Christopher Meloni is TV royalty thanks to his turn as Det. Elliot Stabler on “Law & Order: SVU,” but these days, he has turned in his badge in favor of WGN America’s drama “Underground,” in which he plays conflicted slave trader August Pullman.
“Underground” is one of two series that could put Meloni in the thick of the Emmy race, along with his comedic turn in Netflix’s “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.” At 55 years old, the veteran actor is gunning for his first Emmy nomination in 10 years, and spoke with TheWrap about his two-tiered campaign in the supporting actor categories on both sides of the genre divide.
In addition to his work on the small screen, Meloni returns to features this weekend alongside John Travolta in Chuck Russell‘s revenge thriller “I Am Wrath,” which sees the actor re-embracing Stabler’s famous temper and going outside the law to deliver justice. It’s a far cry from his work in Marielle Heller‘s “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which also came up during our brief chat.
Read TheWrap’s interview with Meloni below, and be sure to check out “Underground” on WGN America on Wednesdays, as he’s expected to return for the second season.
TheWrap: “Underground” is the first TV series to really tackle slavery like this, particularly the Underground Railroad. Why do you think it took so long for a story like this to make it onscreen?
Christopher Meloni: I find right now to be the golden age of television. You have so many platforms and outlets starved for real, deep, meaningful storytelling. This show takes advantage of that and lets us investigate our past — not in a dry, historical way, but in a provocative manner.
What’s the hardest part of playing a character who does despicable things for the right reasons?
The truth of the matter is, on a day-to-day basis, we don’t always live in such perfect circumstances. I think we always make choices that are convenient, or feel necessary. If you were brought up during [slavery], maybe you wouldn’t be so proud of your actions. It’s a very human trait placed in a more inflammatory setting, which is slavery. Maybe back then you’d get 20 percent of the population who think slavery is good, but the other 80 percent would think it’s unhealthy and immoral, so it’s kind of an inflammatory place to have a character act out his needs. I didn’t find it that difficult, but for me, I found the mechanisms that made it all too human. People will make a lot of excuses to explain away behavior that many would find odorous or less than good.
What sets “Underground” apart from other shows in this year’s Emmy race?
The writing feels so vital and alive. It’s complicated and complex, as well as truthful and important. Reading it, I had the same feeling I had when I read for the [Jackie Robinson] movie “42.” I thought slavery was an important subject to explore, and I’m very proud to be a part of it. Obviously I’m very biased, but there’s a sense of pride being a part of something that feels important.
Can you even imagine being a slave and having to make your own run for freedom? At what point might you have thrown in the towel?
I’ve thought about that a lot. It’s almost a concept that none of us can connect into. We’re so connected right now. It’s no longer even country-to-country, we’re a global society now. We’re completely globalized and there’s also an immediacy, visually, on our own personal devices. But what if you grew up and all you knew was a hundred-acre patch of land? Unless you were one of the privileged few blacks who were allowed to leave, you have no idea what’s out there, or really any concept of what the world is. And then, to have this feeling inside you where you want this thing called freedom, what does that mean? It’s a dangerous thought to have. So then you escape, but you escape to where? You have no idea what the world is like! I wouldn’t even call it bravery — it’s more this burning sense and desire for freedom that must’ve driven them to a place of madness. It’s a pretty profound thought to me.
You co-star alongside John Travolta in the revenge movie “I Am Wrath.” What do you think audiences find so appealing about those kinds of movies, and how was it working with him?
Your average human would be lying if they said they’ve never daydreamed about some kind of revenge scenario. Everyone has been wronged, whether you were bullied on the playground or something else entirely. Bu we’ve all had our revenge fantasies. That’s in our DNA.
Working with Travolta, you couldn’t find a more gracious guy with his fans. They’d line up outside until we wrapped at 1 or 2 in the morning, just waiting for John, and after a 14-16 hour day he’d walk over to them and sign autographs or take pictures until every person was gone. It’s part of the job, but watching him do it with such good humor was inspiring. It was just a pisser working with him.
Did you relish the opportunity to kick some ass in this movie?
Absolutely. I read the script and appreciated it, because I loved my role. I just think you’d be crazy to pass up a role that has a sense of humor and gives you the chance to do some ass-kicking.
Us “SVU” fans are still seeking closure with regards to your character. Do you think we’ll see Stabler back on the show at some point?
(laughing) I really have no idea how to answer that. From the beginning I’ve said I’d be more than happy to come back for the last six episodes.
Netflix just announced that David Wain and Michael Showalter are getting the gang back together again for “Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later.” Where do you think your character, Gene, would be 10 years later?
He’d be the CEO of some corporation. Maybe a senator?
That’s a far cry from a cook at a Jewish summer camp!
That’s what those people are made of though. Gene is cut from the same cloth as a good CEO or a senator.
You appeared in “Man of Steel,” but you were sorely missed in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Did you see it?
I could’ve told Zack [Snyder] that, but he wouldn’t have listened to me! Nah, I loved working with Zack on “Man of Steel.” I knew there was only a slim chance of coming back, but I was hoping I’d have survived the end of that film.
You recently co-starred in Marielle Heller‘s indie gem “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” She’s blowing up now, working with J.J. Abrams on a Paramount movie that will star Daisy Ridley, and directing “The Case Against 8,” which tells the true story of California’s same-sex marriage bill. You famously played one of TV’s earliest gay characters on “Oz” — or at least had a gay love affair on the show — so would you work with her again on that film or another one?
Without a moment’s hesitation. She is a bright, unbelievably talented star. I love her, and I thought “Diary” was profound. I wish it had found its way to an Oscar nomination. The subject matter was handled brilliantly, delicately and insightfully. To bring people into a world — 1970s San Francisco — and pull it off on such a low budget? She’s a genius. I’m a big fan.
Speaking of directing, I know you were developing an adaptation of that David Vann novel “Legend of a Suicide” at one point. Are you still pursuing directing?
I let that pass. That was a difficult one to continue to work on. Right now, I’m not actively pursuing the directing thing, but the desire still resides in me.