switch on the blow dryer like he’s pulling the trigger on a gun. The next day, Clark strides into court — her Seal anthem still playing in the background — and every head turns. The perm is shorter, tighter, Brillo-pad-ier. She is out of earshot before a reporter responds to her new look with, “Goddamn, who turned her into Rick James?” But by the time she takes her seat and Judge Lance Ito greets her, snarkily, “Good morning, Ms. Clark. I think,” something sweet in her expression sours. The National Enquirer issues its verdict on the next day’s newsstand: CURLS OF HORROR.

Based largely on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the FX series takes viewers back to the ’90s, back to the Bronco, back to a time that seems both totally distant from and remarkably similar to the one in which we currently live. And there is no one in the series who appears to benefit more from this thoughtful reexamination of the facts than Clark, the prosecuting attorney in the case against Simpson, then one of the most beloved public figures in American life on trial for the double homicide of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.

While working the trial of the century, Clark was the target of an endless stream of misogynistic vitriol. The media mocked her hair, clothes, and mannerisms; one of her ex-husbands leaked a naked photo of her to the tabloids while the other trashed her parenting abilities to the press and fought with her over custody of their two sons. For all her efforts, Clark’s work, alongside Christopher Darden, has been remembered as bumbling at best. The general consensus was that a clearly guilty man eluded justice because the people responsible for putting him behind bars made the unbelievable mistake of putting Simpson’s hand in an imperfectly-fitting glove.

The People v. O.J. Simpson gives Clark something that the people of 1994 did not: An astonishing amount of empathy. Clark is, in Paulson’s portrayal, a methodical, careful attorney trying to win a case even as it slowly dawns on her that, in spite of all the evidence on her side, the case is unwinnable. The sixth episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” zeroes in on her struggle to, in the godawful parlance I guess we’re stuck with for now, have it all. She tries to be everything to everyone: The best lawyer, the most present mother, the most appealing woman. And all her plans seem to backfire.

I spoke with DeVincentis about the thinking behind the episode, how closely the character of Clark resembles the real Clark, if he thinks she would face the same treatment if she were trying Simpson today.

To start, do you have any guidelines in the writers’ room about how much you do and don’t want to deviate from the truth? Does reality provide you with crazier stuff than you could ever invent?

I get calls and emails from people saying, did that really happen? For the most part, everything that happens in the show really happened, in terms of plot points and actual events. Some of the events in the context of the court case are changed in order. But it’s really sort of like, different historical or case points are set, and the way we get from one to the other are kind of fictionalized. Any substantial conversations between two characters are created. But it is so deeply researched by us. I’m very proud to hear, Carl Douglas, one of the defense attorneys, considered it about 85 percent accurate.

85 percent is high.

Right? And from a defense attorney? There was enough there that’s real that we didn’t really have to make anything up.

In “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” there are all these moments you need to hit, a few of which are already so established in our pop culture lexicon. Marcia’s haircut, in particular, is this event that you know people are waiting to see. But it takes a while to get to that point, and we kind of see Marcia have the upper hand and lose it multiple times throughout the hour. Can you talk through how you structured the episode?

Every episode in the show has its own dramatic drive while also having to tend to the events in the sequence of the greater show. So in this episode, there is a lot that has to be tended to, in terms of the greater story and how it’s moving along. But then, this was the episode that we chose to focus on Marcia Clark specifically and her life, and the issues within it that had to be balanced with what she was doing at work.

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden in "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden in "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

I chose to start the episode by playing with a courtroom scene — we’re quite used to seeing Marcia in court — but what’s revealed is that, it’s actually not Judge Ito’s court, it’s a family court, and it’s a custody hearing for her battle with her husband. And to me, that was a fun device, because Marcia Clark had so much going on in her personal life during this trial, and so much to balance between being a mother and running this unprecedented case, and that’s really what this episode is about: This woman constantly being undersold and bearing burdens that no one else had to in that courtroom. There was so much attention given to her appearance and her manner and it was completely dog-whistle sexism of a kind that would totally not be tolerated today. Nobody talked about Johnnie Cochran’s appearance, or anyone else.

