“There’s nothing small about daddy.” Melissa Sagemiller can still spout this line from her first TV role, an episode of Law & Order: SVU’s maiden season in 2000. She played a struggling artist sleeping with a son and his father (who is found murdered with a banana up his butt). But the actress will soon get to say things like, “You can’t un-ring a bell!” and, “That’s fruit from the poisonous tree!” She has come full circle and returned to SVU in its twelfth season, this time in a recurring role as Assistant District Attorney Jillian Hardwick. “I’m a hard-ass,” Sagemiller says of her character, between bites of a prime-rib sandwich at the Plaza Hotel. “I like it that she’s got balls.”
Sagemiller, whose blonde hair has been dyed a darker, strawberry-tinged color for the show, is the latest in a long line of foxy, tough gals to fill the prosecutorial heels and sensible skirts on all Law & Orders. “Dick Wolf likes his leggy A.D.A.’s,” says the 36-year-old D.C. native. Last season, Sharon Stone had a memorable arc as a grouchy prosecutor, and Paula Patton, who played the teacher in Precious, was set to be SVU's new regular, but was poached after filming two episodes for the upcoming Mission: Impossible sequel. SVU producer Neal Baer graciously let Patton exit, serendipitous for Sagemiller. Her SVU stint will be the second time Sagemiller has played an attorney: She starred on Stephen Bochco’s Raising the Bar, which was canceled by TNT despite high ratings and positive reviews. “I don’t know what the deal is,” Sagemiller says. “I must be very lawyerly.”
“Neal had this short list of people he was interested in before he settled on Paula,” she recalls. “He called me in for a meeting and fifteen minutes later I got the call.” The next weekend she was on a plane from L.A. Sagemiller lived in New York after she graduated from UVA in the nineties, and she has fond memories of her apartment in the meatpacking district. “It was when there was actually meat there,” she remembers, “and trannies waking around. At night you couldn’t see anything, and I was talking to a friend and I literally ran face-first into hanging meat. You would see meat in the gutters.”
Sagemiller, who is surprisingly thin for someone who just gave birth to her first child eight months ago, is joining SVU for a pivotal, transitional season: The original series Law & Order decamped to L.A. For the first time in her show’s history, the shooting is happening in Chelsea instead of New Jersey. The updated new set exhibits higher-tech gadgets and ephemera, an obvious attempt to compete with shows like CSI and Criminal Minds. The SVU writers are breaking away from the usual formula and indulging in humor for the first time, such as in a recent episode when Mariska Hargitay's Detective Benson accidentally got high on mushrooms, screaming, “I’m not the one who stabbed the captain with a pickle!” during an interrogation. “It’s a smart thing to do,” Sagemiller says. “They’re trying to reach a wider audience, so they’re loosening it up. It’s not just a formulaic procedural.”
For her SVU debut tonight, Sagemiller is going to have a small screening party. As luck would have it, her husband, the actor Alex Nesic, is guesting on Undercovers, the new J.J. Abrams show that leads into SVU. (The pair met when they both starred in the acclaimed Showtime series Sleeper Cell.) Sagemiller is excited for her first episode to air, but is admittedly wary of how she will be received by the notoriously obsessive (and fickle) fans. She is staying in a hotel in the city and keeping her L.A. house until she is sure she will be with the Special Victims Unit for the long haul. “I don’t have any control of how I am received,” Sagemiller says. “People will either like me, not like me or love to not like me. That could be cool. If the fans say, ‘Who’s this bitch?’ then I know I’m doing my job."