Interview: Christopher Meloni, Dick Wolf, and Ilene Chaiken Talk Law and Order: Organized Crime

Law and Order: Organized CrimeAt the beginning of the month, NBC premiered the newest spinoff in the franchise, Law and Order: Organized Crime. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit served as a back door pilot for the series. Christopher Meloni returns to star as Elliot Stabler. After his wife is killed in a car bombing, Elliot return to the NYPD to battle organized crime as part of a task force working against powerful crime syndicates.

Recently, star Meloni, along with creator and executive producer Dick Wolf and executive producer and showrunner Ilene Chaiken, took part in a virtual press conference to talk about the series.

Be sure to check out the full transcript below and don’t forget to watch Law and Order: Organized Crime Thursdays on NBC.

Zoom Conference
Law and Order: Organize Crime
Christoper Meloni, Dick Wolf, and Ilene Chaiken

April 7, 2021

Law and Order: Organized CrimeQUESTION: Chris, I think Stabler is probably one of the most hot headed of the characters in the Law & Order brand. What's the secret as an actor to playing hot headed, playing anger, without going over the top?

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: Well, I think that that template was set right from the beginning, meaning I still remember very vividly, Dick wrote the initial SVU pilot. Dick was the one who hired me...He originally had Elliot Stabler with three kids. I said, “I think he needs four.” He's like, “Oh, okay.” I saw this guy as a guy under pressure constantly. I felt that, and this had a lot to do with after speaking with real SVU detectives, about the pressures that they were under and the crimes that they witnessed. I knew that I, as me, personally, Chris Meloni, would have a very difficult time downloading and processing what these real people and heroes do every day and the things that they see. So, that's like kind of the genesis of [it]. So, it's not like, “Oh, he's a hothead to be a hothead.” I think it's his reaction to injustice. I think, to him, injustice makes his head explode. I think that's also now part of Elliot 2.0. Hopefully, his evolution towards having a clear understanding of the world is unjust, and then now how is it that you adapt yourself to realities that keep punching you in the face, literally and figuratively?

QUESTION: The tragic incident that started this all-in motion is the death of your [character’s] wife. Has that ramped him up more? How do you feel like that's changed him? Is it for the better for the worse? Or could he get any worse?

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: Well, I think that can be tagged along to the last question that I answered, which is, so, a guy who's dealt with injustice, always one step removed, which is, it's a victim that it is my job to go and to attend to. Now, it's how do you attend to your own wounds? How do you attend to [your] own injustice? How do you carry on carrying that much grief? I mean, I asked Dick, “Can I have four kids?” and then later it was five kids. How do you carry on through there with financial pressures and all these and family pressures? Now deal with your family, being literally, figuratively blown up. So, how do you deal with that faith-wise and personally? So, let's hope that Elliot has found better coping mechanisms but is still very passionate.

QUESTION: Ilene, I believe you had to shut down twice for COVID concerns, how has that affected your delivery as far as episodes go, and also the overall arc you're planning to tell the season. Have you had to compact that at all?

DICK WOLF: We've been remarkably lucky with COVID. We are doing one less episode than the initial plan had been, but hasn't affected the storytelling at all, but you open the door for a gratuitous statement here that, needless to say, I'm thrilled to have Chris back. It's been a wonderful, collaborative relationship with Ilene on this pilot and the show. You never know if you’re going to get an opening to talk about this, but the thing that really excites me about the show, and I’m not speaking for Chris, but I think what is exciting for him, is that this is the first Law & Order with literally, completely different storytelling. In a twenty-four-episode season, which next year will be, you should think about the fact that it's going to be three, eight-episode arcs. The first third of the season is The Godfather. The second third is American Gangster, and the last third is Scarface. And these villains are going to be really bad guys. That gives Chris a constant source of energy, outrage, belief in justice, and a different way of pursuing criminals than we've had before. He could always say, in things like this, “What are you going to be doing this year?” and on the mothership, or in Season 3, you could just go and check off your fingers; now, we're doing this, this, this, this this. This is a very long, but not too long, period to really get inside both your protagonist and your antagonist heads. All you have to do is look at the casting in the first episode and realize this is not episodic casting. We're shooting for bigger game. I think it's going to be endlessly interesting, and the character Chris has evolved in subtle ways that are given a lot more than lip service this last week, this week. Just think of the challenge that he, this gentleman, was the most pre-Miranda cop on television. He has come back, and the adjustment to the new realities that Stabler represents I'm very proud of, and I'm almost afraid to say it. It's one of the real reasons I’m [happy] that Ilene here, is because she’s not only an excellent writer, but she has managed to take a very tough character and make him more sympathetic last week than he's ever been. You ever think you'd see Stabler cry? Anyway, that's the commercial.

QUESTION: Chris mentioned about literally blowing his family up with Kathy. Talk a little bit about what's going to happen on the personal side of his life, because it looks like that was setting it up for a lot of Stabler and son interaction and are we going to spend time at home with him?

