4.7.20 Christopher Meloni talks ‘Law & Order: SVU’, Part 3: Emmy competition, unstable Stabler

Big news for Law & Order: SVU fans: Det. Elliot Stabler is coming back! OK, not to SVU, but to his own series!

Back in 2008 I was writing The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion with Susan Green, and spending a lot of time at the studios watching how the sausage got made. 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 3 (the conclusion!) of our interview, condensed for space and clarity. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.

Is there any friendly competition or not so friendly competition that goes on with screen time or face time? Obviously you and Mariska are friendly, but I’ll see one episode with her as the star, then I’ll see the next one as you as the star. Do you try to keep up on top of that?
No, I find that kind of thought process distracting for me. I never complained. I think the powers that be are very sensitive about that. I think they’re smart enough to know – there’s a lot of ego in this business, so let’s just make that part of the equation from the get-go. They’re actors, they’re going to have egos, so let’s just do our best to keep everything smooth.

Did that change at all with all of the Emmy nominations? (Hargitay was nominated for Emmys multiple times and won in 2006; Meloni was nominated once, in 2006, but did not win.) She got some great Emmy material with episodes like “911” and “Undercover.”
This is how naïve I am. I had no idea that’s how it worked. I didn’t know that – no, “We’re writing you an Emmy episode.” I had no idea, I was like, “What the fuck does that mean?” “This is going to be your time to shine!” Every scene, every moment is a time to shine, to be truthful, which if you do your job right, you’ll shine, you’ll shine for yourself. That’s always been my gauge, and it serves me well, because then you’re not disappointed. There are going to be a million benchmarks that people build for you out there to reach. But I already have mine built in; it’s what my parents taught me, or what I learned in life, and these are benchmarks that are far outside what is out there. I’ll be the first to say, “Guys, I’m bored, will you write me something?”

Emmy nominations could be a bit fraught.

Have you said that?
No. But I would be the first to say, “You know, getting kind of bored here.” And if they say, “Well, this is your role and this is how it’s going to stay,” I’d be like, “Okay” but so far I couldn’t be more pleased for Mariska. I know it’s hard for her. I still remember the first time she got nominated and I didn’t. And it was so weird on the set, it was just like … and I didn’t try to convince anyone, but people would be like, “Man, you should have been nominated, too.” And I’m like, “I’m okay.” And they’d be like, “Sure. You soldier on, cowboy.” It’s like, Oh, God, you can’t win. And she couldn’t win. She just couldn’t win. I think she felt she was undeserving of it, and I was, and whatever that shit was.

But you know the old Jerry Orbach [ex-Lennie, Law & Order] quote, about how the only way he’d get an Emmy nomination –
Was if his partner dies in his arms?

Exactly. In the L&O universe there weren’t any lead actor nominations before Mariska’s.
They never told the story this way. The way the others tell their stories is the way they tell stories.

Is it important for you to – no, wait, I guess we talked about that already. What has kept you interested in the show?
What was that question? Now I’m curious.

Oh, the question was going to be “How important is it for you to get an Emmy”? I figured you’d just say “zero.”
I’d just want to qualify that. I do appreciate it, and I do understand it from a business side and I understand what it means a lot. I got a lot of shit for my attitude when I got nominated.

What do you mean?
I was called out – I didn’t even know when they were announced; I was out water-skiing. And my wife’s like out on the dock going, “Come here, Neal [Baer] called.” And it was like eight in the morning, and I’m like, whatever. And Neal gets on the phone and goes, “Congratulations!” And I go, “What?” And he goes, “You got a nomination!” And I’m like, “Cool! Okay, I’m going back to ski.”

And I told that story because I – you know, we all know the hype and the hoops that we’re going to have to jump through and the big party that’s going to be great, and when I got it, I was like, all right. And my dad was really pretty cool, because I told him. I was having a hard time placing it, because I’d never expected it, and it wasn’t part of my universe. And he listened to me and he goes, “Well, these are the sort of things you accept as grace.” It’s such a simple thing, it’s like, You’re so fucking stubborn, that’s all it is. Someone’s giving you a gift. It’s their gift to you. Thank you. Accept it, it’s great, thank you for the party, and I finally got it, and I was like, I couldn’t move my own framework of what was important out of the way. It was something like, you have to put your little toys away and go “Thank you!” So I’m glad I asked you to go back on that.

Season 7 “SVU” cast.

Me too. So what has kept you interested in the show all these years?
I truly love the people I work with. I enjoy the collaborative effort both on the set and with the writers; I love being in New York as a well-paid, working actor, and I enjoy being on a show that on the street is well-respected, and I think no one is phoning it in and I just can’t believe it after 10 years. It’s a nice place; it’s always nice to be in a place of passion.

