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'SVU' Actor Channels 'Completely Different Energy' To Play 'Happy!' Hit Man


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. You might not recognize the name of our guest, actor Christopher Meloni, but you'd probably recognize him from one of the 12 seasons he played as Detective Elliot Stabler on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" or his role as a sociopathic inmate in the prison drama "Oz" or his work on the series "Homicide."

Meloni now stars in a one-of-a-kind series called "Happy!" It's based on a graphic novel and combines quirky characters, violent fights and chases, and wacky comedy. It airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday night on the Syfy channel, and it's now in its second season. Here's a scene from Season 1.

Meloni's character, Nick Sax, a disgraced cop turned hitman, is playing a poker game with a bunch of really tough guys. And he slips into the men's room. There, he talks with a little blue flying unicorn, who's actually the imaginary friend of Hailey, a 10-year-old girl who's been kidnapped - who, it turns out, is Nick's daughter from an earlier relationship.

Happy the unicorn is trying to talk Nick into rescuing Hailey because he knows Nick was once a heroic cop. Nick realizes that while he can see and hear the little unicorn, nobody else can, including the guys in the card game. So he has the idea to ask Happy to fly around and look at their cards and help him cheat. Happy the unicorn is played by Patton Oswalt. And Christopher Meloni, as the drug-addled Nick Sax, speaks first.


CHRISTOPHER MELONI: (As Nick Sax) Oh, my goodness. I have this crazy idea. Do you want to go get Hailey?

PATTON OSWALT: (As Happy) You bet I do, more than a double scoop of coffee ice cream.

MELONI: (As Nick Sax) You're going to help me win to get money and guns so we can go get her.

OSWALT: (As Happy) Our teacher, Ms. Palm, says it's better to lose honestly than to win by cheating.

MELONI: (As Nick Sax) F*** miss - wouldn't Ms. Palm want you to help me get guns and money so we could go get Hailey?

OSWALT: (As Happy) She'd probably send us to the thinking corner to come up with a creative solution to our problems.

MELONI: (As Nick Sax) You're right. Just thought that - I just...

OSWALT: (As Happy) Just what?

MELONI: (As Nick Sax) Ah, just a crazy idea. I just thought we could be a team, you know, partners - Butch and Sundance, gin and tonic, Mickey and Mallory.

OSWALT: (As Happy) You mean Mickey and Pluto?

MELONI: (As Nick Sax) PB and motherf****** J.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MELONI: (Laughter).

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Christopher Meloni, with the relentlessly positive unicorn played by Patton Oswald in "Happy!", the series on Syfy. Well, Christopher Meloni, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know...

MELONI: Thank you.

DAVIES: What fun it must be to play this guy. It's like you pull out all the stops. And I always wonder when actors say, well, I read the script and I loved it - how you can look at stuff on paper and imagine what the production's going to be like, even in a more traditional dramatic film - this one, because it involves animation and just such wild mixes of action, I - how did you see it? How'd you picture it?

MELONI: Well, first of all, my biggest concern was what was on the page would not be watered down. I'd seen that before, and I just thought - I was like, you know, this is one of my last rides doing, you know, a extremely physical, outlandish kind of thing. And I just wanted everyone to be on the same page of, if we're going to do this, let's do it right. Let's really portray what's on that page. And I - and we did. So I felt as though it was - we had nothing to lose. You know, we'd just go full out and let the audience decide.

DAVIES: So in these scenes where crazy things are happening, a lot of physical violence and all kinds of arguments, and part of it involves this animated unicorn floating in the air. You don't see anything? You're just imagining it? You're talking to nobody?

MELONI: I actually am talking to our script supervisor, Tony (ph), who does a - his own wonderful rendition of what Happy should sound like. So he helps me, you know, with the beats. But at the end of the day, what's refreshing for me and empowering, I must say, is because I don't have a true co-star, I get to kind of lead the parade.

You know, I lead the scene. I guide it to where I think it needs to go because in the moment, I don't have Patton Oswalt giving me his genuine reaction to whatever I say. He has to do that later in post, in the studio. So wherever I look is where the animators, you know, say to themselves - oh, OK, so maybe Happy darts back and forth here, you know. And that's because my head went left, right, left, right. So it's kind of nice for me. I...

DAVIES: Right.

MELONI: You know...

DAVIES: So all of...

MELONI: My co-star's never late to the set.

DAVIES: (Laughter) I think I heard you say a moment ago that you saw this as one of your last rides in this kind of big, physical role. Why? You're a young man.

MELONI: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. I - (laughter) well, I - you know something? Maybe it's my injuries. I'm kind of on the, you know, my shoulder...

DAVIES: Disabled list. Yeah.

MELONI: There you are. I'm on disabled list, the DL. You know, I - my shoulder has been in - I've been rehabbing my shoulder for 18 months. I have a torn meniscus in my left knee. So (laughter) you know, I was - you know, through the second season, I was hobbling about a bit, you know.

So I'll get back into training. I'll get back into tip-top shape. And we'll see how season three goes. But I just found that, you know, beating up bad guys, running around, tossing people over tables at 37 is a far cry different than doing it at 57.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor Christopher Meloni. He stars in the Syfy channel series "Happy!", which airs Wednesday nights at 10.

Let's talk a little bit about your background. You grew up in D.C. - Washington, D.C., middle-class family, went to school in Colorado, studied drama - is that right?

MELONI: I studied drama, but I walked out of there with a BA in history.

DAVIES: Right. And how did you get into serious acting?

MELONI: Serious acting? (Laughter).

DAVIES: (Laughter) Well, I mean, the kind of thing where you're not doing it for fun. Like, maybe I can make a living here. Maybe this could be my thing.

MELONI: I took some acting classes as a lark. You know, it was a - in college. And I liked it. And I actually thought to myself, my God, I'm pretty good at this. But even more importantly to me, I realized how little I knew and that there was something to learn. There was an art here, and I was very curious about it.

My father was a doctor. And I just didn't think that I could ask him to pay for my college tuition so I could take costuming and makeup and all that. I just didn't think he'd appreciate that. So I didn't major in it. I took as many classes as I could. And that was that. And I graduated. That was it.

I went home, promptly went back to a construction site 'cause that's the only job - basically the only job I'd ever had through high school and college. You know, every summer I'd get - try and get a construction job. But this time, I didn't have college to rescue me. So I was a little bit depressed.

I was calling around to figure out what guys were doing - what my old classmates from high school were doing with their lives. And I called up a high school buddy. And I said, what are you doing? What are you doing with your life? And he said, I'm going up to New York to study acting. And I thought, oh, my God. Well, if you can do that, so can I. I asked him for the number. I called up the Neighborhood Playhouse. And I flew up the next day and interviewed with them.

DAVIES: Yeah, that's a serious acting school, right?

MELONI: Yeah, yeah. And in the interview - it was for the summer program, summer school program. In the interview - I'll never forget this - the guy told me to calm - he said, you've - just relax. You've got to calm down. I was so desperate. I think of Richard Gere in "An Officer And A Gentleman"...

DAVIES: Right.

MELONI: ...Where he tells Lou Gossett, Jr., I've got nowhere else to go...

DAVIES: Right. Right. I remember the...

MELONI: ...In that desperate moment of his.

DAVIES: Right. Right.

MELONI: I'll never forget that. I go, oh, my God. I am living the Richard Gere "Officer And A Gentleman" life right now.

DAVIES: So you got in but, I mean, you didn't immediately start getting big, paid roles, right? I mean, you had to support yourself in New York.

MELONI: Yeah. Yeah, I was a bouncer and a bartender and a trainer and, you know, sleeping on people's couches. And I was America's favorite guest for the six - for six months.

DAVIES: You were a bouncer. I know that you played football in high school. So did you ever have - actually have to toss people out of bars?

MELONI: I did.


