Crossing another bridge

 

Christopher Meloni has put aside his TV cop hat to star in A View from the Bridge at the Gate Theatre, but even he's not sure why, he tells Arminta Wallace

Christopher Meloni prowls into the foyer of the Gresham Hotel, plonks his tightly rolled copy of the script of A View from the Bridge on a table, pounces on a menu and orders a sandwich and a sparkling mineral water. "It won't make me any smarter, that's for sure," he says. "But it might perk me up a bit . . ." It's almost seven in the evening, which means he has been rehearsing for the best part of nine hours - minus a half-hour for lunch - in the Gate Theatre's new production of Arthur Miller's play. "Boy, is it hard work," he says. "I mean, it's such a tightly-woven, specific, layered . . ."

I hear him talking, saying all the right things about the artistry of the piece, the intensity of the role, and so on and so forth. But - and I'm sorry to have to admit this - I'm not really listening. I'm too busy looking. Boy, am I looking. For years I've been watching Meloni on my television screen every Monday night in the TV cop show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. And now here is Detective Elliot Stabler, good-guy TV cop extraordinaire, sitting right here, on a couch in the foyer of the Gresham Hotel. A total stranger; yet the voice, the facial expressions, the way he moves his head - all these gestures are, somehow, incredibly familiar. I blink and try to concentrate. "I haven't been on stage in a while," he is saying.

Now this I know about, because I've studied Meloni's biog - and it runs to a lot more pages than just seven seasons of Law and Order SVU. He has done a lot of telly and a fair few movies. He has played a fair few guys with names like Johnnie Marzzone and Bennetto Torello; he was in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Twelve Monkeys and Runaway Bride. In recent years he has been dipping a toe into the indie comedy area. He was, for instance, highly praised for his portrayal of a temperamental chef in Wet Hot American Summer, which was indie enough to be screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

But he doesn't get to do much theatre, does he? "No," he says. "After nine months of the SVU season - 15-hour days, every day - you're just . . ." He is silent for a moment. "You are," he says, after a pause, "more liquid than solid. You're done. They really have to pour you into a wheelbarrow and take you home and say, 'See you in three months'. And I had one day off; and now I'm here." He grins Elliot Stabler's boyish grin. "It feels like I'm in boot camp. I mean, it has been this" - he pauses just long enough to create another tense silence, then smiles Stabler's enigmatic smile - "this beautifully hellish experience."

OK. This Stabler thing has to stop. Concentrate. Arthur Miller. Tragedy set amid the working-class Italian-American community. A rough play, is it not? "Yeah - in every sense. Physically, mentally and emotionally. I've been waking up at night and reciting lines and stuff." So why is he doing it? "A mysterious man phoned my agent and said, 'we want to offer Christopher Meloni the role of Eddie Carbone in The Bridge in Dublin'." Another pause. "I thought it would be kind of interesting. No . . ." The pauses are getting longer. "I actually just had this conversation with my wife. I think it's gonna take me a year to give a truthful answer to that question - for now, I just know that it has something to do with a challenge. What kept going round in my head is that" - he quotes - "you have to suffer for your art". Is he serious? He certainly seems serious. In fact, he's coiled as tight as a spring, full of restless energy. I press on.

Now that he is back on stage, does he love it or hate it? "The reason why I hate working in theatre is the tedium of memorisation," he says. "But once that is done, then you feast on this never-ending meal. If you play it correctly, every night is fraught with very high stakes that are very difficult to find in everyday life. Then, what I hate - and love - about theatre is that the performance can be perfect one night and then miserable the next. The elusiveness of it."

SO HOW DOES Meloni see Eddie Carbone, a man who claims to be protecting the innocence of his niece while secretly harbouring what are, shall we say, not strictly avuncular intentions towards her?

"How do I see him? In a word?" He laughs an unnervingly mirthless laugh, then lapses into a silence so long I begin to worry I've seriously offended him. "OK, I'll say this," he finally says. "He's a man who lives in a world of honours and codes. Everybody goes through life believing they follow a structure, or strictures - and then all it takes is a deep passion beyond reason to cause you to break all these time-honoured, death-before-dishonour type codes. So then you wonder, is it just part of the human condition to be living a life of denial. Not expressing fully what you are, what you feel."

Denial, repression, then an explosion of passion. Much of the drama of A View from the Bridge hinges on the cultural conflict between the American branch of the Carbone family and the pair of Italian cousins who arrive as illegal immigrants - a conflict Meloni understands very well. He was born in Washington DC, but his ancestors hail from Genoa. "My parents grew up in that atmosphere," he says. "That you did things a certain way - and nobody ever stopped to question why, until the new generation comes along. See, I have kids, and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, 'why?' Why?" Before I know it he has gone into character as Eddie, acting one of the central scenes in the play right at me. Which is beyond weird - Eddie on the sofa now, already?

