Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Christopher Meloni has been working as an on-camera actor since the late 1980s, but it took the better part of a decade of one-off appearances and short-lived series before he secured the one-two punch of roles that made him a full-fledged TV star: inmate Chris Keller on HBO’s Oz and Detective Elliot Stabler on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. After 12 long and increasingly dark seasons on SVU, Meloni left the 16th precinct and headed off in search of lighter material. His new sitcom, Surviving Jack, airs Thursdays on FOX.
Surviving Jack (2014-present)—“Jack Dunlevy”
Christopher Meloni: He’s a doctor. He has his own way of parenting. He’s old school, very straightforward, sees the world through the unique lenses of his mind’s eye. I find the guy refreshing, personally. And my kids swear that I’m just playing myself, so… [Laughs.] I dunno. We’ll see.
The A.V. Club: How did the role come about? You’ve worked with Bill Lawrence in the past, on Scrubs. Had he always been interested in the idea of casting you in a comedy?
CM: You’d have to talk to him on that. You know, I’ve known him socially and professionally, and I admire the guy tremendously. I think he’s obviously one of the top guys in comedy. There was a comfort factor there when I got the job. Then I slowly got to know Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker. [Hesitates.] Shoe-maker? Shoe-mocker? God, that guy’s got to learn how to pronounce his name correctly. Anyway, I felt very comfortable signing on and going on this journey. I was looking for something a little lighter than the usual… sex crimes. [Laughs.] Which are not funny!
AVC: You’d done sitcoms in the past, but presumably this one is a little bit different, since it’s single-camera.
CM: I wasn’t feeling the four-camera. At all. So, yeah, the single-camera was appealing. I think also, again, the one-hour dramas are—well, just one-hours in general, especially on a network, where the usual order is 22 episodes, I did that for a dozen years. To be honest, I was looking forward to hours that were not as arduous.
AVC: Given that your character is at least inspired by a real person, have you had a chance to meet with Justin’s dad at all?
CM: No. No, I haven’t. And to his credit, he’s, like, “Eh, if it’s a hit, then maybe I’ll drop by. I don’t need to rush over.” [Laughs.] He’s his own guy. But I am looking forward to meeting him at some point.
AVC: He probably got burned with Shatner, and now he’s afraid.
CM: [Laughs.] Especially when I said, “I’m going to out-Shatner Shatner!”
AVC: In fairness, that would frighten anyone.
CM: [Does a credible Shatner impression.] “We… need… love!”
AVC: You mentioned that your kids said you’re just playing yourself. Does that mean that, when you first read the script, you were able to step right into it?
CM: I think it was just a matter of modulating up, taking the spectrum of acceptable behavior and widening it a little bit. I don’t think I ever put condoms in my son’s backpack. [Laughs.] But that’s about all I had to do, I guess. It was pretty close. I mean, I love my wife. That’s a big part of the whole show and its chemistry: that it’s not the henpecked husband or the long-suffering wife, it’s two people in a legitimate, mature relationship. They argue, they disagree, whatever, but in the end it’s a guy who deeply loves his wife. And that wasn’t a stretch for me.
The Equalizer (1988)—“Team Leader”
AVC: I usually try to ask actors about their first on-camera appearance…
CM: [Instantly.] I don’t remember!
AVC: Well, if IMDB is accurate—and it may not be—it was playing Team Leader on an episode of The Equalizer.
CM: Oh, my God. So you, uh, want the story on that?
AVC: I would love the story on that, if there is one.
CM: All right, so I go in, I’ve got the audition, I get the sides, and all I have to say is… Well, okay, here’s the deal: I am the leader of an assassination squad, we go in, we go down these hallways, and we’re going to kill all these security guards… but when we get there, all the security guards are already dead. And my line is, “Looks like somebody already did our job for us.” And my second-in-command says, “What do you want to do?” And I say, “Burn ’em all.” Because we’re an assassination squad who conveniently has a flamethrower with us.
AVC: Sure you do.
CM: Every good assassination squad should have one in their arsenal. [Laughs.] So I go to my audition, I read, and I got the part. And I’m really excited. So they call me up and say, “Go to your fitting.” I’m still really excited. This is my first gig ever! I go to wardrobe, they put me up in a black jumpsuit and black boots and black gloves and a black vest where you can hook on your hand grenades and extra ammo.