MELONI: I did. There were a lot of interesting moments that happened. Yeah, I was a bouncer at The Bitter End and Kenny's Castaways, which are - well, Kenny's is no longer there, but The Bitter End is pretty iconic - right down there on Bleecker Street in the Village. But, you know, if anything, I'm the worst bouncer to have because I'm 6 feet, about 200. So you know, I'm big, but not, you know - I'm not...

DAVIES: You're not towering over people.

MELONI: Yeah, I'm not towering. You know, I'm not - you know, you look at me, and I'm the perfect size for most guys to go, well, you're not that big. Oh, you think you're tough? (Laughter) So I was like, oh, boy. Really? Do we have to do this? So yeah, I tossed a few people out - tossed more people out with help from my friends. So yeah.

DAVIES: So you were, you know, working as a bouncer and other jobs. And you're working on your craft in the classes, and then you're going to auditions, right? You want to work. What did you learn about how to audition?

MELONI: What a absolutely separate art it was from actual acting. And at the end of the day, it was more of a Zen practice and a psychological - you defined psychological tricks for yourself to trick yourself into confidence and to almost manipulate the room. And if you're trying to please them, it's just like any relationship - you're toast. You have to - who am I, vis-a-vis this character? And this is it. And once you do that - once you're able to do that, all of a sudden, you go into auditions feeling more empowered, and you walk out being far more satisfied and empowered.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Christopher Meloni. He stars in the Syfy Channel series "Happy!," which airs Wednesday nights at 10. We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor Christopher Meloni. He stars in the Syfy Channel series "Happy!," which airs Wednesday nights at 10.

Well, you - I wanted to talk about "Law & Order," which is probably the role you're, I assume, best known for.


DAVIES: You spent - what? - 12 seasons there. And you worked as Detective Elliot Stabler, working on special victims crimes with Mariska Hargitay - played - she played your partner. Were you guys together the whole time you were there?

MELONI: Yeah. Yeah, we screen-tested together. We tested for the role together. There were six actors.

DAVIES: So you didn't know each other beforehand.


DAVIES: And why do you think you got the parts?

MELONI: Oh, boy. You know, all the actors who screen-tested were great, but - and this is one of the rare moments. When I walked in with Mariska - first of all, we were walking down the hall. And I was telling her a joke - telling her a story that was a funny story. And we walked into the room with all the suits and, you know, all the decision-makers. And I said, hold on, guys. Let me just finish this story.

And from that - and the chutzpah - I thought about it afterwards, but that was the idea. You guys will hold on 'cause we got control of the room. We're in here, and we got control of everything. We're going to control the scene and our characters. And it was pretty obvious. Even though I hadn't seen what the others had done, I just - I walked out of that room going, wow, that was it.

DAVIES: I wanted to play a clip here. In this scene, you are, as Detective Stabler, interrogating a child rapist who's been eluding you for years. He's played by Matthew Modine. And the scene begins with you, as Detective Stabler, leaning right into the suspect's face.


MELONI: (As Detective Stabler) I don't need a PhD to know what kind of person you are. You're a loser. But you had a tough childhood. That makes you special? That makes you a victim? You're nothing. You contribute nothing. The reason your life sucks is because you've done nothing.

MATTHEW MODINE: (As Gordon Rickett) (Laughter) I've done nothing.

MELONI: (As Detective Stabler) Are you counting the little children that you've raped and murdered? Is that what you're saying to me? You want to walk me through that, you piece of garbage? Tell me how good you are at torturing children. Tell me how strong you've got to be to kill a little girl, huh?

DAVIES: That's our guest Christopher Meloni in "Law & Order: SVU" in a scene with Matthew Modine. A lot of intense stuff in this series - and you know, it's known that people that do this kind of investigative work - you know, who track predators who prey on defenseless people and commit the most awful of acts - it's psychologically damaging. It's hard to sustain. You did this for 12 years. So you weren't - you know, it wasn't real. But - I don't know - did it take a toll on you? Did it affect your mood?

