‘Surviving Jack’ star Christopher Meloni looks back on ‘SVU,’ ‘Oz’ & more

Christopher Meloni has had the kind of varied, almost schizophrenic, and very vivid acting career in which the first thing you see him in would likely color your perceptions of him for years to come. I first encountered him in the sixth season of “1st & Ten,” a raunchy ’80s HBO comedy about a pro football team whose cast at various points included Delta Burke, Shannon Tweed, O.J. Simpson and, for a season – as an ex-con quarterback calling himself Johnny Gunn – a young Meloni. (Here”s the opening credits for that season.) As a result of that and a few other sitcom roles immediately after, I thought of him as a comedy guy and was thrown when he would pop up playing intense dramatic roles in the ’90s on shows like “NYPD Blue,” “Homicide” and, for a long and memorable stretch, “Oz,” HBO”s first original dramatic series, in which Meloni played charismatic sexual predator Chris Keller.

People who first encountered him as Keller, meanwhile, may have been alarmed when he switched over to the side of good to spend a dozen years playing crusading cop Elliott Stabler on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” or when he would dip back into comedy to play a sweater-fondling summer camp chef in “Wet Hot American Summer” or a puppet-wielding pediatrician on “Scrubs.”

Whatever he is doing, Meloni commits, extremely. At the moment, that commitment is to “Surviving Jack,” a new FOX comedy based on the childhood of writer Justin Halpern – he is, essentially, playing the same character at a younger age that William Shatner hammed up in CBS”s short-lived “(Shit) My Dad Says” – as the oncologist father of a teenage boy and girl in the early ’90s. It”s a role that reunites him with “Surviving Jack” producer Bill Lawrence, who had created “Scrubs,” and one that lets him use his gift for threatening behavior in the service of laughter.(*)

(*) No time this week for a proper review of “Surviving Jack,” so let me say the following: 1)Based on the two episodes I've seen, it's my favorite of this season's three nostalgia-driven sitcoms, ahead of both “The Goldbergs” and “Growing Up Fisher.” 2)Meloni is really excellent, and it's striking how, again, the same character from “Feces My Dad Says” seems so much sharper and more real when Halpern and Patrick Schumacker's writing is being put through the Bill Lawrence filter rather than the Kohan & Mutchcnick filter. 3)It is not often laugh-out-loud funny at this stage, but it has a voice and point of view and is very likable in that same way that, say, “Trophy Wife” or even “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” were at the beginning, and seems like it has the potential to turn into something more just like those shows did. (And its timeslot should provide that the time to do so.) 4)Beyond Meloni, I'm not sure about the rest of the characters – as the Halpern stand-in, Connor Buckley plays panicked well but doesn't get to display much else – but he's good enough to carry things for now.

Earlier this month, I sat down with Meloni to discuss his long and winding career and how he ended up on this show, which debuts Thursday night at 9:30, after “American Idol.”

Why were you interested in playing this character?

Christopher Meloni: I found the script funny. I found his voice kind of unique. I knew Bill Lawrence and I think he knows what he”s doing, obviously. A half hour appealed to me.

You did 12 years on “SVU.” If someone had come to you with another one hour script that you liked, would you have done that? Or did you not want to deal with that again for a while?

Christopher Meloni: Yeah, I just didn”t want to. With, a one-hour show, you miss a lot of life if you”re the lead on a 22 to 24 episode season. It”s not just the work and it”s not just every day. I needed a month or two of decompression. And my kids were getting a little older. I wanted to spend a little more time with the family.

You have been able to diversify your career. You do very intense, dramatic roles but then you also do things like “Wet Hot” and “Scrubs” and now this. Was that by design or is it just that these are the things that came along?

Christopher Meloni: I guess I was foolish enough to believe I had the ability to pull both things off, and I guess enough people have liked what I”ve done to keep it going. I”ve had a lot of designs in my career and most of them came to fruition and some didn”t. So maybe it”s an unconscious design.