It reminds me of the Oscars and the “What are you wearing?” question: This attention to all these details that are purely unique for a woman and have nothing to do to the case and are irrelevant to her performance, and yet she has to deal with that stuff. That, combined with the fact that her resources, in the city attorney’s office, don’t compare to what the defense is able to mount. So for her, it’s late nights in the office while trying to balance baby-sitting, while Robert Shapiro doesn’t have to deal with any of that.

It’s interesting to hear you say that you think there’s a kind of sexism that we wouldn’t tolerate today. Just watching, say, the coverage of Hillary Clinton, I don’t know that I agree: I think that sexism would still be there, but there would be a backlash to that, and then a backlash to the backlash, and so on. My sense is, mainstream media outlets would cover Marcia the same way, but Jezebel would respond by calling them out.

I think you’re totally right. But now you’re making me sad. Your citation of Jezebel, they’re great, but it’s a niche thing. And you would hope that sort of backlash against that conversation would be on a broader stage than Jezebel. I think it is to a certain extent. If people really pile on Hillary Clinton about a bad outfit or something, there’s more than just Jezebel responding. People do rise up to defend and point that out, and I don’t think people did then. It is different but, unfortunately, it’s not where it should be.

I was especially horrified, watching the episode, in the way people reacted to the naked photo of Marcia that her first ex-husband leaked to the press. It made me think of the celebrity photo hack: Coverage of that, almost universally, rightfully called it a sex crime. We would call what he did “revenge porn” now, but I don’t even think that was in our vocabulary at the time.

No, and it certainly didn’t intersect with serious things. Now, it does all the time. There’s also this wide platform of the internet now, and things get out there and are out there forever, and they’re instantaneously everywhere. That wasn’t the case then. But that was a totally shocking event, and it actually did shut down the court. Ito recessed because it was such a horrific moment for one of the attorneys in front of them.

How do you all decide when to zero in on these big-picture themes — sexism, racism, celebrity — and how to balance that with the grunt work of just telling the story and keeping things moving forward?

The show in general has a way of tracking the events, chronologically, but also, per episode, pulling out and coming in on a particular person or aspect. So “The Race Card,” episode 5, we track the events that are going on in the case itself, but we also come in and put the lens onto that particular issue. We go places outside of the courtroom to pay attention to that, to paint the mosaic about the people involved. So in this one, we really come into Marcia’s world, to see her struggle as a mother and as a career woman to be effective against this massive juggernaut of money and power from these men on the other side.

I was also struck by how even the people in Marcia’s corner, her most ardent supporters, really have no idea what to say to her and end up compounding her problems. Some of the ways they try to comfort her or lift her up are so terrible. Like when her boss, Gil Garcetti, starts out by telling Marcia that he and his wife are just appalled by the sexist coverage of her clothes and her appearance but ends the conversation with, “…but I can put you together with some terrific media consultants.”

Yeah, and you know what? To me, that’s a very human thing! Because that’s completely — you said terrible, and I would agree with you, and at the same time, that character, to me, and I don’t know if he was actually like that, but that was an opportunity to show a very real dynamic, someone who understands how terrible it is, and yet, wants to win, and wants her to win. And so, as terrible as the real world is, let’s talk about how to handle the real world. And it’s awful but, you know, I think what he says, that was written for comedic value and it’s also to show the reality, you know? She doesn’t have time to change the way the world looks at women, she only has time to try to win that case. Can you imagine how many times Hillary Clinton has had that conversation? She probably shuts it down the way Marcia eventually does. When Gil says something in next week’s episode, like, “I like the hair,” and she’s like, “never say anything about my hair again.”

Marcia Clark speaks in court at the pre-trial hearing for O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles, Ca., Friday, Sept. 23, 1994.

Marcia Clark speaks in court at the pre-trial hearing for O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles, Ca., Friday, Sept. 23, 1994.

I would love for you to talk through the scene in which Marcia gets the haircut. Because it is so great: It’s funny and sad, because we know where it’s going, and we watch her start at this place of feeling really beautiful and hopeful to realizing, oh no, this was a mistake, I am just getting mocked even more viciously than I was before. There is something very universal about that Cinderella idea that she lets herself buy into for a minute: That the right haircut, or outfit, or whatever, could transform her life. Can you give me a play-by-play of the thinking behind that scene?