And then they give me a black-knit cap, and I put that on. And they say, “No, no, no, it goes like this.” And they roll it down over my face… so now you can’t see me. And this is one that only has the holes for the eyes. So you can’t see my eyes, you can’t see my nose… it’s just my eyes. I’m, like, “Oh, boy…” So we shoot the thing, I invite people over for the premiere… [Starts to laugh.] And they dubbed my voice. To make me sound more manly.
AVC: I was actually just getting ready to ask if that was also your first experience with looping dialogue.
CM: Well, it was somebody’s experience with looping dialogue. It just wasn’t mine!
AVC: So how did you find your way into acting in the first place?
CM: I found I couldn’t function in normal society. [Laughs.] So I had to find, I guess, a pretend world in which to inhabit. And I figured I could be miserable in the real world or miserable in the fake world, so I chose to be miserable in the fake world.
AVC: At what point did you realize it was going to be a career for you and not just a whim or a fascination?
CM: I think the fifth year into SVU. That’s when I thought, “You know, I might have a shot at this.”
Twelve Monkeys (1995)—“Lt. Halperin”
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)—“Clerk at Flamingo Hotel”
AVC: You’ve worked with Terry Gilliam twice, the first time on Twelve Monkeys.
CM: Oh, yeah, that was fantastic. So Brazil, when I was young and starting out as a struggling actor, was one of those movies that changed my life. The way it was shot, the boldness of the story, just the whole thing. And I’d already been a huge Terry Gilliam fan, with Time Bandits and all that, and Monty Python, of course. So when I met him, I almost started crying, I was so excited to meet him. I must’ve made him feel so uncomfortable. But with the help of the casting director, Margery Simkin, he gave me that role. So I’m forever indebted to them. To her and to him.
AVC: And apparently he thought well enough of you to let you come back and work for him again on Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
CM: Yeah, and I thought that was really ballsy of him to kind of do a little stretch. I wanted to play a kind of heightened, almost a gay stereotype. Because in my mind’s eye, I thought that’s how a cop would see him. So I was playing the cop’s reality, not necessarily Hunter S. Thompson’s reality. And God bless Terry that he let me roll with it. But the guy had no name! I said, “You’ve got to give him a name! I need a badge. I’ve got to have a name!” And then I said, “How about Sven?” [Laughs.] So he let me have the name “Sven”! I just loved that the gay concierge or front desk check-in guy in Vegas was named “Sven.” I just found that funny.
AVC: So did you get to interact with Hunter S. Thompson at all?
CM: No. Obviously, Johnny Depp had spent some time with him, though. And I got to spend time with Johnny Depp, so it was almost like being with Hunter S. Thompson. But I was a huge fan. Talk about changing your life: Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail, I read that book cover to cover in about a week. It was insane. I loved it.
Gym Teacher: The Movie (2008)—“Dave Stewie”
CM: I basically did that because at the time my kids were young—very young—so there was nothing for them to see. I mean, what, am I going pop in Oz or SVU for them to enjoy? [Laughs.] So I took it so I could actually prove to my children that Daddy, in fact, did go out to work and that this was actually how Daddy made his living. So I did it to prove that Daddy has a job.
Man Of Steel (2013)—“Colonel Nathan Hardy”
CM: Wow. That was fantastic. Well, first of all, I got the role, and I was very happy about it because I felt that he had a legitimate story arc. In the beginning, he’s very leery of Superman, and then he realizes he is on our side. He’s the proactive human, as opposed to going, “Superman, save us! Save us!” He’s the one who’s willing to lay his life on the line to save the world. It’s, like, “Okay, great, he’s very heroic, that’s a great arc for this character.” But then I heard that he was named after a real Navy SEAL who lost his life in combat, and that was important to know. It was very heavy for me. It was almost a spiritual responsibility to be present and to honor this human being. So I took that to heart. I took that very seriously.
Wonder Showzen (2005)—“Cooties Spokesman”
CM: Probably one of the most important public service announcements ever, in the history of the human race. [Laughs.] I gotta tell you, that’s one of those programs that was ahead of its time. And I had a blast doing it.
AVC: Is Wonder Showzen kind of where your comedic sensibilities lie? Given the comedic projects you’ve picked in recent years, it’s clear that your sense of humor is at least a little askew from the mainstream.
