Elisabeth Röhm, who played ADA Serena Southerlyn on “Law & Order” from 2001 to 2005, returned after 17 years to direct last week’s episode “Only the Lonely” through NBCU’s Launch Female Forward program.
“It’s poetic to come back at this juncture of my life,” Röhm told TheWrap. “Dick Wolf gave me my first opportunity as an actress, and he gave me my first opportunity as an episodic director.”
“It’s almost surreal. I can’t explain how monumental it was to share in those scenes with the new cast. Odelya especially, just to help her, elevate her, support her, and help develop that character. And just be a part of the story of the new reboot,” said Röhm about the episode, in which Odelya Halevi’s character, ADA Samantha Maroun, stands up for a female witness, played by Alysia Reiner, whose reputation as a lawyer will be ruined if she’s forced to testify.
In an interview with TheWrap, the actress turned director also talked about her character’s memorable exit and what Serena would be doing now.
TheWrap: How did this opportunity come your way?
Elisabeth Röhm: I’m a part of the NBC directors program, the Female Forward program, and so it’s really the whole network that’s coming behind me to help me grow and develop as an episodic director. I very much wanted to direct “Law & Order” and then this particular episode was offered to me. This was the one that they felt I was right to direct, and they couldn’t have been more correct, to have a female director and get underneath a show that is all about female empowerment. And finding the inner strength to do so, especially through Camryn Manheim’s character and Odelya’s character. And [also to] understand the depths of who this character that Alysia is playing and the risk and the reward and the complexity of what she has to do by taking the stand to send a con artist and murderer to jail.
What was your favorite scene to direct?
Probably Odelya stepping out from her table in the courtroom and just, with all guns blazing, really protecting Alicia’s character reputation with empathy and brilliance. It just was so intimate. I really felt like in the scenes that she did with Alysia, there was a real depth of, woman to woman, “I’ve got you, I know you. I see you. I’m going to protect you to the best of my ability, but we have to do this and we find our voices together collectively.” I really love when women support women and I think it’s executed extremely well in this episode by the beautiful writing of Pam Wexler and Jennifer Vanderbilt. It really created a culture, a set of women supporting women. It was written for Odelya, who just stepped out and stepped into that with such power and such fierce confidence. It’s really inspiring.
What’s changed on the show since you left?
“Law & Order,” from the beginning until now, is about cutting-edge, ripped-from-the-headlines stories. It’s gritty. It’s real. When it’s at its best, it’s controversial. I really think we did that in this episode, but just the reboot in general, led by Rick Eid, continues to push into the current stories of today, to be gritty, be challenging. You’re left to mull over the shades of gray of the justice system and the societal and current issues of our time. “Law & Order” is always on the cutting edge.
You had a really memorable exit when Serena asked if she was getting fired because she was a lesbian, when that had never even been mentioned before. How far in advance was that last-minute reveal planned? Had you been playing the part with that in mind already?
I had always been inspired by the episodes that were about gay rights, equal rights, gay marriage. And so I think the writers’ room tapped into that [being] her thing. Also, I didn’t have a sexuality or that type of chemistry with Sam Waterston, like some of the other previous ADAs, so he was more of a mentor to me. And I think they clued into that. When I was leaving, Dick Wolf and I spoke about creating a splashy, water cooler moment, which is certainly what it has become. All these years later, people are still talking about it.
It was exciting to have them acknowledge for me things I had been playing secretly as a character throughout the years because it was so personal. My sister is gay and many of my friends are also and so at that time, going back to the zeitgeist, gay marriage was a really big issue. And nationally, it was front and center. So, that was true to Law & Order. It was gritty, it was current. It was ripped from the headlines.
Has Dick ever talked about bringing Serena back for a guest shot?
We have discussed it. I’m really focused on directing right now. And I’d love nothing more than to continue directing “Law & Order.” And I certainly would be happy to reprise Serena Southerlyn, but that’s not in the works currently.
What do you think Serena would be doing now? Would she still be a lawyer?
She would definitely be a lawyer or a politician. She genuinely believed in justice and she believed that she could make the world a better place. She was incredibly idealistic, and sometimes, intellectually she was not entirely up for the job, so to speak, because of her ideals. That’s what she and Jack would clash over. She couldn’t process sometimes why things weren’t working out, from the perspective of right versus wrong. The district attorney’s office is full of complexity and it doesn’t always work out. I think that’s another thing “Law & Order” really reflects, that justice isn’t always served and it’s incredibly crushing.
All of the characters of “Law & Order” are superheroes because they live to fight another day, every day. You can’t let being defeated get in the way of you fighting with the same vigor and passion. And I’m really excited that Odelya really stepped into some more of her superpowers in this episode. I love that. And then I got to be a part of putting that out into the ethers because nothing is more attractive than working with people you respect, but also seeing somebody you care about come into their power.
Are you going to direct more episodes?
I look forward to having the opportunity again, I’m really grateful. I loved working with Camryn Manheim, and how the guys step aside for the girls to really have a strong voice. I’m so proud of Camryn and Odelya and Jeffrey Donovan and Mehcad Brooks. They’re on fire, they’re like magic together.