Versatile actor Christopher Meloni, who cut his teeth on drama series like “Oz” and “Law & Order: SVU,” has been stretching his funny bone more often lately, in broad, almost absurdist comedies like “Wet Hot American Summer” and with his new Syfy series “Happy!” In the latter, which premieres in Dec., he channels “Bugs Bunny, Jackie Chan, Clint Eastwood, a little Three Stooges.” “You put those iconic things in a bag, you shake it up, and then you half-bake it,” Meloni says.
Here, he talks with Variety about what led him to “Happy!” and how it feels to be acting opposite a digital creation yet again.
Your last few projects have been comedies. What is the genesis behind moving into that genre more fully at this point in your career?
I find it difficult to calculate in my business. As a matter of fact, that’s kind of the antithesis of the feeling of doing this project. I read the script, and it was the first time I ever read a script where I closed it up and said, “What the f— was this that I just read?” I was intrigued. I thought the story was interesting, I thought the characters were interesting, I thought the world was interesting. I had just never seen anything like it before. So I got on the phone with Brian Taylor and with Grant Morrison from the graphic novel – they collaborated with putting it in TV form. Brian was going to direct it, and I got on the phone twice with him, and to his credit he did not B.S. me. I kept going, “What is this world?” And he said, “I don’t know what to tell you man.” He didn’t have the words to describe it to me, and his honesty was about ‘let’s collaborate together and build this world.’ So that’s what happened.
Was it mostly excitement to get to build that world together or was there some fear attached to not really knowing what you were getting into?
I couldn’t believe his bluntness, and I really appreciated it, but it scared the hell out of me. It was the first project that I would have to help build myself. My bigger breaks in TV have been either in the sitcom format, which it’s there – you know what the format is. It was with David Milch and Steven Bochco’s show “NYPD Blue,” I did an arc there. It was Tom Fontana, but “Oz” had already been on the air a year. And Dick Wolf and “SVU,” these were worlds that were already present to me. So that did make this both exciting and intimidating to me.
How did it feel to finally step on the set and begin shooting that world you were building?
I saw Brian with a lot of question marks because it took some time to find something that satisfied his aesthetic. As far as me and my character, I kind of stepped into it pretty quickly to my satisfaction. But it was a very collaborative set, so Brian and I honed it further and worked it out.
How important is it to you that your characters are grounded and relatable?
You have to believe in certain true, emotional stakes. You have to believe in the pain that this guy has and carries with him – the sense of loss, the things that thrill him, his Achilles’ heel. Those things have to be grounded for the audience so they have something to connect to and they feel emotionally invested.
You’ve had some pretty famous experience in the past working with a co-star that isn’t really there – the can in “Wet Hot American Summer” and now Happy, of course – have you noticed big changes in the technology and the way you’re asked to shoot those scenes over the years?
No because no matter what happens, at the end of the day, we’re connected by emotion and that sense of empathy and understanding. So you can be surrounded by all of the gizmos, and that’s kind of thrilling and awe-inspiring, but what you connect to is that human being and what they’re going through.
What did you have on-set with “Happy!” to work with when they’d digitally insert the title character later?
I had the script supervisor who did his own version of the voice, and he was absolutely indispensable.
What was your reaction when you first saw what it was going to look like?
“Oh thank God!” Because everything rests there. We’d shot everything, and it rests on these guys in Scotland to come through, and that’s the next piece in the puzzle. You’ve got to care about me, but the co-star? You better understand his motivations and emphasize with his journey, too.
Looking more generally at the industry in the last few years, what strikes you as the biggest changes you’ve seen that have led to the choices you’ve made with the roles you’ve selected?
What I’m getting are far better opportunities. I think this is the golden age of television. This is the golden age of visual entertainment. I think what’s acceptable to put on TV has broadened, and you have a thousand new platforms, and with all of these new players trying to squeeze into, and now you want to squeeze in? You better start taking chances. And I think God bless Dick Wolf and the exposure “SVU” got me. I never sniff or sneer at that, and I think that’s gotten me where I am.
When you look back on that time, is there a specific episode or case that still really sticks with you today?
Any time there was a script that dealt with children, it really ruined my week. Mariska [Hargitay] and I walked the walk in that sense, and you couldn’t help but be affected. We met with those detectives, and they’re the real deal; they’re heroes having to deal with those kinds of crimes.
What’s next for you? Is there a genre or type of character you feel like you haven’t yet had a chance to explore that you want to?
I don’t know until it presents itself and I have that odd, reflective, ah-ha moment when I’m reading the script.