Christopher Meloni — Beyond SVU’s Detective Stabler

Circa 2005

While some actors suggest any work is a blessing, many struggle to find roles that allow them to demonstrate a diverse range of talents. The objective, of course, is to avoid being typecast. Sean Connery, despite his extensive filmography, will always be James Bond. In fact, it was once said that if Sean Connery had been cast in Jurassic Park, people would wonder why James Bond was fighting dinosaurs. On the contrary, it is unlikely Woody Allen will ever wear the trademark tuxedo and answer to the secret code name 007.

What then can be said about Christopher Meloni? While he is best recognized for his portrayal as the idealistic, straight-laced Detective Elliot Stabler on NBC’s Law & Order: SVU, to suggest Meloni is typecast as a cop is as accurate as saying Hillary Swank can only do boxing movies. Sure, they’re both great in their roles, but their respective characters are only single aspects of impressively larger repertoires. One peek into Meloni’s portfolio will find an actor with one of the broadest ranges in the industry. And not only can he do it all … he does it all really, really well.

Meloni’s Detective Stabler is a level-headed, albeit sometimes stern, sex-crimes cop whose references to his own daughters suggest an inherent vulnerability. Just as love and hate are said to be different sides of the same coin, Meloni is also renowned for his role as Chris Keller, a psychopathic sexual predator and serial murderer, in HBO’s dark prison drama OZ. While Detective Stabler has to play it cool for prime-time television, Keller shined from Meloni’s freedom to do whatever was necessary to get it right. Despite the acclaim he has received for his roles on both sides of the law, his passion lies in intellectual comedies. Few guest appearances on Scrubs are as memorable as when Meloni’s Dr. Norris (with help from his puppet Mr. Cookiepants) matched wits with Scrubs’ own infamously dry Dr. Cox. For those few who find their entertainment in the theater as opposed to the living room couch, you’ll recognize Meloni as Coach Bob, Julia Roberts’ jilted fiancé in the romantic comedy Runaway Bride. Meloni’s other credits include Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Wet Hot American Summer, The Souler Opposite, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Twelve Monkeys.

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ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and managing health editor Gillian Friedman, MD, recently played good cop/bad cop when they caught up with Christopher Meloni on the set of Law & Order: SVU for an interrogation ABILITY-style. During their railroading of Meloni he fessed up about how he got into acting and how he got his dad to quit smoking, his tattoos, his family and his personal connection with multiple sclerosis.

Gillian Friedman, MD: As we drove to the set I was thinking about the difference in your roles in Law and Order: SVU and OZ— playing the cop and the convict. Wasn’t there a period you were filming both series simultaneously?

Christopher Meloni: Yeah, for about three years.

Friedman: How hard was it going back and forth?

Meloni: It was great for the first two years, and then the last one got a little difficult. But when you’re a working actor—and that’s what you keep saying in your head, how blessed you are to have a job—and you are working with heavyweights, working with the best guys in TV, it’s pretty cool. Exhausting, but cool.

Chet Cooper: Where do you think your work ethic comes from?

Meloni: My old man, and my mom—both my parents. My mother raised three children on her own and my dad was a doctor working 16 hours a day.

Cooper: He smoked, right?

Meloni: He did.

Cooper: I read the “Tobacco and Me” article you wrote. I really like your writing style.

Meloni: Thanks. I was very proud of that, actually.

Cooper: What else have you written?

Meloni: I’ve written a couple screenplays and half-finished plays.

Meloni is interrogated by ABILITY’s tough editor Chet Cooper
Meloni is interrogated “interviewed” by ABILITY’s tough editor Chet Cooper

Cooper: I was surprised to read about your father’s love of smoking and then learned he was a doctor.

Meloni: You know, that generation …

Friedman: There used to be an ad for Camels that boasted, “The brand most doctors choose.”

Cooper: What finally made him quit?

Meloni: I was about 19 and we were all at the table. My sister was begging my father to stop smoking, but he said, “It’s just not that easy.” And at the time my hair was down to here, down to my nipples.

Cooper: Readers note, he just touched his nipples.