CM: I really appreciate edgy humor. Because I think there’s value there. It pokes holes, and I think it has the power for examination. Self-examination or examination of social mores or traditions. It’s a valuable tool. If you’re into it, you can connect. I think that’s why Family Guy does so well.
Clean Slate (1994)—“Bodyguard #2”
Junior (1994)—“Mr. Lanzarotta”
CM: Yes, I did play Bodyguard #2 in Clean Slate… when what I really wanted was the Dana Carvey part. [Laughs.] Yes, I did play that, and I’ll just say that I got to meet Michael Gambon. And just a couple of years prior to that, I’d seen The Singing Detective, so, again, I’m just staring at this guy, going, “You’re a god!”
AVC: And that was your first film, right?
CM: That might’ve been. I think you’re right. I didn’t have any words to say, but that’s okay.
AVC: So the first speaking role would’ve been in Junior.
CM: Yeah, Mr. Lanzarotta! That was fun. I got a couple of lines there. Ivan Reitman was a nice guy.
1st & Ten: The Championship (1989-1990)—“Johnny Gunn / Vito Del Greco”
CM: Man, you’re… [Starts to laugh.] You’re really bringing in the hard stuff, aren’t you? You’re throwing me fast balls! That was kind of… interesting. I think that was my first TV gig, so it was the first time I actually made what was to me very serious money. And I thought, “Wow, this is going to be my career!” And it lasted one season. I didn’t know they liked to get rid of their quarterbacks every year on that show. My high school football experience got me that job, and oh, boy, that was a tough one. That was tough.
AVC: How so?
CM: I mean, it was an excuse for T&A, you know? And I didn’t realize it wasn’t Shakespeare. [Laughs.] I think I was a little bit at cross-purposes. Yeah, that was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. God, man, you’re making me sweat…
AVC: I’m sorry.
CM: No, you’re not. [Laughs.] No, you are not sorry. You are not sorry one bit!
Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)—“Freakshow”
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)—“Grand Wizard”
CM: Oh, fantastic. Yeah, that was great. I had a very short conversation with my agent. He said, “I have an offer for you.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “The name of the character is Freakshow.” I said, “That’s fantastic. That is awesome.” He said, “It’s, like, three days’ worth of work.” I said, “That’s genius.” Because, you know, I was doing SVU, and I was kind of burned out. And then he said, “And you’ll have to go through about three or four hours of prosthetic makeup.” And I was, like, “God, this really is genius!” [Laughs.] I didn’t even need to look at the script! So that was the name of that tune. And I go to work with the writers, and the boys, John [Cho] and Kal [Penn], whom I love. But I should say that, after I went through the makeup, my first reaction—I mean, they’d said, “You were our first choice!” I was, like, “How the hell do you get me out of this character?” Oddly enough, I still took it as a compliment, but I still didn’t understand why I was their first choice.
AVC: And then you came back as a different character for Escape From Guantanamo Bay.
CM: Yeah, I was the Grand Wizard of the KKK. [Laughs.] And the writers were great, because I said, “Hey, how about if this guy has Tourette’s syndrome, but instead of saying curse words, he barks out racial epithets?” Because, you know, he’s just so deeply dipped in racism and hatred, he can’t help himself. And then I thought I’d give him a lazy eye on top of that. I thought that was a nice touch, but, boy, that was a tough one. I had to get a special contact made that covers the whole eye, and that was misery. Every other take, I had an ophthalmologist come running up to me and sticking their finger in my eye to rotate the lens back around. Man, that was tough.
AVC: In the second film, you’re credited as Reverend Clyde Stankey.
CM: Yes. Yes, I am.
AVC: Should I ask why?
CM: No. You don’t want to know the answer. [Laughs.] There’s no good reason. Only I know the reason.
AVC: I’ll only ask, then, who came up with the name. Was it you or was it them?
CM: Oh, it was me. But that’s all I’ll say.
Oz (1998-2003)—“Chris Keller”
CM: That was a gift by Tom Fontana. I had no idea about the show—or very little, anyway—and I had no idea where the character was going, so every episode unfolded for me as it did for the audience. I didn’t know I was going to have a relationship and fall in love, and then I didn’t know that it was going to be a set-up of Lee Tergesen’s character, and then I didn’t know it was going to blossom into true love. I didn’t know any of that stuff. And it was a little stressful, but it was a hell of a lot of fun to be a part of it and watch it unfold and be a part of that unfolding.
