First, Christopher Meloni traveled back to the 1980s for Netflix’s “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” reprising his role from the 2001 film as a deranged chef. Now, he’s going back to the 1970s, where he’s considerably more stable playing the stepfather of the sexually awakened narrator of “Diary of a Teenage Girl.”
Tell us about “Diary of a Teenage Girl.”
It’s a coming-of-age story set in the mid- to late 1970s San Francisco from the eyes of a precocious young lady who is immersed in the world of graphic novels like [those of] R. Crumb. The story is told as if it’s coming off the pages of the graphic novel. I had a smallish role and I enjoyed my place in the whole piece. It was not a guy with a lot of bells and whistles, but he had a very defined place and all of that comes through in one or two scenes. It was a different type of character for me to play.
What do you wish you’d known before you started acting?
One answer could be nothing, because my blind ignorance was my most powerful weapon. But I would have to say taking care of the business side of things. It’s not enough to be an actor, learn the craft, emote your heart out. It’s about understanding the biz; try to catch on to where the business is at so you know where it’s going. Then I would find a great audition teacher. I left a lot of potential on the table simply because I’m not a good auditioner.
On whom do you have an acting crush?
Bradley Cooper, because when he’s on camera he’s so strikingly good-looking. When I watch him, he’s not using his looks—or he’s using them in the context of his character. [And] from day one, it’s been Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s almost upsetting how good he is.
What was your worst survival job?
The worst job was being a waiter—and I had some really bad jobs, whether it was demolition or working at a gay gym. I love me my gays, but I hadn’t been exposed to that as a young kid. But I hated being a waiter because I’m not good at people. The cornerstone of being a waiter is “the customer is always right,” but I’m an actor who is being taught to challenge everything. There’s action and reaction. And you have to deal with these people who are reasonable or not very nice. I lasted three weeks.
What is your worst audition horror story?
Almost all of the ones for jobs wound up with this cold, awkward silence in the room and me standing there with my pores open from sweat. The unspoken word is, “Who let the impostor in the room?” I’ll just slink out of there and I’ll go back to my untalented hole. Once, I got a call from an agent or his assistant—he wanted to meet with me. He keeps me waiting for an hour. As desperate as I had been, I’m now pissed off. I walk into his office and he says, “Why are you here?” and I say, “You called me, man!” He asks if I’d prepared anything. I hadn’t, so I did my go-to monologue—it was about baseball. It’s horrible. And I sit down and he says, “How do you think that went?” He let me know my grade before I left the room.
How did you get your SAG-AFTRA card?
I did an under five on a soap opera; I think it was “As the World Turns.” I can’t even remember, because there aren’t any soap operas left. There was no defined moment; it was backdoor buy-in.
How do you typically prepare for an audition?
It took me a long time to find the right combination. It used to be I’d study it and memorize it to the best of my ability, but I got a sense of staleness from that. I did it laissez-faire, and that just kind of fucked me because I needed a better structure. It’s more of a feel. It goes back to your basic training: Break it down, understand the beats and intentions, study it, and then leave it at the door. It gives you a sense of your mission and intention, your emotional timbre, but it doesn’t set you adrift and it doesn’t calcify you into being overly dogmatic.
Which of your performances has left a lasting mark on you?
I think Chris Keller on “Oz,” because he was granted such freedom in his action. It’s rare you’re allowed that place where you can project that type of character, because it can be unwatchable to people and it scares them. And Elliot Stabler [on “Law & Order: SVU”], by virtue of his longevity. I lived with that character for 12 years. He had a lot of aspects of life to play with.