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The star of everything from Harold & Kumar to Law & Order: SVU to Man of Steel to Small Time, Christopher Meloni is one of the most versatile and under-appreciated actors in Hollywood today. The always distinctive Meloni is the essence of a journeyman actor, adding color and dimensionality to characters while maximizing their impact on the story. And in Small Time, the chameleon plays a used car salesman, quite possibly one of the most likable ever put on film, who struggles to come to terms with the vagaries of his profession after his son decides he wants to work alongside dad.
Meloni spoke to Spinoff Online at the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, where the actor compared and contrasted his past work on the small screen with his current work on the big one. Additionally, he discussed the research he did into playing a used car salesman, and reflected on the variety of challenges he’s faced throughout his career, and how he looks at each new one as it comes up.
Spinoff Online: What sort of research did you do to play a used car salesman?
Christopher Meloni: I read a couple of books on car salesmen and their tricks of the trade. My brother-in-law is, in fact, a slasher, and my sister-in-law worked for him. I actually went to two used car lots just to get their shtick — as a customer. I didn’t say, “Hey, how are you?” I went there saying, “Yeah. I’m interested in buying a car.” I just wanted to hear them talk and (find out) what their game was. It was kind of interesting.
Did they sell you one?
No. I wasn’t in the market. Come on!
Did they use any of the tactics your character uses in the film?
No. One guy, I thought of him as a pusher. Almost physically, with his energy, pushing me towards — anytime I went towards something that cost less money — he never let on that who he thought I was — he’d almost physically push me towards the bigger price-tagged stuff. It was fascinating how he did that. He was like a sheepdog, pushing the sheep toward the money pit. The other guy wasn’t quite as interesting. He was more lackadaisical in his (approach). That, I thought, was the ultra soft sell. They’re never not there for a reason, for a purpose. It’s like good acting: What’s your super objective? To get me to open up my wallet.
There’s a lot of comedy in the film as well. Coming from hard drama, did anyone ever tell you you’re not funny?
Well, right from the start you get that when I would tell people, “Yeah, it’s about a used car salesman.” And everyone goes, “Ooh, that’s what you’re going for?” It’s like, “No, no. He’s a salesman. He just happens to be a used car salesman.” It’s not that thing, you know? I mean, used car salesman is the punch line of a joke.
I liked the chemistry between you and Dean Norris. Are you guys old friends, or how did you build the chemistry?
How did it happen? He came in, he was obviously highly intelligent, a curious actor — not curious, but he was curious in his character, these moments, our relationship, so immediately, I understood we had a common language. He’s a very funny guy, he works and plays well with others. He and I — it was a playful relationship, playful spirit. Two guys grounded in having known each other a long time, trusted each other with their lives. And at the end of the day, I think, and I think this is with any project, as long as everyone is understanding — if you can check egos at the door and understand it’s not you and the canvas, it’s you and a bunch of people in front of a canvas, let’s all grab a brush and paint it together. That’s how it worked out, that everyone’s in this together. It was really nice. I trusted him, and I believe he trusted me, and I think that’s what you get. Two guys, sense of humor, trusting each other.
I think also, to your point you said earlier, that people still enjoy the act of, “Let’s go out. Let’s go see not something being blown up or someone in distress or the clock is ticking. Let’s go see an old-time movie or just a small character study of something or some time or someone.”
What was it that initially attracted you to the project?
It was one of the better scripts that I’d read. I liked the sensibility of it. I thought it was a little bit of a throwback. It was a quite, soft, funny, introspective movie. I guess I felt as though that diet is lacking on our viewing plate these days.
Was there something you were looking forward to bringing to it that wasn’t in the script?
No, but I’ll say this, when I read the script, I had some notes. I had some questions for Joel, and I went to meet Joel. To his credit, a lot of the questions I asked, he [responded], “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer. Let’s…” So I thought, this is a guy who isn’t locked down to any, “This is the way it has to be.” He was very open to a collaborative spirit and I thought it worked out well.
You said Joel’s script was very good, and you could tell right away, but you’ve done a lot of feature films. What do you see lacking in feature film scripts as opposed to the pressurized but high quality of TV?
Well, I’m not quite sure I’d agree with the premise. I mean, that’s how I read them, they’re always the same, which is, they don’t make sense, they’re too talky, because it’s a visual medium. Or if they are talky, for example, the SVU things; you don’t have the money or the time to have big kind of visual vistas in the show. It has to move quickly. Well, if it moves quickly, it has to be engaging, a bit intricate, it has to touch on a social issue or a personal issue, you know? You have to hit certain touchstones. For that type of show, that’s what you needed. Films, to me, what will kill you is if it’s just too talkie, talkie and we’re not moving the story forward.
Did you ever do anything in your early careers like the commercials the character tries to create in the movie?
Yeah, doing commercials got me out of the bars. I don’t mean drinking. I mean as a bouncer and a bartender. I made my living for almost two years.
Did you get a national commercial?
Gobs of them. I was the guy out of New York for about a year and a half. American Express, Stroh’s. Remember Spike the dog? Burger King. I was doing all this shtick.
Is it’s exciting getting back into TV with Fox’ Surviving Jack?
I don’t know about exciting, but what was nice and refreshing was to go to work every day and your biggest worry was to try and find the funny, as opposed to trying to find the child molester, which is funny. “Oh, red herring. Who saw that coming? Jesus Christ. Are you sure it’s not him?” You know, I feel subliminally you’re calling me detective idiot, but let me tell you something, I solved a crime a week for 24 straight weeks a year. You stumble along the way once in a while. I lost my temper.
Ten years from now when you look back, what’s your highlight of this project and what’s the significance of it?
What mine was it was the scene with my son and actually a couple of the scenes with my son. As an actor, to get a scene that resonates emotionally with you, it was just fantastic. I really enjoyed those scenes a lot.