|But far from Kansas. Christopher Meloni's Manhatten loft is warm and lived-in but suffused with an artful edge befitting a real city boy|
You could walk right by Christopher Meloni's apartment, so camouflaged is it in the urban landscape. The front door would benefit from an intervention by Sherwin-Williams; the entryway is small and janitorially challenged. And you know what? As far as Meloni is concerned, you could just keep moving along. Meloni, 40, who is pulling a doubleheader as sexy creep Chris Keller on HBO's prison drama, Oz, and straight-arrow detective Elliot Stabler on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, would undoubtedly prefer it that way. Not that the guy is unfriendly - his T-shirt reads "Ask me" - or inhospitable. Just the opposite. Right now his mother, mother-in-law and three friends are hanging out in the living room of the Soho loft he shares with his wife, Sherman, a production designer, and their 9-month-old daughter, Sophia. It's just that "at the expense of using a cliche, this place is really my sanctuary," says Meloni.
"I pride myself on everything this place is not. It's got no doorman and you saw the front. I love that. I love the anonymity of it. I love that the foyer is ugly and the paint is peeling. I love that the elevator takes half an hour to get to my floor."
Step off that elevator, and you see a study in contrasts. There's the contemporary (his-and-her stripped-metal desks) and the antique (a 100-year-old Iranian rug on loan from his mom, Cecile, who probably shouldn't count on getting it back). There's light (a long line of big windows) and dark (down the wall from a painting of a snarling dog by Robert Eberz, one of Meloni's favorite artists, is a crucifix with a skull and crossbones at the bottom). In short, it's a blend of the cool and the casual, not unlike the loft's owner. "He can be the hippest guy around," says his Special Victims Unit co-star Dann Florek, "but he's probably most comfortable in his flannel shirt."
"We've been here five years, and I still think it's perfect," says Meloni. "The only thing I ever wanted was a loft in New York City." That's partly because he's an architecture buff. "Whenever we walk down the street, he's always looking at buildings and trying to figure out the size and whether there's outdoor space and the year it was built," says Sherman, who met her husband of six years in 1989 on the set of First 'n' Ten, an HBO drama starring a guy named Simpson. ("We always say OJ. brought us together," she says.) The two, both involved with others at the time, at first confined things to casual friendship but grew romantic a few years later when they met up at the Sundance Film Festival. "My wife has brought great beauty into my life," Meloni says. "And my daughter has brought me nothing but joy. Those qualities were greatly lacking."
It becomes clear pretty fast that Meloni knows what he wants and goes after it, whether parts, partners or, in this instance, apartments. The guy who, as a daffy football coach, almost got Julia Roberts to the altar in Runaway Bride was not about to be deterred by what would have scared others away.
When he and Sherman first looked at the place there was no certificate of occupancy. It was just brick walls, which he was warned would make insulation complicated. "But, you know, I didn't care. I'm a history major and I was always drawn to what was, how it was done." Thus he also longed to keep the exposed pipes, the dilapidated tin ceilings and, until cooler heads prevailed, the original flooring, which basically consisted of large planks. "I wanted to preserve them in amber, even though they had no meaning except that there's a history to them. Italian immigrants were making whatever they were making in here." Meloni has a passion for New York history and an appreciation for the city's energy that's undiminished by the tragedy of September 11, which unfolded less than a mile away. "I could say that I'm more fiercely in love with the city, but I already was in love," he says. "Nothing can change that."
It has helped that Sherman is at his side. "She's very accepting, one of these spirits who's easy to be around," he says. "She has a calming, comforting energy." Which is a good thing for a man who at times is working virtually around the clock. "Oz has a 6 A.M. call and unfortunately for me that can come after a midnight or 2 A.M. wrap on Special Victims Unit. But it was the only way we could work it out."
And he really wanted to work it out. There was, first off, the chance to play a cop and a convict simultaneously. "I would arrest me" is how he sums up the two roles. "It's difficult for me to find Keller," Meloni adds of his slimy Oz character. "Freedom is not easy for me - that idea that anything is possible within your realm of behavior. That's tough to do after Stabler, who is very linear, a straight line."
In fact, Meloni had gotten good at bad guys, what with guest-starring roles as a gung-ho bounty hunter on Homicide: Life on the Street and Kim Delaney's lout of a beau on NYPD Blue. Being on the right side of the law was both a pleasant change and a showcase for his talents. "He's always trying to take the level of the show up a notch," says co-star Florek.
And after years of relatively minor character work on TV and in such films as 12 Monkeys and Bound, Meloni is grateful to be featured in two highly regarded shows, getting to do more of the only thing that ever suited him. "I was either going to die or be an actor " he says. "There were no other options."
Admittedly, growing up the youngest of three in Washington, D.C., where his father, Robert, was an endocrinologist and mom Cecile a homemaker, Meloni wasn't a classic actor wannabe, putting on shows for neighborhood kids in the basement. He did, however, do time as class clown and recalls knocking 'em dead in his fifth-grade play. "I always wanted to be a lot of things," he recalls, including the center of attention. "It wasn't like, 'Boy, law is so interesting, the history and richness of the legal system.' I just wanted to stand up there and argue a case."
It was while he was a student at the University of Colorado that Meloni, determined to avoid a 9-to-5 life, zeroed in on acting, dropping out during his junior year to take a shot at the big time. "I thought I was going to drive into Hollywood triumphant, with them begging me to be in a movie," recalls Meloni, who six weeks after arriving in L.A. got back on his motorcycle and returned to Boulder, tail between his legs. "But a lot was accomplished. It was a turning point. I think I was trying to find out what I really wanted. I'd look in the mirror and say, 'Chris, you want to be an actor."No, I don't.' 'You do. Your instinct is telling you that you do.' "
With his expanding family, Meloni's instinct now is telling him it may soon be time to look for a new loft with a terrace, please, and on the top floor, so he doesn't have to hear the neighbors' footfalls - and he's busy mapping out the particulars. "I'd actually like to go more toward a Turkish or Moroccan feel for one room, where it's all fabric and rugs and wood, one big room of comfort like a womb. With a window," he says as an afterthought. Of course. A womb with a view.