AVC: When they first pitched you the character, what was your initial reaction? Were you concerned about the challenges, or were you just intrigued by it?
CM: No, no, I was completely intrigued. I’d worked for Tom on Homicide, I played a bounty hunter for him, and I loved his style of storytelling. So I was all in. I really felt I was in good hands, and that I was going to be pretty outlandish stuff. But by the time I started, I’d seen the whole first season, so I was locked in on how he told things.
AVC: Is there a particular moment that you look back on as being the most disconcerting?
CM: [Long pause.] You know, the most difficult one was when Lee Tergesen and I had to kiss each other, and we were really “in love.” At this point, we had made up, we’d rediscovered each other, and we were in love with each other. And it’s one thing to be a pure, animal, manipulative sort of thing where I could kind of justify it in my head that it’s a ploy. Because my character kind of used sex as a weapon. But in this moment, to say to myself, “I have to kiss this other person as if I would kiss a woman, because I have to be in love with this person.” He and I were so nervous. [Laughs.] We were, like, “Okay, just set up the camera, and we’ll just do it.” And we did. And that nervousness really worked. It was great, because it was two people trying to reconnect and trust each other again. It was kind of sweet. Although I think my two proudest moments on Oz are mooning Lee Tergesen, which was definitely one of the highlights for me, and peeing in the bucket. It did take two takes, though. I just want to get that out there. That was take number two. And I had a third in me. I’m just saying. I’m not a one-pee wonder, just in case people have that idea.
AVC: People are going to walk away from this interview disillusioned.
CM: Or throw up in their mouths.
AVC: Were you happy with the way Chris’ story ended?
CM: [Bursts out laughing.] Uh, no. But that’s between me and Fontana—and you have to put in parentheses that I laughed. Which I know you will.
Homicide: Life On The Street (1998)—“Bounty Hunter Dennis Knoll”
AVC: We can’t just leave your Homicide role with just an offhanded mention.
CM: I can appreciate that, ’cause I thought that was a groundbreaking show. And I thought it was a real great character part. I just felt he was a true character, written as a very clear personality. I thought he was a great combination of street-smart and yet really book-savvy. He went to the University Of Richmond, I think it was. So you wouldn’t look at him and how he handles himself and think he was anything other than a gun for hire as a bounty hunter, but he has a great speech where the detectives are grilling him, and he’s, like, “Please, you don’t know who you’re dealing with here. I’m not a pushover. I’m no dummy.” And then he has another great scene where he lays out his game about how he gets mothers to confess where their runaway, bond-skipping sons might be. It’s just really wonderfully poetic. I really loved that show, so that was a lot of fun. And, you know, I’m from D.C., so going down to Baltimore was a kick in the pants, too.
National Lampoon's Dirty Movie (2011)—"The Producer," director
AVC: If IMDB can be trusted, you not only starred in this but also directed at least part of it.
CM: Yeah. [Long pause.] Uh, yeah. That was a project that I did in between SVU seasons, and I don’t know what to say about that guy, that project. That was one of the more interesting projects I’ve ever been involved with. Let’s just put it that way. It was very interesting. [Goes silent.]
AVC: I would ask for further illumination, but I don’t feel like I’d get it even if I did.
CM: Nah. It was a wild ride.
AVC: What I’m getting from this is that there’s a follow-up article here.
CM: Yeah. Uh… yeah.
The Fanelli Boys (1990-1991)—“Frankie Fanelli”
CM: I got The Fanelli Boys, and I was a huge fan of Joe Pantoliano, and of Jimmy Burrows, who did Cheers at the time. It was just a great project. I loved doing it. And it was my first big break. It got me out to California. I loved it. I loved doing that show. I played Frankie, the big, lovable lunk, the Brooklyn kid. It was him and his brothers. It only lasted for 17 episodes, but then Joey Pants helped get me Bound—or at least that’s how he tells it, so I’m going to go with it. [Laughs.]
Bound (1996)—“Johnny Marzzone”
CM: Bound was really a big break for me, and it was magnificent to see how the Wachowskis worked, how they told stories and how they moved the camera in absolute command over story, what they were trying to say, and how visually they were going to say it. It was really pretty profound.
