|"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star Chris Meloni grew up in Washington, D.C., but lives for New York City.|
"When I came here in 1984, I still remember coming up from the subway and this wave hitting me," Meloni says during a break in shooting. "This is where I was born, this is where I belong, this was my center, this is my center of the universe."
That was then. Now the city plays an even bigger role in his life. Meloni spends many days on the streets of New York shooting the gritty cop drama, in which he plays detective Elliot Stabler, alongside Mariska Hargitay as detective Olivia Benson.
The show, now in its 11th season, revolves around brutal cases of rape, murder and more. Early on, Meloni says, the subject matter was emotionally draining, but he and the rest of the cast, which also includes Richard Belzer and Ice-T, have learned to deal with the dark side through humor.
"I will say, anything having to do with children is still a sore point, with everyone," Meloni says. Still, "we have a gallows-humor set. Now I understand how real detectives, homicide cops, have gallows humor. You have to find a way to cope."
"Law & Order: SVU" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m., having moved back into the slot last month after NBC canceled "The Jay Leno Show," which aired Monday through Friday at that time.
"I feel people are finding us again," Meloni says. "I personally feel, actually, pretty darn good" late in the season's shooting. "I'm usually shot about month seven out of nine. Right now, I should really be dragging."
Meloni can't put his finger on the reason he's feeling so good at this point. Maybe it's the scripts. Or it might be this season's long list of big-name guest stars, such as Sharon Stone.
"It's always nice to have a pro come in," Meloni says. "Everyone has a different angle, a different way of tackling a scene, a different style and rhythm - it's like ‘Dancing With the Network Stars.' "
Meloni has been in the business since the mid-1980s. Before that, like many actors, he had jobs outside of the business, including construction and bouncing, but nothing inspired him like acting.
"I took some acting classes in college, and I just felt, with all due humility, I was one of the better ones in the class," he says. "Beyond that, I just got it, I got what was trying to be taught to me. I saw how scenes would play out. I already had a director's eye of how a scene could work or should work. I felt, ‘I'm naturally good at this. I have a natural feel for it.' I knew I had a lot to learn. ... I thought it was something testing myself, my fears, things that were within me, that I wanted to get out."
His first major part was on HBO's football comedy "1st & Ten." That kicked off a series of jobs that included a starring role in the failed comedy "The Fanelli Boys" and a handful of episodes of cop drama "NYPD Blue."
It was the brutal but critically acclaimed HBO prison drama "Oz," created by Tom Fontana, that helped put him on the map in 1998. In 1999, he added "Law & Order: SVU" to the mix, and for four years did both.
The combination of shows, along with his rugged good looks, made him a fan favorite and a sex symbol, complete with fan sites on the Internet. It's a part of the territory he's still not comfortable with, he says.
"I've been really slow on that uptake. I'm trying to figure that angle out," he adds. "It's an aspect you have to manage, for lack of a better term, of being a relatively well-known actor. It's the power of TV."
But did he think he'd be a sex symbol someday? "Oh, hell, yeah, I just didn't want to talk about it," he says, laughing.
He doesn't troll the Internet looking for the fan sites. He had a Web site of his own but gave it up. He's not comfortable interacting that way, he says.
NBC hasn't officially renewed "SVU" for a 12th season, but the betting is that the show will be back, and he'll be along for the ride.
However, Meloni is planning for a life without the series. He has optioned a book and is hoping to get a screenplay and directing gig out of it.
"Right now, I have the luxury of going for passion," he says. "My passions aren't necessarily what sells. It's a great new journey of what I want to do. It's something I deeply feel."
Until then, he'll be on the streets of New York, working and playing.
"What does New York add to me?" he says. "It's complete peace and satisfaction, and it's where I personally belong. The goal was to be a working actor and to be a working actor in New York City."