ILENE CHAIKEN: Yeah. This is this is a show that will spend time with Stabler and his family and his life and his emotions. We tell stories. We tell procedural stories. The DNA of the Law & Order franchise of SVU very much in our show, but we probably will get to know Stabler in a way you've never gotten to know him.

QUESTION: Dick and Ilene, there have been crossovers with SVU in the first two episodes. Can you talk about finding the balance of doing that to keep the focus on Organized Crime?

DICK WOLF: Well, I certainly think the second episode - I'm going to turn this over to Ilene, but I certainly think the second episode is hardly SVU Redux. I would say, the most accurate measure of how often there will be crossovers and what depth, are the Chicago shows. We're going to do it whenever it gives both shows a different way to shine. And, obviously, there’s a portion of the audience that says, “Geez, this is frustrating. Why don't you just put them both in the same show again?” It's not exciting. This, to me, is much more engaging.

Christopher MeloniILENE CHAIKEN: I’ll take the lead on this, because it's a thing that he so intuitively knows how to do, but, I mean, these two shows [are] within the same universe, in the same fictional but very grounded universe, and we never forget that those other characters in those other stories exist. When we tell a story about Stabler in Benson's (Mariska Hargitay) world or Benson in Stabler’s world, and things happen, that affect their characters, we don't just forget about it. So, it's both challenging and tantalizing from the point of view of story writing to make sure that you keep those things alive, while the shows have their own identity.

QUESTION: For Ilene and Dick, I’m curious about the choice to use the dead wife as motivation, the trope, at the opening of this show. I know there was some pushback and some criticism of that aspect of the premiere. What do you achieve from a storytelling sense and by using that as his reason to join this task force?

DICK WOLF: …Look, I have to tell you, it's one of the most dramatic - I've been doing this for a long time. It's probably the most dramatic teaser that I can remember on any show, too. I don't know what - I didn't see anything that was critical of that storytelling. You can’t please all the people any of the time. It's not what we do. The only thing we can do is tell stories that if we're sitting there, and it doesn't compel us, why are we going to think that it's going to compel and audience? I thought that was like, “Wow, what a re-intro!”

ILENE CHAIKEN: When I joined this project, that was already a fait accompli. It was a premise that I was given to work with, and I said, “Wow, this is a great place to start.” I was not in any way put off by it. I was immediately drawn in. When you tell a story like this, when you tell a story about a beloved character who's been gone for many years, the first question you ask yourself is, “Why now?” And that, as a storytelling catalyst, is one of the best “why nows” I could ever think of.

QUESTION: Chris, when you left did you say, “Someday I'll be back? Or did you say, “No, I'm done with that. I'm over with that.” And then when you were gone, did you watch the shows and say, “Oh, God, I should be in that.” What was your kind of thinking about all of that?

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: My thinking was it was time to go. So, I went, and I don't tend to look back. So, I didn't. My journey has been fantastic and very fulfilling, and I must admit, I have maybe watched ten minutes. I'm not much of a TV watcher. So, it wasn't anything personal. That's it. Those are the facts, Jack.

QUESTION: Dick, one of the hallmarks of your shows is ripped from the headlines, and it sounds like from what you said earlier, that this show, Organized Crime, is going to have two levels of ripped from the headlines, the overriding arc of these eight episodes, and the second is the individual episodes. I was wondering, between you and Ilene, what headlines are we going to see ripped from the headlines as the show continues?

DICK WOLF: I've had the same answer for thirty-one years. Law & Order is fiction. We take the headline, but not the body copy. And I hate to be evasive, but this show started off as a story that what we were going to be covering with Organized Crime, [were] criminal enterprises that are ongoing. And there are headlines every day in every major newspaper that have some reference point.

And the thing that's fascinating about Wheatley (Dylan McDermott) to me is that he is the old mob and the new mob.

And there's plenty of vaccine right now there wasn't last week. And I thought that the oldest mob activity that there is, or was, was hijacking, and here is an opportunity to combine hijacking and COVID. I don't know how to get it much more ripped from the headlines, but there will be others. Ilene should really be answering; she's the one inserting the flavor into the sauce. But we never think consciously, “Okay, what's the headline in this show?” It’s life. It's what's going on. It's the zeitgeist. And when there was some discussion, “Gee, how are we going to handle COVID,” I said, “The show is going on in the spring. It’s not going to be gone by then.” And sure enough, it couldn't have felt more timely, but it is taking up the major share of Americans thinking for the last year. So, I can't say I was surprised that people found it interesting. But Ilene, what other headlines?

