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'Law & Order' Actor Found Something 'Larger' Than Himself On 'SVU'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Actor Christopher Meloni spent 12 seasons playing Detective Elliot Stabler on the TV series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" before leaving the show in 2011, but he's back. Last night NBC premiered the latest series of the franchise "Law & Order: Organized Crime." The first episode was a crossover event with "Law & Order: SVU" in which Meloni teamed up with his old partner, Mariska Hargitay as Detective Olivia Benson, who's now a captain. We thought we'd commemorate the reunion by listening to some of my 2019 interview with Meloni. Meloni's also known for playing a sociopathic inmate in the prison drama "Oz," for his work on the series "Homicide" and for his starring role in the sci-fi series "Happy!"

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about "Law & Order," which is probably the role you're, I assume, best known for.

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: Yeah.

DAVIES: You spent - what? - 12 seasons there. And you worked as Detective Elliot Stabler working on special victims crimes with Mariska Hargitay, playing - she played your partner. Were you guys together the whole time you were there?

MELONI: Yeah, yeah. We screen tested together. We tested for the role together. There were six actors.

DAVIES: So you didn't know each other beforehand?

MELONI: No, no. And...

DAVIES: Why do you think you got the parts?

MELONI: Oh, boy. You know, all the actors who screen-tested were great. But - and this is one of the rare moments when I walked in with Mariska. First of all, we were walking down the hall, and I was telling her joke, telling her a story that was a funny story. And we walked into the room with all the suits and, you know, all the decision-makers. And I said, hold on guys; let me just finish this story. And from that - and - the hutzpah - I thought about it afterwards. But that was the idea. You guys will hold on 'cause we got control of the room. We're in here, and we got control of everything. We're going to control this scene and our characters.

And it was pretty obvious. Even though I hadn't seen what the others had done, I just - I walked out of that room going, wow, that was it.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to play a clip here. And in this scene, you are, as Detective Stabler, interrogating a child rapist who's been eluding you for years. He's played by Matthew Modine. And the scene begins with you, as Detective Stabler, leaning right into the suspect's face.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT")

MELONI: (As Detective Elliot Stabler) I don't need a Ph.D. need to know what kind of person you are. You're a loser. What? You had a tough childhood? That makes you special? That makes you a victim? You're nothing. You contribute nothing. The reason your life sucks is because you've done nothing.

MATTHEW MODINE: (As character), laughter) I've done nothing?

MELONI: (As Detective Elliot Stabler) You're counting the little children that you've raped and murdered? Is that what you're saying to me? You want to walk me through that, you piece of garbage? Tell me how good you are at torturing children. Tell me how strong you've got to be to kill a little girl, huh?

DAVIES: That's our guest, Christopher Meloni, in "Law & Order: SVU" in a scene with Matthew Modine. A lot of intense stuff in this series - and, you know, it's known that people that do this kind of investigative work, you know, who track predators, who prey on defenseless people and commit the most awful of acts, it's psychologically damaging. It's hard to sustain. You did this for 12 years. And you weren't - you know, it wasn't real. But - I don't know. Did it take a toll on you? Did it affect your mood?

MELONI: Yeah. First of all, let me just say, the real SVU detectives - 'cause we toured their facilities and we got to speak with them - boy, they're really heroic. And they would tell us a few stories that - you know, you just - you can't believe it. It's - there are moments of true horror out there that these civil servants try to take care of. Boy, they're the heroes. So, having said that, we took our role seriously. You know, it became less of a job and more of a - I wouldn't say a crusade or a - something larger than ourselves. I'll say that.

DAVIES: Right.

MELONI: And you know, you're doing these scripts back to back, and it would take eight days to do an episode. So you know, you start on Monday, and the following Wednesday you finish. And Thursday, you have your new script. And this continues for nine months. And after about four or five months, you're more liquid than solid. It just - you know, the horrors just keep coming and coming. And invariably, you know, it was the women - our women writers who would write the toughest scripts. They pulled no punches. And I think the guys would feel intimidated or something. But the women...

DAVIES: Restrained, yeah.

MELONI: Yeah, restrained. That's a better word. The women would just lean into it. And so any time I would see a female writer had written the script on the front page, I'd be like - I'd take a deep breath and go, oh, boy. Here we go.

DAVIES: You left the show after 12 seasons. What was it like - I mean, it just had become a part of your life for so long - to not have that?

MELONI: What it was like - and I knew it. I was actually very proud of myself. I always thought, when I do this, I'm going to feel like the house cat that got locked out of the house - you know? - so this pampered animal. You work your whole career for what I got. You know, I hit the jackpot. I hit a show that meant something, was well-written, was well-received. You loved the working conditions and the people. It was a well-run machine. Every aspect was there. And yet, you know - the - fill in the blank. The artist in me, the restless actor or creator - that guy needed to move on. But you know - so in the interim, I just worked on other projects, and I got my pilot's license 'cause I figured I really needed to truly focus on something that was, without question, a life-or-death endeavor.

DAVIES: This is something I didn't know. You fly airplanes?

MELONI: Yeah, yeah. As a matter of fact, I - yeah. I was - I got type rated to fly a jet.

DAVIES: But - so this was something that you kind of felt you needed to do the - I don't know, the thrill, the danger of it or what?

