Like all of us, Malcolm-Jamal Warner remembers where he was when O.J. Simpson took to the L.A. Freeway in a white Bronco, leading half of the city’s police in a pursuit that dominated the TV airways. For the record, he was at home folding clothes. Now the former “Cosby Show” star, 45, is in the chase itself. In “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” a 10-part FX miniseries from "American Horror Story" maven Ryan Murphy, he plays Al Cowlings, Simpson’s best friend who did the driving during that wild ride.
What was it like diving back into that period during preparation?
There wasn’t a whole lot on A.C. There was a lot about his and O.J.’s relationship. Most of my focus ended up being on the complexities of their relationship. For example, there was a woman A.C. was really interested in, but he couldn’t express himself. So he asked O.J. to put in a good word for him. That woman ended up being Marguerite [Whitley], O.J.’s first wife. And yet O.J. and A.C. remained best friends.
Cowlings has stated he’d sue the producers if he wound up being portrayed negatively. He doesn’t come across bad at all.
There’s not enough about him to paint a bad picture. What you see is a guy who’s really there for his best friend, not knowing if he’s guilty or not. His instincts made him step to the plate. A.C. is the kind of guy who if O.J. said, “Let’s take a ride,” he wouldn’t say, “Why?” or ask where they’re going. He’d get in the truck and say, “Let’s go.” He was a ride-or-die best friend. Whether he believed O.J. was guilty or not was not the issue. I really think if O.J. and A.C. had remained friends after the trial O.J. would not be in jail now. A.C. wouldn’t have allowed O.J. to go down to Vegas to get his stuff back. He wouldn’t have allowed him to do dumb s—.
The show clearly means to comment not only on the ’90s but also the present.
This is a period piece about 20 years ago, but it still feels contemporary, because a lot of issues are still the same. It definitely reminds you that the issue of police brutality was just as prevalent back then as it is now. Not much has changed. We think about the trial and we forget about the Mark Fuhrman aspect of the case. [Ed.note: Fuhrman was the detective who, during the trial, was caught perjuring himself over use of racist language.] The trial is a confirmation of how a lot of people on the police force view the black community, and black men in particular.
The lack of diversity and equality, with race and gender, are very much in the conversation right now.
The world has been forced to pay attention to it. The young people who have been very active in the Black Lives Matter movement are the ones to thank for that. They made it impossible for American to keep their eyes shut. We’ve always known police brutality within the black community was prevalent, but now we’re seeing proof of it every single day. We’re at a time when not just people of color but society at large wants to change.
In addition to acting, you’re also a musician, who won a Grammy last year for the song “Jesus Children of America.” You’re even named after jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, as well as Malcolm X.
My dad wanted me to be a jazz pianist. When I finally picked up the bass at 26 years old, he was elated. I’ve always been into music, been a part of the hip-hop community. I’ve always had drum machines and keyboards and four-tracks. I tried to rap like any teenager. What it’s turned into in my adult life has been creatively fulfilling for me. When we got the nomination, my mom said to me, “Well, look, baby, it only took you 20 years.” Her point being there are musicians who’ve been in the business all their lives and never got a nomination, let alone an award. She said, “You’ve been putting in your time.”