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Chris Meloni: Injustice makes Elliot Stabler's head explode

Christopher Meloni's Law & Order: Organized Crime airs on NBC Thursday nights. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Christopher Meloni's "Law & Order: Organized Crime" airs on NBC Thursday nights. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, April 14 (UPI) -- Christopher Meloni said the Elliot Stabler he plays in Law & Order: Organized Crime is more evolved than the version of the New York police detective he portrayed in Law & Order: SVU years ago.

But he still has a bit of a temper and a thirst for catching criminals.

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"It's not like he's a hothead to be a hothead. I think it's his reaction to injustice. To him, injustice makes his head explode," the 60-year-old actor told reporters in a recent Zoom interview.

"Elliot 2.0 has, hopefully, had an evolution toward a clearer understanding of the world as unjust, and he adapts himself to the realities that keep punching him in the face -- literally and figuratively."

Created by Dick Wolf, the new police drama follows Stabler as he tries to take down the mobsters who killed his wife. It airs Thursday nights on NBC.

Deputy alum Danielle Mone Truitt plays Stabler's partner, Sgt. Ayanna Bell; The Practice actor Dylan McDermott plays Richard Wheatley, owner of an online pharmaceutical company with ties to organized crime; and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actress Tamara Taylor plays Angela Wheatley, a university professor and Wheatley's ex-wife.

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When he was first preparing to play Stabler more than 20 years ago on SVU, Meloni talked to real police detectives to try to understand the stress they endured because of the crimes they witnessed, coupled with the financial and family obligations they had to deal with at home.

"I knew that I, personally, Chris Meloni, would have a very difficult time downloading and processing what these real people and heroes do every day," the actor said.

"Dick was the one who hired me and I went to him because he originally had Elliot Stabler with three kids and I said, 'I think he needs four.' And he was like, 'OK.' I saw [Stabler] as a guy under pressure constantly."

Meloni played Stabler opposite Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson for the first 12 seasons of SVU, from 1999 to 2011.

Because he quit due to unsuccessful salary negotiations between seasons, he did not have a spectacular on-screen SVU exit. When Season 13 began, it was mentioned that Stabler had retired from the NYPD. SVU now is in its 22nd season.

"My thinking was, 'It's time to go.' So I went. I don't tend to look back, so I didn't. My journey has been fantastic -- very fulfilling. I must admit I have maybe watched 10 minutes [of SVU since leaving.] I'm not much of a TV watcher, so it wasn't anything personal," he said with a laugh.

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The murder of Stabler's wife, which serves as the catalyst for his return for Law & Order: Organized Crime, means doing right by a crime victim just became personal.

"Now, it's: 'How do you attend to your own wound? How do you carry on, carrying that much grief?'" Meloni asked rhetorically.

"Needless to say, I am thrilled to have Chris back," Wolf said of the actor who also is known for his performances in The Handmaid's Tale, Underground, Surviving Jack, the Wet Hot American Summer TV franchise, Oz, True Blood and Happy!

"I think [Meloni] is becoming one of the most complex television stars in the history of the medium because you don't know what he's going to do now. He's a little less predictable, but he sure knows how to play it," Wolf said.

Organized Crime breaks the Law & Order mold by employing a different storytelling strategy.

Instead of showing cops solving crimes for the first half of episodes, and then alleged perpetrators standing trial in the second half, several episodes are dedicated to letting longer mysteries unwind.

"It will 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," Wolf explained.

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"These villains are going to be really bad guys that give Chris a constant source of energy, outrage, belief in justice and a different way of pursuing criminals than we have before," the producer added.

"This is a very long -- but not too long -- period to really get inside both your protagonist's and your antagonist's heads."

Wolf credited showrunner Ilene Chaiken with taking a tough character like Stabler and making him more sympathetic than he has ever been.

"You ever think you'd see Stabler cry?" Wolf asked the journalists.

"This is a show that will spend time with Stabler and his family and his life and his emotions," Chaiken said.

"We tell procedural stories. The DNA of Law & Order, of SVU, is very much in our show, but we probably will get to know Stabler in a way you've never gotten to know him."

Wolf, who began the Law & Order franchise in 1990, also addressed what it is like making a cop drama in 2021.

"The people inside the company -- the showrunners, the producers -- we spend a lot of time talking about police behavior," Wolf said.

He has been asked since last May how the Law & Order franchise would be impacted in the wake of George Floyd's death while being arrested and the subsequent protests against and policies enacted to stem violence involving police.

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"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,'" Wolf said.

"And what I said in the spring still holds. The shows will speak for themselves," he added. "Of course, we deal with what's going on, but it is never in a knee jerk way."

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