Life After ‘SVU’: Christopher Meloni on ‘They Came Together,’ Stabler, and His Famous Behind

After serving for thirteen years as Det. Elliot Stabler, the strapping actor has transitioned into film. Meloni sat down with Marlow Stern over coffee to discuss the end of SVU and his next chapter.

Erica Berger/Corbis

Christopher Meloni is a bit frazzled. When I meet him at a cantina-like coffee shop downtown, he enters wearing a button-down shirt that looks like an optical illusion—a panoply of multicolored lines whose rolled-up sleeves reveal an interior design of neon puzzle pieces. I point out the shirt and ask him where he got it. “I have no idea,” he says with a chuckle. I tell him he’s hilarious in the movie. “Which movie am I here for?” he asks, apologetically.

The confusion is understandable. Since turning in his badge on the NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2011, Meloni has kept very busy. On the small screen, he appeared in a 5-episode arc on True Blood; served a recent 2-episode stint on Veep as Selina Meyer’s idiotic trainer; and starred in the Fox sitcom Surviving Jack, which was canceled weeks ago after seven episodes. On the big screen, he’s had roles in 42 and Man of Steel, and this year, will appear in a whopping four films, including the David Wain comedy They Came Together; the gritty neo-noir Sin City: A Dame to Kill For; Gregg Araki’s poignant drama White Bird in a Blizzard, opposite Shailene Woodley; and as the ex-husband of Kristen Wiig’s character in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which he just wrapped filming.

In person, the 53-year-old looks just as handsome and imposing as he does shaking down perps on TV; like an Italo-American Mel Gibson, if the Aussie took better care of himself. He’s also possessed of a very dry sense of humor, which makes him perfect for the sardonic canon of David Wain.

Thirteen years after playing Gene, the weirdo summer camp chef who chats up inanimate objects in the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, Meloni has reunited with Wain and his creative collaborator, Michael Showalter, for They Came Together. In this skewering of romcom conventions, he plays Roland, the eccentric boss of Joel (Paul Rudd)—an exec at a corporate candy company that’s threatening to shut down the little Upper West Side candy shop of Molly, played by Amy Poehler. They, quite predictably, fall in love, and then drift apart. The film is to romcoms what Airplane! was to disaster films, and Meloni steals every scene he’s in.

I saw you on Conan fairly recently and you were talking about how you were crowned the “Best Butt in Primetime.” How did that get started?

That’s Rachael Harris! I’m tired of explaining my ass to people and how it got started. [Laughs] Fuckin’ Rachael Harris lit the fuse. Maybe I fanned the flames by a tweet or two, so I’ve got nothing more to say about that. It’s official. The people have spoken. I don’t want a coup over my ass. My ass rules, leave it be. Deal with it. Obama won, as did my ass. My ass won. Which means the American people won.

Did the cancellation of Surviving Jack catch you by surprise?

It was a good education to me about the new paradigm of the business of TV. A lot’s changed since I first started, and I knew peripherally, but I didn’t know-know, because I was involved in a very successful franchise. The thing they can’t do anymore is if something is produced outside of house, they can’t afford to keep it unless it has bang-up numbers, so if X is being produced for Z network, it better have smoking numbers, otherwise economically they can’t do it.

With They Came Together, this was a great Wet Hot American Summer reunion. I went to college up at Colby in Maine, and that film is worshipped there because there’s that great sequence where everyone goes into Waterville, our college town, and end up in a shanty shooting up heroin.

[Laughs] It really is a reunion. It’s been a very familial theater troupe/collegiate atmosphere as far as I’m concerned, and I find it profound the amount of success that a number of people from that movie have found.

Bradley Cooper must be the biggest surprise.

I’ve never heard of him. But any time you get a call from those guys it’s like being summoned home. All I have to hear from David Wain is, “I have a part for you,” because as an actor, you know it’s going to be nutty material that also allows for your own personal interpretation of what it’s going to be. There was a very clear script for They Came Together, but they also provide you with an atmosphere for exploration. I’ll come up to them with ideas, and 80 percent of the time they’ll say, “Do it!” and when they say no, they give you a very valid reason as to why.

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As far as Wet Hot American Summer goes, I spoke to H. Jon Benjamin, who people now know as the voice of Archer and Bob on Bob’s Burgers, and he said all his lines voicing the can were added in ADR, so you must’ve just been talking to a can that wasn’t talking back.

That was difficult! Actually, acting with Miss Piggy was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I couldn’t connect very well… I don’t know. I kept wanting to connect to her but it never worked.

Miss Piggy’s a tough cookie. Did the gang on Wet Hot American Summer party together when the cameras weren’t rolling?

It was insane. It was 24 days of wet, mud, and controlled chaos. I left and came back a couple of times. I was shooting Oz at the time—but we were off—but I was shooting Law & Order. Just to be in a camp in the middle of nowhere when all I’ve known was New York and L.A. was really weird. But there was a lot of drinking; not too many sober breaths were drawn. And I remember Garofalo had these big dogs—really overly friendly, muddy dogs. But it was the rain I remember most. It rained 20 out of 24 days we were shooting. I remember reading the headlines in the local paper that said, “Four-year drought has ended.” It hadn’t rained in four years until we decided to shoot.

