|AFTER enormous television exposure, first on the acclaimed HBO series Oz and then for 11 years as Det Elliot Stabler on Law & Order: SVU, Chris Meloni intends to return to his acting roots now that he's resigned to leaving the show.|
Though he would be interested in a blockbuster Hollywood film, a stretch back on the stage is his first calling.
"Theatre has a cleansing quality to it - a purification - it's the purest form of acting," he says, speaking on the set of the internationally popular crime drama in New York City.
"You do your rehearsing; you do all the head-banging and disagreeing and figuring out and bedding it in and settling it down and, then, every night it's just you baby. The bell rings and you're off."
As revealed in a Switched On exclusive, Meloni is walking away from the show at the end of the next season. The decision has shocked SVU fans and though one of the show's producers has Twittered it's not the case, Meloni is adamant that "12 years is enough, a good number".
"It's been a great time; did an awful lot for me. But it will be a very difficult transition. I mean, Jesus Christ, every day you get used to getting up early and working these hours," he says.
"When you're an actor (not working) it's like, 'Has anyone called yet?' And having to audition again; which I loathe."
Meloni says he'd like to see the methodical, no-nonsense Stabler go out in a "muted blaze of glory".
"Not too many explosions and all that stuff, but a heroic, selfless deed," he says.
"It would be kind of cool because it's that thing of a father of five children and yet your job at times can put you on the line. One of your jobs is you carry a gun and you try to keep a sense of order.
"(There's) nothing more heartwrenching than a military guy or a cop who is shot dead, leaving a wife and kids - oh, man. So something like that would be obviously gutwrenching."
One of the regrets he has is leaving behind his colleague on the show, Mariska Hargitay, who plays Det Olivia Benson. The pair and their families holiday together and have bought property together. Their work relationship - which Meloni refers to as a "marriage" - will be a lifelong friendship.
"Oh, Jesus, I think it has to be. We've spent a quarter of our lives together," the 48-year-old actor says about Hargitay, 46.
"She's gotten married, had a family. I've gotten a family. We went from kind of employed actors to relatively well-known actors in a very public show worldwide."
Hargitay says she can't imagine doing the show without Meloni, adding that their relationship is incredibly rich.
"Like 11 years; it's like brother, husband, father, son - there are so many dynamics to it," she says.
Meloni has two children with his wife, production designer, Doris Sherman Williams - Sophia, 9, and Dante, 6. He says they've helped him deal with some of the darker parts of his role on SVU.
"At the beginning it took me about a year and a half to figure it out - what knobs to turn in order to get away," he says about dissociating from his on-screen character.
Overlapping his SVU and Oz roles didn't help: "There were times when I would literally be Elliot Stabler for 18 hours; go to bed for four hours; be Chris Keller (Oz bisexual serial killer) for six hours; go immediately to this set to be Elliot for another 14 or 16 hours.
"The hours were insane. They really were pretty crushing, but great because you're all enthusiastic about it. But then along came my daughter, born while I was on this show, and then later my son. I had to figure it out - because any time I'd get a script where children were involved - I was really unhappy."
But having figured it out, Meloni has thoroughly enjoyed his time on the series.
He loves getting to see sides of New York not everyone gets to go to.
"It's awesome. Here we are in the Old Grey Lady," he says, spreading his arms to indicate where the show is on location today in the old New York Times building in Manhattan.
"It's genius, you smell history. We've been in the sewer system and it's almost always awesome until you find the dead body floating on the shores of the Hudson in mid-January - that's not so awesome."