The Souler Opposite (1998)—"Barry Singer"
CM: To me, it felt like—and maybe it was—the first time I got hired to be the lead in a movie. That was exciting. It was based on the adventures of the writer/director, Bill Kalmensen, as he struggled through the comedy circuit while trying to find love. That was a lot of fun to do and to play, and what was also kind of very difficult was that I had my own comedic way, but Bill had his routines, so I had to fit myself into his shtick. You know, every once in awhile I’d go on a riff on his basic material, and he’d be, like, “No. No, no, no.” He’d be, like, “Nah, you’re not that funny, Chris.” [Laughs.] And I was, like, “Oh, okay.” So he’d pull me back into the Bill Kalmensen arena of comedy. Which was okay. It was good. I just remember it being a lot of fun and a great exercise. I had to learn to play the clarinet, and I didn’t realize how difficult that frigging instrument was! But that was a lot of fun, actually. It truly was. A whole lot of fun.
AVC: Had you ever had any burning desire to be a stand-up comedian prior to that?
CM: I had thought about it many times, but I didn’t have balls big enough. I couldn’t get over that “first 10 times you do it” hump. I feel like, if you can get over that, you’ve gotten through 30 percent—maybe even 50 percent—of the basic reactions you’re going to run into in your career, whether it’s heckling or moderate tittering or killing it.
AVC: “Moderate tittering”?
CM: “Moderate tittering.” [Laughs.] I’m going to mull on that. I feel a bit naughty!
CM: Oh, that was fantastic. Boy, I wish I could get more of those gigs. I really would love to do more voiceover work. That was so much fun. It was great to work with those guys. It was really cool to be in the studio. You could come as you are, as Nirvana would say, and I thought it was great. I thought it was a groundbreaking show, kind of a bridge between The Honeymooners and Family Guy. I thought it was edgy, I thought there were lessons buried inside every episode. It was really cool to be part of that project.
Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)—"Hal Jordan / Green Lantern"
AVC: You’ve done at least a little bit more voice work: You played the title character in Green Lantern: First Flight.
CM: Yeah, that was cool. That was my first exposure to the crazy fanboy stuff. They go over all these comic books with a fine-toothed comb, and I’m just kind of a general peruser, moderately tittering in the back. Thank you! That’s called a recall, by the way.
AVC: Yes, nice callback.
CM: Oh, do they call it that, too? I’ve never had one of those, so I didn’t know. [Laughs.] Anyway, I got to work with Victor Garber on that, who played Sinestro, and we were in the studio at the same time, so we got to work off each other. I’m a big fan of his, both personally and professionally.
True Blood (2012)—“Roman Zimojic”
CM: Ah, yes, Roman. Yeah, that was cool. It was a whole campaign thought up or drawn up by Alan Ball to get me in there and introduce me as the new cast member. A big campaign, and they quickly killed me off. [Laughs.] I’d always bother him and tell him, “How about if my character had an evil twin? You’ve never had that! You’ve never had connected vampire twins, have you?” And he nodded politely, as you would with maybe a mentally deficient person. He humored me, but I’m sure he was tittering behind his back.
He kind of screwed me up, though—and I think he knew he did this—because he said, “He’s like Obama.” And so now in retrospect, when I look back, I’m, like, “That was horrible advice! Horrible!” If you’re reading this, Alan, it was horrible! [Laughs.] But that was a good experience. You know, the cast members were very welcoming. I was sitting there thinking, “You know, this must be really weird and difficult, because here’s this new dude, strolling on in and getting all this press, as if he’s all that and a bag of chips.” But they were cool, they were kind, and they welcomed me.
AVC: It seems like it would’ve been a weird experience for you, given that it was your first multi-episode guest arc in quite a few years.
CM: Yeah, I had a multi-episode arc on NYPD Blue back in the day, and that was a gift, but I loved True Blood. I loved wearing the fangs, and he was a snappy dresser. But between you and me, I was sick of wearing the fucking ties, so they made me the grunge president of the vampire authority.
AVC: So when you say “between you and me,” that’s off the record, then?
