|In recent years, it has become all the rage amongst American TV stars to make a career detour onto the London stage. The likes of David Schwimmer and Brooke Shields have lead the stampede and helped the West End out of a lean period, while at the same time gaining for themselves a credibility that no amount of canned laughter could provide. |
Sadly, Ireland seemed to enjoy no overspill of superstar invaders - but this summer, a Dublin theatre has finally lured one of the gods of the small screen to these shores. Christopher Meloni - the alpha-hunk from Law and Order SVU and Oz - will appear in Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge at the Gate.
Clearly, the addition of a recognisable name to the cast was aboon for Michael Colgan and co, but what was in it for Meloni?Cash incentive?
"Are you kidding me?" Meloni splutters between mouthfuls of the chicken sandwich he's wolfing down during a break in rehearsals. "Trust me, buddy, it wasn't the money. You know, no matter what I say, the motivation is going to sound hokey, a little holier-than-thou even - but I did it for the love of the exploration.
"I was as exhausted as a motherf**ker. I got one day off after filming nine months of SVU [Luddites note, it stands for Special Victims Unit]. But you just don't turn your back on Arthur Miller and an opportunity like this. It's going to be painful - a huge challenge for me," he adds.
Painful, perhaps, because the stage brings up a welter of old memories for Meloni. That was where he started out 15 years ago, an impoverished actor in New York. "I was working part-time as a bouncer, performing in these stupid f**kin' plays with eight people on the stage and four people in the audience. I went hungry sometimes. It wasn't a whole lot of fun."
Weary of less-than-lucrative art house theatre, and just as tired of cracking heads together for $40 a night, Meloni found a more natural setting for his big muscles and megawatt smile in TV adverts.
"You name it, bro, I advertised it," he sighs. "Some of it was totally cheesy. I did this commercial in Germany for a washing machine repair guy. When the housewife takes the clothes out of the machine she goes: 'Aii, Schmutzraender!' [Oh no, stains!] And I look at her and repeat: 'Aii, Schmutzraender!' I went around Hamburg, trying to pick up chicks with this one lame phrase. Needless to say, I never got laid in Hamburg."
Even with a language barrier slowing him down, it's difficult to believe that Meloni would have trouble getting laid anywhere, anytime, and with anyone. Several female friends of mine swooned at the mere mention of his name, and one even considered asking me to bring along a photo of her in the hope of getting a date.
Get in line, I told her. If anyone was going to show this chiselled, gentle-yet-tough American around Dublin, it was me.
Thanks to his role as Keller - the bisexual murderer in Oz, the deeply homoerotic HBO drama - Meloni has developed into something of a sex symbol for gay men. Attitude magazine, the popular gay glossy mag, has featured him a few times; and in a knowing wink to his new fan base, he once staged a red carpet man-on-man snog with Oz co-star Lee Tergesen.
"It was the whole 'Tom of Finland' fantasy for gay men," he concedes. "But girls, guys . . . whatever. It's just nice that people are watching," he tells me. "Oz got me the gay guys and the fat girls [Keller married a 'well-built' lady in the series], and then on Law and Order I got the other girls."
Sadly, neither the girls nor the guys are really in with a shout. While he's bemused at the female attention and he'll laughingly concede that Tergesen was "an amazing kisser", Meloni has been happily married for 11 years - to Sherman Williams, a dead ringer for Sharon Stone.
The couple live in New York City and have two children, Sophia and Dante ("we wanted something Italian and cultured sounding"), both born to them by a surrogate mother. "We couldn't have kids the normal way. We both knew from day one that these were the steps we were going to take. We just didn't know with whom.
"We went online to surrogacy agencies. We interviewed lots of people - and I have to say, with all due respect, some of them were freaks. I was very leery of the process the whole way through."
But just as Chris and Sherman were getting frustrated with the search, fate intervened.
"There was a friend of ours who worked with a girl who had said she would consider being a surrogate. We met her and right away she was awesome. We were looking for someone who could take care of themselves and it was pretty clear she could.
"It still took over a year after we met her, because we failed to conceive on a couple of attempts. She hung in there for us. I was in the hospital for the births and it was the most amazing experience. Having kids has shown me that there is something more important in life than acting."
His family won't be joining him in Dublin until just before the play opens, and Meloni has been amusing himself between rehearsals in the meantime.
"My first thought when I came here was that I understood why there are so many great Irish writers - because there is something mystical in the air. There's always this cloudy, moody sky and it's challenging. I used to live in LA and it was the opposite of that- always so sunny, so saccharine, so bland."
In what might be a nod to Meloni's background, he tells me the Gate's emissaries put him up in "the Italian Quarter" on the banks of the Liffey. "So they knew that if I was going to steal, I'd be stealing from my own kind," he wryly reasons. (I didn't want to shatter his illusions of multi-ethnic Dublin by telling him the frescoes date back only as far as the Celtic Tiger.)
In A View From The Bridge, Meloni will play Eddie Carbone, an Italian-American, and he admits he will be drawing on his own childhood for the role. "I'm third-generation Italian, but I still have a strong sense of my heritage. There are certain Italianisms that ring very true in this play - the place of the man in the household, the idea of respect . . . of omerta.
"My grandfather was a doctor. If he went to make a house call, he commanded respect - even with the street toughs. I saw how his high-standing in the neighbourhood affected how we were all treated. Even now, I see my old grandmother - who is so frail she's practically pulling herself from appliance to appliance - is still cooking for him, because it's considered that's her job.
"In my parents' house it was more or less the same. It was the woman's job to take care of the kids. In my house, forget it! It's totally different. We eat out a few times a day."
As if to emphasise his Italian origin, Meloni's hands flail and eyes dance as he makes a point. There are long pauses between questions as he considers his response -but quite refreshingly, there is no carefully monitored PR gloss to his statements.
He will riff on any subject - from George Bush ("f**kin idiot") and Kyoto, to his own occasional inability to keep an erection at bay when in a sex scene with an actress. ("Some get offended," he hoots, as he recalls it. "They should consider it a compliment!")
He jokingly - and diplomatically - distances himself from the other American TV stars who are making a name for themselves on the stage. "This is Dublin, not London, goddammit. I'm a step ahead of 'em all. No, seriously, I had great faith in Irish actors, that they'd be hip to the whole theatre thing, and they are. I had no illusions of coming over here as some kind of big shot. It's been a learning experience for me too."
It seems there is more learning to do this sweltering afternoon as it's time for Meloni to return to the Gate for photos and yet more rehearsals.
We leave together and he gives me an arm wrestle of a handshake that like his TV alter egos seems manly, tough and ever so slightly erotic. As if reading my mind - and with the Dictaphone safely switched off - he turns to me with one last thought: "Tell the chick with the photo I said 'hi'."
Christopher Meloni will star as Eddie Carbone in 'A View From the Bridge' with John Kavanagh, Cathy Belton and Laura Murphy. It previews on Thursday, July 28 and opens on Tuesday, August 2. Tickets available from the Gate box office at (01) 8744045