Malcolm-Jamal Warner is a busy man. With a career that spans three decades the Grammy-winning, Emmy-nominated, actor-director-musician is as energized as ever, with a slate of diverse television and film roles and a new album, Selfless (available on iTunes now), that he’s currently promoting. Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s key to longevity in the game is to continually defy expectation.
His most recent role in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (from executive producer Ryan Murphy) will definitely challenge your expectations of Malcolm-Jamal Warner. In it he plays Al “A.C.” Cowlings, the NFL star and right-hand man to O.J. Simpson who led the LAPD on a freeway chase in a white Ford Bronco—with an armed Simpson as a fugitive in the backseat—on that fateful summer day back in 1994. The series aims to pull the curtain back on what went down behind the scenes of the Simpson trial, from the smoke-and-mirrors of the litigation, to the courtroom theater, to the sensationalized media circus heightened by O.J.’s celebrity.
Taking a break from a photo shoot, Malcolm-Jamal Warner hopped on the phone to chat about The People v. O.J. Simpson, his memories of the real-life trial, #OscarsSoWhite, and how America is still grappling with the repercussions of the Simpson case.
The O.J. Simpson saga was considered “The Trial of the Century” and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t have passionate opinions about the case. What do you think The People v. O.J. Simpson will add to the conversation?
You know, I don’t think we set out to change people’s minds. I think whatever people’s views are will probably remain the same. The People v. O.J. Simpson just takes you on a ride and gives other dimensions to the lives of the players involved.
You were in your early twenties when the pandemonium surrounding the case kicked off. What do you remember most about it as it transpired in real time?
Oh, man I definitely remember the chase; the image of that white Bronco being chased by the police on the freeway. I remember being at home glued to the screen just like everyone else, just curious and interested as to how the police chase was going to pan out. Was O.J. gonna shoot himself? Were the cops going to shoot inside that truck and kill both O.J. and Al Cowlings? Those outcomes were all very plausible at that time.
You collaborated with Ryan Murphy on American Horror Story: Freak Show as well as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Courtney Vance on the HBO movie The Tuskegee Airman. How was it saddling back up with them for this project?
It was great teaming back up with them. Cuba as a person is…fucking crazy. [Laughs.] He’s just as crazy today as he was 20 years ago! In a great way, of course. He’s got long, draining days so he’s definitely the cat that knows how to bring a pick-me-up to set each day.
And it was especially cool coming back to collaborate with Ryan Murphy after Freak Show because I didn’t actually have a chance to work with him personally since he wasn’t directing the episodes I was in. He’s just great to work with. That guy just has such an interesting mind.
You play O.J. Simpson’s closest friend—NFL player Al “A.C.” Cowlings—who became more known for his role in the police chase and trial than he did for his football career. What was it like getting in the mindset of this real person?
I didn’t get a chance to talk to A.C. at all either before, during or even after we shot the series, but just based off of the research that I did do on him, it was evident that, even before the term “ride or die” existed, A.C. was really that guy. He was the cat who looked out for O.J., and I think for a large part was the guy who kept O.J. out of even more trouble.
But I also feel like if O.J. said, “A.C., let’s take a ride,” A.C. wasn’t gonna ask why or where are we going. A.C. was the dude who always said, “Let’s go.” And even during that time I think, whether A.C. believed that his friend was guilty or not, that all took a backseat to his instinct to be there for his best friend. Based on the strength of that relationship, I truly believe that if they were still friends after the trial, O.J. wouldn’t be in jail right now [for armed robbery and kidnapping]. A.C. would not have let O.J. go to Vegas with a gun to try get his shit back. A.C. would’ve been like, “That we are not doing!”
What's the one thing on the show we need to watch out for—maybe something we won't be expecting?
Yo, I think David Schwimmer is going to be the biggest surprise. He was really, really awesome as Robert Kardashian. People are definitely going to be talking.
I thought it was brilliant to open up the show not with anything O.J.-related, but rather through the lens of the Rodney King beating its aftermath. Corruption and entrenched racism in the LAPD establish the tone of this series.
Yes, exactly. What American Crime Story does is, for something that took place 20 years ago, remind you it’s all still very contemporary, especially with regard to police brutality aspect from the perspective of the black community. We see how something that was prevalent 20 years ago is just as prevalent now.
The Simpson trial was a perfect storm of race, class, celebrity culture and news media as business. And it’s pretty evident that nothing has really changed today.
Especially where we are at today! America is finally being forced to recognize and acknowledge the racism, the classism, and the police brutality. I really have to say a lot on these conversations that have to do with the Black Lives Matter movement. These are young people who have really been out there in the trenches and putting in so much energy to bring it directly to America’s face. The politicians—the people running for president—for the first time are being forced to address these issues. You can no longer put your head in the sand and pretend that these conditions don’t exist anymore. They have to address it. And I think the Black Lives Matter movement has been really instrumental in making this a force to be reckoned with.
The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag has also forced the entertainment industry to recognize its own racial bias. As someone who’s been a part of groundbreaking television their own whole career, why do you think movies are lagging behind TV when it comes to honoring actors of color and their stories?
The film business, much like the record industry, is an archaic system. I think the Academy should be applauded for making swift movements to try to make some changes to make their institution more diverse. Just them even acknowledging the problem was a pleasant surprise. The significance of these changes remains to be seen but it’s definitely a pleasant surprise to see the Academy make a movement toward change.
You know—and hear me out—I think we have to give Donald Trump a bit of credit as well. [Laughs.] Just the people who truly believe what he is saying, the people supporting his racist views, it’s really bringing to the forefront what’s going on in a lot of Americans’ minds. These people want to say that Obama is responsible for dividing this country? No. These racist attitudes have been right there underneath the surface all along. And because of people like Trump, these racist people feel like they have a mouthpiece and now they’re being more vocal. It’s all surfacing. It’s really an interesting time where racism once again is a discussion that we are all forced to have.