4.4.20 Christopher Meloni talks ‘Law & Order: SVU’, Part 2: Stabler loves Benson

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

Back in 2008 I spent a lot of my free time hopping over to The Law & Order: SVU studios to co-write The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion with Susan Green. The book was published the following year, and covered the first 10 seasons, which gave me a chance speak with Meloni about Stabler in his prime.

Here’s Part 2 of our interview, condensed for space and clarity. Here’s Part 1 and Part 3!

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.

Welcome to the Special Victims Unit.

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.

You and Mariska clicked at the audition, but how long was it before you both clicked with each others’ acting rhythms?
That’s going to be a great question to ask her, too. My answer would be four or five years.

Directors chairs for the stars. Note that Hargitay’s is a bit … unusual.

So how do you make it work for the four years until you get into that groove?
I felt I could read her – that’s a very difficult question. I don’t know how to answer that. I think I helped her understand – and again this is all very subjective – I felt that I helped her understand the acting rhythms of the show and we actually joked about it, sometimes you’re on a procedural type show, you have to pick your shots.

Every victim can’t bring tears to your eyes. We called it “victimology” – [pulls tormented face] “It’s terrible!” But you’re a cop, so you have to pick that place where you let your heart out and reveal it, and listen to me, I’m telling you about the girl who’s been nominated seven times, so what do I know?

Do you all rehearse together, in dressing rooms, work out lines?
No. This is one of the beauties of doing this sort of thing. We’re in acting class 16 hours a day, every day of our lives pretty much. And after a while, the shorthand of, your instrument gets so sharpened – if it’s a particularly emotional scene, yeah. But together? No.

What is it about Benson that Stabler likes and vice versa?
[Pause] I think he loves Benson. He doesn’t know where to place it.

Define “love.” They don’t have a sexual relationship.
Yes, I think it kind of transcended, went through, yet is always there. It’s not like it’s “past that,” I mean it’s not his sister, it’s a very … what people see, you can’t hide it. In those few scenes we’ve had, close personal scenes, what she loves about Stabler – I don’t know, I’m the man in her life. I’m the solid guy, maybe the shoulder to cry on, it was very interesting, you know, when she delivers my wife’s baby, and we’re rehearsing the scene in the hall at the end, and I said, guys, I have to hug her. This is the only time this is going to happen, this is the only opportunity where I will initiate physical contact with this woman. My wife is in there with the baby and I love her, but it’s her … that to me was the crux. Why? That. Thing. What comes is “thank you.” Not “I love you.”

I get the impression that Stabler is “I can’t go anywhere with this no matter what” but I get the impression with Benson that it’s stronger than that for her.
Sure, look, I bet if Stabler were single….

So you don’t think the writers will ever do anything with that?
No. Because then it really does become a completely different show; it’s Joanie Loves Chachi, you have the spinoff of a relationship and it’s not about – the trials and tribulations of this wacky marriage of ours, it’s two people who have found – I just find it so much more complicated the way it stays.

Mariska Hargitay and Meloni in “Perfect” (2003).

And that makes it more interesting, I think. I’ve been on the set for a couple of days. Is this pretty typical of the interplay you all have, what I’ve seen, all of the cracking up until you have to be serious?
You have to. Whenever it’s children, scripts that involve children, it gets a little less funny. But even in that episode if it’s a certain scene, a lot of informational scenes that aren’t very emotional … you can get [hushed voice] a little grab-ass.

How do you get along with Ice-T (Sgt. Odafin “Fin” Tutuola) and [former] co-star Richard Belzer (Sgt. John Munch)?
Love Belzer; I’ve been to his house in France, love – every time we come together after a while, you say I really missed you. [Former co-star Capt. Don Cragen] Dann Florek the same way, but he’s an LA guy so sometimes he goes missing. Ice-T was one of the revelations, when he came in, it was very difficult I’m sure. I witnessed it when he came in and I think everyone looked at him with raised eyebrows, like, Come on, he’s not going to fit, he’s a rapper, come on. I’m a serious actor, whatever. But he’s the man. He’s kind of – the relationship has become, it’s just a really wonderful, solid, he’s such a solid, smart, funny, perceptive guy. Does his work, when they give him an episode [snaps fingers] takes that weight and goes with it. He’s been just great.

How much of a say do you get in terms of the script?
Huge. Huge. Huge. [Laughs] I used to be note-crazy, and then I slowly was beaten down – or, I learned a lesson that I learned diplomacy a little bit. The diplomacy aspect was that I picked my battles. And I stopped getting in the writers’ game. I used to go over word by word, and then I finally realized part of my job is to be a better interpreter. But it’s been great, because they’re not ego notes, they’re notes of Help me understand this scene, or I think this will make it better. Very collaborative.

Christopher Meloni in 2006.

What do you think some writers maybe miss out on when writing Stabler?
Sometimes it’s word usage; it’s very difficult if you’re a network show, there are certain words you can’t use. But you can’t – there are certain words that just don’t come out of my mouth well.

Such as? I just want to hear it not come out well.
“That rat bastard!” [Laughs] “You sicko!” “You’re nothing but a sicko perv!” I’m like, “sick” – calling someone “sick” – I’m like, you know, I’ve been here too long, seen too much, and what does that get me, to label that guy sick. If I’m going to have an emotional rant on him, it’s going to be something stronger than “sick.” But I can’t say “you motherf—” can’t go there. Sometimes they write him a little too square; there have been times when they’ll give me a stance, that’ll be that type of episode, and I’m just like “no way,” there’s no way. And sometimes I’ve lost that fight. And I’m like, I’ll do it, and every time I see it, it’s like I’m not buying it, and you can’t fake it. Those are the times.

Stay tuned for Part 3!

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