What were the actual designs you had back in the day?

Christopher Meloni: To work with Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam. One of those came true (he worked with Gilliam on “Twelve Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”). For me, those were big influences. Past that, in the meantime you”ve got to make a living. And so you”re an actor for hire and you run around and you show off your wares, you open up your little case of stuff that you do and people hire you or they don”t. So people just hired me for comedies and dramas.

You know better than I do that actors get pigeonholed. And you started out doing a few half-hours in a row.

Christopher Meloni: That has been a constant battle. I came in and was introduced as Frankie Fanelli on “The Fanelli Boys.” Big, dumb, lovable lunk from Brooklyn. And so that was it. That”s who I was. “You”re the funny half hour guy, kind of physical, very New York.” I personally just never agreed with that. I mean I agreed that I can do that, but I didn”t agree that that was the sum of my parts. So with the help of the guy who reps me, Bill Butler, who”s been with me from the very beginning, we kept kicking at doors and trying to influence people”s opinions.

But then after you had gone and done “Oz,” did it then become a challenge the other way? To convince people you can be funny?

Christopher Meloni: I don”t think so. I seem to get those nice little shots, whether it”s through Terry Gilliam or David Wain with “Wet Hot American Summer,” or “Harold & Kumar.” You know, I kept getting these odd shots that I was very thankful for, and I got it done.

How did “Wet Hot” come about? Did they approach you?

Christopher Meloni: No, “Wet Hot” was an audition. It”s one of those auditions that when I walked in and did what I did – and it”s always a good feeling – I just thought, “This role is mine. And if it”s not, that”s fine.” But I did exactly what I thought this character is. I laid it out very clearly, “Here”s the guy.” And it”s up to them. They go, “No, that”s not how we see him.” I was like, “That”s fine but that”s the guy. I”m telling you.” One of the weirder ones was “Harold & Kumar,” because that was an offer, and I asked the writers, “Why me?” They go, “Well, we were actually thinking of you the whole time we were writing it.” I was thinking, “You still didn”t answer my question. I don”t know whether that”s a compliment.” So that was fun and funny.

You spent years playing this heroic cop, but you”ve also played sexual predators or people with darkness. When you”re playing somebody like Keller, what are you drawing on?

Christopher Meloni: The basic impulses that I think many of us have. I just expand it, but we all have a social break or a social filter. If you feel jealousy or envy or hurt, we usually internalize these things and we usually find ways to cope with them, (instead of) acting out from them. So it comes from a place of hurt, fear and need to overpower or at least to have your way. People structure the world in a way in which they”re comfortable to operate in. I think he”s a guy who acted on his fears, his desires, his needs.

Dean Winters once told me that in the very early days of the show, before you came in, there was a lot of posturing – everyone wanted to see who could be the biggest badass on the set. And Adewale (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) would inevitably win that. By the time you came in, had that sort of chestiness gone away? Or as the new guy, did you feel that you had to demonstrate a level of toughness?

Christopher Meloni: I didn”t feel it. I wouldn”t have played it if I had felt it because it was irrelevant to me. But I will say that what was funny was there was one moment I was at the craft service table, and an actor came up and was in character – just muscling a little bit. And he wanted my attention, and I wouldn”t give it. I couldn”t have cared less. And finally, he says to me, “Don”t mind me. I”m in character.” And I was just laughing. I looked at him and then I said, “I don”t care.” You know, they”ve always got their own method. You don”t need to announce it to me. I don”t care. Ignore me. Engage me. I don”t give a shit. It was really funny.

You had done a number of other series to that point. Did you feel like that was either a better showcase or a more prominent showcase than some of the other things you did, in terms of the doors that it opened?

