Christopher Meloni is holding together well for someone working on three hours of sleep. For the last half-hour, he's been clammed up in a dingy NYPD filing room with co-star Mariska Hargitay, filming one last scene for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit before breaking for dinner. Meloni, who plays sex-crime detective Elliot Stabler, and Hargitay, who plays detective Olivia Benson, are repeating the same snatch of hard-boiled dialogue while the crew gets increasingly antsy for the break.
Nine, ten, eleven takes later, the director is finally satisfied with the shot. Meloni swaggers off the set, fingers snapping, eyes winking, thumbs up in a goofy chicken dance his colleagues have apparently grown accustomed to. Ten minutes later, he's sitting with his wife, Sherman, and four-month-old daughter, Sophia, at Zutto, a Japanese restaurant on Hudson Street. He admits he forgot about the interview but begs my indulgence. "I'm so busy these days," he says, "I forget everything but my lines."
That's no exaggeration. While playing the sensitive, hard-working copper on SVU, he also stars in HBO's prison drama Oz, a show whose explicit violence and male nudity make The Sopranos look like Romper Room. Meloni plays Chris Keller, a sexual carnivore and sociopath who slaughters or sodomizes anyone in sight.
"When my schedule's at its worst," the 40-year-old actor says, "I'll work a 22-hour shift on SVU, take a two-hour nap, and work a 16-hour shift on Oz." He generally sees his family for about an hour a day. "Actually, a little more," he says, "when she starts squawking at 7:30 in the morning. My baby, not my wife."
"When Chris auditioned," says Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain, "he was so bizarre, there was no way I was willing to let anybody else have that role."
Earlier this year, between playing good guy on SVU and bad guy on Oz, he somehow managed to co-star in this week's Wet Hot American Summer--not the triple-X porno suggested by its title, but a slightly twisted homage to summer-camp movies (some of which were twisted to begin with--remember Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings?). It begins in a light mode (talent shows, arts and crafts) before going weird (a piece of Skylab hurtles toward the campground). Co-written and directed by David Wain, a longtime member of MTV's sketch-comedy troupe The State, the ensemble satire stars David Hyde Pierce, Janeane Garofalo, and Molly Shannon. Meloni plays "a shell-shocked Vietnam vet-slash-summer-camp cook," he says, adding that he enjoyed his brief respite from prisons and police stations: "Many a night was spent getting inebriated with bright, young, funny people. The whole thing was a goof, really . . ."
Wain now gets unnerved when he catches Meloni at night in his darker roles. "When we first wrote that character, we weren't really sure if anyone could actually play it," the director recalls. "But when Chris auditioned, he was so bizarre, there was no way I was willing to let anybody else have that role. He doesn't let the script dictate what his performance will be like. He always takes his roles in another direction."
Chris-meloni.com, the actor's official home page, is the brainchild of Brian Rodgers, a Canadian accountant for whom spreading the word about the star's talent has become a personal mission. "For being able to shake me emotionally with a drop in his voice, with the dying of his eyes, with the burying of his face in his hands, with a single kiss," Rodgers writes, by way of explanation. "Chris did that for me."
Meloni loves the site, chatting up his online fans and answering sundry requests, such as whether he'd ever pose for Playgirl ("No," but feel free to download wallpaper of Meloni lying buck naked on his stomach on the floor of his Oz cell). About 80 percent of the site's fans are women, but he also gets a fair share of praise from police officers, ex-cons, and gay men who appreciate his portrayal of Chris Keller (not to mention his six-foot stature, sizable brow, and swarthy "wish he'd put in my cable box" good looks.)
Ask him how he met his wife of six years, and Sherman jumps into the conversation. "O.J. Simpson brought us together!" she says, and this turns out to be true. They met on the set of 1st and Ten, a 1984 HBO drama about the California Bulls, a fictitious football team. Meloni played quarterback, O.J. played manager, Sherman designed the production. "Great show," Meloni scoffs. "Soooo bad. And so racy! They figured people would only watch if they showed topless cheerleaders every week. But I was just happy to have a gig."
Two years later, he was cast as a henchman in the cult hit Bound, which drew enough attention to win him roles in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and 1999's Runaway Bride, where he played one of Julia Roberts's jilted fiancés.
Scarfing down spider rolls and more than a few shots of sake, he snaps out of work mode, pausing between bites to devote some time to his daughter, nuzzling her and whispering, "You're my little Buddha, imparting her wisdom . . ."
In two days, the family's off to Spain for vacation. "I'm taking a little 'me' time," he says, now doing the flaky actor thing. It's clear he's relieved to be fleeing Manhattan, and work, at least for a while. By now, somewhere between the sake and the sleep deprivation, mild dementia seems to have set in: "Sure, my wife and baby will be in Spain, but I'm going to fend them off," he riffs. " 'Cuz I need time to just be me. 'Me' time. Me time. What part of 'me time' don't you understand?"
Finished with dinner, he makes some suggestions for the story ("as the actor slurs out his last pathetic words . . ."). Meloni lifts his pot of sake in one hand and his baby daughter in the other. "Take a picture for the Post," he says. "Preferably one with my belly hanging out."