MELONI: I started "SVU" as a, you know, sometimes very employed actor, but always, you know, a journeyman-type actor. And all of a sudden, I had a home. And I had a lucrative home. And I had a satisfying home, and I built a family. I built a whole life. And I knew if I was walking away from all that, I needed to place that focus 'cause, you know, if you're an - unemployed - an actor unemployed is not a good thing, especially when he's been employed. So - and I knew that about myself. I needed to employ myself in something that was - that required every fiber of my being to stay focused and on top of things. And it was also good for my brain. I mean, I often said that I've never studied - I haven't studied that hard since college...

DAVIES: Wow.

MELONI: ...Getting all of my ratings.

DAVIES: Actor Christopher Meloni recorded in 2019. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALEXICO SONG, "CLOSE BEHIND")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to some of the interview I recorded in 2019 with actor Christopher Meloni, best known for his 12 seasons as Detective Elliot Stabler on "Law & Order: SVU." Meloni is returning to the franchise. He stars in the new series "Law & Order: Organized Crime," which premiered this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about your background, you grew up in D.C. - Washington, D.C. - right? - middle-class family, went to school in Colorado, studied drama. Is that right?

MELONI: I studied drama, but I walked out of there with a B.A. in history.

DAVIES: Right. And how did you get into serious acting?

MELONI: Serious acting (laughter)?

DAVIES: (Laughter) Well, I mean, the kind of thing where you're not doing it for fun. Like, maybe I can make a living here, maybe this could be my thing.

MELONI: I took some acting classes as a lark, you know, as a - in college. And I liked it. And I actually thought to myself, my God, I'm pretty good at this. But even more importantly to me, I realized how little I knew and that there was something to learn. There was an art here, and I was very curious about it.

My father was a doctor. And I just didn't think that I could ask him to pay for my college tuition so I could take costuming and makeup and all that. I just didn't think he'd appreciate that. So I didn't major in it. I took as many classes as I could, and that was that. And I graduated. That was it.

I went home, promptly went back to a construction site 'cause that's the only job - basically the only job I'd ever had through high school and college. You know, every summer I'd get - try and get a construction job. But this time, I didn't have college to rescue me. So I was a little bit depressed.

I was calling around to figure out what guys were doing - what my old classmates from high school were doing with their lives. And I called up a high school buddy. And I said, what are you doing? What are you doing with your life? And he said, I'm going up to New York to study acting. And I thought, oh, my God. Well, if you can do that, so can I. I asked him for the number. I called up the Neighborhood Playhouse, and I flew up the next day and interviewed with them.

DAVIES: Yeah, that's a serious acting school, right?

MELONI: Yeah, yeah. And in the interview - it was for the summer program - summer school program. In the interview - I'll never forget this - the guy told me to calm - he said, you've - just relax. You've got to calm down. I was so desperate. I think of Richard Gere in "An Officer And A Gentleman"...

DAVIES: Right.

MELONI: ...Where he tells Lou Gossett Jr., I've got nowhere else to go...

DAVIES: Right, right. I remember the...

MELONI: ...In that desperate moment of his.

DAVIES: Right. Right.

MELONI: I'll never forget that. I go, oh, my God, I'm living the Richard Gere "Officer And A Gentleman" life right now.

DAVIES: So you got in. But I mean, you didn't immediately start getting big, paid roles, right? I mean, you had to support yourself in New York.

MELONI: Yeah. Yeah, I was a bouncer and a bartender and a trainer and, you know, sleeping on people's couches. And, you know, I was America's favorite guest for the six - first six months.

DAVIES: So you were working as a bouncer and other jobs. And you're working on your craft in the classes. And then you're going to auditions, right? You want to work. What did you learn about how to audition?

MELONI: What an absolutely separate art it was from actual acting. And at the end of the day, it was more of a Zen practice and a psychological - you had to find psychological tricks for yourself to trick yourself into confidence and to almost manipulate the room. And if you're trying to please them, it's just like any relationship - you're toast. You have to - who am I vis-a-vis this character? And this is it. And once you do that - once you're able to do that, all of a sudden, you go into auditions feeling more empowered, and you walk out of being far more satisfied and empowered.

DAVIES: The one other thing I have to ask you about - you were the quarterback of your high school football team, and you went undefeated. Is this true?

MELONI: That is true.

DAVIES: You know, for most guys, like, their lives would be all downhill after that.

MELONI: (Laughter).

DAVIES: Didn't define you, huh?

MELONI: It actually did define me. And I - leading into my senior year, I had been on defense. I'd played on defense. I'd been a starter on defense. And, you know, and I - but I was the backup quarterback on my sophomore and junior year. So senior year, this is now my turn, my shot. And I set three goals for myself. One was obvious - I'm going to be the quarterback. No. 2, I wanted to be captain. And I wanted to go undefeated. And I willed that. I prayed for that. It happened. And I walked away. That defined me. And how it defined me was I felt that if I could - if I put my mind to something, I could bend the spoon. I could do anything I wanted to. I used that moment, and it's stayed with me. It's - I still carry it. And I still - I treasure that moment as one of the - I think, one of the top five things that ever happened to me.

DAVIES: Well, Christopher Meloni, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MELONI: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you.

DAVIES: I spoke to actor Christopher Meloni in 2019. He returned to the "Law & Order" franchise this week, starring in the new series "Law & Order: Organized Crime." Coming up, we hear some of Terry's 1980 interview with Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who died this week. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "THE GOON DRAG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.