Although deep into the 15th season of the show, this week’s episode of “Law & Order: SVU’ presents an onscreen narrative that doesn’t let up on what seems to be this season’s unofficial theme, ‘when things can go wrong, they will go horribly wrong.’
The single sentence synopsis for the episode, entitled “Criminal Stories,” is, "A reporter jeopardizes a high profile case."
Disclosing a bit more, Executive Producer Warren Leight reveals, “It’s really about these old school reporters and their level of involvement in whatever story they’re covering. We're exploring what happens when they’re so sure of their story that they discredit what our squad is doing and poison the well, really screwing up the investigation.”
This particular ‘old school’ reporter, Jimmy MacArthur, will be portrayed by veteran actor Alec Baldwin.
Certainly ‘SVU’ has had its share of high profile guest stars, but Baldwin may be the most decorated thespian to appear on the show. He’s been nominated for an Oscar, taken home three Golden Globes, two Emmys and six individual Screen Actors Guild Awards.
His inclusion in this episode, given Baldwin's clearly stated disdain for the media, might be considered controversially by some but was a non-issue for Leight and everyone else at ‘SVU.’ In fact, his casting in this role seems to have been fated to be as Leight explained how it transpired, saying, “What’s funny is his name has come up apparently every year and it could never be worked out for him to be on the show for whatever reason. I’d been toying with this idea based in part on these well-known big old Irish columnists in New York and his name came up again. So, I called him up and I got about twelve words into the description of the episode and the role and it turns out he had also been very interested in these columnists. At one point he’d actually optioned a book about one of them to try to produce as a movie with him playing a character from that world. So we were on common ground pretty quickly.”
Helping broker the deal with Baldwin was ‘SVU’ star Mariska Hargitay. “We knew he wanted to work with Mariska, and I just knew that if he was going to do an episode, this was the one he should really be in,” explains Leight. “So Mariska stepped in and kind of facilitated the negotiations a bit.”
Leight goes on to reveal that “It certainly helped that he and Mariska are close friends and that Mariska was directing this episode as well.”
Yes, Hargitay has stepped behind the camera to take on her first stint as an ‘SVU’ director.
I spoke with Leight just as Hargitay was wrapping up the on-set portion of this episode.
“She’s been great,” said Leight, clearly beaming at the work his leading lady was doing in her new role, was also quick to say, “No one here was surprised by that. As an actor, we’ve all watched her all this time and every day that she’s on set, she’s always doing a lot of work on individual scenes in every episode. She’s always had this amazing sense of how to nurture other actors and help them get to their best performance.”
Truth be told, I’ve been on the ‘SVU’ set several times when Hargitay had no idea I was there (so this was not ‘showing off for the reporter’), and I’ve been privileged to witness her work with day players first hand. I’ve seen many show leads who never take a moment to even introduce themselves to these actors, who are asked to come in and play an integral part of an episode, treating them as though they're rather unimportant. Much to the contrary, on numerous occasions, I’ve seen Hargitay, whose very presence is enough to unnerve the most gifted actor because of her stature within the industry, cheerily introduce herself with an outstretched hand and then proceed to discuss with the actor how they should best work together to elevate the scene, a process which clearly yields excellent results.
While her work as an actor on the show certainly informed her sensibilities as a director, Leight explained that while the transition seemed natural for the cast and crew, Hargitay, even with all her experience, was, “probably more anxious about it than any of us were.”
Leight for his part as showrunner had a few issues to work out to make the actor-director hyphenate position work for Hargitay and still keep the show on track. “The process isn’t just as simple as she steps in and directs for the eight day shoot,” clarifies Leight. “There are several days of prep time prior to shooting the episode. Those days involve location scouting and casting and working out all of those details. Then you shoot the episode and then there’s editing and finishing it up and as a director she’s involved in all of that, so what’s really tough is that while she’s trying to do all of this, we still needed her on set as Sergeant Olivia Benson. As acting commander in the squad room, she really couldn't just disappear for large portions of time. Given all of this, we had to really negotiate her time very carefully.”
Hargitay’s commitment to her position at the helm of this episode is evident as she wrangled Leight into letting her fly to Los Angeles to work with the editing team for a few days, one of which was a workday. “She also did a lot of stuff on the weekends as well, working with the writer of this episode (Peter Blauner) and the editors as well throughout the whole production process,” revealed Leight, adding, "This was really an all encompassing project for her and aside from all of the outside pressures, she made it that way for herself because she really wanted to put out the best product possible so that everyone involved would be proud of this episode and she felt that the only way to do that was to be completely immersed in process."
That process probably wasn’t helped by the fact that the scenes of this episode that were shot on location where done so during a week of brutally cold weather. In fact, I ran into the crew one night as they were shooting on the edge of Central Park. It was late and getting colder by the minute and I mentioned to a crew member that I hoped they were going to be finished soon, to which he responded, with a huge grin, “Oh yeah, this episode is going great. I love our director, she’s moving fast and getting it done because, well, she doesn’t like the cold and she doesn’t want us out here any longer than we have to be. She’s always thinking about what’s best for everybody.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I reached out to Hargitay’s publicist but was unable to speak directly with her about this experience. Fortunately, I was able to ask Leight the one question that’s most intrigued me about Hargitay’s move to the director’s chair -- what took so long? “Oh she was definitely ready to do this,” revealed Leight, “but it was about getting everyone on board.” And by everyone he means, the powers-that-be within the Dick Wolf organization. “She’s the first actor in the history of the ‘Law & Order’ franchise to direct an episode of ‘Law & Order’ while she’s still acting in the show,” explained Leight.”There’s been this edict, really since time began, that no one on a Dick Wolf show can direct a Dick Wolf show. But, the counter argument was that if anyone has earned it, she has. It was sort of corporate policy and it often takes a while for things to change. In this case, the change was clearly well-deserved and worth it.” At this point, Leight laughed a little and said, “My feeling is that any other actor who does a Dick Wolf show for 15 years should get the same shot.” (So there’s hope for you actors on “Chicago Fire!” – in 2027!)
Circling back to talk specifically about “Criminal Stories,” Leight added, “I didn’t really want Mariska to be in every scene while she was directing, but because of the story, she belonged in as many scenes as we can get her into. This was because I felt a sense of obligation to Alec and to Mariska to give them really meaty scenes. There are some very serious confrontations between Baldwin and Hargitay who are two very interesting actors to watch as they go at it. Our goal was to have a compelling storyline that they could take opposite sides of and both come out of that looking smart. We understand where both of them are coming from. I think we pulled it off.”
In the end, Leight summed it up with this simple statement, “He’s a big star, she’s directing her first episode, no one wanted to screw it up.”
With the obvious amount of intense work and passion from all parties involved, it truly seems there’s little chance of that.
Two hashtags this week! = #MariskaDirects and #BaldwinOnSVU
“Law & Order: SVU” airs Wednesday at 9e/p on NBC.
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