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Interview: Happy!’s Christopher Meloni

by Charles Trapunski
Chris Meloni Happy season 2 interview

Christopher Meloni spoke to Brief Take about his work on the series Happy! and one gets the sense that the actor so affiliated with rough edges has found a home on the Syfy and Showcase series set to premiere its season two with an episode about Easter. Meloni and Lili Mirojnick and a top notch group (including Patton Oswalt’s voice as Happy!) make this a series that must be watched. The talented performer also discussed how he was recently in Toronto shooting The Handmaid’s Tale, and though we can’t wait to see him as Commander Winslow, his tour de force portrayal of Nick Sax on Happy! is already one of the year’s most captivating performances.

The following is a condensed and edited version of our sit down interview with the one-of-a-kind Christopher Meloni.

Brief Take: You do incredible vanity-free work for which this series is the perfect extension.

Cristopher Meloni: Thank you for saying that! I couldn’t agree more. I think the material lends itself to that, you better be willing and prepared to get blown out of the cannon, you know, you’re on the launchpad and it’s an opportunity. I think that everyone takes their opportunities and really does the most with all the other actors. I trusted Brian Taylor (the showrunner) and each and every one of the actors involved thrilled me.

BT: And it looks like you stink.

CM: Good. Because Happy says it all the time—Happy and other characters, it’s always a comment on smell. That is the one thing that is difficult to portray on film, of all the senses. So it’s nice that you say that, because that’s the sense. I mean I go into make-up every day and they dirty me up and the voice is dirty and cigarette and alcohol-abused and everything lends itself to it. [laughs] This guy’s a mess.

BT: What does your role as executive producer mean in terms of what we see?

CM: I walk around with my chest puffed out a little more than usual. Other than that, not much. No, you know, look: in every project that I have ever done, I felt heard. Even if I’m a guest star, I have an opinion and I won’t be shy to share it. I’m pretty confident in my sensibilities and sometimes I’m wrong and I’m fine with that, but it just gives you that opportunity to be heard—you’re a producer, you’re heard. But I’ve never felt not heard.

BT: So much happens in every episode!

CM: It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Because again, Brian Taylor, and I’m so sick and tired of talking about Brian Taylor,  he’s behind the Crank movies, so that’s just his sensibility. Even though that’s not his nature, he’s the chillest guy in the world, but he lives in this put your foot on the pedal to the metal, while I drink a Red Bull.

BT: Let’s talk about you then.

CM: Let’s talk about me. Forget Brian Taylor!

BT: How does it feel for you to live in this world vs. what we see on screen?

CM: There’s no difference, only in that I’ve had so many people say to me: “God, you look like you’re having so much fun”. And I’m like “Well, that’s what’s happening!” because I go to work every day and I look forward to inventing new mayhem and finding new truths within this insane world. But then these truths are grounded, so people can have a real emotional connection to the scene or the moment or the characters, even if it’s comedic because that’s what is going to sustain it. Because you feel the pain of my daughter, or the estrangement, or you feel the pain between my wife and me or the friction between me and my old partner, Merry Mac.

BT: You seem to inspire many willing players into this ensemble: Patrick Fischler, Lili Mirojnick.

CM: So Patrick Fischler, I knew from his prior work–I didn’t know him or anything like that, he’s just one of those guys in which I go, “That, that is a very good actor”. Lilly, with all due humility, I had a hand in getting her hired. But I think she was great first season and second season, her comedic momentsshe didn’t get a lot in the first, she was kind of the straight person, but she worked that angle into the second season. Richie Kostner, who did a guest spot on SVU, I think it was first season, and he was one of those rare actors who, they would guest star on SVU, and I would immediately [snaps fingers] go, “he’s the real deal and he’s a thing”. And sure enough, when they said that he was going to play, I couldn’t sign on fast enough. So yeah. All these guys, Christopher Fitzgerald, I didn’t know his work, he just brings this insanity, he brings this chaos, he plays Sonny Shine. He emanates unpredictabilityin his acting, not as a person [chuckles], he’s just very cool and clear, so I love him, it was just great casting.

