|Christopher Meloni is the kind of actor that every casting director should have in his or her Rolodex. His onscreen persona as Detective Elliot Stabler in the "Law & Order" spin-off "Special Victim's Unit" is the perfect blend of a tough guy with an honest heart and a modern day warrior set to explode. Each week Meloni becomes the everyman that we all can relate to as his character punches the clock in an attempt to put the scum of New York City behind bars. |
The interesting thing about Meloni and his abilities as an actor is that we the viewers can relate to him even when he's playing a dark, edgy character with a heart as black as night. As Christopher Keller on the HBO prison drama "Oz," Meloni became everything that society fears by slipping into the shoes of a homicidal maniac who lied and cheated his way through life. Whether he was crippling someone in the weight room or raping a fellow inmate in the showers, the character of Christopher Keller was one of the most popular on the show. Through its many seasons, Meloni somehow made the murderer appear human and at times, even managed to make us feel sorry for him.
Is Meloni one of most underrated actors in the business? Probably! His presence on camera can be captivating when landing in the right role and as he's proven with "SVU," he has the chops to carry a project to the top of the pack. Guys like Ben Affleck may be finding their names at the top of the marquees, but if they can't connect with an audience, they aren't doing their job - - or, they aren't doing it right. Meloni does his job and always seems to find a way to connect with viewers even when the deck is stacked against him
Is he successful? Sure he is. Are his talents underrated? Let's just say that if Severe were a big wig in Hollywood, we'd make sure we put him in every project we gave the green light to.
Severe: "Special Victims Unit" sort of kick started the whole spin-off trend that has been hit network dramas lately. You guys proved that a spin-off could be as good, if not better than it's predecessor.
Meloni: I guess. I think it's different than "CSI's" offspring. I mean, aren't they all the same thing - - tricky photography and they just kind of tell the story the same way. I think the "Law & Orders" tell the stories differently. I think we do a good job at what we do. I'm very impressed that we never fell into the trap of "Rape of the Week." I'm pretty proud of the issues that kind of get sewn into the fabric of the script.
Severe: A lot of the scripts that you guys work from are taken straight from the actual news. Has doing the show given you a new perspective on the world around you at all?
Meloni: No. Not so much that. (Laughter) I entered it already with a jaded eye towards the world. I do look at the news and all of that sort of stuff - - always keeping my eyes open for stories.
Severe: The show covers some pretty rough subject matter, and while you're no stranger to that having worked on "Oz," did you ever wonder if it was going to work for a network on prime time?
Meloni: Well, yeah. I always think that there is an adherent bloodlust in people, but what I'm very pleased to be a part of is that, even though the stories may be rough, I don't think we present them in prurient manner or with an eye towards trying to titillate with gross out or really kind of disgusting stuff. I think we present extreme aspects of human behavior and hopefully get at times, messages across or bring issues to the table or as we so often say, shed light into the dark crevices of human nature.
Severe: In "SVU's" first season, weren't there like three or four guys in the cast that were originally from "Oz?"
Meloni: Well, we had JK Simmons kind of doing the BD Wong psychiatrist and that was never set in cement. I think they were just kind of testing to see how he worked out in there. I think the fact that he's not with us does not mean he didn't work out. They just went a different way. And yeah, we had Dean Winters. I think they didn't know what to do with his character. I don't know whether it was nice or not to have them. I knew them from "OZ" and I was like, "I don't know if I can get used to you guys." (Laughter) It was weird, like they shouldn't be there. I love them. I love them both. They are great actors and great guys. It was just weird.
Severe: Hollywood's a lot smaller than what people think.
Meloni: Yeah, especially Hollywood in New York.
Severe: Your character sometimes has a hard time dealing with the things he sees on the job because he's a father and has his own family. In real life you're a father. Could you ever do the job that your character does?
Meloni: You couldn't pay me enough. The stuff that the real guys and women in the SV unit see or have to deal with - - the attrition rate - - they're only able to stick in there for like two years. That's the average time. A lot of them just burn out, man. Crimes against children and of a sexual nature - - for a man to use his strength to overpower a woman and to commit a crime like that, I mean - - it's really - - he's a scumbag. It's rough. It is rough.