CM: Oh, I don’t care. [Laughs.] Go ahead and put it in.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)—“Gene”
CM: Gene was fantastic. I went in to audition, walked into the room, and who’s there but Michael Showalter, whom I didn’t know but I recognized from the chess shop. You know, we were both in New York City, he liked to play chess, I played chess, and we’d actually played each other in chess, at this little throwback—like something circa the 1950s—hole-in-the-wall chess shop where all these eccentric people play chess all day. But at that moment, I said to myself, “I wish I’d let him win a few games.” [Laughs.] Maybe he has a different story, I don’t know.
But, that was one of the auditions where I felt very good about what I had done. I felt confident about what I had laid out for ’em, how I felt the character should be. It’s one of those moments where you walk in and you go, “This is who the character is,” and you lay it out, and whether they like it or not, that’s kind of irrelevant. You just give ’em a very clear picture of the guy as you’d play him.
AVC: Was that a case where they reached out to you specifically? Or did you go after it because you wanted to do comedy?
CM: No, they sent out kind of a general “here’s the kind of guy we’re looking for” thing, which was a Vietnam vet kind of guy, someone who had to offer a general level of threat but I guess a nuttiness to him. I don’t remember what the exact description of the character was, but I think it was just a general casting thing, my agent sent me, and, well, I obviously got it.
AVC: Did they immediately recognize you as being from SVU?
CM: Nah. No way. Because the show was in its first or second year, I think, so they didn’t know me from a hole in the wall.
Target Earth (1998)—"Detective Samuel 'Sam' Adams"
Scrubs (2003)—“Dr. Dave Norris”
AVC: I wanted to circle back to the first time you worked with Bill Lawrence, on Scrubs, but when I was prepping for the interview, I discovered that you’d actually worked with John C. McGinley prior to that.
CM: Oh, my God: Target Earth!
CM: Yeah, what a character he is. That was nothing but fun. I like John a lot. It’s such a kick to work with him. And he really chewed up the scenery in Target Earth, which is what the movie needed, you know? It really needed a really interesting, unique bad guy/alien, and he left it all out there on the floor. [Laughs.] Yeah, so that was a lot of fun.
AVC: When you got cast on Scrubs, did Bill know you’d worked with McGinley before?
CM: I have no idea. I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared. [Laughs.] Beause he knows what Johnny C. brings to the table. But he hired me for some reason—I still don’t know why—and now we’ve crossed paths again.
AVC: How was the overall Scrubs experience for you?
CM: It was real good. It was very funny. It was a good lesson. I appreciated what a guest actor’s feelings are when they get on a show. When you’re on a show, it’s such a fast moving train, but because you’re there every day, you don’t realize the speed at which you’re traveling. But when you’re a guest actor, you’re asked to jump on this friendly but relatively impersonal train, because it’s just a regular job for everyone else. You’re going, “Gosh, this is so cool,” and they’re going, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Hit your mark, do your lines, and let’s move on.” [Laughs.] So it was a good lesson for me. It was a good reminder to have the empathy for guest actors. Also, let me just say that it’s always fun to have a puppet as a prop.
AVC: In fact, there’s a clip of you with the puppet on YouTube, so we’ll have that accompany our discussion of the role.
CM: Oh, thank God. [Laughs.] Thank God! But can I just say this? I had fun, but the one bone I had to pick about it—I don’t know which clip you’re going to use, but there’s a scene in the hallway with me, Johnny C., and his wife—played by Christa Miller, the boss’s wife—and the only way that scene truly works as a comedic piece is if it the shot is tighter. Because you shouldn’t be able to see my whole arm come up. You should only be able to see my face, and then this stupid sock puppet’s face, as if he’s another person in the scene. If you see my whole face—as you do—you’re, like, “Oh, here’s a guy lifting up his puppet arm.” Anyway, what I’m saying is that I should get Bill Lawrence to re-master that and do it tighter. It should only cost a couple hundred thousand.
AVC: It’s a must-do.
CM: Because you know something? Comedy is priceless.
AVC: Until you have to put a price tag on it.
CM: Hey. Hey. Don’t cheapen it. See, that kind of sentiment cheapens it.
AVC: I’m very sorry.
CM: Yeah, so am I. You’re cock-blocking my comedy, okay? Now put it back in your pants, wouldja?
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-2011)—“Detective Elliot Stabler”
CM: Never heard of him.
