If Detective Elliot Stabler of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is all you think about whenever you see Christopher Meloni, then you don’t know Christopher Meloni. From Wet Hot American Summer and the Harold & Kumar movies to Man of Steel, the actor has contorted himself so much that it’s almost impossible to know who he is. This is especially true of his work on Syfy’s deranged comedy series Happy!, in which he plays the alcoholic ex-cop turned hitman Nick Sax.
Meloni frequently dials everything up to 11 and beyond in Happy! Season 2 which premieres Wednesday, March 27th at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Yet this doesn’t mean that Meloni and Sax are one in the same, right?
“Hold on a minute,” he told Den of Geek during a phone interview last week. “I’m on the road and I’ve had one too many Red Bulls.”
Cue a brief bathroom break over the muted phone line and a mutual giggle fit over the absurdity of it all.
“You know, this is a first,” he laughs. “I’ve never had to interrupt an interview because I had to go to the bathroom at a highway rest stop, but it’s great. We’re just sitting here, talking about playing this profane character, and then this happens. This is meta. I’m glad it wasn’t number two, though.”
Den of Geek: What is the dynamic on the Happy! set, in terms of doing comedy? Is it very loose, in terms of multiple takes and trying things, or are things usually set in stone?
Christopher Meloni: At least for me, in terms of how my brain structures these things, it’s not loose. The atmosphere is easy but disciplined. It’s still fun. It’s only loose in that nothing is dogmatic in whatever we’re doing, or whatever the madness is at that moment. But even with the improvising, there’s a structure. You may step into it and, in that moment, it’ll be beautiful and magical and unexpected. But there’s an underlying rhythm to comedy. There’s a discipline to making something land. It can be something as silly as the stress on the second syllable of a certain word. It’s the unwritten science of comedy. Or, at least that’s the world that I live in. I never feel loose. I’m constantly trying to figure out the beats. It’s almost like reading sheet music. You have to know where the stresses are suppose to go.
Does it have to make you laugh?
I don’t laugh, actually.This drives my family crazy, but I’ll be in a theater watching a comedy and I’m the guy who, when no one else is laughing or reacting, just goes, “That was funny.” That’s what I do. It’s a reaction to a moment that I didn’t see coming, and I appreciate its execution and rhythm. It tickled me. But I rarely guffaw. I appreciate the art of comedy. That’s my relationship with it.
That reminds me of a story about Steve Martin hosting SNL. The writers would pitch their sketches to him and he wouldn’t laugh, even when he liked them. He’d just say, “That’s pretty funny.”
Right, it’s more of a feeling of appreciation for the craft. I just feel that, when I’m working, I’m not there to laugh at the comedic elements. I’m there do perform them, and I appreciate them when they’re done really well.
But what does make you laugh?
I think the unexpected. That, or something that makes me uncomfortable. Usually things that I find kind of ballsy. So yeah, unexpected behaviors kind of make me laugh, like when a character does something that just really catches me off guard. They’ve tricked me. I didn’t see it coming.
Was there anything like that from the scripts this season that sticks out in your mind?
Not specifically, but yeah. Whenever a writer captures a character’s voice, whether it’s a character you know or an altogether new character, I usually imagine a fresh voice for them that I haven’t heard before. And then we figure out how they’re actually going to speak, or what they’re going to say, and that always gets me.
Any particular examples of this come to mind in terms of Nick Sax?
I know this is probably going to be weird, but I was shocked at how profane he was. I know that sounds so fucking stupid, but I think I was a little worried or something. I almost didn’t want to lose the audience. I wasn’t even sure if this would possible. But then I thought, “Where is this polite thing coming from?” Plus, the scripts were just so good and it was just so much me, or my thing, so I dove into it. That has always surprised me, though, that sense of politeness and being worried about the profanity.
Speaking of Nick, he spent most of season one trying to save his daughter. With season two, he’s thrust into an entirely different story. What, would you say, are his primary motivations this time?
Well, another way we could look at it is, he’s given a task to do, and a pretty gruesome task at that. So he’s forced to control his humanity throughout that as much as he can. Considering how he ran his life before, and still kind of does, he was completed disengaged from it all. From anything remotely resembling humanity. Nick is very selfish and vain. He’s killed a lot of people. Everything was just about him, his needs and his appetites. So he doesn’t have the necessary tools to find his humanity, or to understand it, let alone understanding humanity at large. I don’t think he’s a big fan of humanity. As for season two, he at least knows how to operate in a playground with a bunch of other people now. It’s still a playground with rules that he’s totally unequipped to deal with. It’s like we’re asking him to flip, or turn himself around, but he can’t.
When it comes to interacting with a character who isn’t physically on the set with you, this isn’t your first rodeo. Has that process gotten any easier for you? Or, is there a trick you employ that’s specific to that?
I mean, that’s the wave of the future, but I actually enjoy it, as an actor. Whenever I have scenes that involve talking to a CGI character like Happy, I’m not beholden to another person’s rhythms. I can completely control the tempo of the scene and everything else that’s happening. I can ad lib when I want. It’s very freeing.
Probably feels good to have that much control, too.
Yeah, it’s definitely a really nice feeling to have, as an actor.
Happy! Is an insane show. That being said, when we last spoke, you talked about “always attempting to ground it in a reality that’s meaningful.” Do you still feel that way, even when it’s regarding a show that involves you playing a hitman paired with a unicorn?
Absolutely. Every story has to have a spine to it, something that rings true, or at least seems real. There have to be real stakes for it to matter. So yeah, I play an ex-cop who runs around with his daughter’s imaginary friend, but this season you’re going to find out a lot about Nick. About where where he comes from and why he’s the way he is. It’s those kinds of things, which are grounded in a much reality as possible, that make it tick. That way, you can get a sense of who Nick is as a real human being. Or, at least the real emotions he’s feeling. It’s not just about fun and games all the time.
Happy! season 2 premieres Wednesday, March 27th at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy.