How “Law & Order: SVU” Mastered The Art Of Casting

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit casting director Jonathan Strauss reflects on 11 years of casting guest stars, giving Hollywood’s biggest names their first major jobs, and helping A-list actors transform their careers.

After 10 seasons and 240 episodes, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit casting director Jonathan Strauss estimates he’s hired nearly 10,000 actors for a smattering of speaking roles over the last 11 years. And while many guest stars never graduate to the big leagues, SVU has, like the Law & Order mothership before it, served as the launching pad for a dizzying array of stars who’ve gone on to win Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys.

BuzzFeed sat down with Strauss in his offices on Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers, on the Hudson River, to reminisce about 13 actors who got their acting start, or revitalized their careers, on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

3. Zoe Saldana

NBC

When: “Criminal” (Season 5, Episode 21)
Who: Gabrielle Vega, a law student defending her father (James McDaniel) against murder charges.

“Zoe is one I had my eye on for a while,” Strauss told BuzzFeed. “It’s no secret now, but there’s no one like her, and there really was no one like her 10 years ago. At the time, my not-so-secret-mission was to implant characters on the show who could become something more. In this case, her character was in law school and my hope was she could turn into an assistant district attorney. In the end, it ended up not being practical because she became famous very quickly and the scheduling was too complicated.”

4. Amanda Seyfried

NBC

When: “Outcry” (Season 6, Episode 5)
Who: Tandi McCain, a rape victim whose ever-changing story baffles Benson and Stabler.

“Amanda was a star from the time I met her, and it’s not even a rearview mirror thing; even at 15, her talent was obvious. I was working on an episode about a young pop star who was being stalked by a rabid fan [‘Obscene,’ Season 6, Episode 3]. It was a huge search, and I use those kinds of opportunities to canvas the talent pool of the moment, so for that role I auditioned Megan Fox, Kat Dennings, Amanda Seyfried, and Maggie Grace, who ended up getting the role. I wanted Amanda for that part, but I kept her in mind when ‘Outcry’ came around. She auditioned and my producer was concerned because the character has a turn where you realize she’s protecting her abuser and he didn’t believe the turn. So I ran after Amanda in the hallway, gave her the note before she came back in, and she got the role. To me, she was famous from day one.”

5. Bradley Cooper

NBC

When: “Night” (Season 6, Episode 20)
Who: Jason Whitaker, a lawyer hired to defend a man accused of preying on illegal immigrants.

“I got him early, but not first — I remember first seeing him on The $treet, and then Alias really put him on the map. He was obviously great, and I wanted to get him on the show, but he was never available. Even early on, he was always working, at least in my experience; he might sing a different tale. They weren’t sure he’d want to do a one-off, but then a crossover episode with Trial by Jury [NBC’s short-lived 2005 L&O spin-off] came up. It was a two-hour event, and I had built this amazing cast with Angela Lansbury, Alfred Molina, and Rita Moreno, so I had some serious artillery to go to his people with. He ended up just being in the one episode, but it was enough to get him excited because you have to be crazy to not want to work with legendary talent like that. He played an attorney, and, again, I had secret visions of him becoming a new, male assistant district attorney. That was my hope for him, the problem is when you get someone as exceptional as Bradley, they don’t stay available for too long.”

6. Paul Wesley

When: “Ripped” (Season 7, Episode 4)
Who: Luke Breslin, the son of Stabler’s former partner, who is accused of attacking a classmate.

“Paul Wesley, or Paul Wasilewski as we were calling him then, had been on the show before [Wesley also appeared in Season 2’s ‘Wrong Is Right’], but this episode, ‘Ripped,’ was a very difficult episode to cast because of the age I needed for the character — Penn Badgley, Chris Carmack, Vincent Piazza, and Channing Tatum all auditioned for that role. I did major sessions on both coasts for that.”

7. Rooney Mara

NBC

When: “Fat” (Season 7, Episode 20)
Who: Jessica DeLay, the duplicitous victim of a brutal beating by two overweight people.

“This was the first on-camera job for Rooney Mara, who I knew as Trisha Mara. She was fantastic. I remember reading a trade piece about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it mentioned her discovery in a ‘little episode of SVU.’ I felt like our show was being marginalized in a weird way. Obviously, there is a separation between the glamour in some circles, but when you break down movies versus television in terms of actor exposure, the amount of box office a movie has to do to reach the same amount of eyeballs as a single night of television is startling.”

8. Norman Reedus

NBC

When: “Influence” (Season 7, Episode 22)
Who: Derek Lord, a rock star whose negative views on psychiatry cause a young girl (Brittany Snow) to go off her medication.

“He does not march to the beat of anyone else’s drum but his own, and that’s why the character on Walking Dead is so perfect for him. Funnily enough, it was no different when he showed up to our set. He showed up and, without overstating it, we had a lot of trouble finding the right person because a lot of actors were putting on the vibe of the rocker and the renegade and the bad boy. But Norman didn’t have to act, he just lived that kind of guy. I remember my resident director/producer called me up like, ‘Who is this guy? What is this force of nature you’ve unleashed on our set?’ That’s when I knew I had found the guy and he was great in the episode.”

