|There's a reason some people can leave their personalities behind and take on a different character. Actor Chris Meloni (Hist'83) has a hunch it entails achieving a certain type of freedom. |
"For an actor, you have to free yourself - even in the decision to become an actor," Meloni says. "Thank God there was an acting class at CU that facilitated the first steps to that freedom for me."
These days you can find Meloni on the set of the NBC hit series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit where he plays detective Elliot Stabler. Or tune in to HBO for reruns of the grim prison series Oz in which he played the sociopath murderer and inmate Chris Keller for five of the six seasons the series ran.
The characters couldn't be more different. Stabler is an even-tempered family man who solves sex crimes. Keller kills, maims, seduces and breaks the limbs of his fellow inmates while managing to give weak knees to both gay and female fans.
He's played the gamut of types from a studly buffoon in his first TV series, The Fanelli Boys, to the movie role as the jilted fiancée and jock, Coach Bob, alongside Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride. There's nothing he won't do to get a character right - a trait that requires some abandon and draws on a certain freedom.
Meloni claims he got the first whiff of that freedom when he arrived at CU. Reminiscing about his college years he waxes poetic on the theme of freedom - of Boulder, open spaces, ribbons of curving highways on which to unleash a motorcycle and, perhaps mostly, the freedom of new ideas.
"The whole place, the whole mindset was very important. Freedom. It was a world away from anything I knew. It was so nice to be around it - to see it as an important component of life," says Meloni, who grew up in Washington, D.C. "Between Boston and Philly there's nothing but civilization and people, traffic. Boulder - that was a freeing of the mind. I think the best that a university can offer you is the idea of freedom - in all respects. For me that was really revelatory."
Meloni is amazingly articulate with a wit that adds spice to his macho, New York-accented repartee. In an industry that chews up and spits out most who choose it, Meloni owes his growing success in part to his shoot-from-the-hip impulsiveness as well as dogged persistence.
Take his decision to come to CU. Never having laid eyes on the place and with no research whatsoever, Meloni applied to, of all things, the engineering college. "My grades in math were horrible. I'd never taken physics. I wasn't very good in chemistry," Meloni says. "I got rejected." Why engineering? He doesn't know. He just felt like it.
Undaunted, he reapplied - this time to arts and sciences. It was 1979, and the young man who had never been west of Michigan was escaping the East Coast.
"I'll never forget coming over that ridge on Highway 36. I had driven all the way with a friend and we were so ready for that trip to be over. Man, coming over that ridge, wow! Amazing.
"The second thing I remember is that they didn't have any housing for us in the dorms. They put me and a bunch of other freshmen in family housing. We called ourselves the Family Housing Orphans. We had T-shirts made and everything. It was a great little community." In his free time he took Tae Kwon Do classes and rode his motorcycle. "I didn't have the money to ski so that was my recreation - going to Estes, Fort Collins, heading to the mountains on different canyon routes."
In what he calls a "goof," he took an acting class his sophomore year. "It was so great," he recalls. "I understood. I was finally smart at something. I knew certain things - inherently - like the guys in math class who just had a feeling for numbers. I had that with acting.
"But I felt I couldn't justify going to my dad and saying, 'Pay my tuition so I can take 16th-century makeup and costuming.' Acting didn't seem like a real thing and, because I was good, it was like a game. I didn't think you could earn a living at a game."
When faced with declaring a major at the end of his sophomore year, Meloni quit school, got on his motorcycle and "headed to Hollywood to be discovered. It didn't happen." His date with celebrity was still years of cast calls and hard work away. In the meantime he returned to Boulder discouraged, out of money with no clue what he wanted to do.
"It was miserable to be in Boulder without a job," Meloni says. "So I started back to school." His favorite classes were in history - particularly intellectual history. So he declared it as his major and was determined to finish on time - even having missed a semester. Meloni took as many acting classes as he could as a nonmajor, while focusing on modern U.S. diplomatic history.
In December '83, diploma in hand, Meloni returned to the East Coast.
"I still didn't see acting as a reality," Meloni says, "But being on a construction site in the middle of February in the freezing rain also was not a very good reality for me. So I went to New York."
Although he doesn't recall being a child who thought about becoming an actor, his mother, Cecile Meloni, says he did have performing in his character at an early age. "He never talked about wanting to be an actor. But we did get calls from school because he'd get into trouble for always making people laugh. He was the class clown, I guess."
Meloni goes so far as to admit an early discomfort with theater types. "I wasn't that guy. I didn't fit in there. An example. I was at a party in high school one time. It was some theater kids. They all started belting out the lyrics to Rocky Horror Picture Show. 'I'm not connecting to this scene,' I thought."
Fortunately for Meloni fans, that aversion didn't stop him from pursuing acting or persisting at acting, even after his initial disappointment in Hollywood.
Cecile recalls, "He asked me if I would sponsor him in New York for six months at the Neighborhood Playhouse. We were shocked, but I said, 'Sure.' If that's what he wants to try out, why not?"
The rest is history - still in the making as Meloni shapes a career that he hopes will have the offers coming his way wherever he is. He'd like to live somewhere more laid-back, not necessarily on one of the two coasts.
"I'm still not there yet. I'm the guy who hears, 'We have an audition for you. Go hump it, go prove yourself and get the job.'"
So what's next? Before filming for Law & Order: SVU resumes and after a vacation with his wife of eight years, Sherman, and 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, Meloni tackles his next role, a small part in the movie, Harold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle.
"My agent said to me, 'Chris you've got an offer. It's three days' work.' That's good. I don't have to carry the movie. I'm exhausted. 'They want to do a prosthetic fitting for you. The name of the character is Freakshow.' I say, 'I'm in.'
"Talk about freedom."
Coloradan assistant editor Lisa Schafer loves to hate Chris Meloni as Keller on Oz.