The fourteenth season of LAW & ORDER: SVU, which airs Wednesdays at 9 PM on NBC, got off to a turbulent onscreen start, what with a scandal that nearly cost the squad Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) and wound up getting a lot of politicians and district attorneys fired.
Enter new District Attorney Rafael Barba, played by Raul Esparza, a multiple-Tony-nominated actor who previously appeared on the original LAW & ORDER and LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT as other characters. In tonight’s episode “25 Acts,” Barba is brought onto a case by Mariska Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson involving the young author of an explicit novel who is sexually assaulted by a talk show host (Roger Bart). Anna Chlumsky, who first came to audience notice twenty years ago as the lead in the MY GIRL movies and is now a regular on VEEP, plays the novelist Jocelyn.
Chlumsky and Esparza do a joint group phone interview (two of them, multiple reporters). They clearly enjoyed their work together, laughing a lot and adding to what the other has said as they discuss their time on SVU.
Both actors are fans of LAW & ORDER. Chlumsky clarifies, “I kind of have my own personal rule as a woman in the city to only watch three in a row before you start to check under your bed and check your closet, but that said, I do enjoy the show.”
Esparza adds, “What’s great about [SVU] is that there’s a warmth to the characters on this that I have never felt on any of the other LAW & ORDERs, and that sort of personal investment is fascinating. You find you invest in the characters as much as you do in the story, and that’s pretty cool, actually. For an actor to be able to do procedural work and sustain that for fourteen seasons, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment.”
As for what drew them to their characters, Chlumsky says, “We really get to see a whole picture with Jocelyn.” As opposed to being simply a plot device, “She unequivocally matters to this episode, and that was really encouraging. Also, the way she’s written –she’s got a lot of textures going on inside her life, and that’s what I’m always drawn to.”
Esparza relates, “Usually, it’s the criminal of the victim that ends up getting the meaty stuff. In this case, [SVU show runner] Warren Leight has written a spectacular new D.A. character for a guest star. He’s a really delicious son of a bitch to play. Rafael Barba I think is a riff on my name, Raul Esparza.Warren said he wanted to write a part for me, give me something really meaty to sink my teeth into, and boy, has he. Barba is a D.A. that is moving laterally from Brooklyn toManhattan. He’s ambitious. He’s known as a ‘closer’ in terms of being able to win the unwinnable cases. He’s an arrogant man and he’s a tough man, and he and Benson go head-to-head a great deal in the episode, which I like a lot. He’s not necessarily a likable or a pleasant D.A. He’s even contentious with his client. At the same time, he’s a good man.”
Both actors say they had a blast on the SVU set. Chlumsky describes the atmosphere as “really inviting.”
“The set’s really friendly,” Esparza says. “And Mariska particularly is just an incredibly welcoming host, so to speak. If she didn’t set that tone, then you couldn’t play. And one of the best things I felt, I don’t want to put words in Anna’s mouth, but the two of us had a good time. We had fun trying stuff. It is very easy to feel very unwelcome when you are a guest star on a TV show, because they know you’re in their thing, you just jump in, you jump out, you’re done, and this wasn’t like that at all. We felt like a group of hoodlums, actually, who had taken over the courtroom. We had a very good time, and [Hargitay] just set that tone. But they all did it. It’s a good group of people over there.”
As Esparza is known primarily for his stage work, which he loves, is there anything that film or TV affords him that live performance does not? “What’s great about being in front of a camera,” Esparza says, “is that you can do it over and over again until you get it right. You can make lots of mistakes and nobody knows about them. Another thing that’s amazing is that you get really challenged to try to find the most simple and direct way to convey all the things that it might take you a whole play to reach the back of the house with. You have to figure out how to do that in the simplest and most direct way in that moment in front of the camera, to figure out how little you can do that conveys the most. It’s a big learning curve and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”
Chlumsky has also done quite a lot of stage work, and played both comedy and drama on camera. “The way I like to approach anything, regardless of the tone of it, is just to get at the truth of it, to play the character and play her story as truthfully as possible. You end up having to trust the text very much, in a comedy to get the laughs, or in a drama, as Raul was saying, to just really convey what’s happening. As long as you’re present, then you’re getting it across.”
Esparza teases, “That being said, she’s really a laugh riot in this episode.”
Asking how they liked working with each other brings a volley of further quips.
“We’re never going to be asked back,” Esparza sighs, “because all we do is laugh.”
Chlumsky is aware that Esparza is signed to a recurring role. “Well, you’re lying, Raul, because you got asked back.”
More seriously, Esparza notes, “It is an iconic show that has a very cohesive family over there. Anna and I had a really good time together, and had each other’s backs, which is not typical.”
“We had a wonderful opportunity to work with amazing [people],” Chlumsky says, “both the regular actors and the guest actors. Raul and I just met on this, and we’re coffee daters now.”
Esparza agrees, “Yeah, we’re fast friends. And let me tell you, that never happens. You never become friends with people you work with. We found a great new restaurant!”
