If I really want to understand the actor Christopher Meloni, Tom Fontana, an Emmy Award-winning showrunner advises me, I’m going to need to take a deep look into a prop bucket filled with real urine.
It’s a story that dates back to the early aughts, when Meloni was still what’s sometimes pejoratively known as a “working actor,” playing convicted murderer and sex criminal Chris Keller on the HBO prison drama, “Oz.” It was one of his first series regular roles, and, according to Fontana, the show's creator and Meloni's longtime friend, not at all the one he’d been looking to book.
“We met at a bar, and ‘Oz’ had been on, I think maybe two years by that point,” said Fontana. “And so we sat down, and Chris said, ‘Well, I don't really know why we're meeting. I don't want to do a drama show. I want to do a comedy.’”
“I was like, ‘Oh, well, I don't know, I can't tell you that ‘Oz’ is very funny, but let's just stay in touch,’” Fontana said. They did, and when Fontana reached out again with his idea for a charming sociopath who enters into a violent love affair with a fellow inmate, Meloni “embraced it immediately.”
“He's a courageous actor and he's really in touch with all the parts of himself. And I say that with great affection, in the sense of that he knows the darkness in his soul as well as the light,” Fontana said. “What he brought was this rare combination of sexy, dangerous, and vulnerable, and he was able to tap into any of those at any moment depending on what the scene called for.”
Still, when Fontana conceived of a 15-second scene where a fully nude Keller openly pissed into a bucket, he figured that the crew would rig together a tube rather than ask Meloni to tap into his bladder on top of everything else. But Meloni, he soon learned, had other ideas.
“On the day that we were going to shoot it, the crew was explaining to him how they would attach the tube, and what angle the thing would be shot at, so that you couldn’t see the tube, so that it looked like he was urinating,” Fontana said. “And Chris said, ‘Oh no, no, no, I don't want any of that. I'll urinate when the time comes.’ So I'm on the set and I say to him, ‘Are you sure you want to do this, Chris?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I want it to look as real as possible.’”
Meloni chugged a few bottles of water, but just as he began to, uh, method act, a technical flaw in the shot forced them to cut the scene mid-stream.
“They fix whatever the problem was, and the director says, ‘Okay, action,’” Fontana said. “And Chris peed again, and the take was a good take, and the director yelled, ‘Cut.’ And he said, ‘Hey, Chris, that's it. That's the take.’”
“Chris turned to us,” Fontana said, “And said, ‘Are you sure? I've got another one in me.’”
At the time, Meloni wasn’t just playing a violent rapist on HBO’s breakout prison show — he was also regularly “Jekyll and Hyde-ing himself,” as Fontana put it, by playing a dedicated detective on NBC’s breakout sexually-based offenses police procedural, “Law & Order: SVU.” Not only were the roles diametrically and tonally opposite, their shoots also often occurred on the same day.
“[It was] insane….You're just doing these odd switches and hoping you're doing justice to it, so there's a lot of anxiety. But a lot of it's so thrilling, because I was very much aware that, at least from my point of view, I was the luckiest actor walking the earth in that moment,” Meloni said on a recent Zoom call from his lake house in Connecticut, where he holed up with his family for much of the summer.
He used much of that time to waterski and work out, both of which he finds almost meditative. (He used to fly planes too, a hobby he picked up after John Travolta took him out for a whirl, but quit in 2018 after losing an engine mid-air. The really frightening part, he said, was the bill he got afterward.) These days, he goes out on his speedboat early in the morning while the water is still glassy. “Water skiing to me, is kind of this practice of Zen, which is in the midst of this great speed, you're constantly trying to find speed across the wake, so you can get around the buoy and into position to pull yourself back across the other side of the wake,” Meloni said. “In the midst of all that, you have to practice, practice, practice so that your form is great, and you need to relax. You need to understand what you're doing. So it's this thing of being Zen in the middle of this frenzy, and it's a good thing for me to practice.”
Patience, “Zen”, and calm have been useful to him this year. Nearly a decade after “Law & Order” contract negotiations broke down in 2011, prompting Meloni to walk away after a whopping 12 seasons and 272 episodes, NBC announced, in early spring of this year, that Meloni would reprise the role of Detective Elliot Stabler with his own primetime spinoff focused on organized crime.
