Friday, August 3, 2018

In Character: Christopher Meloni

Christopher Meloni is one of my favorite working actors. He has a magnetism that is so apparent in all of his work. Whether he's being absurd or psychotic, he can draw you in with equal weight. Here’s a look at Meloni’s best work, which often, remarkably, varies wildly in tone from role to role.

Five Essential Roles
Bound (1996)
Johnnie Marzzone
Johnnie Marzzone is a grade-A mob psychopath played with exquisite flair by Meloni. Johnnie keeps beating when he’s told to stop, kills because he feels like it, hits on taken women (in front of their boyfriends), and gets away with all of it because he’s the boss’s son. Johnnie is equal parts crazy and arrogant, and Meloni relishes his every move. Bound is a damn fine film, and watching Christopher Meloni and Joe Pantoliano go toe to toe throughout is certainly one of the movie’s highlights.

Law and Order: SVU (1999-2011)
Elliot Stabler
One could make the easy argument that Elliot Stabler is the Christopher Meloni role, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Meloni was a staple of SVU; he started in episode 1 and left 272 episodes later, in season 12. Elliot’s dedicated rage toward sex crime criminals was played in perfect contrast to Olivia Benson’s (Mariska Hargitay) compassionate take on their cases, resulting in one of the finest on-screen pairs in modern television. One can never tire of watching Elliot work an interrogation room, or struggle to maintain stability in his home life. Meloni’s work in SVU can largely be credited to the show’s continued binge-watching appeal.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Gene
“Listen to me, you fucked-up little cigarette-smoking piece of shit. I was in the Vietnam War.” That’s just one pull quote to highlight Meloni’s hilarious work as Gene, but truly, you could print anything he says in this film and use it as a highlight of his performance. Gene is an enraged veteran in charge of feeding the residents of Camp Firewood. But he also has a soft side, which he usually reserves for obscure, inanimate objects that arouse his sexual desire. It’s also worth noting that Gene was Meloni’s breakout comedic role, proving that the actor really can play anything.

White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)
Brock Connors
As noted, I’m convinced Christopher Meloni can assume any role, but rarely do we see him capture a man as deflated as Brock Connors. His innocence and vulnerability are so palpable here. Brock is married to an emotionally unstable woman (Eva Green), but he tolerates her for the sake of keeping up appearances, and to help is daughter, Kat (Shailene Woodley). Brock spends much of the film pretending that everything is all right, but Meloni plays him in a way that makes it clear the character is about to unravel. And by the film’s end, Meloni quietly, expertly shows us that every person has a breaking point.

They Came Together (2014)
Roland
There are certainly “bigger” Meloni roles I could’ve included here (Dirty Movie, Small Time, Happy! – love him in them all) but I cannot ignore his scene stealing work in They Came Together. I don’t want to ruin the bit in print, but if you’ve seen the film, you’re unlikely to forget Roland struggling in a bathroom at a costume party. And that’s just the beginning. What happens after, once Roland is now in a different costume, is genuinely one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a recent movie.

Wild Card
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)
Freakshow
I’m including Meloni’s work as Freakshow for a few reasons. First, although Meloni is only in Harold & Kumar for a few minutes, he steals every second he is onscreen (and several more after; you can’t forget him). And second because, only until recently, I never actually knew Christopher Meloni was Freakshow. Priceless.

The Best of the Best
Oz (1998-2003)
Chris Keller
There were a lot of gruesome men in Oswald State Correctional Facility, but none played the game better than Chris Keller. As Keller, Christopher Meloni portrayed one of the most ruthless, manipulative and utterly charming psychopaths I have ever seen. He was easy to hate but hard to dislike. Meloni was in 38 of the show’s 56 episodes, and he is partly to thank for help making Oz such a groundbreaking show. Truly, in many ways, Oz started it all. Nothing like it had ever aired on television, and it paved way for all the now classic Golden Age TV shows many of us love. Oz changed television, and Meloni should absolutely be given his credit for that.

Now, beyond his amazing performance, it is utterly baffling that Meloni was even able to pull his work on Oz off. As he told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio in 2016, “For about two or three years, I would wake up at 4:30, get in the van at 6:00, drive to Oz, kill people and sodomize them ‘til about noon, jump in the car, go to SVU, and go arrest people who murder and sodomize people ‘til about 2:00 a.m.”

How Meloni was able to pull off two incredible, contrasting performances at the same time is a testament to the actor’s work ethic, and skill.

Other Notable Roles
in Happy!
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Runaway Bride (1999)
Nights in Rodanthe (2008)
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009)
Dirty Movie (2011)
True Blood (2012)
42 (2013)
Man of Steel (2013)
Small Time (2014)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
Happy! (2017-2018)
Pose (2018)

10 comments:

  1. Oh, he fucking rocked as Freakshow in Harold & Kumar. I love him in that yet it was his role as Gene in Wet Hot American Summer that won me over. Even as he was humping that refrigerator and do it so convincingly. Plus, I never knew he could dance so well. This guy is fucking awesome and it's good to see him getting some notices. I haven't seen everything he's done but if you see him in a film. You know something is going to be good as he was one of the few things in Sin City: A Dame to Kill that I liked in that one segment with Eva Green even though the rest of the film (aside from anything w/ Mickey Rourke) just plainly fucking sucked.

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    1. So happy you're a fan! He was definitely one of the very few highlights of A Dame to Kill For. That's still one of the most baffling sequels I've ever seen. I loved the first one, and that sequel captures none of its magic. Oh well, Meloni still rocks!

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  2. I liked that you singled him out in White Bird in a Blizzard. That film is kind of underrated. Oz has long been on my watch list (along with Six Feet Under) I really need to get to those.

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    1. He's so good in White Bird. I don't think I've seen any such performance like him before or since. Great stuff. Oz is... something else. I can't believe they were able to make it when they made it. It is unrelenting in its menace, but also oddly hilarious at times.

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  3. I feel like out of everyone in Oz, Keller and O'Reilly played the game the best. Master manipulators.

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    1. Hell yeah, loved those guys. The Chris just worked the system was absolutely flawless. A great performance.

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  4. I saw They Came Together but for the life of me I cannot remember a single thing about this movie. When I think of Meloni I always think of his hilarious work on veep:

    "-How about this? "There's a whole lotta guys who never came home. Good guys. Here's to those guys."
    -Holy f*ckin' Christ. What is that, Ray?
    -I'm just spitballin'."

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    1. Hahahaha yes! I love his work on that show. As for They Came Together, you can YouTube his most notable scene, at the costume party, if you want. It's fucking hilarious.

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  5. I've seen him in lots of stuff and he's always pretty good, but honestly doesn't make a huge impression on me. He just "the partner" on SVU, to me. That said, I had no idea that was him in Harold & Kumar.

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