Christopher Meloni: “Showcase” is a good word, because the spectrum of behavior was so outlandish. You have to play a guy who could play the victim even while he”s cutting your head off, and the sexual energy of it all. It was really a perverse world and I think what very often happens is then people will look at that and go, “Oh, what brave acting.” So they put that really catchy label to it, which gives you a little bit of clout. You can find good acting in a nice little sitcom. But, yes, it was a good showcase simply because the circumstances were pretty extreme and pretty eye-catching. But I also did a little arc when I was on “NYPD Blue,” and it was that and everything like it in combination in the middle of all this with “Runaway Bride.” That guy was just as unthreatening as you could possibly get. And I did some “Homicide.” Again, Tom Fontana had hired me, and I had a beautiful monologue in there that showed this guy and he was a real dichotomy. An educated guy who was very street.

On “Oz,” there was not a lot of job security and Tom would kill anyone off at any time, but he”s said that he knew that as long as he could keep that triangle going between Keller and Beecher and Schillinger, he had a show. So I guess you probably had a higher level of job security than some of your co-stars. Did you ever sense that or were you just as worried as everybody else that one day the script”s gonna come in and Keller gets shanked?

Christopher Meloni: No, I think that was the experience with my very first job with “1st & Ten,” which was, “We”re hiring you to be the new quarterback and we”re gonna pay you this amount of money.” Which, for me at the time was mind-blowing and I was so excited and thinking, “I”m the quarterback and I”m gonna be on this show for ten years!” Little did I know that they got a new quarterback every year, just about. And that was a wonderful experience for me because I never forgot it. I went, “Oh, you can”t place your head there. You go in. You do your job.” Hire, fire. All that”s irrelevant. Even the hiring – it”s you go in, you do the best you can, you present them with what you”ve got. And that”s what I said, you know, with the “Wet Hot American Summer” situation which was, “This is the character. You what to hire me, great. You don”t, don”t.” And as long as you keep that mindset it”s far less personally dramatic. So I never got caught up in that. I was happy. I was having a great time.

One of the things that always struck me about Stabler – and maybe it was just because it was coming so soon on the heels of “Oz” – was there was this intensity to him that you didn”t necessarily see in a lot of other cops at the time. You could see that if a couple of things in his past had gone a little bit differently he could be the guy being interrogated as opposed to being the guy doing the interrogation.

Christopher Meloni: I never meant to quite come off like that. But I”ve gotten that response many, many times. What I had told Dick Wolf was he initially had three kids and I wanted him to have four and I wanted the first one to be out of wedlock, meaning their mother was pregnant, so we had to get married. And I wanted the last two to be twins and unplanned. And I also wanted him to have a tattoo. And I did all of that because I wanted to show that he had been a wild guy when he was younger. Because he was a straight arrow guy, even though he struggled with that. I felt as though he was a man who tried to be a good Catholic, can follow those rules, but the job he”s in makes that very difficult. I wanted him to be a man under pressure. And I guess, you know, between the true work schedule of doing “SVU” and the scripts that were at times very difficult – I think I was under a lot of pressure.

Would you say that was a more difficult role in terms of the emotionality of it than being Keller?

Christopher Meloni: Oh absolutely. Keller, his conscience was convenient. He had it in there, but he could bury it very deep. Keller was causing the mayhem, and I think Elliot was a guy who, with the injustices he saw, he could barely stand it.

Were there times when it was difficult at the end of the day to, throw off the character entirely?

Christopher Meloni: Yeah. It took me about seven or eight years to finally find better coping mechanisms. Having children didn”t help. It would put bad thoughts in my head.

One of the things that distinguished “SVU” from the original show at the time was it was still procedural, but it was more of a character piece, and you and Mariska got a lot more to play. Which on the one hand I imagine is more fulfilling than what some of your counterparts on the other shows were getting, but on the other hand, it”s tougher.

Christopher Meloni: You described it very well. You really looked forward to a nice personal piece. And then because of that, you would then look forward to a more clear procedural because it allowed the guest stars to do their emoting.

Dick Wolf has always been fond of hiring people from Fontana shows. I don”t know if that was the case where he reached out to you specifically or if there were a lot of guys up for Stabler.