I’ll say up front: Marcia had no interest in the transformative power of a hair salon, until all of this was foisted upon her. But once she’s there, it is a sacrament, you know? And it is ideally transformative, it’s sort of mythological, the idea of changing your whole life by changing your whole look. And she buys into it for that moment and, of course, is brutally rewarded for it.

Also, the fact that Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” is the soundtrack to this sequence, it’s fantastic.

The way I initially wrote it was that, you just see her face and you hear a male voice and you see fingers rubbing through her hair, and he’s saying something like, “What do you really want, Marcia? I’ll do anything for you” and you pull out and you see where you are. But like many things in our show, it’s supposed to be funny. Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, and I, the things we have always gravitated to in our previous work are things that are both human and dramatic but also funny. That DNA is through the whole show and certainly, in that scene, because to me, it is touching and tragic and funny.

How does knowing that the real Marcia Clark is out there — and, it seems, really engaging with the show and the conversation around the show in a very thoughtful way — influence how you write? Do you feel any responsibility toward her?

You know, she’s been so graceful and courageous through this process. She had no contact with us whatsoever and then finally there was this moment when she and Sarah had a drink, and she was still, what we understood from that is that she was still so traumatized by her experience 20 years ago that she was very, very shy and not into necessarily being out but she was such a fan of Sarah’s. And according to Marcia, through this process — I had one really lovely night with her — and what she told me was, going through this has helped her get rid of all that, it’s helped her get past it. And part of it was understanding and trusting that we were looking out for her, because Sarah and I really, really fell in love with the character.

Did writing this episode, and writing on the series in general, change your perception of Marcia? Did it challenge any of your preconceived notions or memories from watching the trial back in the ’90s?

I watched a lot of the trial, and I always thought that the way she was being dealt with was really shitty and unfair. And I thought she wasn’t necessarily the most inviting personality, but I saw how hard she was working. I felt that she was being dealt cards from a different deck than everyone else. That was apparent. So I came into it somewhat sympathetic, and just, you’re writing characters, you’re interested in the humanity of it, and you can’t help but kind of love all the people you like, even if they’re bad guys, and she was certainly a good guy. She had more struggle to me than anybody. She wasn’t being paid like the other side; she was a civil servant. There had never been a case like this. No man or woman had ever had to deal with what she had to deal with. And to me, a woman doing that while trying to raise two boys after a recent divorce it’s like, come on. It was so extraordinary. And sympathetic. And mostly what we have been told is how badly that team fucked up. She would certainly say that lots and lots of mistakes were made. But in a way, once the concrete began to set, in terms of it being cast as a racial case, there wasn’t a lot to do.

My sense from the show is that she had too much faith in people and that her faith was not rewarded. That she was really confident that black women on the jury would empathize with Nicole as a victim of domestic violence and not care about race, for instance. It seems like her optimism was totally misplaced.

It’s interesting, because we didn’t really talk to her, and what you just described was our general tack, and a great deal of that was taken from Jeffrey Toobin’s book. Once we were able to talk to Marcia, and even now in her interviews, we found that her opinion about what was going on at the time was very different. It’s not reflected in the show, because we didn’t know it. Marcia Clark says that she knew that they were in trouble when they were going downtown and when this effort was made to have a “downtown jury.” She says that she saw that coming as a real problem, not because of racial makeup but because, in her mind, anybody who is willing to sit in a trial and be sequestered for what they thought would be four months and it turned into 11, is not going to be the sort of person who can take in all this evidence and render a thoughtful verdict. So she had low expectations of the sophistication of the jury from the beginning. She was not as optimistic or idealistic about the jury or its makeup at the time, as presented by us. She was much more realistic than what is in the show, and I think, to me, telling you that is one last bit of redemption for Marcia Clark. I wish I had known that when we were making the show, it might have been a little bit different.

Can you tell me about the thinking behind the Marcia and Chris dance scene? It’s such a sweet, intimate moment that is a kind of release from the rest of the episode. What is your read on the nature of their relationship?