MELONI: Yeah. First of all, let me just say the real SVU detectives - 'cause we toured their facilities, and we got to speak with them. Boy, they're really heroic, and they would tell us a few stories that, you know, you just - you can't believe it. It's - there are moments of true horror out there that these civil servants try to take care of. Boy, they're the heroes. So having said that, we took our roles seriously. And I say roles even in the larger context because it slowly dawned on us that it was more than just a procedural show - that larger ramifications about the messages that was being sent out - the idea of sexual abuse is more prevalent than being allowed to be gotten out there. This is happening every day. And we need to have a dialogue about it.

And, you know, I just feel as though it was a very important show about touching on all aspects - whether it's gender issues, sex abuse, spousal abuse, all of these things, child abuse. You know, it became less of a job and more of a - I wouldn't say a crusade or a - something larger than ourselves. I'll say that.

DAVIES: Right.

MELONI: And, you know, you're doing these scripts back to back. And it would take eight days to do an episode. So you know, you start on Monday, and the following Wednesday you finish. And Thursday you have your new script. And this continues for nine months. And after about four or five months, you're more liquid than solid. It just - you know, the horrors just keep (laughter) coming and coming. And invariably, you know, it was the women - our women writers who would write the toughest scripts. They pulled no punches. And I think the guys would feel intimidated or something, but the...

DAVIES: Restrained, yeah.

MELONI: Yeah, restrained. That's a better word. The women would just lean into it. So anytime I would see a female writer had written the script on the front page, I'd be like - I'd take a deep breath...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MELONI: ...And go, oh boy. Here we go.

DAVIES: You left the show after 12 seasons. What was it like? I mean, it just had become a part of your life for so long - to not have that.

MELONI: What it was like - and I knew it - I was actually very proud of myself. I always thought, when I do this, I'm going to feel like the house cat that got locked out of the house, you know? So this pampered animal - you work your whole career for what I got. You know, I hit the jackpot. I hit a show that meant something, was well-written, was well-received. You loved the working conditions and the people. It was a well-run machine. Every aspect was there. And yet, you know, the - fill in the blank - the artist in me, the restless actor or creator - that guy needed to move on. But, you know - so in the interim I just worked on other projects. And I got my pilot's license because I figured I really needed to truly focus, you know, on something that was, without question, a life-or-death endeavor.

DAVIES: This is something I didn't know - you fly airplanes.

MELONI: Yeah. Yeah. As a matter of fact, yeah, I got type-rated to fly a jet.

DAVIES: But so this was something that you kind of felt you needed to do? The - I don't know - the thrill, the danger of it or what?

MELONI: I started SVU as a, you know, sometimes very-employed actor but always, you know, a journeyman-type actor. And all of a sudden, I had a home. And I had a lucrative home. And I had a satisfying home. And I built a family. I built a whole life. And I knew if I was walking away from all that, I needed to place that focus - because, you know, if you're an unemployed - an actor unemployed is not a good thing, especially when he's been employed. So - and I knew that about myself. I needed to employ myself in something that was - that required every fiber of my being to stay focused and on top of things. And it was also good for my brain. I mean, I often said that I've never studied - I haven't studied that hard since college...


MELONI: ...Getting all of my ratings.

DAVIES: Christopher Meloni stars in the series "Happy!" - now in its second season on the Syfy Channel. After a break, he'll talk about his role in the brutal prison drama, "Oz," how spending a night in jail informed his performance, and how he got into the mind of sociopathic inmate Chris Keller.

And we'll talk about the peculiar path of Tiger Woods' career and his remarkable comeback with Jeff Benedict, co-author of a widely-read biography of Woods. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. We'll end this half of the show with a song featured in Christopher Meloni's series, "Happy!" - performed by Ann-Margret and Patton Oswalt.


ANN-MARGRET: (As Bebe, singing) Gray skies are going to clear up. Put on a happy face. Brush off the clouds and cheer up.

OSWALT: (As Happy, singing) Put on a happy face?

ANN-MARGRET: (As Bebe, singing) Take off a gloomy mask of tragedy. It's not your style. You'll look so good that you'll be glad you decided to smile.

OSWALT: (As Happy, singing) Doo-bee-doo-bap-bap (ph). Pick out a pleasant outlook.

ANN-MARGRET: (As Bebe, singing) Oh, stick out that noble chin.

OSWALT: (As Happy, singing) Wipe off that full-of-doubt look.

ANN-MARGRET: (As Bebe, singing) And slap on a happy grin.

ANN-MARGRET AND PATTON OSWALT: (As Bebe and Happy, singing) And spread sunshine all over the place.

OSWALT: (As Happy, singing) And...

ANN-MARGRET AND OSWALT: (As Bebe and Happy, singing) Put on your happy face.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with actor Christopher Meloni, who stars in the series "Happy!" which airs Wednesday nights on the Syfy channel. Meloni is a veteran TV and film actor best known for his 12 seasons playing Detective Elliot Stabler on "Law & Order: SVU."

Well, while you were still doing "Law & Order," you had this role in "Oz," the HBO series about prison life...


DAVIES: ...Where you played Chris Keller, who is - well, why don't you describe him? He's an inmate. Tell us about this character.

MELONI: Yeah, so Chris Keller was introduced Season 2 of Oz to play the nemesis and lover to Lee Tergesen's Tobias Beecher. And I was there to manipulate him, and yet I fall in love with him. And I don't - I didn't ever consider my character gay. I just thought he was omnisexual. I thought he was - just used sex as a weapon to manipulate people. And he has a relationship with Tobias Beecher.

DAVIES: And a sociopathic streak, fair to say.

MELONI: OK, so he was a serial killer.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MELONI: You got me, OK.

DAVIES: Right.

MELONI: I have to tell you everything?

DAVIES: If we're going to quibble, yeah.


DAVIES: Well, let's listen to a clip. Here you are. You've been in this relationship with this guy Beecher, as you mentioned. And in this case, you have attacked him and broken his arms and legs. And you're meeting to the prison counselor played by Rita Moreno, who wants to talk about this and about you. Let's listen.


RITA MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) You enjoy sex with men.

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) I enjoy sex. Don't you? You told me you were married before you became a nun. You and your husband have great sex?

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) Chris...

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) I mean, I can tell you did. I bet you were wild. Do you miss it - sex?

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) I miss my husband.

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) Sure. You ever have sex with anyone other than him?

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) Chris, you know every time we have a session together and we get to a topic that you want to avoid, you somehow manage to turn the discussion around to me.

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) You noticed, huh (laughter)?

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) I just want to get to the heart of why you did what you did to Beecher.

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) You saw my ex, Bonnie? When I met her, she was all alone and very unhappy, so I knew it'd be easy get her to fall in love with me. But what I didn't know was after I broke her heart, would she still love me? See; I am a piece of [expletive]. I am worthless, as bad as they come. And to have someone keep loving me no matter how bad - you happy now? You got me to open up and spill my guts all over your table.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, a pretty twisted Christopher Meloni in the HBO series "Oz." How did you prepare for this role about prison life and this guy who's a long way from who you are, I'm sure?

MELONI: Well, I got in a bar fight when I was 19, when I was thrown in jail. And that experience, I think, echoed with me. I was only - I only spent the night in jail, and I'll never forget how hard everything was. The bench was concrete. The bars obviously were very hard. The floor was cement. Everything was cold and hard. And no one cared about anything. They're just going through motions, pushing people to and fro from one cell to another. And I often thought about that and that's - you know, how that environment molds attitudes.

DAVIES: Besides that, I mean, your character, Keller, was a real predator. And I'm wondering kind of how you got that side of his character.

MELONI: Boy, I think this might sound - I think we - well, I'll say this. Obviously I possessed an aspect of that, or I am drawn to that. Since I was a child, I would always be drawn to the true detective-type magazines - the book "Bloodletters And Badmen," which was a history of criminals. And I've always been fascinated by that mechanism of wanting to do harm to someone and what that psychology is - less so now. I think I really have scratched that itch or fed that beast. But at the time, I was really - I was fascinated by it.

DAVIES: There's some pretty brutal violence in "Oz." Were there members of your family that you wouldn't want to watch it?

MELONI: (Laughter) My mother never watched. I don't think my father did. My brother and sister would get reports, and (laughter) that's what - you know, they'd be at the watercooler going, I saw your brothers beep (ph) last night.

DAVIES: Oh, wow.

MELONI: Or I saw your brother beeping (ph) another guy last night. Let's put it this way. My career, as far as my family's concerned, began with "The Fanelli Boys," a sitcom in 1990, and then re-picked up in 1999 with the "SVU" gig.

DAVIES: OK. You know, you were talking about how some of the plotlines that the writers came up with were really disturbing in "SVU." Did you ever encounter a plotline or something in a script that you just felt you couldn't do or that you asked to be changed?

MELONI: Oh, (laughter) I asked a lot of things to be changed but not as far as any crime was concerned. I would have a problem - because they have a formula to fill in, and sometimes you need to get to - you know, at page 15, there needs to be a dramatic moment. And so they'd have us arresting someone where you're like - handcuffing and arresting someone. That would actually be the biggest bugaboo for me. I'd be like, but there's no reason - we have no cause to handcuff. It makes us look stupid. That was always - that would always be my - you know, I had to be the defender of my character. You know, they'd have us arresting some guy. I'd be like, guys, you know, that's for you. That's - you're making me look like an idiot.

DAVIES: You mean, someone who is happy to go downtown? You don't need to cuff him and throw him in the wagon?

MELONI: Yeah. Except, you know, that has less impact. There's less oomph, you know, of me going, sir, we're going to have to go down and talk - commercial break - as opposed to, you, come here. Grab him, slam against the car, cuff him. We're going downtown.


MELONI: Oh, ooh. Commercial break.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. You were doing "Oz," the prison show, and "Law & Order" at the same time. In "Oz," you're a predator. In "Law & Order," you're catching predators. What was it like to play both sides of it? Did they feed each other? Or...

MELONI: No. As a matter of fact, they weren't helpful at all. There was a completely different energy, environment, planet, engagement of people. I often worried whether one was bleeding over into the other, whether Elliot Stabler from "SVU" was making Keller soft, or whether Keller was making Elliot, you know, just too...

DAVIES: More crazed, yeah (laughter).

MELONI: Yeah, yeah. Too animal, too crazed, whatever. I walked away from that experience very glad, you know, to have this opportunity 'cause it wasn't lost on me. I would walk around going, my - you know, how many actors get to be not on one but two really great shows to do at once? I mean, it just doesn't happen in New York - especially in New York City. Like, LA, there might be a lot of production happening. But, you know, in New York, there wasn't as much production happening in those days in New York. But I definitely walked away from that always not quite sure that I did the - my best work. And I didn't want to know the answer, so I never looked back.

DAVIES: The one other thing I have to ask you about - you were the quarterback of your high-school football team, and you went undefeated. Is this true?

MELONI: That is true.

DAVIES: You know, for most guys, like, their lives would be all downhill after that.

MELONI: (Laughter).

DAVIES: Didn't define you, huh?

MELONI: It actually did define me. And I - leading into my senior year, I had been on defense. I'd played on defense. I'd been a starter on defense. And, you know, and I - but I was the backup quarterback on my sophomore and junior year. So senior year, this is now my turn, my shot. And I set three goals for myself. One was obvious. I'm going to be the quarterback.

Number two, I wanted to be captain. And I wanted to go undefeated. And I willed that. I prayed for that. It happened. And I walked away. That defined me. And how it defined me was I felt that if I could - if I put my mind to something, I could bend the spoon. I could do anything I wanted to. I used that moment, and it's stayed with me. It's - I still carry it. And I still - I treasure that moment as one of the - I think, one of the top five things that ever happened to me.

DAVIES: Well, Christopher Meloni, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MELONI: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you.

DAVIES: Christopher Meloni stars in the series "Happy!", which airs Wednesday nights at 10. It's now in its second season on the Syfy channel. Coming up, writer Jeff Benedict talks about the rise, fall and resurrection of Tiger Woods' career. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.