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30 Janvier 2023

Hey, It's Van Buren!
Publié par David Martindale dans TNT le 16/03/05.

S. Epatha Merkerson, the longtime Law & Order costar, was leaving her neighborhood market one day -- only to encounter real-life New York cops outside who were waiting to give her the hero treatment. "I was practically accosted by them," she says. "They were saying, 'Hey, it's Van Buren!' and 'Hey, Lieutenant, we want to be transferred to the Two-Seven!' And they're all laughing and treating me like an old friend. And I'm going, 'You guys, cool it. This is my neighborhood. I don't want anyone to think I'm really Five-O. So chill, okay?' And there was a little ice on the ground so they grabbed both of my arms and helped me into the car."

Looking back on that and other similar experiences, it boggles Merkerson's mind that she can be held in such high esteem by her real-life counterparts. "They're the ones who do truly heroic stuff," she says. "On Law & Order, we're all just actors playing make-believe."

Merkerson is also amazed by the fact that she's now in her 12th season as Lt. Anita Van Buren. When she joined the Law & Order cast in 1993, she expected the gig to last no more than a year or two. Instead, she has stuck around longer than any other current cast member. "I have a year on Sam Waterston," she notes. "After that, nobody's even close."

Merkerson is quick to admit that she didn't take the role hoping for job security. She didn't even paint her dressing room until her ninth year with the show. "As an actor, I've always known that things are going to end," she says. "And most certainly this will end at some point. So it didn't occur to me until nine years in that I could, you know, move in and make myself at home, pick out a color for my dressing room, bring some of my personal things."

There's no evidence to suggest that Law & Order will be running out of steam -- or running out of stories -- any time soon. "The unfortunate thing is, as long as we keep killing each other, there will be stories," Merkerson says. "As long as there are crimes for our writers to rip from the newspaper headlines, we'll still be working."

The Michigan-born actress actually goes all the way back to Law & Order's first season, when she guest-starred as the grieving mother of a drive-by shooting victim. She also played a police captain in Mann & Machine (a short-lived sci-fi police drama that was produced L&O boss Dick Wolf) before being called in for the Van Buren role.

"At the time, I think I had done three shows back-to-back for NBC," Merkerson recalls, "and there was some weird idea at the network about my being over-saturated on NBC the way I looked, because my personal hair is very ethnic. So I said to Dick, 'Look, I'll do something different with it.' And when I went in with my hair straightened, with a bow on it, Dick laughed at me for five minutes. But I got the job. If you ask Dick today, he'll say I got the job because his children were huge Pee-wee Herman fans (she was Reba the Mail Lady on Pee-wee's Playhouse in the '80s), but I'm still convinced I got it because of my hair."

Merkerson's character also owns the distinction of being the only Law & Order regular to have fired her weapon in the entire history of the show. "That's actually one of the things I appreciate most about the show, the fact that there are no guns a-blazin' in this," she says. "The truth is a cop can go through his entire career without shooting a gun. It is absolutely possible for that to happen." Because of that honesty in storytelling, she was a fan and a regular viewer of the show long before becoming a cast member. "I liked that things happened the way they do in real life. My first episode, at the end of the story, our hero, Ben Stone, Michael Moriarty's character, lost a case he had no business losing. And I went, 'Wow, that's amazing,' because that's real and things like that, the good guys not winning, truly happen in our world. And I appreciate the attempt to reflect truth in that way. Certainly we have moments on the show of heightened reality, because this is entertainment, after all. But I do appreciate the way the show always strives to tell the truth."

If we're talking truth, it's worth noting that Merkerson and Van Buren aren't very much alike. "My friends, any of them, will tell you that I cuss like a sailor and that I have an amazing sense of humor," she says. "Anything is funny to me. You can easily make me laugh, but it takes a little while for that to happen with Van Buren. She also doesn't use the kind of language -- maybe it's because we're on network television -- that I use."

But she loves her character and takes pride in the fact she has become a role model for many viewers. "I am the only black person who has been on a prime-time television drama for more than a decade," she says. "In the process of this, of being a consistent face in a position of authority, year after year, I have become a role model to young girls and to young black kids. Now bear in mind that I didn't set out to be a role model. But there are worse things to be."

Article issu de TNT et
initialement publié le 16/03/05.

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