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Christopher Meloni on Surviving Jack, Surviving Dinosaurs, and Why His Oz Character Was Revolutionary

Christopher Meloni. Photo: Ron Eisenberg/Fox

The stone-faced countenance of Christopher Meloni peered out at Law & Order: SVU viewers for 12 years, but he’s known to many not for his intense dramatic glares but for his scene-stealing performances in cult comedies like 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer and 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (not to mention an appearance on Wonder Showzen as the Cooties Spokesman). Those comedic roles showed that he had a funnier side than what you might expect from watching him on the gritty NBC spinoff and his recurring role on HBO’s brutal Oz. Now both sides of the Meloni persona have mind-melded into his character on his new Thursday night Fox comedy, Surviving Jack. As Jack Dunlevy, an ex-military man turned doctor turned stay-at-home dad, Meloni’s steely gaze is put to use teaching his two teenage kids right from wrong. Vulture recently spoke with the 53-year-old Meloni about his own high school years, David Wain’s genius, and whom he’d nominate for Man of the Year.

I must admit that whenever your name comes up, in my head I always say what I consider to be your full name: “Christopher Meloni is Tony Baloney.”

It’s fun to say and so memorable!
[Laughs.] Yeah. “Anthony Bologna. Hey, who are we kidding? It’s Tony Baloney!”

Surviving Jack takes place in 1991, and around that time, you were doing Dinosaurs.
Wow. That’s a good call. Wow. Yeah, that was cutting-edge.

When you were first going out on auditions, were you being sent out more for comedies or dramas? Were you pigeonholed in one or the other?
Not when I was first being sent out, because they didn’t know where to place me. But I got my first big break in comedy on a sitcom [The Fanelli Boys] and then it took a couple years to let that kind of fall by the wayside, let that image of myself dissipate. And then I just started getting more dramatic stuff: NYPD Blue, Oz. But even then I got cast in Runaway Bride. I did Bound, and I always thought the character I played in that, Johnnie Marzzone — it was a drama, but I thought of him as a buffoonish sort of guy. So to me there was a comedic element to him in that regard.

One of your performances I’ve always loved was as Gene, the sweater-fondling camp chef in Wet Hot American Summer. And you also appear in Michael Showalter and David Wain’s new movie, They Came Together. Clearly those guys see a funny side of you and have found this absurdist, comedic vein for you to work in.
Look, let’s be honest. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just a fact that David Wain and Michael Showalter are MENSA members. I mean, they’re exceedingly intelligent and have great taste and a great eye for comedic genius. You can’t blame other people who don’t see that comedic side of me. Those guys are just superhuman.

It does seem that the through line in the characters you play, whether it’s comedy or drama, is their intensity. You often get these really intense guys to play.
Yeah, that I agree with. I don’t play normal very well, I don’t think, in real life or on-camera. It’s almost as if I disappear or something. It just doesn’t happen.

Doing Surviving Jack, does it wake up certain sitcom acting muscles? Are there certain habits, certain things you’re returning to that you first used when you did The Fanelli Boys?
No, because Surviving Jack is a one-camera show and the Fanellis was a four-camera, live, taped show. So it’s a different beast.

Is there more of a sense of goofiness when you’re on the set of a sitcom and you want to stay loose for the sake of your performance, or when you’re shooting a drama and you want to sort of lighten the mood between takes?
That happens for sure. Doing drama, there seems to be a lot more riotous humor just to relieve the darkness of the material. Now I’m always kind of thinking about the comedy of the scene and where the beats are or where the comedy lives, whether it’s in the words or the behavior or the rhythm or the physicality. And also, I’m starting a new show, so I’m trying to find what the relationships are between me, my wife, my son, my daughter. So it’s actually been a little more serious.

You moved your family across the country to L.A. to take this part. Did that take a lot of convincing from the producers? What was that process like?
We hired a wagon train out of Saint Lou… It took three months, so I was late to the first filming of the show. No, you know, we were actually in the process of moving anyway, so that wasn’t that big of a deal. Things just kind of fell into place.

Anything you miss about New York?
I miss the change of seasons; that’s a no-brainer. What’s upsetting to me is to go back and to see the landscape, the skyline, to see it change without me having seen it. To go back and say, “Oh, oh, what happened? You weren’t allowed to go up without me witnessing it.” It’s very strange to see transformation just hit me without warning.

What’s it like to work with Justin Halpern? What is he like in person that someone who only knows him as the author of Shit My Dad Says might be surprised by?
He’s a lot like my son. There’s a shyness to him but there’s also an openness. He laughs easily. He’s a wonderful collaborator. He knows exactly what he wants, but nothing is set in stone. I just think it’s a very unique and beautiful thing how — without being maudlin about it or mawkish — he is honoring his father and their relationship. I don’t know if I’ve seen that done, doing it with humor and doing it without trying to tug on heartstrings. It’s a sweet relationship that he has with his dad. It’s just unique and nice to be a part of, nice to witness.

On a recent episode of Surviving Jack, you help your son get ready for baseball tryouts. And you were —
Was it funny?

It was funny, yes!
You don’t have to tell me that. You don’t have to tell me that just to make me feel good. You could’ve just said, “Meh.”

