4.2.20 Christopher Meloni talks ‘Law & Order: SVU’, Part 1: Auditions and 22-hour workdays

The big news for Law & Order: SVU fans hit on the last day of March: Det. Elliot Stabler is coming back! OK, not to SVU, but to his own series!

It’s been a long, dry spell for Stabler fans. Christopher Meloni originated the role of Stabler in 1999, when SVU became the first spin-off from the mega-mothership Law & Order, and has since not only survived the cancellation of the original, but has become a cultural force in its own right. Stabler was a complicated detective: Definitely on the side of good, but easily traumatized by his job, quick to anger and always making serious sparks with his partner, Det. Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay, who’s still with SVU).

But in 2011 Meloni walked away from SVU (hey, in a normal career, 12 years on a job is usually quite sufficient!), and went on to roles on shows like Happy, True Blood, Surviving Jack, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Maxxx, just to name a few. He’s always been a seriously hard worker (and even shot the brutal HBO prison series Oz for a time while making SVU), intense and focused — but also clearly up for a laugh.

And I fully expect, what with show creator Dick Wolf’s penchant for crossing the streams — Wolf’s Chicago series regularly creates crossover opportunities among its cast — that Stabler and Benson will once again be sharing the screen again soon.

So, where do I come into all this? Well, back in 2008 I spent a lot of my free time hopping over to The Law & Order: SVU studios, which were then based in northern New Jersey (today they’re at Chelsea Piers) to co-write The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion, which published the following year. We only covered the first 10 seasons — who knew it would be on the air for double that amount of time, and counting — but it meant I got a chance to speak with Meloni about Stabler in his prime.

That’s me, in my very own (temporary) director’s chair, on location in New Jersey.

Here’s Part 1 of our interview, condensed for space and clarity. I’ll have Parts 2 and 3 up in a few days!

I’m still in awe that you were shooting Oz at the same time you were doing SVU. How did you juggle the two?
How did I balance it? I just had to repeat to myself, “I am the luckiest actor, working on a quality, edgy show in Manhattan.” And then I get Law & Order, and that wasn’t lost on me and now I’ve won the lottery. So me being able to do it, or juggle it, at times I would work 22 hours – I’d be acting for 22 hours straight, get four hours sleep, wake up and act for another 15, 16 hours. And that would happen about in a two-and-a-half, three month span, once or twice a week, that schedule. But still it was okay, the way I was able to do it was through the grace of [Oz creator] Tom Fontana and Dick Wolf, who liked and admired each other, so they made it work for me.

So it didn’t drive you nuts because you felt lucky.
So lucky. It was driven by passion and love and it was my good fortune.

How did SVU come to you?
That was kind of funny. So I’m doing Oz, and I intentionally did not sign a contract with them as a main player; whatever the contract says I wanted to keep my options open. It was only eight episodes a year, and the money was not that good, so [I wanted] to keep myself on the market.

My first audition was with Dick Wolf himself. I felt really good with that, I felt I’d earned that place, that I’d gone up in the hierarchy where I don’t have to audition with a casting director and five auditions down the road I get to meet the wizard behind the curtain. Very nice guy, cool, straight ahead guy, I thought I did a great reading and that’s that, I don’t hear anything from him.

Three weeks later I’m talking to Tom Fontana on the set of Oz and I say, “What the fuck’s going on, you know this guy, he’s your friend, tell that son of a bitch is it yes or no, it’s killing me.” God bless Tom Fontana, he walks over and makes a call and ten minutes later comes back and says, “Yeah, he’ll be calling you back.” And I’m like, “Thank you! Somebody! The silence will kill you.”

Nice to be asking one boss about the next job’s status.
That’s what I’m talking about! Very lucky. So a couple of weeks pass, I get called in again and now it’s Dick Wolf and his showrunner at the time, Robert Palm. I read for them, great! Again, I don’t hear from these guys for a couple of weeks. Now I’m done with Oz, the season is over, and I’m like, F these guys, I haven’t heard from them, I’m going to Hawaii with my wife. We’re walking on the airport tarmac in Hawaii when my agent calls me and says, “Get the next flight back to New York” – not LA – New York “– to screen test.” I’m like, Son of a bitch. I leave my wife in Hawaii, I fly back, screen test, get it – I remember getting the call from my agent before I reached my hotel. And [I] flew back to Hawaii, immediately got a gall bladder attack, had my gall bladder removed, and went back home.

Much of your background had been in comedy before Oz. Does it surprise you that you’re the Serious Cop now while you’re a comedian at heart?
No, I think I can do a lot of stuff, and I think it’s human nature and in this business that people like to put you in a place in their heads; that’s how people naturally work, they need to organize who’s who in their life. Oh, I saw him in something funny, he’s the funny guy. Kind of sexy, very street, okay, next. All it takes it the next guy – Terry Gilliam used me in a movie, cast me as an effeminate hotel clerk with a bad toupee [Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas]. And David Milch – I’ve done a lot of comedy and a lot of TV, and then David Milch from NYPD Blue, out of the blue, I didn’t know the guy knew me from Adam, the guy offered me a four story arc on NYPD Blue. I remember it’s the first time I felt the buzz. I didn’t know whether it was me and my ego, but I felt it, I felt a sea change and Oz came after that.

Goofing around on the set of “Scheherazade” (2007).

I understand that there were three potential paired-up partners to play Benson and Stabler; you happened to be paired up with Mariska. Producer Ted Kotcheff said he was in the back of the room watching you interact, saw you both and said, “That’s it!” even before the suits said anything. So — was this pairing random?
That’s what they tell me – on my side, the screen tests are nerve-wracking. So I went into the screen test and – do you want the whole story or the short version?

It’s for the book, so it’s up to you.
I go into the offices to screen test and I go through the door and I see this girl [Hargitay] there who goes, “Slattery!” Because she thought I was John Slattery. A friend of hers had said John Slattery was going to be there, and he’s a great friend of hers, so I go, “Meloni!” And she goes, “Oh, my God.” And I’m like, Who’s the chick with all the energy? And so she and I pair off for whatever reason, and we hit it off. And nothing against the other two women, but I just knew physically, and her energy, that Mariska is going to be The One. I knew that.

And I thought it was between me and one other guy. So when they said they want to pair us off, I say whoever gets paired off with her, is The Guy. They come in and say “Mariska and Meloni.” They say it was random, whatever. But they caught us – I was in the middle of telling her this story, this joke. So we got in and got up on the stage and I’m like, “Hold on just a second, I’m going to finish telling this story.” Not being disrespectful, but this is important too. This may change my life, but this story is that funny. And I think that put us at ease, and unconsciously there was a connection you could see, that she was now my partner and I will perform for you now.

So were you prepared for the rigorousness of the L&O set after Oz?
No, because Oz was 12 hours a day mandated, 12 hours that’s all. The onus was on the assistant director and the director to get the day done. When I got this – yeah, you’re prepared because you want it so badly, but the first four months or so, twice because I was so mentally and emotionally drawn and crispy from the hours and the subject matter and pouring all my heart and soul into it, I woke up two mornings and shaking and I couldn’t get out of bed. I was sitting on the edge of the bed and I was shaking, and I remember thinking, Oh my God, this is an emotional breakdown. And I’m not that guy, so whatever, it’s an anxiety attack, but I’ve never had one. But I still think it was a mini-collapse. But – nothing a shower can’t fix!

This is very early on in the process.
Yeah. So I think it took me a little over a year to figure it out. Because the first year is the impending actors strike, so in order to get a jump on that we worked a whole year, we put 30 episodes in the can, we worked a whole year, and then the next two or three we were working anywhere from 16 to 22 hours a day. It was a matter of course – we called it “Fraterdays.” Four am, Friday night, cross-eyed.

Where do you pull the energy from when it’s that late and you’re 22 hours into a shoot?
People say, “How did you become an actor?” And I say, “I didn’t want to, I had to.” You had to, and I think when you have that outlook, that passion, these are obstacles, this is all good fortune. And coffee doesn’t hurt.

Long days on location, behind the scenes.

You knew what the subject matter of the show was, but did you do research on the character, ride-alongs or anything?
I talked with [real-life] SVU guys. I’d done a lot of ride-alongs with cops in LA, visited the coroner’s office, that sort of thing. Read a lot of books on criminals, sex crimes, did that sort of research. And as far as my character, I made suggestions to Dick Wolf, I had a certain idea – I thought [Stabler] was written a little square, a little straight-arrowy, and certain things, I asked Dick if I could have a tattoo on my arm; he was in the Marines, so I wanted a tattoo.

Subliminally I felt that at one point this guy was a loose cannon, a wild card. He got drunk, he’s a jarhead, and I also felt that because he was Catholic and a married man, straight-arrow that his first child should have been illegitimate and subsequently he married his wife. He loved her, but he got pushed in. He’s 19 years old and he’s got a baby and a wife. I just felt it was more interesting to see a man under pressure, on a detective’s salary, raising four kids in New York City, that’s a hat trick that’s a tough thing to pull off. He had three kids to begin with, I said give him four kids, the first kid is illegitimate and the last two are twins that were a mistake.

Of course now he has five.
Now he has five, my fault, I’m Catholic, I can’t keep track of my kids!

How would you describe Elliot to someone who hadn’t seen the show?
He’s a meat and potatoes guy who understands very clearly the ideas of loyalty, justice, kind of these ideals and that’s where his troubles in life stem from because he knows what’s right and what’s wrong and the world doesn’t match up to these very clear concepts he has. His anger and  his confusion — he’s almost like a child. He’s such a “man” that he’s also like a child. Maturity is about understanding – you know, life is a big shade of gray with a lot of compromises along the way and it’s that uncompromising position that’s difficult and weighs on him.

Season 1 “SVU” cast.

And not to reduce it into a joke, but it has occurred to me that his name is a misnomer – Stabler is actually very unstable.
Yeah, I think that was kind of an evolution of what went down. He was intentionally named Stabler as a stabilizing influence for his more neophyte partner Benson, but what happened was his fragileness or his weaknesses  — you know, he’s growing. It gives him a place to evolve to. I think Season 10 now, he’s changed. It’s almost like he’s had his psychic break, his father issues.

There was clearly a lot more personal stuff in that first season, especially compared to others. Did you like playing that home stuff? Do you wish there was more?
As an actor, sure. I understood why they changed it, it was a very difficult dynamic to get right, which is it’s a procedural, and so you’ve got to follow the crime, the crime is a big character in the story, then how do you take that left turn to get into my driveway. It’s not – I’m bringing the case home with me, I can’t let go of the case, and yet you can’t also say “A child was found raped and murdered,” cut to me going home going “Hey, is that fresh-baked cookies?” You know, you lose – they’re two different stories, and the environments are so different. There’s a lot of experimentation in how to weave it in.

Part 2 and Part 3.

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  1. […] Part 2 of our interview, condensed for space and clarity. Part 1 is here, and Part 3 will be up […]

  2. […] Part 3 (the conclusion!) of our interview, condensed for space and clarity. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is […]