As for working with Bart, who plays the assailant, Esparza relates, “I’ve known Roger for many years, but we’ve never worked together. It took a TV show to make it happen instead of a Broadway show, so that’s funny. I knew of Roger [from the time] I did a show Off-Broadway called TICK … TICK … BOOM! that Jon Larson wrote, because the Larson family had been close friends with Roger Bart for a long time – Jon Larson named the role of Roger in RENT after Roger Bart. Roger’s someone I have admired greatly, and boy, is that man funny and wonderful to play with.”
Chlumsky adds, “I have admired Roger for a long time – I met him on this project. Roger Bart and Elizabeth Marvel. It was awesome.”
“Elizabeth Marvel is like a goddess, playing the opposing counsel,” Esparza enthuses.
Chlumsky’s role called for her to do some grueling physical sequences. “This is the first time on screen I’ve had to do such intense, violent-type work. I’ve done stuff like that on stage before, but on screen, it’s a different animal. You definitely know you’re at work, which is a wonderful thing. After they say, ‘Cut,’ you’re not in that any more. They definitely allow you to communicate as an actor. I never felt that I didn’t have a voice; I was definitely always a part of the collaboration on those scenes, and that was really generous of them and important, given the nature of those scenes. One of our first rehearsals was a stunt rehearsal, and so that right away made me go, ‘Oh, yeah, they’ve got it figured out. They’ve been doing this a long time.’”
As for the themes of “25 Acts,” Esparza says, “It’s clearly hinting at FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. So there’s an extra level of disturbing quality. We have this very civilized and very prudish conversation generally about sex inAmerica. When a book like this comes out – yeah, it’s titillating, it’s silly, it’s also fun as hell, but it’s also something that we’re clearly not comfortable with as a country. And we’re very fast to say that anything that deviates from the norm is bad and should be punished, which is actually what this episode is about, much more than it is about the book.”
Chlumsky elaborates, “I think the episode is really capturing the questions that something like this raises. It strikes a note of, ‘Are we ashamed of things like this? Are we not? Should we be ashamed of things like this? Should we not? Are there consequences? Are there not?’ And even just as a matter of public and private life, if you know something is written in a book, if you fantasize something, does that mean [you want to experience it in reality]?”
Adds Esparza, “Another central theme in the episode is how women are perceived, what kind of power women have, whether or not a woman is allowed to fantasize and write about it. In this case, they’re saying [writing about it makes her the same as] a whore. That’s a really interesting double standard that we have.”
“Yeah,” Chlumsky agrees. “We’ve come such a long way in the dialogue [about sex], but really, does it still objectify the female party? It’s about prejudice, I think, as well as all the sexual things.”
Do either of them have advice for aspiring actors? My advice to actors generally is be yourself,” Esparza says. “I think it’s a business, particularly in Hollywood, that goes out of its way to find the next insert-name-here. And you cannot be that person. What you have to do is your work, and you do your work and do your work and stick with it. And the best work you can do is use yourself and be yourself. Now, that sounds simple, but it’s so damn hard, because especially when you’re starting out, you have no goddamn idea who you are and who you’re supposed to be. It’s easy for [casting directors and agents] to say, ‘Be like this. Be like that. Change this about yourself. What we’re looking for is the next Brad Pitt.’ Well, I will never be the next Brad Pitt. It’s simply not going to happen. But I can be the next Raul Esparza.”
“The one and only,” Chlumsky interjects.
“You have to somehow hold onto that,” Esparza continues. “It’s not an easy task to set yourself, because it requires faith that that what you have to offer is worth something, even if everybody tells you it’s not. But that’s honestly the only way I’ve managed to stay sane. The other thing I’d say is that everybody’s path is their own. I could no more build my career exactly the way Anna has built hers if I tried to follow her every step. You can’t just say to somebody, ‘How did you do it?’ and then try to do it that way, as though there were a formula. Everybody’s path is their own and there are no mistakes on that path, which is another hard thing to remember, because it’s so easy as an actor to lose hope and to feel like it’s not going to work out when all you have to hang onto is yourself. It helps to have good friends and it helps to try to know your own heart and believe that what your heart has to say is something somebody wants to hear.”
“And my advice,” says Chlumsky, “persevere, number one. Trust your work, because that’s what you’ve got. There is no recipe, and Raul’s absolutely right, but I do think there’s a universality to be seen doing your best work. The second you can be seen doing it, take that advantage. I think it’s better to be working than sitting at home waiting for the phone call.”
“When you’re starting out,” Esparza relates, “for me it was, take everything you can, because you just want to work. I don’t know about you, Anna, but I learned from other actors. Like I just watch you and steal shamelessly.”
Chlumsky laughs. “Well, good for you, because you’re going to be amazing if you watch me.” In earnest, she concludes, “If you pay attention to the way that humans behave, if you pay attention to what any of us do, you’re working, and that’s really exciting. [As an actor], you always have a job. You may not have work, but you always have a job, and your job is to act. That was wonderful advice my mother gave me when things were looking hairy for awhile. And my last [advice] is – Bette Davis said this – love the sweat.”
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Article: Interview: with LAW & ORDER: SVU actors Raul Esparza and Anna Chlumsky