The announced fall release has, like most every show, since been pushed to 2021 due to the pandemic.
So Meloni’s been doing a lot of hurrying up and waiting for this new-old chapter to start, promoting in the meantime a new Hulu streaming series, “Maxxx,” practicing his guitar and doing woodworking projects with his kids.
“I don't know what the feeling is. It feels like I'm gearing up for a football game that's two months away, so it's driving me a little crazy with anticipation, and a million and one emotions,” Meloni said.
The new show will also see him back on screen with his former co-star Mariska Hargitay, who plays his old partner, Detective Olivia Benson, a blessed reunion that a large number of dedicated Instagram accounts and fan fiction writers have been eagerly anticipating for the last decade. This summer, Meloni and Hargitay further set the vast “Bensler” fandom aflame with a lakeside selfie that quickly went viral. (Hargitay, who is close with the Meloni family, is also godmother to Meloni’s eldest kid, 19-year-old Sophia.)
A post shared by Chris Meloni (@chris_meloni) on Jul 19, 2020 at 8:25pm PDT
“I admire and adore Chris on so many fronts. He puts his shoulder to the wheel like few people I know—the wheel of artistry, excellence, truthful storytelling, and a full and fulfilling life. He is fierce and fearless, and his light often burns brightest in the most challenging moments. And on top of that, we laugh really hard together,” Hargitay said in an email. “I feel deeply that SVU is something that we built together; we have so much history and it’s definitely been a long time coming; I am so looking forward to working together again.”
Meloni, dry and self-deprecating to the bone, says he’s just glad to have a job.
“I am so happy being a working actor. I can make a living, and I would argue a pretty good living, at doing what I do,” Meloni said. “It beats digging a ditch. And trust me, you're talking to a guy who was once paid $4.50 an hour to dig a ditch.”
Describing Meloni — one of the most famous TV cops of all time on one of the most syndicated shows of all time — at this stage of his career as a “working actor” is a bit like describing the Grateful Dead as a “touring band.” (My own personal theory of probability holds that, at any given moment, there is either an old episode of “Law & Order,” an Eagles song, or both, playing somewhere over the airwaves, and so far, I’ve yet to be proven wrong.)
After all, Meloni earned a reported $400,000 per episode at Law & Order’s peak, and inspired both a Conan segment and a BuzzFeed listicle focused solely on his posterior. A photograph of him shirtless in a kilt this spring even proved newsworthy enough to cut through the noise of a global pandemic.
But like the Dead, his work has so far gone largely unnoticed by the elite awarding bodies; he’s been recognized with just one major nomination, a 2006 Primetime Emmy nod for his work on “Law & Order: SVU,” which he lost to Keifer Sutherland for “24.”
“Look, I love awards. I would be honored to be given an award. But I think I don't focus on the whole awards process, to my great detriment,” Meloni said. “I absolutely, readily admit, I'm very bad at that part of the business…”
“I go, ‘Well, I think Chris, that's part of your appeal. You're not full of shit. You're just stumbling, bumbling your way through these gifts that you've earned through luck and hard work, and you share it with the people.’”
Part of the problem is how Meloni’s career eludes easy categorization. He’s done dramatic movies (“White Bird in a Blizzard,” “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), cartoons (“Rick and Morty,” “Family Guy”), dramatic comedic shows where he interacts with a cartoon (the delightfully demented Syfy series, “Happy”), romantic comedies without any cartoons at all (“Runaway Bride,” “Nights in Rodanthe”) and just about everything else in between — including memorable arcs on “Veep,” “True Blood,” and “Pose.”
