Fans of Christopher Meloni may have understandably balked at the sight of his grizzled, bandana-clad chef talking to a sentient can of vegetables when Wet Hot American Summer debuted in 2001. By the time he does it again in the just-released Netflix prequel series, though, they’ll have had ample opportunity to get used to the dead-handsome actor with the steely-eyed stare making himself look ridiculous.
The two roles Meloni is most known for together comprise the yin and yang of sexual predation. For six seasons, he played manipulative sociopath Chris Keller on HBO’s prison drama, Oz, and for 11 years, he also played Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s Elliot Stabler, the kind of detective who puts guys like Keller behind bars. These signature roles are both miles away from Meloni’s recurring stint in the David Wain/Michael Showalter summer camp spoof. Over the years, though, the actor has gravitated toward enough similarly out-there roles to quietly carve out a second career as a world-class comedic player.
Meloni’s specialty is the high-status buffoon, the kind of character Will Ferrell also favors, only infused with an IV drip of subtlety. Perhaps best embodied recently in his character, Ray, the very thorough masseuse on HBO’s Veep, Meloni often plays his comedic roles straightforward, the butt of a joke that is unaware he’s a joke.
“It’s that old expression, ‘He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,'” he says. “I think you find that same sort of human behavior when someone by the dumb luck finds themselves in a place of power and all of the sudden think they earned the right to lord it over others. I find that a funny human foible. I think that makes someone very dangerous when they don’t even know they’re an idiot.”
Despite his extensive dramatic work, though, playing these kinds of roles isn’t as out of character for the actor as it seems. Meloni’s first major role was in the short-lived 1990 sitcom, The Fanelli Boys. Another similarly titled sitcom, The Boys, soon followed, and suffered the same brief fate. At the time, Meloni was looking for whichever projects he could land, not necessarily sitcoms. The stepping stone to becoming a serious actor was his 1996 arc on NYPD Blue as an Irish mobster. It was enough to put him up for Chris Keller in Oz, and on the path toward Elliot Stabler in SVU, the role that cemented his status.
That same intensity Meloni is known for in his dramatic work is something he’s cross channeled into comedic roles, as well as some that split the difference.
“Even when I did Bound for the Wachowskis, my character was a mob guy but I just found him funny,” he says. “This unintentional clownish nature of who this guy was and who he thought he was, I think I found it there and I can always find that.”
Now that he’s established himself as a man for all seasons, Meloni is able to expertly glide between the kinds of roles he’s offered. Aside from the prequel, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the actor recently made appearances on The Jack and Triumph Show and Comedy Bang Bang in between filming parts in movies like the indie White Bird in a Blizzard and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. His fans by now have been trained to expect the unexpected.
“I think I’m just blessed to be able to pick between drama or comedy depending on how I’m feeling or what the project is. I’m guided by just what strikes me at the time,” Meloni says.
If it seems like he’s been guided toward more comedic roles than usual lately, though, there might be a reason.
“Maybe I’m feeling the need to laugh a little more lately.”
Have a look through the slides above for Meloni’s thoughts on the most prominent comic roles in his filmography.