Did you have any idea it would be 10 years?
Fuck that. Five years! I was like, Man if I last 5 years I’ll be so happy with myself!

You all have contracts coming up, don’t you?

Do you plan to go anywhere?
I can’t comment [laughs].

On the E! True Hollywood show on Mariska, it came up about how she was considering not coming back after having her baby, and there was some speculation about will you both leave after ten seasons. When will you make that decision?
Probably when I have to.

The last time negotiations were a bit strained, eh?
They were – unhappy on my part. Hostile. But I think that’s because of a changing dynamic in the business. My expectations maybe didn’t meet … whatever. [Laughs.]

Also, let’s talk a little about character-related stuff.
If you give me episode names, we’re fucked here.

No, no, these are more general. What kind of father is Stabler? What are his flaws as a parent?
I think he’s a great father; I think his greatest problem is making peace with the modern, and what kids nowadays are allowed, and his image of how he was brought up – the template for how a child should be raised and act – I think he’s a bit stuck in the 1950s.

Of course, he was born in the 1950s.
Yeah, but that’s how he wants it. You see all these images of “When America was happy and thriving!” That’s what he wants. But he has a good enough relationship with his children that they can melt his heart, which melts this fear that life has to have this structure of how it should be to protect himself, to protect his children. In moments of true communication and love, he relaxes and he’s smart and sensitive enough to relate to them. That’s what makes him a good guy.

What are his flaws as a person?
Anger management issues [laughs].

Setside props. Always lots of paperwork.

Is he just angry at daddy or is it other things?
Maybe he hasn’t worked it all out. Some things just come as they come, and I think I’ve set him up with the pressure from the very beginning. He’s got a high-stress job, a high stress situation at home, guilt from Catholicism, guilt from knocking up his wife – you can have sex, you just can’t have proof of it. And the last two children he didn’t want. Now that they’re here, that’s great, but – he’s the guy who has deluded himself. Everything’s fine, he knows how to keep control and everything in its place, and it’s broken down. … I think the father is the protector, and he relishes that role so he is that guy at work and at home, and sometimes it’s a different kind of protector, different strategies.

How important is his religion to his world view?
Very. He’s a very traditional, conservative guy but he’s smart enough to be open to new ideas. At times if you have that combination it’s very difficult because you’re always questioning when you’re straying and when you’re off the path of correctness and when you’re right and just evolving and maturing to a new place. So I think that’s a constant battle.

What is it about Kathy that keeps them together and bonded?
I think they’re joined from history. They were first loves and that look in the eyes, that connection, you’ll never have it with someone else. There will never be another first love. And I think she really loves this man with all of his faults; I think she knows him better than anyone. People say “Benson knows you,” I just think it hasn’t been showcased. I think she doesn’t have all the tools to understand how the job has affected me and what it’s done to me and Benson knows that, but I think she’s the one who can always bring him back to the place he was before he was the SVU detective. She’s his connection to the more innocent time, and vice-versa.

When Stabler and Kathy were separated, did he feel he was cheating when he was with other people?
Of course.

So it was like, “Well, we’re not together, gotta be with someone?”
I think it’s part of the torment of not knowing where he was or who he was or what he was, but almost going back to your basic animal instincts of, this is the perfect excuse to act on things he may have thought of before. I think he’s an exceedingly civilized man; he conforms to the tenets by which he was raised — doing his duty for America, for society, community as a way to do things correctly. So there’s that fight between hey, he’s a man wink wink, nudge nudge.

Stabler’s had a lot of brushes with severe injuries — temporary blindness, shot in the arm, AIDS scare — would you want to entertain a storyline where he was more permanently affected?
Honestly, no. To affect any kind of disability week in and week out would be very difficult, so it’s hard enough — I’m about to beat up [guest star] James Brolin, and trust me I’ll be getting a lot of the beat-up end. None of these stunts ever go completely well. You’re always dinging yourself. If it looks like it hurt, it kinda did. Not as much as we’re asking you to believe, but — a little ding on the shin, a bent-back finger — a twisted knee, all that good stuff.

How is it that Stabler gets away with breaking the rules all the time? Because you have a contract?
That’s one way of looking at it! The other is God bless the viewers. I think they’re invested enough in the “heroes” that they know they don’t do it capriciously, they side with us and our sense of justice. The legal system really is — at its heart it’s unfair for immediate gratification of true justice. It has to go into the system, and the system is big, and it may be flawed, and it takes a long time — it’s not even justice, you just get your day in court.

And people are so hungry and thirsty for justice. You know when someone screwed you, and you know you’re not a bad guy and you’re not a liar, and that person screwed me. So cut the corners, it’s that wish fulfillment where you wish you could cut the corners through this red tape bullshit. The viewers are pushing our ass through the door, go get ‘im! Shoot the pedophile, get it over with, please!

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