Severe: Does it ever get difficult to do from a pretend standpoint?
Meloni: It is because I think - - I would never presume to say, "I know what it's like" at all - - but, if you're an actor who is really dedicated in doing the job that I do in whatever that may be, whether you want to call it pretending or make believe or playing, or hopefully making your craft work - - I think you've got to invest yourself. I think that costs you a little bit, even though it may be make believe. You know, if you read a script about a certain thing happening to a child - - you have to dredge up things from your own personal life in order to make that work. In order to connect to what's on the page.
Severe: Being on a TV show and being beamed into homes week after week, do you find that strangers sort of expect you to be your character when they approach you? Do they feel like they know you?
Meloni: I guess I don't get to know them well enough so that whether I can tell if they think that I'm the character or not. It is a weird feeling to have people go, "Hey Chris" like they know me. But, number one, 99 percent of my experiences have been really cool. People couldn't be nicer and more positive. Then in the really special cases, I've had people who have been victims of either incest, molestation, sexual assault or that sort of thing and they've really let me know what a great service that we're doing and what a great thing we've done for them to help them come to terms about changing their viewpoint of being a victim to being a survivor, or just really getting a clearer perspective on what happened and who they are now. It's kind of cool.
Severe: It has to be a nice perk to the role because you very rarely get that in this business. It's something you don't expect when you walk into a job.
Meloni: At all! I didn't get into acting to be a public service announcer or an advocate and yet, by virtue of this show and how we handle the subject matter that we've been given, that's kind of how it's evolved in certain ways. You know, it's nice. I'm just an actor, but if the extra part of it is that I'm helping people or people are being helped by the virtue of what we're doing, then that's just a really nice added extra.
Severe: You have an onscreen persona that I think everyone can relate to. I know you used to work a lot of blue-collar type jobs before you broke into acting. Do you think coming off as that sort of everyman has been helped along because of your blue-collar roots?
Meloni: I think so. There's something about New York and just being real - - very real. New York is what it is. I think the stereotype is, they're not going to bullshit you. And they? Who's they? (Laughter) I guess that's the stereotype of the average New Yorker who will give it to you straight. When I first came to New York, I felt like I was born here and I felt like it was where I belonged. I think all of my life I've felt that attitude. Certain parts of life are very - - it's either black or it's white. There are very few shades of gray. There are rights and there are wrongs. There's a part of me that I think is maybe what you see in this particular character - - that attitude. But, there are other parts of me where I'm like, "No, there are lots of shades of gray." (Laughter) And you know, I'm not judgmental, but there are certain things where there are injustices concerned. I think that's what comes off with this guy and I think that's kind of what it is.
Severe: Even looking past that character I still see it carrying over. In "Oz" for example, you were playing one of the most despicable people on the planet, yet fans still liked you.
Meloni: Yeah. He had lots of shades of gray. (Laughter) I don't think anything was black and white with that cat. (Laughter) Maybe I digressed a little bit. The blue-collar thing –0 - - yeah, I've always admired the guy who was just straight up, straight forward about an honest buck for an honest days' work. He could be whatever he wants to be as long as he's a non-bullshitter. He's not looking to scam anyone. He just wants to do his thing. Maybe that's what this guy is.
Severe: Do you ever miss those simple days of being on a construction site?
Meloni: Oh no! (Laughter) Fuck no! You know what though, I still have a dream of one day - - I would love to hire a semi-retired contractor and just build a house - - him and I building a house for me. I would truly love to do that.
Severe: I smell a reality show.
Meloni: Dude, I love the way you think. If you've got any clout, you get back to me. I'll give you a slice of that pie.
Severe: (Laughter) Hey, I'm in. It has reality show written all over it.
Meloni: It really does, doesn't it?
Severe: Call your agent!
Meloni: Yeah, man. That's really good.
Severe: And the best part, you get a free house out of it.
Meloni: Aw, dude! I've just got to buy the land. I've got to buy a fat slab of land.
Severe: And then let the networks pick up the check.
Meloni: Aw, dude! That is sweet.