Meloni: (laughs) Anyway, I said, “Dad, I’ll cut my hair if you quit smoking,” and we shook on it. Then I grabbed his cigarettes, and he said, “Wait, I want to finish this pack.” I said, “No, we shook hands, and the bet’s started.” I told him, “If you stop for a month, I’ll cut my hair.”

Cooper: And you’ve looked pretty much like this ever since?

Meloni: (laughs) Yep, I have. That was around … 1986, maybe? My hair was short but I wasn’t bald!

Friedman: Short and feathered back, right?

Meloni: (laughs) Something like that.

Friedman: I see you’ve done some PDAs … I mean, Public Service Announcements.

Meloni: (laughs) PDA is something else … maybe we’ll talk off the record?

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Friedman: (laughs) So no Public Displays of Affection during the interview? … I meant, I saw you did a PSA for TV.

Meloni: That was for NBC. I’ve also done PSAs for—I don’t know what the politically correct way to say it is—gay issues. Topics having to do with awareness, respect, at-risk children in high school who are being picked on because they’re gay, bisexual, sexually confused or transgendered. Since being on this show I’ve also branched out into abuse issues, obviously focusing on women, but also children.

Cooper: Were some of the PSAs a result of your work on OZ?

Meloni: They were. The gay community was very … um … appreciative and affected by my character, in a myriad of ways (laughs) … from the shower scenes to the acting—or at least I like to think so. I feel as though they are an oppressed minority. They’re institutionally oppressed. Just ask the [Church]. Yeah, I’ll get political, c’mon! (laughs)

Cooper: But what’s that tattoo on your arm?

Meloni: It’s Jesus. (laughs) Want to talk about that? Boy am I conflicted!

Cooper: You got the tattoo at what point in your life?

Meloni: Oh, six years ago? I was thirty-seven.

Friedman: So you’re still working things out?

Meloni: (laughs) Yes, I am.

Friedman: When you speak out on issues such as tolerance, are there people in your community who get ruffled by your stance?

Meloni: No, not at all. But I came from a conservative Republican background. I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and although it was a suburb of Washington DC, it was still in many ways a small, southern town. It was kind of provincial and limiting, and people were just not aware of the issues of human … I don’t want to say human suffering, but … the problems that can come with being a human being. A city like New York has clashing cultures and clashing ideas and big ideas, but these sorts of things weren’t being thrown in the air and bandied about where I came from. In suburbia things are really ironed out as cleanly as possible. But my parents are great. Everyone’s very tolerant, highly educated.

Cooper: Do you know Irvine, California?

Meloni: Just heard of it.

Cooper: Very conservative city south of Los Angeles. They are starting to have gangs come into the city, and there’s graffiti—it’s typeset … That wasn’t my joke, but I thought it was funny.

Meloni: Is it in Orange County?

Cooper: Yes.

Meloni: You should have said Orange County. Next time you try the joke, use Orange County.

Cooper: I heard it at the Improv in Irvine. Anyhow, speaking of stand-up comedy that I don’t do … (Meloni laughs) How hard was doing stand up for your role in Souler Opposite?

Meloni: It was unbelievably difficult. In order to be a successful comic—unless you’re a natural, like you—Orange County—it takes years. It’s all in the timing and the phraseology. If you put a word … if you put Irvine where Orange County belongs, you’re toast; you get the stone wall reaction.

Cooper: Have you ever thought of doing stand-up?

Meloni: Yeah, when I was first starting out I thought of it all the time. I just didn’t have the balls big enough.

Cooper: I would have thought you might try it—it seems you’re gutsy enough to do a lot of things.

Meloni: In my own defense, I wrote a one-man show, and that to me was more where I fit. I don’t think I chimed in with the joke delivery of stand-up, just kind of getting up there and doing the jokes. I like intellectual journeys. I think Chris Rock at the Oscars was a great example. I thought that was intellectually hilarious. The Gap starts a war with Banana Republic … That to me was funny.

Cooper: The guys who make it look easy—they’re brilliant. There is a form of genius going on. Many, like Jamie Foxx, are starting out as comics, then going off in other directions. There is so much talent there.