We knew that a chemistry developed between them at the time, and it’s not surprising, because underneath everything else, there was nobody in either Chris’ or Marcia’s world who could possibly understand what they were going through besides Marcia or Chris. They were in this bubble. Constantly pursued, constantly talked about. So the intimacy that formed between them was very understandable. And it did turn romantic. Each of them have different versions of how romantic. To us, it was very clear that there was something going on and certainly we knew that they spent time late in the office and they both liked to have a drink. And so she did have her drink, he had his, they did hang out, and became intimate with each other and very dependent on one another. To me, it was a totally natural thing to fictionalize that in a dance scene. And that’s how that happened.

The whole “redemption of Marcia Clark” narrative is really catching on. How does that make you feel? Was that ever a conscious intention as you were writing?

I think that she was poorly portrayed. I think she was portrayed in an unconsciously sexist manner at the time, and that portrayal became this view of incompetence on her part. And to me, without even trying to redeem her, just putting a spotlight on the sexist portrayal of that time becomes redemptive. And it humanizes her, which is what drama does. Just by humanizing her and showing what she was going through, it winds up being redemptive. It wasn’t an attempt to redeem her at all, but looking at it that way, if it were, it would be pretty condescending. She didn’t need our help. All she needed was to show what it was like to be her at the time. Which sucked.

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.

CREDIT: FX

Was there any aspect of her character, or this episode, that was the most challenging to write or get your head around?

No, not really. I get asked about writing women, and “isn’t that hard?”, and that drives me crazy. It’s not something I ever think about.

I get that, obviously, if you couldn’t write about people outside of yourself, you wouldn’t do what you do for a living. But it does seem like there’s some extra effort or work involved, as a man, in internalizing what it feels like to experience sexism, particularly at the level at which Marcia experienced it.

It’s certainly secondary. I couldn’t pretend to directly relate. It’s definitely tricky territory. But you don’t necessarily need to feel like you are the character to observe and depict a character. I could look at it from the otuside and say, “wow, look at what this person had to go through. They must have felt terrible in this articulated way.” And then, I articulate it. And luckily, I had an actress who is not just a brilliant actress but is a rather brilliant dramaturg.

Really? Tell me more about that. How did you and Sarah collaborate?

Oh, my God. I owe so much to Sarah, not just because of how well she plays what I’ve written, but the conversations we’ve had about the character and about the actual text. Sarah was so locked into an idea of Marcia Clark that was so compassionate and so fervent that, if I was confused about something, it was very, very easy to trust what Sarah might think about it.

At what point in the writing process did you find out that Sarah would be playing Marcia?

Very late in the process. It had to be at some point after Ryan Murphy got involved, because she was his ringer. So with him came her. And we had a number of episodes written before she arrived. Between Sarah and I, it was very much a team effort on our part together, making sure that Marcia Clark was done right. I have to give an enormous amount of credit to Sarah, she was so dialed into Marcia, and the way she was executing that character was so intuitive and internalized that if she thought I was taking a misstep in some direction, I had to trust her, or at least try and make her understand what I was doing. And if she didn’t understand it, I would defer to her. Which, parenthetically, is the way it always is when you’re actually working with actors. Because they have to say it, and if you can’t make them understand it, they can’t do their job.

Is that the norm, for an actor to be involved in the way that Sarah was?

The truth is, there are some people like Travolta. He uses the expression, “Hey, I’ll give you a Chinese menu.” Like, “This is what I think about how I’m delivering this line, or the intention, but if you want something different, just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.” So it spans the gamut from that to far to the other direction beyond Sarah.

How conscious were you, while writing, of weaving in — not references to, but an awareness of — the specific issues in the world of this trial that are especially pertinent today? Race and gender are evergreen, sure, but there are these specific elements, like this heightened national awareness around police brutality against black individuals, that are both totally of the moment and so central to the O.J. narrative.

It’s really funny you mention that because it is, in a sense, fortuitous for the show, but also, we were developing this show and writing it when the police brutality issues began to explode. And we, the writers, and huge credit to FX, John Landgraf in particular, immediately saw that we needed to subtextually address this stuff in our show. And we had a responsibility, as writers, to address it, because we need to be part of the landscape upon which the show would arrive, if we’re dealing with this kind of stuff. We’re very lucky that we had time to incorporate it into the show. If that stuff exploded three months earlier, then our show wouldn’t reflect it at all, and it would hit the ground in a world where it wasn’t reflecting. But luckily, we were at a state that was elastic enough at the time, we could internalize it and get into the subtext of the show.