AVC: Fair enough. Good talking you.
CM: Good night! [Laughs.] So I was doing Oz, and I got an audition with Dick Wolf. I had the audition, and I thought I did very well in the room. I was very confident. Then a couple of weeks went by, and nothing. So I went to Tom Fontana, the creator of Oz, who happened to be very good friends with Dick Wolf, and I’m, like, “So, what’s up with Dick Wolf?” He says, “I don’t know. I’ll call him.” So he calls him, and he says, “Yeah, he liked you. He’ll call you back.” I’m, like, “Okay, well, Jesus Christ, shit or get off the pot!”
But sure enough, he calls me back a couple of days later or something, and now it’s Dick and his show runner at the time, and then…nothing! So I go, “Enough of this! I’m going on vacation!” So my wife and I fly to Hawaii…and I swear to you, the tires on the jet were still hot from the landing, and I get a call saying, “Get the next flight back, you’re screen-testing tomorrow in New York.” I’m, like, “You son of a bitch…”
So I fly back to New York, I screen test, Mariska [Hargitay] and I get it, they let us know literally a half-hour afterward, I’m elated, and I fly back to Hawaii to be with my wife and enjoy my vacation… and I promptly have a gall bladder attack and have to fly back to L.A. the next day to get my gall bladder removed. So I might’ve gotten the part, but Dick Wolf still owes me and my wife a trip to Hawaii!
AVC: I was going to ask how quickly you and Mariska found your chemistry, but if you got the part within a half-hour of doing the screen test together, it must’ve been immediate.
CM: Yeah, it was immediate. We were actually cracking jokes when we walked into the screen test. There were, like, 15 or 16 people in the room, and I walked in telling her a funny story, and we get up there and say, “Hey, everybody! Hold on, let me just finish this up.” And I finished my story with Mariska with them waiting. [Laughs.] We made them wait while I finished the story. It was a very immediate connection between us, very light and easy.
AVC: In regards to Elliot’s temperament, you may or may not be aware that there’s a compilation on YouTube called “Unstabler: 12 Seasons Of Elliot Stabler Being A Dick.”
CM: Wow. That must run, like, seven hours…?
AVC: It’s several minutes, to be sure.
CM: I’m glad I’m not on a reality show, because that’s what it would be called: “Unstabler.”
AVC: Was there ever any point where you felt like he was flying off the handle a bit too much, maybe for a reason that didn’t ring true?
CM: Yeah, but you can chalk that up to acting. [Laughs.] I don’t know if it was because I personally felt this way and, without knowing it, I foisted it upon the character, but when I got the job, it was written that I had three kids, and that was about it. And I said to Dick, “You know, I think he should be an ex-Marine, and I think he should have a tattoo on his forearm.” Because I felt that he was a straight arrow, but I felt that the tattoo was a hint that he used to be a little wilder, that there was a wildness that was suppressed within him because he had to tow a certain line, because he had a lot of responsibility, and I think he took “to protect and serve” very seriously.
I also said, “I think he should have four kids. The first one, I think my wife just got pregnant, and we were basically just teenagers, maybe 19 or 20 years old, and it forced us to get married.” That’s not an auspicious way to start, and I think that brings pressure. All of a sudden, you’re starting a family, and it’s under duress. And I said, “I think the last two kids should be twins.” So the only one that was really planned was the middle child, and then it’s, like, “Okay, well, we can deal with three kids,” but then to have four kids on a detective’s salary…? That’s a lot of pressure! I always felt that. I always felt like the guy should be under pressure, and when I toured and interviewed the SVU detectives that I did, the things that they saw and what they had to deal with was rough. Rough stuff. And I think it made me feel such pressure. So I guess that’s what it is: a sense of pressure. A man constantly under pressure. Now whether I did it too much or not? I have no fucking idea.
AVC: Elliot left the show in decidedly abrupt fashion. Do you feel the need for closure between him and Olivia the way the fans obviously do?
CM: [Very long pause.] I had a lot to say on that subject. But all I can tell you is that it played out the way it played out, and I’ll just leave it at that.
AVC: Is there a scenario under which you could see reprising the character?
CM: [Another long pause.] You know, I think that’s a question for other powers that be. And not me.
AVC: I can accept that.
CM: [Laughs.] I knew you could. That’s why I laid it on you last.