|Christopher Meloni may have found success as the star of hit American crime series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but is relieved to swap the grind of television for the Dublin stage, says Mick Heaney |
By the time he finishes shooting, says Christopher Meloni, he is beginning to feel the strain. For six years, the New York-based actor has been the star of one of America’s most popular crime dramas, his smouldering presence helping make Law & Order: Special Victims Unit a top 10 ratings hit. But his success, it seems, has not come without a price.
For one thing, there is the relentless grind of the show. Meloni calculates that he spends 14 hours a day on set, five, sometimes six days a week, nine months a year, learning his lines on the hoof while episodes are shot in and around New York. However, the hard work is not the only problem: his role as Detective Elliot Stabler takes the biggest toll.
So involved does Meloni get in his performances as the earnest, committed cop investigating grim sex crimes that by the time the series wraps, he finds himself drained. So when his agent told him about the job on offer at the Gate theatre in Dublin, playing the lead in Arthur Miller’s drama A View from the Bridge, Meloni leapt at it.
“Every time I finish a season, I do something to basically scrub away this character,” Meloni says. “I shaved my head into a mohawk one time. I leave immediately and I go travel. This time I wrapped on Thursday, spent Friday with my children, caught a flight on Saturday night and was here on Sunday. So I’m pretty crispy.
“But you’ve got to get away from this person (Stabler) and this dark, intense place that you are in. And you’ve got to get away from what I call lock-and-load shooting: if your rehearsal takes more than 15 minutes you’re behind schedule. It ain’t deep. You’re trying to cook gourmet food in a fast food restaurant and there’s an inherent pressure to that. When you’re offered a play and you come here, you know you’re going to be able to have an incubation period, really go to a deeper level. It’s a great challenge.”
While he may need to get away from this on-screen character, the intensity Meloni brings to his role in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit seems no accident. In person the 44-year-old actor is far more expressive than his taciturn fictional alter ego — there is much balling of fists and grimacing whenever Meloni makes a point — yet they share a sense of yearning and vaguely suppressed dissatisfaction.
Meloni of course would seem to have little to be unhappy about. He certainly does not want for money or fame: even in a quiet corner in a Dublin hotel he is spotted by two middle-aged American fans, whom he dutifully acknowledges. But as he prepares for his first stage role in six years, he insists success is not what drives him.
“I think I’m healthily ambitious, but I do know others who do things that I would never dream of to forward their ambition,” he says. “As you get older, celebrity for me is like candy. The first bite is awesome, it’s the best chocolate you’ve ever had. So you have a second bite and it’s pretty darn good. Third bite I don’t feel so good. Fourth bite I’m sick to my stomach.
“Then you find yourself doing Arthur Miller, busting your hump; it’s so miserable, you’re hating it. And then you’ve moments of clarity and beauty and majesty, and all of sudden you’re connected. It’s almost like touching God. So to answer your question: it’s the work.”
Meloni’s ambivalence about his career is perhaps unsurprising. For years, he says, he doubted whether it was even the right vocation. The product of a comfortable suburban upbringing in Washington DC, Meloni was taking a history degree when he caught the acting bug. Encouraged to pursue a conventional career, he resisted the lure of the stage.
“The first acting class I took, not only was I bit by it, I also had the sense that I was good at it,” he says. “But I didn’t allow myself to accept that; whether it’s because you’re not allowed to have that type of ego, or you’re not allowed to be an actor. I think it’s like someone having to come to terms with being gay before finally coming out of the closet. It took a while to let the penny drop in my soul and finally commit to it. I don’t commit to things lightly, I guess.”
Meloni’s dedication was tested early on. After moving to New York in the mid-1980s the young actor initially supported himself as a bartender and bouncer, before finding better paid work in commercials and “really horrible” theatre gigs. Even after he got his first real break in 1990 — in the television mini-series The Fanelli Boys — and moved to Los Angeles, he found himself in the doldrums.
“I was in LA five years and met my wife there, but New York was just tugging at my soul, so I had to go back. And I had no prospects, I had nothing. But this is just like Hollywood: it’s like trying to date the popular girl who always blows you out. As soon as you ignore them they come calling. I haven’t been unemployed since I moved out of there.”
His move paid dividends: Meloni’s career took off after he was cast in five episodes of NYPD Blue in 1997. His performances were so striking he soon found himself in the HBO series Oz, the cable channel’s ground-breaking prison drama, which laid the path for The Sopranos with its sex, violence and profanity. Meloni played a bisexual serial killer, a role so outré that other actors may have baulked at it. Meloni, however, revelled in the challenge: “Oz, I loved it: that ability to play the extremes of the human condition.”
Meloni seems less excited by his subsequent — and more profitable — work in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Since Dick Wolf, the creator of the original Law & Order series, cast him as the hero of the franchise’s 1999 spin-off, Meloni has constantly been trying to add back notes of moral ambiguity — children conceived out of wedlock, tattoos that hint at a wild past — to a character originally scripted as a strait-laced cop. Odd though it seems, Meloni is not overly concerned about being identified professionally with his character: he seems more anxious about being limited by the confines of American network television drama.
“I have worried about getting pigeon-holed, but now I think I’ve done enough weird, offbeat stuff not to be. And I also know that I do things for the right reasons: I’ve made my money, so I don’t have to say yes to anything. I think just to have a worthwhile show on network television is very difficult because of the natural constraints that the advertisers put on you. It is what it is: those are the waters you’re swimming in. But I just find it more interesting outside that box.”
While he talks of his desire to pursue a career on the big screen — “I’ve always wanted to do film, but for whatever reason, I’ve yet to pop that” — Meloni seems happier doing his own thing rather throwing himself further into the mainstream. Not because he is a rebel, one suspects, but because he is more of a self-absorbed outsider. Discussing politics, for instance, Meloni is scornful about George W Bush’s dismissal of the “basic science of global warming” yet the actor has resisted joining broader liberal pressure groups.
“The creative coalition has asked me to jump in, which is a bunch of concerned artists getting together. But it’s tough to be part of a group, because if I’m not on with the whole agenda I don’t feel right about lending my name,” he says.
Similarly, having conquered the small screen, Meloni is considering his future with Law & Order. “Contractually, I’ve got a year and a half left,” he says about the prospect of returning to the grind. “This will be a unique situation: we’ll see on this one. I’ve never worked so hard, having come in already pretty banged up, and there’s also an accumulative effect of doing it for over six years. You’re limping a little bit. It’ s hard to say that but it’s the truth. You get mentally and emotionally beat up.”
As he treads the boards at the Gate, Meloni may be getting ready to leave his small-screen alter ego for good and move to the next stage of his career. “Twenty million people see you on television,” he says. “They’re paying you very good wages to do this and you’ve got all the perks in the world. I’m the luckiest guy in the world and I say a prayer to Dick Wolf every night. But you know, what keeps you going is . . . the stuff. To be able to dig deep.”