Christopher Meloni Shares His Thoughts on 'Bensler' and Stabler's Evolution

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Christopher Meloni stars as Lt. Elliott Stabler in 'Law & Order: Organized Crime'

Christopher Meloni is all for giving fans what they want—but he has his limits. Take his Internet-famous enthusiasm for working out wearing little more than a pair of sneakers (getting buff in the buff?) and the suggestive ad campaigns he’s been featured in. Or the return of his Law & Order: Organized Crime character, Lt. Elliot Stabler, to the small screen in 2021, 10 years after he left the series that originated it (that would be Law & Order: SVU).

But what about the long-smoldering on-screen relationship between Stabler and Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson? You might be surprised by where he stands on that.

We spoke to Meloni ahead of Organized Crime’s fourth season (the drama returns Jan. 18 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC). Turns out, nearly 25 years after he uttered his first line of dialogue opposite Hargitay’s Det. Olivia Benson, the fiery star is still finding new shades to a man who often sees problems in black-and-white. “I’ve grown more appreciative and feel burrowed into Stabler,” he explains. “Maybe it’s older eyes, but I’ve realized, ‘Oh, I go to work to solve acting problems and story problems.’”

The detective’s professional and personal load certainly doesn’t get any lighter in this go-round. Following the death of Det. Jamie Whelan (Brent Antonello), Stabler throws himself into an undercover assignment involving a crime ring dealing illegal drugs. (“Every character handles the loss differently,” he says.) Once his cover is blown, he returns and finds unwelcome changes within the task force. (In keeping with the times, an advisor introduces A.I. to the team.) Viewers will also spend time with his older brother (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris) and mother (Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn).

Given that Meloni, 62, has embodied Stabler for so many years, it’s easy to assume that he and the character share several of the same personality traits. With his intense eye contact, he even makes for an intimidating figure over Zoom from his kitchen on this Saturday afternoon in wintry New York City. But Danellie Moné Truitt, who plays Stabler’s superior, Sgt. Ayanna Bell, confirms he also exudes good times on the set. “He takes his role as our No. 1 seriously,” she says, “but he’s also a lot of fun. We spend the majority of the day laughing.”

She also refers to him by an endearing nickname: Grandpa. (And, ahem, that’s not to be confused with his Internet nickname of “Zaddy;” more on that later.) As Truitt explains, “Chris tells us all these stories about his life and experiences in the industry. He has this joke where he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been in this business for 74 years.’”

Well, 35 to be exact. Meloni, a Washington, D.C. native who grew up in Alexandria, Va., made his screen debut in a 1988 episode of The Equalizer. Outside of his 16 seasons combined on the Law & Order franchise, he’s forged an eclectic and electric career. That’s him in ‘90s prestige dramas such as ABC’s NYPD Blue, NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, HBO’s Oz and films such as 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer (and its 2017 limited series sequel), 2013’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42 and the 2013 superhero film Man of Steel. Offscreen, he’s been wed to production designer Sherman Williams since 1995. They’re parents to children Sophia, 22, and Dante, 20.

Related: Mariska Hargitay Asks Herself 'What Would Olivia Benson Do' in Crises

And those Instagram-famous workouts? “I’m basically hitting it every day,” he confirms.

Now, Meloni bares it all—and weighs in on the “Bensler” will-they-won’t-they—for the Parade cover story.

Mara Reinstein: There was an extra-long wait to resume production on Organized Crime because of the Hollywood strikes. What was Day One like for you?

Christopher Meloni: The only thing new for me was I’d never returned to work where everyone was so glad to be back. Everyone’s grateful and everyone comes with a good attitude, but this time it was, “Thank god, thank god.” It takes a little pain for you to understand and appreciate what you have.

What do you make of Stabler’s evolution during his Organized Crime era?

I’m finding it invigorating and stimulating both in the heart and in the head. You just feel like you’re a big, important cog in this machine because it takes a lot of people to make things work and to make it satisfying dramatically and just as an entertaining vehicle. It’s made me feel super-engaged.

Let’s address the “Bensler” talk. In the Season 3 finale, Stabler expresses his fondness to Benson while she’s recovering from a gunshot wound. What’s really going on between them?

Well, that’s our currency. I’ll give the credit to our original SVU showrunner, who set that stage and recognized [the chemistry] as something the audience saw. But I think what they were really seeing was Mariska and my genuine affection for each other, and they ran with it. The fans had a big role in insisting the writers play up that angle just a little bit. And once we got a whiff, we leaned into it because we thought, Let’s give the people what they want. And I would say my abrupt exit from SVU [in 2011] left a vacuum and left an unresolved situation.

Do you think a romantic hook-up should happen?

Well, look, I don’t think so. But, to be honest, if they would write it that way, I’d go with it.

Mariska has several photos of you in her dressing room. It’s heartening that you two are so close.

We were just communicating yesterday. I have been in her dressing room, and she likes to be surrounded by people that have impacted her or that she’s impacted. At the end of the day, she and I started this. We gave it flavor, and she’s continued on!

