Former “Law & Order” star returns to City for “Inside the Actors Studio”


Traci Ann Thomas

For almost five years, fans of the long-running procedural drama, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”, have been begging for the return the show’s other leading half, Agent Elliot Stabler. While the internet went wild with nostalgia when Christopher “Chris” Meloni took a picture reuniting with former SVU co-star, Mariska Hargitay. Unfortunately, it was a beacon of false hope; as Meloni returned to the city–not to record a much-anticipated episode of SVU. The actor actually took time out to sit down with James Lipton for another installment of “Inside the Actors Studio”.

On March 15th, Meloni visited the Schimmel theater to share his personal journey through the Hollywood. The seats were filled with several hundred city guests, as well as students from the Actors Studio, the University, and the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, Meloni’s alma mater.

A key component of why “Inside the Actor’s Studio” remains to be so popular is Lipton’s questions, which extracts personal information from guests that we do not necessarily learn from other media outlets. Meloni is no exception to this “Actors Studio” rule, but the actor made sure to illustrate his upbringing as much more easygoing than most would or could speculate. Growing up in the D.C. area, Meloni described his childhood and preteen years as laid back as he desired it to be; a lesson taught by his father, who encourage making choices for oneself and not relying on others. This ideological lifestyle is certainly one the actor has held on to. Meloni’s easygoing demeanor and unfazed approach to difficult and personal questions asked by Lipton was contrasted by his dry, yet impressive wit and overall natural charm.

Although he struggled academically early on, Meloni made a full turn-around once he joined the football team in high school. His drive to keep his team successful resulted in improved grades and leading his team to championships twice. When moving on to college, Meloni had a knack and strong interest for History. He also started to show a newfound love of acting, something he feared exploring before university life. The more he got involved with theatre, the clearer his decision became to move back and forth between Los Angeles and New York to find acting jobs. A couple unsuccessful sitcom stints actually lead him to the first staple in his career: Chris Keller in the early HBO hit, “Oz”. The role of Keller would go on to be a well-received figure in the LGBT community in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

One of the most anticipated subjects to be brought up for the night was Meloni’s run on “Law & Order: SVU”. Meloni’s journey as Agent Stabler has taken multiple leaps and bounds starting with an unexpected phone call from series’ creator Dick Wolf in Hawaii. He would go on to be Stabler for 12 successful years, earning an Emmy nomination in 2006. When asked about his departure from the show, Meloni had nothing but praise for the production crew and his entire experience working with them. He would go on to say that despite his need to find new, diverse projects, leaving “SVU” after twelve years was “the hardest thing [he’s] ever done.”

A well-known fact about Meloni’s start on “SVU” is the he began working on the show while simultaneously filming “Oz”; he would go on to work both shows for three years, until “Oz” ended its run in 2003. Surprisingly, Meloni was able to comfortably work such a hectic schedule, but the emotional and sensitive content explored on “SVU” started to take a toll on the actor. As a way of balancing out the intensity of the show’s production, Meloni would go on to take on less serious dramatic characters, even some surprisingly unexpected comedic roles as well.

One of his most infamous, non-“Law & Order” role was in the satirical camp-comedy, “Wet Hot American Summer”. The deranged, sexually-repressed Gene Jenkinson, a Vietnam veteran working as a summer camp chef is easily one of his most recognizable and hilarious roles; and a popular subject of discussion brought up by both audience members and Lipton. The crowd was also taken aback by the listing of other unexpected projects taken by Meloni, including “Runaway Bride”, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill for”, and his unrecognizable performance in “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle”.

One of the most humorous highlights from the recording was Meloni’s explanation for his absence from a previous “Actors Studio” session. He mentions that he was scheduled to appear along with Dick Wolf and other cast members of Wolf’s other shows. He was only able to stay on the stage for the first few minutes until he had succumbed to a flu he contracted from his family, who had been very ill the week prior to recording. He notes that he passed out outside at theater entrance and waking up in the bathroom on B level. Other interesting tidbits Meloni mentioned were his love of piloting airplanes — a passion he picked up from fellow actor, John Travolta. The two recently co-stared in the action-thriller, “I am Wrath.”

One of the main objectives of Meloni’s visit to “The Actors Studio” was to promote the premiere of his new show on WGN America, “Underground”. The 10-part series tells the story of the early development of the Underground Railroad, the infamous escape plan for black slaves in the 1800’s. Meloni plays a farmer who plays devil’s advocate and helps escapees whilst protecting his family in the troubled South. He voiced a hope that television viewers who watch the show are vocal with their responses and hope to see the program as a “quality story told in a vibrant manner,” especially in a period where diversity in Hollywood has become a strong topic of discussion. So far, reviews for “Underground” have been favorable from critics and audience members alike.

After wrapping up three-and-a-half hours of recording and interviewing, Meloni could only describe the experience as “lovely.” He was humbled by the turnout and enjoyed being able to answer the students’ questions the most because “[Meloni] would much rather talk about acting than about [himself].“ It will be interesting to see which direction he chooses to go in the upcoming years, and whether or not we will see Benson and Stabler reunite onscreen again.