Everyone pulled to the centre of how it plays, again this speaks to Brian Taylor from last season, he started doing Sonny Shine in a certain way. Brian went “Oh wait a minute, we haven’t talked about the character, okay”, and he sent everyone off set and he had a heart-to-heart with Chris, and he was able to hammer it out under the tutelage of Brian and a guiding [claps hands] and he found it. You know, that’s what Brian does with anyone, he’s done it with me. I don’t understand certain moments, so his clarity of what is this role, I mean, he built it, along with Grant, but it was Brian on the set, directing, so he visually built the world.

BT: Tell me about the guest stars this season.

CM: We have Ann-Margret for this season and I was the one who brought her on board. I emailed her “Come play with us”, and she [laughs] she was a bit overwhelmed. But in the end she was willing to play, she was willing to bring her A game. She did part of her Vegas revue, her dance steps, which I don’t think that she’s dusted off for a few years. Man, [snaps] when they said “action”, five minutes straight she just pedal to the metal.

BT: How would you do in a singing and dancing number?

CM: This is how crazy it gets: there’s a song and dance number that’s happening and as it happens, it influences a fight scene through which Nick is going. So there’s no rhyme or reason [chuckles] we thought it would be really funny if in this crazy, mythological thing that we are building, that we don’t have to have a logic to it, just that it happens. So a fight scene turns into a Busby Berkeley revue.

BT: You’ve spoken to this but Happy! does have a moral centre to it.

CM: I always feel like from the path that you are going, you want to lean away. A small but good illustration of that was to me, from last season. With Happy I have a heart-to-heart in which I say “I’m no hero. I’m going west and you can save that kid, I don’t care”. And before he goes, he says “And leave 20 per cent for the waitress”, and I take, I take a dollar off. It’s like:[laughs loudly] “What a dirtbag!” and it’s just like, well, that’s who he is, and that’s in a moment of redemption where he’s heroic.

BT: And you get away with so much on a network series.

CM: God bless Syfy. I hesitated to sign on where what is written never makes it to screen, because whatever broadcast entity is holding it, they get cold feet. And it happens, and so Syfy assured us that they were going to present this show as what was on the page and they were of their word, and I think it benefitted them. I don’t know one person who hasn’t watched it and been like “I haven’t seen anything like Happy! on TV.” I mean, every person says that.

BT: Who have been some of the people that you’ve worked with who you’d work with again?

CM: In my career? [pauses] Tom Fontana of Oz, St. Elsewhere, Homicide, David Milch,  who I credit with giving me my first huge break. I did an arc on NYPD Blue and I’ve always loved his writing. David Chase. Those are some off the top of my head.

BT: How about scene partners?

CM: I gotta tell you, I think I’m a little hypnotized by the people right now who I’m working with. I don’t mean this as a plug to them -though they know that I love them deeply and I’m so completely happy right now. I want to go back to work [slaps hands] right now and go again, with each and every one of them.

BT: You really say to an audience: you can discover this series, or you can look away?

CM: [laughs] I found it a funny story, I have a doctor friend who is looking at my knee, I have to get my knee operated on, and I told him about my new project and I said “You gotta check it out”. I said “Look: seventy per cent of the people think that it’s the greatest thing they’ve seen in their life. Thirty per cent have gone: “Sigh, not my cup of tea”. All of them are valid.” So I go back again to see him and he says “Hey, I saw your show!”, and I go “Well?” and he goes “Well, I’m thirty per cent”. [laughs extremely loudly] That’s awesome! But you know, I’m absolutely not shy about saying “Do yourself a favour and check it out”, because the truth of the matter is: I don’t think it’s a waste of your time. I absolutely do guarantee that you’ll walk away saying: “I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life on television”. Now if your next step is “I can’t wait to see more” or “I hope I never see it again”—one or the other!  But I’ve never met anyone before who’s like “Ehhhh, I don’t know”, it’s not a wishy-washy reaction you get from this show. And to your point, that’s what I loved about Oz—Oz was a great tragedy right there. That’s how I always looked at it, it’s a modern day Greek tragedy. You were never like “oh, whatever”, you were either locked in or a little bit repelled by it, like this is too much for me. Absolutely fine.

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Brief Take