What do you remember about your original SVU audition in the late ‘90s?

When I got the call, I had just landed in Hawaii. I had been waiting for over a month, and I had auditioned once for [creator] Dick Wolf and the second time for Dick Wolf and the showrunner. Then radio silence. Sure enough, I was tired of waiting around. So my wife and I went to Hawaii, and I got a call to come to New York for a screen test. What I remember is that I was unnaturally confident and comfortable.

Where did that come from?

I think I was just in the sweet spot. I had a job with Oz. So I’m like, I don’t need this job. But I hadn’t signed a contract with Oz, so it freed me up. That was a rare feeling. I’m usually not a great auditioner so I just went in with that confidence.

Do you consider Oz to be your big break?

There were a couple. The big break to get me into the decision-makers’ view was an NBC sitcom I did in 1990 called The Fanelli Boys. But it only lasted 17 episodes. Then I got an offer to be Kim Delaney’s love interest for a few episodes on NYPD Blue [in 1996] without an audition. That was a big one. Tom Fontana hired me for Homicide: Life on the Street [in 1998]. I was getting better and better jobs with people I admired and wanted to be in business with as opposed to getting hired to do TV Movies of the Week, which I didn’t particularly want.

How did you end up as Julia Roberts’ fiancé in Runaway Bride in 1999? You don’t seem like a rom-com guy.

Well, I just felt like, I can do that. There was an athletic package that came with it. [He played a high-school football coach.] So, you know, I couldn’t be the nebbish-y guy next door. I feel like I have comedic timing and understanding. But that was the hardest job I’ve ever had because the comedy was very commercial. I can go extreme very easily. That’s how my brain works. So I understood there were rules that I needed to abide by, and I needed to adjust. So that was hard for me, and a good lesson and a good workout.

Did you nail that audition too?

In my opinion, I got it because of my screen test with Julia. After our first little scene together, she said, “Oh my god, you are so adorable!” And she said it in front of [director] Garry Marshall. I was like, “Wow, I really do appreciate you saying that.” It was great timing.

Well, you do have a football background because you were a high-school quarterback and captain. How did that help you in terms of being a leader later on?

I think I’ve always had leadership qualities. You need leadership qualities for that position. You have to have people follow you. And I dedicated myself to having an undefeated season, which hadn’t happened in 25 years at the school. We accomplished that goal. I was an OK student, but studies were hard and I had behavioral problems. This was proof that if I put my mind to something, I could do what I wanted.

You ended up studying history at University of Colorado in Boulder. Were you recruited to play ball in college?

No, I was absolutely not good enough. I could have played in Division III, but I don’t know how much recruiting they do and they don’t give scholarships. But it was in college that I took an acting elective. I was feeling adrift. And I finally realized that I needed to act.

Did you pursue an acting career right away?

I graduated with no plan. I didn’t believe being an actor was a real dream or journey or occupation. The penny dropped when I called a high school buddy and asked him what he was doing with his life. He said he was going to New York to study acting. I flew out the next day. This was 1984.

Related: Law & Order Has a Major Cast Shakeup Ahead of Season 23: Everything You Need to Know

Was the grind difficult for you?

I made my rent and supplemented my income with bartending for years. But it felt like I was unemployed for decades when nobody knew who I was. Then I started getting commercials and TV gigs.

Which role didn’t you get that you really wanted?

Agent Smith in The Matrix. Hugo Weaving got it. I’d worked with [writers-directors] The Wachowskis on Bound [in 1995], which was their first film.

Did it gnaw at you when The Matrix became a massive hit?

No, because as that happened, I got SVU. But even when I got SVU, I didn’t think, This is it. I didn’t think that until about year four. Then years five-to-nine were intense. I don’t have a large social battery, so I would retreat. It would start draining me. That’s just how I’m built. Now it’s legitimately cool and manageable when someone on the street approaches me.

And in 2021, you became a “Zaddy” Internet sensation because of your older-dad body. Was that fun for you?

I’m not very attuned to many pop-culture phenomena, so when it happened, it’s like I could step outside and go, “This is really cool!” Like, “Oh, is this the thing?!” But it’s nice to get that kind of attention. It felt like I was impacting people in a very small but fun way.

Well, you were naked in a Peloton ad!

That was one of the top commercial things I’ve ever done! I just thought it was so creative and so funny. I got such a kick out of doing that.

Did your wife and kids give you a hard time about it in a good way?

My wife just rolls with that stuff. I think my kids eye-rolled a little bit. My son would break my chops. But I think they appreciated that their old man was still seen as a viable human being.

So what’s next for you to accomplish?

I hope to write and direct a film. The project is already half-written. I just have to get back to it.

It seems like the 60s have treated you well so far. Agree?

I mean, I’m an employed actor. I’m in my 60s, and I’ve been working and working and working for 25 years.

More than 25 years!

Thirty-five years. I did it all without being able to do math.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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