|Christopher Meloni is working both sides of the legal street these days. |
Each week on NBC, he plays Detective Elliot Stabler, a straight-ahead family man who solves troubling sex crimes in NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the successful spinoff that moves to Fridays this week.
During his time off from that show, he slides into the slippery skin of duplicitous inmate Chris Keller in HBO's Oz, the critically acclaimed prison drama that offers a dream showcase for an actor with his astonishing range.
Oh, and Julia Roberts thinks he's adorable, too.
On-screen, Meloni gives off a high-wattage intensity that is just short of scary. No, wait. It is scary.
But at an NBC party with a beer in his hand, he's high-energy and friendly - "Call me Chris, please!" - flashing a ready smile and ushering his interviewer into "my private office," two bar stools that offer something approximating a place to talk amid all the hubbub, as long as you sit knee-to-knee and lean into the other person's face. But if Meloni is no stranger to in-your-face types, he still appreciates the nuances series creator Dick Wolf built into the role of Stabler, despite the fact that Wolf's L&O philosophy famously has emphasized story over character.
"That's what attracted me to the whole piece," Meloni explains. "Dick said, `I want to get a little more personal with this detective. It s more interesting to be able to flesh out a character from all angles, both professional and personal, and the home-life scenes add so much weight to the story because you re getting to see the people who have to deal with these terrible crimes as real human beings."
And having paid his dues at 38, Meloni is experienced at playing real human beings. In addition to his diametrically opposed characters on his NBC and HBO series, the actor played Jimmy Liery, the explosive undercover target of NYPD Blue detective Diane Russell (Kim Delaney), and bounty hunter Dennis Knoll on Homicide: Life on the Street. A native of Washington, D.C., Meloni was bitten by the acting bug well into his coursework at the University of Colorado. He left school and "took my motorcycle to California to get discovered."
Hollywood yawned, so Meloni returned to college, earned a degree in history, then subsequently headed to New York to study under legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. After doing what he calls "really, really bad stuff off-off-Broadway" for a couple of years, he scored a couple of TV commercials and the role of dumb but lovable Frankie on The Fanelli Boys, a 1990-91 NBC sitcom.
He thought that show would be his big ticket, but Meloni, who is strikingly articulate and thoughtful in real life, wound up almost fatally typecast as a dumb galoot.
"There were some repercussions from that," he says, picking his words carefully. "It's very easy to be pigeonholed as the lovable dumb one, and also the `Noo Yawk guy. I know I have a slight accent, and I ll admit I made some bad choices afterwards."
He continues, "I wasn't prepared to swim upstream, because I thought after The Fanelli Boys, the current would be with me. But the thing is, the current is almost always against you, because you have to fight to find your own channel."
One of those channels was named David Milch, the NYPD Blue writer and producer whose name produces a grateful smile from Meloni. Milch, one of the best "actor's writers" in the industry, watched Meloni with Delaney and virtually customized that NYPD role to the actor's strengths.
Soon after that, the actor was invited to read for the role of "Coach Bob," the fiance of elusive would-be wife Julia Roberts in the hit movie Runaway Bride. The audition was an actor's dream, he says. "After we did one little scene, Julia and I just ad-libbed a scene and cracked each other up," he says with a laugh. "Then she turned to me with that beautiful, bright, charming smile and said, `You are just adorable, right in front of (Bride director) Garry Marshall. "It makes me choke up a little, really, how nice she was, because you don't have to make that extra effort, and she really went out of her way to help me. She's a very generous, very kind person."
If you want to find the "true north" of Meloni's art, however, just look to Oz and writer-creator Tom Fontana, who has given him some of the most extraordinary opportunities to cut loose that any actor could ask for.
As the sociopathic and bisexual Keller, Meloni has braved full-frontal nudity and passionate man-to-man kisses, but he says an actor would be nuts to pass up an opportunity like this.
"I don't happen to be gay in real life, and I've never kissed a guy, but an actor knows he's not going to get stuff like this dumped on his plate very often, and that (realization) makes you want to just jump on it and revel in it," he says laughing. "Every script just astounded me, but I'd smile at him and say, `Tom, you can t hand me nothing that I won t do. Just keep it coming, baby! "
Fontana took him at his word last season, delivering what amounted to an extraordinary verbal aria for Keller, in which he quietly revealed to Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno), the prison counselor, why he keeps hurting the people who love him: He wants to see whether they will come back.
"Here's a man who can say very honestly what a piece of (garbage) he is, but also let you know he is searching for something greater, just like anyone else," Meloni muses. "These (are) very big issues, but they didn't hit you over the head.
"That was one of the very, very, very few times I walked away after the scene and thought, `Oh, my God. I think that actually was good. "
Online fans who share that opinion - except, perhaps, for the "very, very, very few times" part - can find out much more at the Christopher Meloni Home Page (www.christopher-meloni.com), a site the actor has sanctioned and visits from time to time