So you were technically doing Oz, Law & Order: SVU, and Wet Hot American Summer simultaneously? Do you find it more difficult to flex your comedy muscle versus your dramatic one?

Yeah. But what’s funnier than perverts and sodomizing another man? Summer camp? Maybe so. [Laughs] But comedy/drama—they’re very close cousins. My 10-year-old son watched The Normal Heart the other day, and he told me, “That movie was really funny… it was very sad, but it was very funny.” And you know why? You need humor to counteract the drama; they’re all human moments, ultimately. But at the end of the day, it’s about people looking for love, for purpose, and a place for meaning.

You really do have the funniest scene in the film, where you show up to a Halloween party dressed as a superhero but need to take a dump, so you go to the bathroom and struggle to get out of your costume… and then it cuts to you sitting on the couch in a robe and shower cap, with someone complaining of an… accident.

[Laughs] You know you’re in a good place when you can make Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler crack up. They could not hold their shit together, so to speak. That pleased me to no end. Wardrobe picked out the superhero costume, but as soon as I put it on, I knew.

They Came Together really skewers the romantic comedy genre, but one of your first big film roles was in a romcom—as the guy Julia Roberts ditches at the altar in Runaway Bride. Are you a fan of romcoms?

[Shakes Head] When I saw this film, though, I thought the mantle of Mel Brooks had been passed. I felt David had found his rhythm and vision, as well as Showalter; it’s a great marriage between the highest order of anarchy in the vein of Wet Hot American Summer as well as the more palatable sensibilities that traditional Hollywood movies have.

I’m a huge SVU fan. Do you have a favorite episode? One of mine is the one where Big Boi from Outkast plays a rapper named “Gots Money” who turns out to be a rich kid from Westchester who’s involved in an exotic animal smuggling ring, and at one point, he gets eaten by a pack of wild hyenas and you find his chain covered in the animal’s saliva.

Holy shit! Right! Fucking hyenas! [Laughs] Shit…I did 270 of them, and…I don’t know. I can’t remember too many of them, to be honest. There’s just been too many perverts. But SVU was like a merry-go-round that’s going four times faster than your normal merry-go-round, and…it was good times. It just moved so quickly. As soon as you’re finished with one episode you go right into another, and it’s nine months of 14-hour days—at the very least—working five, sometimes six days a week just crankin’ them out. It was… intense.

I really stopped watching SVU when you left because it just wasn’t the same. One of the big draws, for me, was the Benson/Stabler relationship. And I heard there had been a pay dispute or something towards the end, which led to your departure. Was it an acrimonious split?

It was not acrimonious. It was confused and ended with a whimper and not a bang. It was ham-handed and poorly done, and it all could have been averted. But look: things have to play out as they want to play them out. I wanted it to end differently and I’d given ample warnings and feelings and thoughts, and I wasn’t…that’s all. It was handled poorly, in my opinion.

Does the SVU gang all still hang out?

Well, there’s no gang anymore! Mariska and I speak with every once in a while, and Richard Belzer is no longer there, Dann Florek is no longer there, but I see those guys every once in a blue moon. Mariska and I email all the time, though.

You’ve worked with probably half of Hollywood doing SVU, since virtually every up-and-coming actor has done a cameo on that show. Do these actors come up to you later and say, “Hey, remember me? I was on X episode of SVU.”

[Laughs] I’ve had quite a few situations like that and I’m just like, “I don’t know! I’m sure you were fantastic.” One of the ones that really stood out was Abigail Breslin. She was just a little girl who played someone who was molested or something, but she was so rock-solid.

You’ve got three roles in three very different films this year—as a weirdo boss in They Came Together; a cop in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For; and Shailene Woodley’s creepy Dad in White Bird in a Blizzard. Do you feel liberated now that you’re no longer tied to SVU?

Yeah. It’s just getting used to freedom—which is not an easy thing to handle when you haven’t had it. For me, freedom is harder to manage than structure and, even though SVU was a lot of hours and very hard, it was still awesome and there was great structure to it. With freedom there are no answers, but the sense of insecurity makes you feel alive. In the end, I think I’ll really enjoy what came of this time.

Who do you play in Sin City?

It’s a stretch! I play a detective who falls for Eva Green.

Oh, so you fall for Eva in both Sin City and White Bird in a Blizzard. That doesn’t suck.

No! She’s absolutely lovely. She’s good fun.

Do you guys get along in Sin City? You’re basically sworn enemies in White Bird.

Yeah. And I finally get in her pants in Sin City, for Chrissake! It only took me a year. [Laughs] Shooting Sin City was very cool because it was all on green screen, and it really simplifies your life because you don’t have to worry about the explosions and the mountains—they’ll paint that shit in—and you can just focus on the actor and the scene.

With that trio of movies we touched on, life outside of TV seems to be going well. Would you ever go back and do a network series?

Umm… it’ll take an awful lot. It’ll take the right thing to make me commit, and I don’t know what that is. But yeah, I’m like the fifth banana in a half-dozen films! Okay, third banana in White Bird…or fourth banana…who’s counting bananas? Stop staring at my banana. But after these movies, I’m going to go waterskiing. I have some videos of me slaloming…do you want to see those?