9. Elle Fanning

When: “Cage” (Season 8, Episode 8)
Who: Eden, a foster child whose rocky past deeply disturbs Detective Beck (Connie Nielsen).

“Elle didn’t audition. I saw her first in The Door in the Floor [her 2004 film, co-starring Jeff Bridges], and I’d been trying to book her for a while, but even at 5 years old, she was constantly working. I remember trying to convince her manager to get her to do this part because I knew she was available, which was always the hardest part. It’s funny, you never know when actors are that young if they’re going to grow out of it. Sometimes, as kid actors grow up, they become self-conscious about their acting as opposed to when they’re 5 years old and just doing and not thinking. Elle is someone who has transitioned very well.”

10. Emily VanCamp

NBC

When: “Dependent” (Season 8, episode 14)
Who: Charlotte Truex, the mysterious woman who may know more about her mother’s murder than she lets on.

“Emily auditioned for the female lead in ‘Ripped,’ and her audition was fantastic, but it wasn’t appropriate for that episode. But that audition got her this guest spot. And that’s how it works a lot with our show, because we just have so many holes to fill.”

11. Cynthia Nixon

NBC

When: “Alternate” (Season 9, Episode 1)
Who: Janis Donovan, a woman with multiple personalities who is accused of child abuse.

“Cynthia Nixon is a force of nature. The first time I met her was for Maid in Manhattan [a 2002 romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez] — she came very close to booking the role Natasha Richardson played. The funny story with SVU is I used to work next door to her manager and she’d always knock on our door to see who just left, so I got to know her very well. I was at the opening of [David] Mamet’s play Race and I ran into her manager at the after-party, which is where I brought up the idea of getting Cynthia on our show. That conversation is what led to Cynthia’s Emmy-winning performance. [Nixon won Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2008.]”

12. Sarah Paulson

NBC

When: “Shadow” (Season 11, Episode 12)
Who: Anne Gillette, the prime suspect in her wealthy parents’ murder.

“Sarah is another actor I had been after for a long time, but who was never, ever available. This episode came up and it was a big episode because Naveen Andrews was hot off of Lost. He was coming on for an arc as a new detective, which we never were able to follow through on, but it was a great role for Sarah. She was this wolf in sheep’s clothing, but I couldn’t close the deal because she was moving apartments. This is such a New York thing, but she was moving, and if you live here, you know that moving is no joke. Of course, I was upset because this was such a great role — and I tried to convince her to move after she was done, but the movers were hired and all that. I even offered to send our production crew to help her move because this could not be the reason that prevented us from working together. Ultimately, it all got squared away, but that was nearly the role that never happened.”

13. Kathy Griffin

When: “P.C.” (Season 11, Episode 13)
Who: Babs Duffy, an LGBTQIA crusader who believes the police are indifferent to the attacks on her community.

“A lot of that did come from our showrunner, who kept running into Kathy. I always thought she was super talented. She also came close on a role in Maid in Manhattan, the part Amy Sedaris ended up playing, which was a Pilates instructor. Her audition was the laugh riot for my life, [but she] didn’t get it for reasons outside her control. We had an idea for a story Kathy was perfect for, and the integration of her reality show [the process was documented for Bravo’s My Life on the D-List] with our TV show was kind of exciting at the time. I was, and still am, very into the YouTube crossover, the integration of new mediums, and cross-promotions to bring in a new audience.”

14. Jennifer Love Hewitt

When: “Behave” (Season 12, Episode 3)
Who: Vicki Sayers, a rape victim who claims the same man has repeatedly attacked her for 15 years.

“Jennifer Love Hewitt is one of my top 10 guest spots on SVU ever, and anyone who wants to argue with me about this hasn’t seen this episode. She gave the performance of her career, and I will admit there were naysayers when I told everyone I wanted to bring her in for this role. I’ve always been a fan, and felt like she simply hadn’t been asked to challenge herself in that way. The pre-conditions of hiring her were that we wanted her to take the role on like boot camp: no makeup, no hair, very stripped down. She was so gung-ho, and so ready to do that; it was the perfect timing and I’ve learned that it’s all about timing in this business.”

15. James Van Der Beek

NBC

When: “Father Dearest” (Season 13, Episode 20)
Who: Sean Albert, a suspect accused of targeting young women.

“For me, James falls in the category of ‘Surprise! Surprise!’ He was supposed to be in an episode years ago, but had to drop out at the last minute, so this came up and was a role I felt could work almost against the audience because the character was so creepy and, in a way, everyone wants to bring James home to mom. He’s so apple pie, and that made his performance so much more cringe-worthy. Without his real-life persona, I don’t know if the episode would have worked.”

16. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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