No, no! But I was going to say, you were actually the star quarterback at your high school.
Yeah. [Laughs.]

Do you disagree with the “star” assessment?
Look — yeah, I do. I don’t know if “star” fits. I was the quarterback. I was co-captain. It’s what I dedicated my life to in that moment. That’s all I wanted in life. I wanted an undefeated season and I wanted to be captain and those things happened. I focused all of my energies towards that goal and I felt like I bent the spoon. Through mind manipulation, the spoon bent.

Now you’re starting to sound a little bit like Jack.
Ha-ha! Well, I think it’s a little too hocus pocus for Jack. You can think all you want, long and hard, but at the end of the day, when people aren’t looking, press your thumb down on that spoon and bend it yourself.

Do shooting episodes like that bring back memories for you?
When I see all the kids and we shoot these at-school, on-campus scenes, it brings back that stuff. Like, oh my God, all the personalities and all of the tribal rules — spoken, unspoken, written, unwritten. You’re of the same tribe yet you break off into your different little sub-tribes, sub-cliques. It brings back memories in that regard. I spent my career acting with adults and all of a sudden I’m acting with younger actors, either my kids or my kids’ friends. That’s been very … [laughs] interesting, going back to high school now.

Your own kids, meanwhile, are almost as old as your kids on the show.
They’re lagging behind by three years. They still think that what comes out of my mouth is mildly of import, mildly wise. My 13-year-old, that’s beginning to get a little challenging, but that’s the way that goes. I will say it’s odd being on a show that does kind of mirror my own personal life at this juncture. Older daughter, younger son. My daughter thinks she knows more than she really does and my son, he’s a little bit shy and awkward and is a good athlete.

When you play Jack, are you channeling your own dad? Are there any parts of yourself as a parent in there?
Jack, to me, is a third Justin’s dad — whom I haven’t met, but that I’ve kind of downloaded through all these things I’ve seen online and in the book — and a third my dad and a third me and how I interact with my kids. Justin’s dad was that kind of guy who treated everybody the same. It’s like that old expression about Vince Lombardi, one of his players said, “Yeah, Coach treats everybody the same. He treats us all like dogs.” I think that’s the way Jack is. He just looks at each person as an individual. It’s kind of a sweet aspect of his character. He is the guy who — and he’ll never admit it — takes in the stray dogs. Metaphorically speaking.

I also love how Jack’s so clearly in love with his wife. How’s working with Rachael Harris?
I love Rachael Harris. She’s a comedic genius, so fun to play with, brings her own style, her own ideas, which are invaluable and always wanted. She works and plays well with others. And I think that’s one of the most important aspects of the show; it’s not two strong-willed people battling it out to see who’s right or wrong. It’s not everybody rolling their eyes at how inept Jack is now that he’s stay-at-home Mr. Mom. None of that stuff. They’re two people who absolutely love each other, and if anything, Jack needs his wife. He needs his wife in order to operate. I think that Jack would be lost without his wife, and I think that’s kind of an endearing aspect of his character. Because outwardly, he’s the guy who doesn’t need anybody. He’s an ex-military guy; he knows what’s what. But there’s that child within him who needs this — no, I take that back. Not a child, a man who needs the love of his wife and he’s unapologetic about it, as he is in every other aspect of his life.

Even though everyone knows your character from Law & Order: SVU, it seems that your most iconic role to date is Chris Keller on Oz.
I think for the gay community, that was a character that was revolutionary. He wasn’t the closeted, wink-wink gay character or gay sidekick. He wasn’t the effeminate-stereotype gay. This was a guy who was absolutely free with his sexuality, who had this kind of unabashedly here-I-am-motherfucker-what-about-it attitude. I think the gay community was like, “Oh finally, they’re not making us a sissy.” And you know, God bless them, I think my gay fans have kind of stayed with me. Obviously not all of them, everyone moves on, but I still get a lot of love and a lot of fond remembrances.

Do you think there’s been progress made since then, as far as the representations of gay characters and gay culture that are on TV today?
I think the biggest impact has been all of these athletes coming out, these active athletes. To me, Michael Sam — I would make him man of the year, personally. To me, it’s a Martin Luther King moment: This is the reality, this is the truth, this is what’s right. That’s all, it’s what’s right. Gay or anything, it’s just pro-what’s right.

What can you tell us about the character you play in They Came Together?
I play the evil CEO of a candy corporation trying to crush Amy Poehler’s tiny little sweets shop.

That’s awesome!
It is awesome.

But you’re not also the one romantically pursuing her? That’s Paul Rudd?
Yeah, which is bullshit, but whatever. They made their choice, they made that bed — they’ll have to lie in it. I saw the film; it really was fantastic. David Wain found a really funny angle and voice. I was watching it going, “Oh my God, he’s the new Mel Brooks.” He’s bringing this absurd homage-farce — because you know, it’s an homage to every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen.

Are there any Runaway Bride references in there?
[Pauses.] Shit, I don’t think so. And you know — goddamn it, I wish I was smarter. I wish I’d brought that up.

Christopher Meloni on Surviving Jack