Christopher Meloni’s Latest Reinvention: On ‘Underground,’ Black Lives Matter, and the ‘SVU’ Diss

The veteran actor stars as a renegade outlaw in WGN’s ‘Underground,’ a thrilling new series about the Underground Railroad. He opens up about the role and much more.

For a generation of Law & Order: SVU superfans, Christopher Meloni will always be known as Det. Elliott Stabler—the “bad cop” to Benson’s “good cop.” When he abruptly exited the series prior to the Season 12 finale, in a move he’s called “ham-handed and poorly done,” fans were crestfallen. And when they heard what went down during the Season 16 finale, well, they were just plain confused. “I know I wasn’t what your old partner was for you,” Det. Nick Amaro (Danny Pino), Stabler’s replacement, told Benson before exiting the precinct, to which she replied, “No, you weren’t. I grew more in my last four years with you than I did in the 12 years I was with him. You know, that relationship, whatever it was, didn’t allow for anything else. But with you, your support, I have a family.”

When I ask Meloni about the controversial finale, which seemed to throw serious shade at the Stabler character and diminish his legacy, a big, awkward smirk creeps across his face.

“I have no comment on that,” he says, laughing and shaking his head. “No comment.”

Truth be told, in the years since his sudden SVU exit, Meloni has creatively distanced himself from his buff, no-nonsense cop, flexing his comedy muscle on shows like Veep and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and his dramatic one in films such as Man of Steel, 42, and the excellent The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

“When I first left [SVU], I felt like the house cat that was locked out of the house and had to fend for himself, but things have settled into a really good rhythm. I’m so happy. This is why I left, really.”

He can now check off ‘historical epic,’ too. In the WGN series Underground, premiering March 9, he plays August Pullman, a bounty hunter and sometime slave catcher in the Antebellum South. Armed with a pair of pistols and a long knife, Pullman is a bit of a swashbuckler. In the premiere, he disposes of several slave catchers by hurling knives and raining down bullets.

“I shoot people, I knife people, and I get to ride horses. I do it all,” he says, smiling. “But he’s also not even quite sure where he stands. He wants to be a good provider, which isn’t quite working out; wants to be a good father, but doesn’t have all the tools to be able to do that; and he wants to live in a better world, but is doing the best with the cards he’s been dealt. He’s a conflicted character.”

Pullman is one of many characters peripheral to the Macon plantation, whose slaves, led by the field hand Noah (Aldis Hodge, Straight Outta Compton) and house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Friday Night Lights) become instrumental in the construction of the Underground Railroad. It’s a reunion of sorts for Meloni, since the first several episodes of the show were directed by Anthony Hemingway, who served as the first assistant director on HBO’s Oz.

Underground is a true rarity on TV, as most of the creatives behind it are African-American—from Hemingway to co-showrunner Misha Green to executive producer John Legend. It serves as yet another example of a long-overdue project that shines a necessary light on African-American history, like the recent Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic Selma, which somehow arrived after a star-studded film about J. Edgar Hoover.

“There are a lot of black people behind the scenes making it happen with these projects,” says Meloni. “It’s easier to take the pill when it’s wrapped in sweet, strawberry jam. If the pill is bitter and you take it raw, as it is, it’s not to everybody’s taste. But it’s still good for you.”

And thankfully, the show does away with the “white savior” narrative. There is no Brad Pitt who materializes as a third act Christ figure to liberate the oppressed blacks. The women, too, are not helpless, but rather just as integral to the action as the men.

“The agency is spread around to the womenfolk. There are a lot of empowered women on this show,” says Meloni, adding, “It’s kind of cool.”

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It’s taken the showrunners nearly four years to bring Underground to the screen, and it arrives at a time when race relations in America are being reevaluated due to potent grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter. Sometimes, the culture needs to catch up to the project.

“We’ve been trying to have this conversation for a while. I keep bringing up gay equality, because that’s been trying to have its say—and rather quickly did,” says Meloni.

“But what’s messier still is the whole racial equality question, because ‘officially’ all the questions have been answered—equal rights, etc.—but all the answers have not been laid out and debated,” he adds. “I don’t think it’s something that can be answered. It’s something where both sides need to voice their problems and dilemmas, and the issues on the cop side of things and the black community side of things—both sides must be heard. Yes, Black Lives Matter, but if there are two sides that are having problems, both sides must be heard. You have to hear their issues and where they’re coming from, and that’s a better first step to healing or figuring out potential solutions.”