With his steely blue eyes and mischievously arched brows, Meloni tends to steal whatever scene he’s in, no matter how big or small the role. Even today, Meloni says, people still stop him to talk about his brief turn as Sven, a pink-suited, cop-hating hotel clerk in 1998’s “Fear and Loathing.” A super fan had Meloni’s penis tattooed on his arm in an homage to that “Oz” bucket scene, an image of which Meloni shared on Twitter earlier this summer. And when he finally booked that comedy after “Oz,” he managed to outshine the entire all-star cast of “Wet Hot American Summer”—including Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and a young Bradley Cooper—with just a soup can for a scene partner. Despite appearing in just a few scenes, his suit-shitting character in David Wain and Michael Showalter’s meta follow-up, “We Came Together” also garnered some of the most laugh-out-loud moments in the entire movie.
In his latest supporting role, as the sleazy record producer Don Wild on Hulu’s record industry satire, “Maxxx,” for example, Meloni reopened his old ear piercings and grew out his fingernails for four months for, you know, authenticity.
“Yeah, that was my De Niro Raging Bull moment” Meloni said, “Instead of gaining 70 pounds, I grew my nails long.” He’s underselling himself again, in his characteristic fashion.
In fact, despite his self-deprecation, he’s trained in the Meisner technique, a practice which focuses on repetition training, replaying the same line over and over until it becomes second nature. He also helped shape the series, ad libbing some of his character’s standout moments, including a joke about Wes Anderson not casting Black people that made the final cut, said Maxxx co-star Pippa Bennet-Warner, who plays a young manager at Wild’s company.
“He's that kind of actor when you're working opposite you can barely get through a take without wanting to giggle,” the British actress said, "He's just such a pro, and just an absolute joy to be around.”
Despite the protective trappings of TV stardom and the requisite team of publicists hard at work to ensure their bankable network star stays that way, Meloni has long gone out of his way to express himself publicly in his own words. These days, his forum of choice is Twitter, where he’s put up almost 24,000 tweets over the last decade. But he’s been vocal with his fans since before social media even existed, fielding questions back in the days of dial-up on a now-defunct fan forum thread called “Ask Chris.” He’s never used social media to build an audience, but to engage with the one that already exists. And there’s no question it’s him at the keyboard.
“I don't think I can be accused of being inauthentic. Knowing full well the danger of going, ‘Hey, guys, I'm so authentic’ — all of a sudden, you're full of shit,” Meloni said. “I hold up a mirror to myself and am filled with a million and one flaws. I go, ‘That's one thing.’ I've never taken the fame too seriously. All I've done is tried to navigate it to the best of my ability.”
Though Meloni grew up in a conservative Virginia family where no one talked about politics or money, he’s become avidly anti-Trump these past few years and says that current events have compelled him to use his celebrity platform to fight back against the factions he sees enabling this administration.
“I'm the only one like me, politically, in my family. We all find our path, right? We all see the world through our own particular lens, and I guess we draw what's logical, what is the right thing to do, or the right stance to take for ourselves,” Meloni said. “So, you do you, I'll do me.”
In spite of this mellow attitude, he viewed the past four years as a unique horror that demanded a heightened response from him — even if he risks alienating his conservative fans.
But when the Trump administration began to clash violently with the Black Lives Matter movement this summer in cities across the country—and Meloni’s own artistic work became part of the debate—he stayed uncharacteristically quiet. Both “COPS” and “Live PD,” two long-running police documentary shows, were canceled in June amid calls to defund the police, and for a moment, even the fate of the animated kids show “Paw Patrol” seemed uncertain as actors who had previously profited from portraying idealized versions of cops began donating their salaries to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and producers of crime dramas began questioning their editorial choices in portraying the police as the good guys in pop culture.
And yet TV’s most famous bad boy cop said nothing, and a cursory review of his tweets over the years suggests he’s stayed out of the police debate almost completely. I asked Meloni, who initially prepared for “Law & Order” by interviewing real SVU cops and doing police ride-alongs in L.A., if he felt constrained from speaking out in some way, or if his silence was intentional.
“I do believe in Black Lives Matter. I think that's the most important thing to focus on right now, vis a vis policing and the public, and healing the wounds that have happened, and figuring out a way forward,” Meloni said. “I think I've intentionally stayed away because any time… It's almost like the jump rope game. You're trying to get in without getting something lopped off at the neck, because the rope is going so fast and it's so incendiary. It's like, ‘You wade into this, man, it's just…’ The corruption of the Trump administration is far easier to wade into, I guess. That's the poison that I have picked.”
