As Elliot Stabler on Law and Order: SVU (which airs tonight on NBC), Christopher Meloni is television’s consummate protector. In real life, the actor is a bit less reverential. In National Lampoon’s Dirty Movie (now on DVD), which Meloni co-directed for the first time, he plays Charlie LaRue, a producer with a ratty tattoo and casting couch. Just like his two Harold and Kumar roles (Freakshow and the KKK Grand Wizard) and Wet Hot American Summer's Gene, Charlie is the result of Meloni's desire to occasionally shake off the earnest intensity of Detective Stabler with some truly cartoonish silliness. We talked to Meloni about these two sides of his career, and what the key is to creating a true weirdo.
Your character in Dirty Movie, Charlie LaRue, is one cheesy-looking dude: brown suit, purple shirt, toupee, overbite, Elvis sunglasses.
I wanted the toupee to look worse than it did. I think it doesn’t because my hair is too short. It would have looked better if I’d had brown tufts sticking out underneath this too-dark black wig — which are very hard to find, by the way. We finally found one in that nondescript zone near 26th Street where they still have the schmatta trade. But to me, the key was his teeth. There’s a reference to it in the film. An old friend comes to see him and goes, “What’s different about you?” I smile really big, and he goes, “Hey, that’s beautiful work.” It’s obviously not, and I say, “$89.99. Good deal. He owed me.”
The website and press release say you co-directed the film, but you’re not listed as the director in the movie or on the DVD box. What happened there?
That’s an interesting subject. There were disagreements. My biggest regret about this movie is not having a behind-the-scenes video crew taping, because this was just a roiling, traveling shitshow. I look back on it with fondness, but there were differences of vision, and differences of where certain powers lay.
Can you be more specific?
There were personality problems, vision problems ... first-timers learning on the job.
Since this was your first time directing, are you referring to yourself?
Everyone. Look, I come off a very well-run machine here [at SVU]. When you’re an actor, especially when you’re on top of the call sheet, things are taken care of. You show up, everything’s there, here’s your wardrobe. When you’re dealing with people you’ve gotten off of Craigslist — and I mean that literally — it’s a never-ending learning curve.
So do you consider yourself a co-director?
There’s a scene where you, Robert Klein, and Mario Cantone are supposedly saying the N-word repeatedly, and it gets bleeped out even though you’re not really saying it. Given your thoughts on political correctness, did you consider using the actual word?
No, because we thought that we were making this big statement, but in reality, we were kowtowing to the norms — which we thought was really funny.
And yet, you did use the real word, as the Grand Wizard in the second Harold & Kumar film. That guy had racial Tourette's, and it started with the actual N-word. At the time, did you have any apprehensions about that?
I’ll tell you, when that word comes out of your mouth, it’s very weird. When I was barking out all that Tourette's — which was my idea, by the way — I’m yelling, “porch monkey!” I was very aware of all the minority crew members. I was very conscious of it. So yeah, it wasn’t easy.
Did anyone try to convince you not to do it?
No. And good. Look, it’s nice to be sensitive. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I want everyone in on the joke. But he’s a Klan member. That’s easy to get, because I have a cone on my head.
You interspersed filming Oz and SVU with the comedies Wet Hot American Summer, the Harold & Kumar films, and now this. I'm guessing doing comedy is the antidote to sexual predators and prison rape.
Yeah. There’s not a lot of laughs in sexual assault.
Is Dirty Movie an indication of what you're hoping to do when SVU eventually ends?
No. I have a variety of projects, in my head and on paper, that to me are vastly different — as a producer, director, and actor. I want “creepy,” and I want outrageous back in the theaters, and I want to be the standard-bearer for that. So maybe there is a glimmer of that. But I don’t want it to be, that’s who he is and that’s what he does.
There aren’t many actors now — you and Jon Hamm come to mind — who are nailing solid TV drama on a regular basis, then stepping successfully into such far-out comedy. When you were starting out, did you see yourself on one side or the other?
No. I had a lot of faith in my potential. I knew both sides of what I could do, and how I interacted in that world. I think I get ’em both. I get how they’re supposed to operate, because I think of them in terms of music.
I hear music [within my roles]. Sometimes it’s a jazz piece, sometimes it’s more like Frank Zappa, sometimes it’s Radiohead. Every once in a while, I’ll see the comedy note, even in the drama. I see it. I don’t know how to explain it.
You had a monologue in Wet Hot American Summer where your character, Gene, said, “I fondle my sweaters, and I often like to smear mud on my ass,” and your cadence went in a really bizarre direction. It really did seem musical — almost like you went up an octave. Was that what you were thinking when you did it?
When I was performing it, no, but I know what you’re saying. I thought of that as an anthem from a Swiss cheese mind. That was his statement of purpose — his, “I’m weird, therefore I am” moment. That was his declaration of independence.
And then he humps the refrigerator.
How else are you gonna end an anthem or Declaration of Independence? We fucked the Brits. Why can’t I fuck a fridge?
Do you ever get to indulge your comedic impulses on SVU?
No. They attempt it every once in a while ... I think they had a good handle on it with Jerry Orbach. He always had the zingers. They give me zingers every once in a while. I just think it’s real tough to fit in with sex crimes. As soon as you have a dead or abused child, or a woman who’s been brutalized, you’re done.
Plus, Elliot’s all about a certain outrage at the people he’s chasing down. It’s tough to infuse that outrage with lighter moments.
I want him to have a sense of humor, but circumstances make it tough.
So after he changes jobs or retires
There you go. A funny fireman.