Meloni: I think to be a successful comic, you have to be exceptionally smart and exceptionally perceptive.

Friedman: At what point did you know you wanted to be an actor?

Meloni: I took an acting class my sophomore year of college. Boy, I got bit hard.

Cooper: And what about the acting? … Orange County!

Meloni: (laughs) That was good. Perfect timing. It went right in there. You are to be commended—you keep throwing it against the wall. Nobody likes a quitter. You keep going. It hasn’t stuck yet, but it will, have faith. ABILITY! You have to keep trying. Come on, come on, people! Follow Chet’s lead! (laughter)

Friedman: What was it about acting that you were so drawn to?

Meloni: Well, I knew it. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. I had never felt so alive and so chosen. It was like a hand in a glove. When you fit and you are finally whole … what a world. What a beautiful world to be able to say whatever you want in a moment. And in the best of jobs you’re given extreme moments, the Willy Loman moments, where it’s so subtle, so painful, so historic and tragic. Everyone goes, “I know that guy,” or “I know an aspect of that.” It’s a privilege; I’m very lucky.

Friedman: So how does the kid of a doctor end up an actor?

Meloni: My dad played piano, and he had a little talent there. My mom loved to sing. My sister has her masters’ in theater. We were a family of dabblers, repressed hams in our own way. I think I was the least repressed. (laughs)

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Cooper: How do your parents feel about where you are now in your life?

Meloni: Great. I think their creed or their motto has been that it doesn’t matter what you do, just be very smart at it and be very good at it.

Cooper: In a recent SVU episode I caught, you were beating up a locker.

Meloni: Yes. And it didn’t have a chance. It didn’t have a chance. (laughter)

Cooper: The scene looked as though you really knew what you were doing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody beat up a locker quite the way you did. I know you have a martial arts background—what have you studied?

Meloni: I studied Tai Kwan Do.

Cooper: As a kid I learned a form of Tai Kwan Do called Moo Duk Kwan.

Meloni: I’ve heard of that. I took the straight, strict, old traditional style with the wide stances, katas and all that. Then I took Goshin Jiu-Jitsu, which my sensei called a blend style. I learned Savate, which is French kickboxing, and Mui Tai, which is a different form of kickboxing. Then I learned grappling in the Gracie system, which is arm bars and submissions holds. It was great, but I haven’t done it in a while. I still incorporate a little running and working out into my schedule. I try to get to a hoop game on Monday nights but I haven’t been there in about a year and a half.

Friedman: We are aware you support the MS Walks that raise funds for research and services for people with multiple sclerosis. How did you become involved?

Meloni: As you know, there are so many organizations looking for attention, recognition and money that it’s kind of overwhelming. Somebody very close to me has MS, so getting involved was kind of a no-brainer. She’s doing great. She’s in remission and stable.

John C. McGinley’s Dr. Cox wasn’t amused by Meloni’s Dr. Norris
John C. McGinley’s Dr. Cox wasn’t amused by Meloni’s Dr. Norris

Cooper: Do you know what type of therapies she was using?

Meloni: Anytime it flared up she’d use prednisone, but that’s a double-edged sword. I guess it helps, but she’d become bloated out. It’s almost disfiguring.

Cooper: Did you know her prior to her diagnosis with MS?

Meloni: Yeah. I remember she would complain of numbness running down her arm. Then you would see her walking poorly. Finally, she had the tests done.

Cooper: A sizeable percentage of people with multiple sclerosis experience clinical depression. Did your friend ever get depressed?

Meloni: I couldn’t tell you. She’s a very religious lady—very connected to her faith—so I think that was a great source of comfort for her. She’s also got three kids and had them rather late in life. She’s living a great life right now.

Geoff Erb, our director of photography, also has MS, although his is much more progressed. He’s lived with it for many years. It has been a slow decline of motor skills. He started our show with a cane, but then it got really bad because he works so hard. His job is very demanding and taxing. Every time the camera changes he’s on point to make sure the lighting looks good. He takes into consideration boom mikes coming in, where the camera is, where the actor’s going to stand, and then various actors’ skin tones because he has to light them differently. He lights Mariska [Hargitay] far differently from the way he lights me. He’s an artistic technician.

