|With his chiseled brow and conspicuous nose, Christopher Meloni has one of those faces that instantly triggers deja vu. You know you've seen this guy before - you just can't pin down which sitcom or movie-of-the-week it was. And it doesn't help that another actor working in Hollywood looks exactly like him. "Elias Koteas has really helped my notoriety," he jokingly admits. "I've literally had people come up to me and go, 'I loved you in The Thin Red Line'." He laughs. "Thank God he's a good actor - I think we could play brothers very well, or even a good twin/bad twin thing." |
Such a project may have to wait though, as the 38-year-old's career has blown up this year - on primetime television, movies and HBO. This fall, he snagged the part of Elliot Stabler in the new L&O:SVU, which is shot in NYC. He also appeared on the big screen this summer as one of Julia Robert's unfortunate fiances in Runaway Bride. But, it's his recurring role as Keller - the menacing yet seductive inmate he plays on OZ, HBO's sodomy-filled prison drama - that's earned him the most infamy. "My recognition quotient has gone up fiftyfold because of OZ," gushes Meloni. "It's been amazing." (OZ wrapped its third season in September and was renewed for a fourth.)
Not bad for a Washington, D.C., native who, between 1990 and 1996, was banished to bad-TV land. His first sitcom, The Fanelli Boys, may have earned his character, Frankie, a spot in USA Today's "Top Ten Breakout Characters of 1990" list, but that didn't prevent the show from being canceled five months after it premiered. After that, Meloni found work in other sitcoms, movies-of-the-week and bottom-of-the-barrel dramas - mostly typecast as killers of "the Brooklyn guy du jour," he cracks. "I was the dumb, lovable lunk: funny, but not the brightest bulb in the group."
The turning point came in 1996, when Meloni landed a part as the son of a mob boss in the Wachowski Brothers' lesbian noir Bound. Although it didn't gain anything for him commercially, it made an impression on the right people. "It gave me more confidence," recalls Meloni. Soon after, he scored a bit part in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (he also played an effeminate hotel clerk in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas last year) and landed a recurring role on NYPD Blue.
Swigging espresso and nursing a slight cold in a Soho coffee spot, Meloni comes off as intense, but far from brutish. He sometimes accents his words by rubbing his sizable forehead or breaking into a long, dramatic pause. He's also blue-eyed and ruggedly handsome - no wonder this guy's got a small legion of male and female fanatics debating on the Internet whether he wears boxers or briefs. Recalling his role in the cornball TV flick In a Child's Eyes, which costarred Valerie Bertinelli, one admirer posted "he was strong and, at the same time, sensitive...like a big brother" on Meloni's unofficial home page (www.christophermeloni.com).
It's that kind of sweet-and-sour dynamic that makes OZ's Keller so mesmerizing. In fact, Keller and Beecher - the cellmate he seduces, if only to betray - have generated more chemistry than any male couple in TV history. "Some guy sent me some really nice stuff about the impact that Keller and Beecher have," says Meloni. "It's like two guys in love, but they're not gay. Or are they gay? Or does it even matter that they're gay? That's cool - I never thought of that."
In order to tap the savage essence of being a convict, Meloni says he drew from his middle-school experience and, in his words, "testosterone-ladden boys experiencing and experimenting with what they can get away with." And the happily married actor admits he's even been arrested. "It was during a barroom brawl back in D.C.," he remembers. "I was a 20-year-old freak. I had long hair. I was dancing with the wrong girl, and next thing you know, they threw me in jail."
Now, playing a sex-crime detective in SVU, Meloni's up to his neck in more serious urban nightmares: dead, underage, crank-addled models; dead lotharios with their penises whacked off, you name it. Although the series is barely three months old, Meloni is excited about playing the good guy in such a context. "I think the writers are picking up on whatever quirks I possess," he says. "It's not just Captain America to the rescue, you know. How good could someone be without being affected by those crimes?"
Plus, he's ecstatic about prospering in the city he loves most. "This is a dream come true," he gushes. "To wake up in a place that I own and go to work in New York City as an actor - I feel like Mary Tyler Moore throwing her friggin' hat in the air."