I'm curious how he reconciles being so socially liberal and anti-Trump with working on a show that glorifies police — or even to what degree he thinks a person’s art should match their politics — but he says that’s not how he sees the situation.
“I personally never saw any of the ‘Law & Orders,’ their mantra being glorification. That's just not how I saw it. I always just saw myself as an actor playing in a character in a certain world,” he said.
That being said, he’s aware that positioning a hotheaded cop known for brutalizing suspects as the cuddly lead of a new network show isn’t going to fly in 2020.
“I think you have to address certain issues of the moment, certain issues that my character, Elliot Stabler, reflected. Being a loose cannon just is not acceptable anymore. I get that, and I think it's going to be a delicate dance. I think it's going to be a delicate dance, but I think at the end, that we're all going to be doing our best just to tell a story. And hopefully, my character has evolved, and will be accepted for what he is and where he's come from and the things he's been through and how he's dealt with them. So, long answer, but yeah. It's going to be a tricky situation, I think.”
Anyway, how fair is it to blame the actor without taking a hard look at who writes his lines? In a 2020 study, “Law & Order: SVU” was singled out as one of “the most problematic” shows in the genre by the nonprofit civil rights group Color of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project, which together deemed the franchise “essentially a PR machine for the police.” The issues the study found with the show were two-fold: an ongoing storyline that glorifies the police on-screen, and off-screen, a writers room composed primarily of men, the majority of whom were white.
But that too is evolving. In June, Wolf publicly fired a white male writer for the Meloni spinoff after he posted a photograph of himself on social media holding an assault rifle with a caption threatening to “light motherfuckers up who are trying to fuck w/ my property I worked all my life for.”
“I will not tolerate this conduct, especially during our hour of national grief,” Wolf said in a rare statement, referencing the murder of George Floyd. Ice-T, one of Meloni’s former SVU co-stars, also supported the action on Twitter, writing, “The Big Boss is cleaning house... RESPECT."
Wolf, who did not respond to a request for comment, did affirm in an email to Forbes that at least half the writing staff for Meloni’s spinoff will be made up of people of color, and promised that, “We will expand those numbers as we find writers to fill those slots.”
“I have direct knowledge of that. There are absolutely marching orders for that, from what I've experienced,” Meloni said. “I think they are really walking the walk, talking the talk. So to answer your question, yes, it is an active search to make it far more inclusive and cool.”
Perhaps it’s the working artists—the Deads of the world, the Melonis—who are the most perfectly suited for life in 2020, a year whose repetitiveness has something of a procedural quality, after all. Not simply because Meloni claims to find even something as “mundane and repetitive as working out” to be a fascinating experience, despite spending about 45 years doing the same thing day in and day out. It may also be because Meloni really puts the work in working actor.
“Let me tell you this about Chris,” Fontana said. “Chris is always... I don't want to say he's challenging. He challenges the writers, directors and producers, but he's not challenging them to be an asshole. He's challenging them because he wants to take what's there further. And he always had the next best idea. If I wrote a scene, he would bring a little extra something to the scene that I would never have thought of. And so that was, for me, even more exciting because it meant he truly was possessing this character.”
It’s something Meloni hopes his kids will pick up from him, too, despite the fact that most mornings, they sleep right through waterski o’clock. “I want to see self-reliance. I want to see a healthy regard for the truth, being truthful in action, in deeds and in words. I feel as though they're already goodhearted people, and the idea of, ‘You got to go after it.’ If you want something, you’ve got to go,” he said.
“I think I also attempt to pass it onto the next generation, with my son or my daughter. I'm constantly trying to... If we run into a thing, something as simple as, ‘Oh, something won't start.’ Well, let's methodically go through what the issue is,” Meloni said. “Is the battery connected, or is there a loose connection there? What's the sound that it's making? Constantly trying to figure out how things work, and how you can be more independent. And I think the more you know, the more independent you are.”
“I think for me, that's just how I go about things, stumbling frustratingly along,” he said, and then a few minutes later, he was gone, a slalom skier against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the wake.
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