Jimmi Simpson on Playing the Cop Who Questioned Tupac and Biggie's Murders: 'He Wasn't Some Lunatic'
By Alex Ungerman
Jimmi Simpson is still seeking the truth that Russell Poole died trying to bring to light.
The Westworld star plays the late former Los Angeles Police Dept. detective in USA’s Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G., which recalls the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.’ Wallace, as well as two separate investigations into their cases, which continue to confound the hip-hop world and inspire a wide range of conspiracy theories to this day.
As Poole, Simpson finds himself wrapped up in the 1998 investigation, navigating the many seeming ties between the LAPD and Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, and being stymied by his superiors in the force at every turn -- the real-life embodiment of the “cop who sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong” trope.
“I've played a couple real guys,” the 42-year-old actor tells ET. “Nobody quite this close and dealing with such a pertinent issue like police brutality or interference or ignored justice -- not even attempted.”
“You question the LAPD, no matter whether you're right or wrong, you're gonna catch heat,” Simpson explains. “He was one man, and the LAPD is a force. There's a lot of voices, a lot of power, a lot of politics. And, the idea of Russell, in my opinion, has been far too… 'This guy was nuts, about this case,' 'Overzealous.'”
Simpson’s challenge, then, was to bring reason and humanity to a figure that many in the police department wrote off as, frankly… crazy.
“This wasn't some lunatic. This was a man trying to get the truth,” he reasons. “For the sense of what's right.”
Poole died of a heart attack in 2015. But while Simpson couldn’t go to him as a primary source to tell his story, the actor cites Randall Sullivan’s 2003 novel, LAbyrinth, as a resource that helped inform his character.
“I wanted to be really truthful to Mr. Poole,” Simpson says, noting that in the book, there are “endless interviews with him. I had all the material I needed.”
“Just his mannerisms, just a couple ways that he moves, his vibration, that[‘s what] I wanted to honor,” he explains. “I didn't want to do an impression at all. I wanted to get that energy and to interpret it.”
But in getting into character, Simpson found himself challenged by a loss in his personal life.
He tells us that one week, while, due to a schedule overlap, he was shooting both Westworld and Unsolved -- a feat in its own right -- he lost his longtime and beloved pet.
“I lost my best friend and dog of 17 years, Mouse, right in this week. And so I found myself completely underwater,” he shares. “I showed up to work at Unsolved. And I care so much about the show, but I found my ability limited."
How did he get through it? Well, by taking a note from the guy he was playing.
“I knew I still needed to do the work,” he says. “I actually had a day off. Saturday. I went to Rite-Aid and I got a bunch whiteboards, a bunch of calendars and I just broke the entire case like I thought Russell would have.”
Luckily, Simpson had the guidance of director Anthony Hemingway, who won an Emmy for his work on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, to help steer the ship through his tough time.
“I have never been so impressed by a television director,” he said of his colleague. “He just handled everything.”
These details, Simpson explains, go down to the look and feel of the three alternating timelines in the show.
“The way it pops from the current with [co-stars Josh Brolin and Bokeem Woodbine], and then with me, you have that kind of slightly aged '90s feel, and for the hip-hop stuff, he goes out to, like, full-film scope, and the colors… It's just an experience.”
It all adds up to an experience that engages both those very familiar with the ins and outs of the case, and those who, quite frankly, don’t have much of a handle on who the iconic rappers even are. Just ask Simpson’s father.
“I showed it to my 75-year-old dad from Arizona, and when Big is on the screen, he goes, 'Is that Tupac?'” Simpson says with a laugh, teasing, “Just to give you an idea of how clueless he is.”
“He doesn't really know anything about hip-hop and he was blown away,” Simpson continues. “He said, 'I can't wait to see more of this show.' He found it so compelling and informative, and he didn't know who these people were prior to seeing it.”
Whether Unsolved becomes the same phenomenon as People v. O.J. remains to be seen, but one thing that’s for certain -- the source material is damn compelling.
“When you find out the truth of what happened just 20 years ago... everyone's just had such a response,” Simpson says. “I think we're all gonna be talking about the stuff that we're bringing up.”
And of course, we had to ask if he had a theory on who killed Tupac and Biggie. Well, he does, and while he didn’t go into specifics, it doesn’t necessarily line up with his co-star, Brolin’s.
“Actually there's something that I believe … I have a slightly different take than Josh,” Simpson shares, confessing, “Perhaps we're both grounded in our own characters a bit too much.”
“But that's what the show does,” he explains. It offers a whole lot of information and then you get to [decide].”
Unsolved premieres on Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 10/9c p.m. on USA.
Watch the video below for Suge Knight's take on who may have killed Tupac and Biggie.