For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
Chris Meloni wears many hats: He’s Detective Elliot Stabler, the protective and tempestuous investigator on the long-running NBC procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a newly minted pilot, and a certified “zaddy” to his many fans and followers on the Internet. But lately, he’s been eyeing the role of race car driver—at least in his mind. After paying tribute to his newest obsession in photos, Meloni got the chance to nerd out about Formula 1: Drive to Survive, the Netflix docuseries that chronicles the full-throttle thrill of racing with professional racer Lewis Hamilton, who stars in the series. Listen in.
What drew you to Drive to Survive?
I really didn’t know about Formula 1. A friend turned me on to the series. I got to tell you, man, it’s one of these few shows that absolutely educated me and introduced me into a world that I had no idea about. I mean, I knew about the rabid fan base you have. But to experience the rock-star status, the grueling aspect of what it is you guys do, the intense focus. I played sports when I was younger. But none of my sports engaged in your machine needs to be as top-notch as your driver and vice versa. There’s a very unique synergy. There’s no other thing like it that I can think of. Maybe horse racing.
It’s been amazing to see the reactions to Drive to Survive. It is a difficult sport for people to tune in to because, of course, we all played basketball, football. We can all go and do that, you know? We can all try it at least, but not many people get to try driving a foreign car. Maybe you can do go-karting, but that man and machine synergy that’s needed, I appreciate that you noticed that. Because I don’t know if anyone does.
That was also a funny aspect of my education. In the show, sometimes they go back to where you guys came from, right? They see you guys on your little go-karts going around. I’m like, wow, that is really where they start?
Have you been to any sort of race before?
Atlanta. But I’ve never been to Indy. I tend to become kind of obsessive about stuff that I get into. I became a pilot at age 50, and was flying a jet within two years.
What kind of planes?
I started out with a Piper Saratoga. Then I went to an Eclipse Jet, which was made in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s almost like a commuter jet.
Have you had any driving experience?
No, just go-karts. A buddy of mine races at Lime Rock [Park] in Connecticut where Paul Newman used to drive. He has a couple Shelbys. And a replica of the Shelby that won at Le Mans, so I have a picture of his cars.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve found [about racing]?
I found the personalities very interesting. There’s a swag. There’s an attitude and a mentality. What makes the show so engaging is that the producers and directors don’t pander, they just lay out a very interesting moment of what comes out of people’s mouths, and you go, “That’s all you need to know about the team.” I think they’re playing that drama really well.
When you guys have the cans on and you’re going beat by beat, I don’t have a clear understanding of what it is that you’re looking at or analyzing, I just see graphs and the computer monitor, and I’m going, what are they studying? What is the nugget of knowledge they’re coming away with? I was thinking, if they could, they’d do the same thing with American football wide receivers. At what point is that wide receiver losing speed? If it’s in the third quarter you could get him out if he’s losing speed. Your endeavor is so computerized and data driven yet at the core of it, it’s up to you, the human, to make these split-second decisions, for the engineers to not screw the pooch. I’m always sitting there, going, how in the hell did that engine blow up again? [Laughs] It’s a foreign language to me, and it’s an alien landscape.
Absolutely. The data that we go through, for me, probably has been the hardest thing to learn. The guys that I’m working with, they’ve all come from the top-end universities. They’re all just complete boffins, you know?
Yeah, they’re geeks. The nerd geek guys.
Yeah, we always call it a “boffin.” I grew up watching racing and having the viewpoint you have, and now I’m in it. When you’re in it, you don’t watch it from outside. How is that for you with acting? Do you watch everything you do?
No, I don’t watch myself very often because of what I call “the green meanie,” the part of yourself that just sees all of the mistakes. I’m rather demanding. When I fall short, it’s really difficult for me.
I’m very much the same. When everything is all said and done, do you look back and think you could’ve done it better?
It’s constantly that. When you’re on the podium, you’re like, We won! But even if you still win you’re going, that wasn’t up to my standard. And it’s a feeling of, if you don’t address it, it’s going to come back and bite you in the ass. Yours is really life or death, for me it’s just an actor’s death. [Laughs]
Chris, how has Covid been for you with work? For me, it’s been a nightmare.
We got back into working in the midst of it. It was interesting because I had never realized in my business, connection, connectivity, is an imperative. If you have two actors and the protocol is you have to wear a mask when you rehearse or when you’re near people, you know, this is very difficult. I can’t read your face, I can’t do my job. And I must say, I was shocked that, just as a human being, how I missed seeing people’s faces. That disconnect was very impactful to me, as it was to everyone I know. I thought about you guys. I was sitting there going, what does it feel like? I know it’s very insular when it’s just you connecting to the headquarters as they’re giving you instructions and all that. At the end of the day, it’s like, you’re busting out the champagne, and there’s no one in the stands. I thought, Wow, that must be a tough one.
You’ve been playing Detective Stabler all these years. What would you say is the main lesson that you learned from working on set?
Passion and intensity gets better [with age]. It’s almost like a yoga or Zen experience. The closer you get to the calm so that you don’t lose your intensity, your mojo. The mojo is there, it’s built in, it’s sewn into the fabric. Now, openness. In my business and in anyone’s business, the most productive we are as human beings is you have that passion and connect to that passion and have openness to everything—the pitfalls, the frustrations, the joys. As an actor, I had so many observations and thoughts and feelings, and it was so stimulating educationally. The longer you’re in the game, I think you see that from champions.
When you were growing up, what were your favorite TV shows and movies?
Early on, I would get into movies that I would call ahead of my age and ahead of their time. Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, all these very outside the box [movies]. I was very interested in something I’d never seen before, you know? My guys were Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro. I loved Robert Redford and Paul Newman, but they were kind of from the last vestiges of [Old Hollywood]. I wanted the new. I wanted the Martin Scorsese. When I saw Taxi Driver, it was mind-blowing. I think that was kind of the reason why I got into the business. I want to be part of something new. Telling stories.
What age did that click for you? For me, I was 5 when I knew I wanted to race.
Damn, I wish. I always thought, Oh, I want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a cop or whatever and then in my early childhood, I realized, no, no, you just want to pretend. You want to play at being that. You don’t want to go to law school. My father was a doctor, and I didn’t think that acting was a really honest career. It wasn’t real. I finally decided to give it a shot when I was 23. The rest, as they say, is history.
So what’s next for you?
I’m doing a new show, Law & Order: Organized Crime. It’s not episodic like the other Law & Order shows. It’s a serial, so we tell a crime and all of the attendant characters in eight episodes. We’re about to start our second season. I’m Detective Elliot Stabler, and I’ll protect you from organized crime.
I find detective work fascinating. How people get away with things, but also how they eventually get caught. Do you study? Do you have to actually become a detective to understand what a detective is really like?
No. You know something? You just talk to people. You talk to cops that do the work that you do. I was Detective Elliot Stabler on a different show, called Law & Order:Special Victims Unit, which is an actual division in the NYPD that’s about rape victims and [child] abuse, and that sort of thing. I talked with them. Now, it’s with the organized crime unit, and I’ve spoken with those guys and had meetings with them. You talk to people, you read people, you assess, and you go, Oh, that’s kind of interesting. I’m always studying people. That’s what it boils down to.