Chris Meloni in a scene from Law and Order SUV

Christopher Meloni - interview by Chet Cooper and Dr. Gillian Friedman

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.

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 loved 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.

Cooper: I was surprised to read about your father’s love of smoking and then learn 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?

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? ...

continued in ABILITY Magazine subscribe

Other articles in the Christopher Meloni issue include Letter From The Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: My Year; Headlines: Project Hope, Blind Justice & Down Syndrome; Senator Grassley: The American Dream for All; USA Freedom Corps: Director Desiree Sayle; Employment: Latinos with Disabilities; Book Section: Too Late to Die Young; Multiple Sclerosis: New Development; Geoffrey Erb: SUV’s Director of Photography; Comedian Spotlight: Tanyalee Davis; World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences... subscribe!
More excerpts from the Christopher Meloni issue: (2006)

Riding The Bus - Making the Movie: A Writer's Diary

Tech Section: Creating Unity in Educational Technology

Celiac Disease: Living Gluten Free

I'm Not Angry: Memoirs of Deborah Max