Cooper: Has working with Geoff raised your awareness about MS?

Meloni: Certainly some, but not too much. I have to say how unfair it is of me, from my standpoint, to even comment. I’m running around and therefore I am not cognizant of his trials and tribulations. I think that actually says a lot about him. The guy has never complained once. I think he got the wheelchair because at times he’d fall down right in the middle of something—bah bah boom. And every time, “I’m all right. I’m all right.” He’d get up. He’s a man of great dignity and an inspiration because we work horrendous hours, really tough hours.

Cooper: He’s using a power chair now?

Meloni: Yes. As a matter of fact, it’s ironic, we called him Jazzy or Jazzy Geoff. Then we learned the name of his little scooter is actually The Jazzy. We got a little teary. Friedman: How much did things have to be repositioned once he started to use a wheelchair? That’s a significant change for someone who’s that integral to every shot.

Meloni: Not much at all. You’ve seen how usually when people get awards they thank the crew? It’s the real deal. We travel together. We’re an army and it’s a fight every day. We may not be threatened by losing our lives, but we are a team. He’s in a wheelchair and can’t get up steps, but it doesn’t matter. We help him. Everyone pitches in. Here’s a guy who is indispensable to how the show looks and how we do our jobs. It’s gone off without a hitch. I know when you speak with Geoff you’ll see what I’m talking about. He’s just a really great guy.

Friedman: Obviously, you’ve got a great thing going on right now, but any thoughts about what you would like to do after SVU?

Meloni: Yeah. I would like to do film. There are two ways to go about this business. One is to be well respected and one is to be commercially viable so you get those great shots—the Tom Hanks shots. Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, they get first dibs on any project, be it ivory merchant, indie or commercial.

I have no qualms about doing a commercial film. Getting the action hero role or doing a funny or obvious commercial comedy—all options are on the table, although I don’t think I do well with fluffy stuff. Vin Diesel just made The Pacifier. God bless him, I thought it was a bold move. Good for him.

Friedman: Have you done much stage acting?

Meloni: I haven’t had extensive opportunity, but the game plan is to do more once my ride on Law & Order ends. I just did a monologue, A Company of Men by Neil LaBute, one of the greatest writers in the business right now.

Friedman: Do you think you’ll do more writing?

Meloni: If it’s slow I definitely would. That’s how I keep my sanity. As a matter of fact, that’s the only way I was able to write the stuff I wrote—I was gainfully unemployed.

Friedman: You need time to reflect when you’re writing.

Meloni: That’s true. There’s a lot to be said for that quiet time. I love my lifestyle now, but at the end of nine months you’re toast. You are toast. It’s like running a marathon. You can’t think while you’re doing it. Especially when different directors come in who are not part of the posse, the circle. They come in with new and vibrant ideas, which is great. And yet they don’t always fit into … well, unfortunately there’s a kind of time constraint here. Even with that, we’re working 15-hour days. It’s like being at the 20-mile marker of the marathon and having a guy just joining the race. It’s a strange energy to get acclimated to.

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Friedman: When many of us were in school, around August we’d begin to get that dread about returning— the hard work, early mornings, long nights … Do you get that as an actor doing a series?

Meloni: No, I think you would if you weren’t proud of the material, if you were bored or didn’t like your job. This has been challenging in all aspects. I’m very involved in giving script notes, helping to structure the script, throwing out ideas, throwing out directing ideas. I feel I have a very good collaborative relationship with everyone involved, including the people on the West Coast who edit. They nourish that environment; they are very amenable to getting ideas. You feel you are really part of what’s going on.

Friedman: Any other plans outside of SVU?

Meloni: Well, earlier I gave the professional answer, but the personal answer is I’d like to go away for six months and learn to kiteboard and windsurf. I love pinochle, I love chess and I love windsurfing.

Cooper: I don’t think you can do them all at the same time.

Meloni: (laughs) Well, maybe.

Meloni and ABILITY’s Gillian Friedman
Meloni and ABILITY’s Dr. Gillian Friedman

foreword by Romney Snyder

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