The message, however, emerges loud and clear: this is a play with enormous contemporary resonance. "Oh, absolutely," says Meloni. "It's very much an 'us versus them' thing. And it has a lot to do with what's going on now with Muslim communities. You know, they come over and they stay with their own kind. Well, every generation of immigrants has done that. But then there's a question of how many of their customs are they allowed to bring with them - which calls into question who's right, or what's right. A question of the balance between 'us' and 'them'."

HIS SANDWICH ARRIVES. What is it, I ask. It looks like Thai curry-flavoured scrambled egg. "It's chicken," says Meloni, in a slightly miffed tone. "Do you want some?" I decline. Bad enough to be invading his snack space; I can't very well steal his food into the bargain. In any case, he has already eaten almost half of it and is busy making appreciative mmmm-ing noises. "This is so good," he says. "I'm impressed. Though with how I feel, it could have been a block of cement." With the effect it has on him, it might have been a plate of magic mushrooms. He puts his napkin down and sighs happily. He has visibly uncoiled. Right. Time to talk Elliot Stabler - not a man, I observe, that Eddie Carbone would go out to dinner with.

"Elliot?" Meloni laughs again, but now he sounds much more relaxed. "Nope. But I think Elliot Stabler would be familiar with these guys. He was brought up in Queens. He'd be familiar with this cast of characters. Elliot has a clear compass - his psychological problems are just different from Eddie's, that's all." But isn't Elliot the ultimate good guy? "Well, you know, he has this need for justice, so that he'll sometimes just" - Meloni pushes at a thread on the leg of his jeans, a tiny, obsessive-compulsive movement - "just to get the conviction, you know? If he can tip the scale a little bit he'll tip the scale."

But that's good - isn't it? "But then, you know," argues Meloni, "when is it bad? Where's the judgment about when it's fair to cross the line, and when it isn't? OK, if he hadn't crossed the line that 10-year-old would have been raped. But he did violate the guy's civil rights. It's the balance again, between the rights of the community and the rights of the criminal."

MELONI HAS JUST finished shooting the seventh season of Law and Order: SVU, which will be shown in the US this autumn. Has the character of Elliot changed as the seasons have passed? "Oh, yeah," says Meloni, nodding Elliot's sage nod. "Yeah. We got some fireworks for ya. Stay tuned. Actually," he adds, "and I can say this without trying to sell the show, this past season - the sixth - was our best, but the shows that we've just shot for season seven are better than that."

And how do they all get on - himself, Mariska Hargitay, Richard Belzer, Ice-T and the rest of the SVU cast? "Magnificently," he says. "For opening night I think Richard will be there. Mariska was going to be, but she has to go back to the States and do publicity. She still might fly back. And both producers are flying from LA. And two writers. It's really respectful, fun, professional - and what I mean by that is that everybody's always digging for the common good of the show, for ways to do it correctly; it's a great place to go to work."

Oh, good. So he's going to keep doing it, then? "Well, my contract is about up," he says. "Hmm. You know, I've been doing it a long time." Now this is not the ending I wanted for this particular scene. It's all very well for A View from the Bridge to end in tragedy, but SVU without Elliot? Eeek. Change the subject.

There is a somewhat intriguing item on Meloni's filmography. In fact, it's the first item on his filmography. Pretty Persuasion, it says. 2005. And then, "scenes deleted". What's that about? He's nodding vigorously. "Yeah," he says. "Those sons of bitches. I say that with love, naturally. I took off all last summer to do that. I read the script, loved the script, they wanted me for a role - and I couldn't do it because of a conflict. So I said, 'Give me this other role'. One scene. I loved it because it was a real skeezy guy, you know? And it was fun. Bad hair, bad moustache; the description was, I was 'a little troll'. I had 'em lift my desk up so it came to here" - he indicates chest level - "and I was, like, shining my shoes, size six shoes, real tiny.

"But they called and said - and, you know, I understood it - they said it 'broke the rhythm of the storyline'." He sniffs. "So that's the long version of what happened. The short version is, they cut me out. I'm still pissed off. And I understood it, the reason they gave. Well, either that, or I sucked." He leans back and grins broadly. "What did I tell ya? You have to suffer for your art."

A View from the Bridge opens at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, on August 1, with previews from July 28