Christopher Meloni: I was doing “Oz” and I knew they were friends. I went in and I had a very good audition with Dick. And I don”t hear back from the guy. So Tom Fontana was down on the set of “Oz” one time and I said, “What the fuck is up with this Dick Wolf guy? Come on. Is he gonna hire me or not? Is he gonna call me back or not?” He laughs at me and he goes, “I don”t know. I”ll give him a call.” And Tom comes back and says, “Yeah, yeah. You”re fine. He”ll call you back.” I said, “Okay, great.” So I went in again (to audition). Great. I did a very good job again. I don”t hear anything back from the guy again. And I finally said, “Okay, I”m not waiting anymore. I”m going to Hawaii.” I was in Hawaii about eight hours, a phone call from my agent saying, “You”ve got to fly back to New York to screen test.” So Dick Wolf still owes me a trip to Hawaii.

Among the other things that distinguished “SVU” from the mothership was that there wasn”t this constant churn at the top of the cast. You stayed for a long time and Mariska”s still there. Were there points earlier before you actually left where you had talked about it or thought about it?

Christopher Meloni: No, I was there because I wanted to be there. Everyone enjoyed it. It was a nice job. I loved New York. Good living. Great people. I also think a lot of it was felt as though you were doing something in a small way important, bringing up these issues which I think are very, very difficult to confront. Getting them out in the open. So I thought it was a very worthwhile endeavor.

And so when you finally did decide to go, what was the impetus?

Christopher Meloni: Time to do other stuff.

On Twitter, (current “SVU” showrunner) Warren Leight is constantly getting entreaties to bring you back. I assume in regular life you encounter people all the time who are wishing you were still there.

Christopher Meloni: Yes.

What do you tend to tell them?

Christopher Meloni: Well, that kind of decision is not for me to make.

How did you first meet Bill Lawrence? Was it through the “Scrubs” appearance or did you know him before that?

Christopher Meloni: I had bumped into him on vacation a couple of times and we knew each other through mutual friends. And then he hired me for “Scrubs,” and it was nice of him to do it, but I had a blast. I love John C. McGinley. And I guess they had me in mind for the character.

You and McGinley are not identical as actors, but that character was designed to be a parallel to Dr. Cox. Were you trying to in any way play him the way McGinley was playing Cox or were you just doing your thing and it worked out that way?

Christopher Meloni: I think John C. and I kind of project a certain alpha-ness. I think he needed someone to go toe-to-toe attitude-wise who”s not gonna take his shit, who”s not a pushover. I think he got that with his wife in spades but you needed someone in the workplace who didn”t give a flying fuck what his needs or desires or wants were.

And you got to work with puppets.

Christopher Meloni: Highlight of my career.

Sometimes, Bill does this thing where he has someone guest star in one of his shows and then he goes after them full bore to do something else. Courteney Cox was that way. Had you had conversations since leaving “SVU” with him or was this the first time you had talked about it?

Christopher Meloni: No, I did not see this coming because I actually expected my character on “Scrubs” to be asked back, and I never heard anything back.

This is based on Justin”s childhood and there are a lot of early 90s references in there. You would have been how old in 1991 or ’92?

Christopher Meloni: 29, 30.

How vividly do you remember some of those things like the scrambled porn channels and the hypercolor shirts?

Christopher Meloni: I don”t remember the hypercolor shirts. Scrambled porn, I”m not gonna respond to. But I did remember what brought me back was because of when I saw in that scene. I thought, “Oh my God, that”s the way TV used to be,” and that big clunky remote that he had with basically three buttons: channel, volume, on/off power button. I remember the bad music. The bad style, the bad – everything poufy – bad. What it is, I think, I was so busy being an actor I missed out on a lot of it. I just remember grunge. That”s what I remember about the early 90s. I remember for me and my musical sensibilities – because I was so sick of the “do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do,” the electronic drum kits and all that crap. I wasn”t feeling it. That”s when grunge came in.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com