ILENE CHAIKEN: Well, what usually happens is, you know, given the template that we're working on, we come up with a story, we think maybe it's ludicrous, we hope not, but we run with it. Then, the next day, Chris sends me an article that he found, and the thing that we just made up in the writers’ room has actually happened. So, I mean, we're taking our lead from what's going on in the world and imagining where it might be going, and usually it pans out, and sometimes we feel just the ungainly weight of responsibility for having imagined these things into existence.

QUESTION: …A lot of police shows have made adjustments since the events of last year relating to matters like police behavior and brutality, racial justice. I’ve seen it on SVU. How much will that enter into here? And how does Elliot, as the protagonist, Dick said “pre-Miranda cop,” how much did that factor in how he has or hasn't changed over this decade? And how much will that affect him since that [seems] like it could be a point of conflict in some ways?

Dick WolfDICK WOLF: I will just, again, obviously, the people inside the company, the showrunners, the producers, we spend a lot of time talking about police behavior. I would put it to that [it’s] probably more time than any other non-law enforcement group of people in the country, because it's what we do every day. And I made a statement when everything erupted in the spring and early summer that somebody said, “What are you doing to change?” I said, “We're doing what we always do, which is listen very carefully, read virtually everything written about this from both sides of the spectrum, from the far left to the far right.”

What I said in the spring still holds. The shows will speak for themselves. If you've been watching Chicago PD, the question is asked and answered. Of course, we deal with what's going on, but it's never in a knee jerk way.

Law & Order for years people say, “There is no character in it.” And I said, “Oh, there's a lot of character if you're a regular viewer, you know, surprisingly huge personal dossiers on all six of the regulars, but we don't dole it out with soup ladles, we dole it out with demi tap spoons, because that's the way life is, because nobody gets a job, walks in, and says, “Here's my resume for the last five years.”

It's much more interesting that television shows exist on a very different timeframe than movies or books. A movie exists for 110 minutes. An hour show, to be considered successful, the old standard was five seasons. So, a successful drama exists for 110 hours, and we cover a lot of ground in terms of A. trying to be current and B. tell the truth in a sense that people don't get to hear it. And again, something that I've said, we've come very close, but the paradigm episode of Law & Order or as SVU has yet to be written, which is where all six of the regulars are on different sides of the same question as you hear the arguments, or you hear them discussing. Every one of them is right, because life is not black and white, it’s shades of gray.

And again, coming full circle back to Chris, and I'd like to know what he thinks. I think he's becoming one of the most complex television stars in the history of the medium, because you don't know what he is going to do now. He is a little less predictable, but he sure knows how play it. When he walked into the interrogation room and rolled up his sleeves, I don't think that was in the script. It is an instinct, it's like - I hate to say it, but peacocks, those tails are there for sexual display. It's literally, “Is this big enough?” He takes off, he rolls up his sleeves, eighty percent of the audience, I am sure, thought he was going to punch the guy. That's pretty cool.

QUESTION: Chris, we have seen videos and talks about you and the rest of the cast reuniting, but how was it reuniting with the actors who play your kids? And will we see more of them in their background, what they've done for the last 10 years? We've seen Eli (Nicky Torchia) in the second episode, but will we see the rest of the kids and future episodes?

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: Yeah, and I'll give Ilene the lion's share on this, but I will say, “What was it like?” My son, Dickie (Jeffrey Scaperrotta) was the only original, original from day one SVU. Then, some came on later, and then some were brand new. There was some, “Hi, you're my new daughter. Let's figure out our history.” It was very sweet and nice. I think the biggest thing to try and overcome was - and it was very sweet. They made me feel like OG, the original gangster, you know, because I've been playing [in], and I've lived in this world for almost twenty years, and many of them were new to it. So, we just had to get to know each other as people, and it was lovely. It was it. I think there's a lot of ground that's available to cover, but Ilene, what’s the story?

ILENE CHAIKEN: Oh, we certainly will see more of them, some more than others, but a big part of Stabler’s life now, a big part of his story, is that he's now a single father to a fourteen-year-old kid. So, how he manages to balance that with being back in New York and back on the job is going to be in his story. And we did that great thing. Before we started working, we got the whole family together, all of the kids with Chris, and they talked about who they are and where they've been and what they've been doing and what they do now, and hopefully that will go on with the show.

QUESTION: Chris, fans of course I freaked out seeing Olivia and Elliott back together last week. How does it feel to have such a positive fan reaction to your return after ten years, and have you and Mariska talked about it since the episodes aired?

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: Mariska and I have talked. And the conversation went something basically like this. “Wow. Congratulations. Congratulations to you.” Yeah, it was pretty overwhelming. I think she was expecting it more than I was, because she's still been in the Law & Order stew. She's been in that world continuously for the twenty years. I don't know. I was not prepared, and it's overwhelming, and it's wonderful, and it's very appreciated. And I think, this time around, I don't know, the pressure’s off. I feel less pressure than I did when Dick first tasked me with being Elliott Stabler. So, I'm a little freer to appreciate everything. It's a nice journey.

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