It's normal to be a little bit scared of Chris Meloni.
Whether you know him as convicted murderer Chris Keller on Oz, intense detective Elliot Stabler on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or ancient vampire Roman Zimojic on True Blood, Meloni's work has been nothing if not intimidating.
"I think my face doesn't help," Meloni says with a knowing smile, leaning in closer. "Maybe that's how I am in real life."
There's no question Meloni looks the part when it comes to the stern, authoritative characters he often plays. In person, he exudes a striking confidence, even when he's being far gentler and funnier than his past roles suggest. He also knows how little it takes to put the person he's talking to on edge, something he does deliberately for a laugh.
Meloni has done comedy before — including memorable turns in 2001's Wet Hot American Summer and 2004's Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle — but now he's diving into the sitcom world with Surviving Jack, which premiered March 27 on Fox.
"I think I was leaning toward a comedy," Meloni explains. He's leaning back in a chair in a near-empty conference room, enjoying a more subdued setting than the rest of his frantic Manhattan press tour. "I hadn't made a conscious decision, but I realized that's what I was looking to do, something a little lighter."
Of course, Meloni's titular character on Surviving Jack isn't far from past roles: Jack Dunlevy is a tough, no-nonsense parent who uses his military training to keep his teenage children in line. His behavior is played for laughs, but Meloni himself continues to cast an imposing shadow.
For Meloni, who has seen his share of similar sitcom dads over the years, Jack's unique characteristics were a selling point.
"I thought it was refreshing," Meloni says. "I enjoyed the uncompromisedness of his viewpoints. I enjoyed the maturity of his relationship with his wife. I enjoyed that it was actually a guy, a parent, who had control of the household, as opposed to that dopey parent thinking they've got control but really the kids rule the roost. Which, I don't know. It's fine. But it's been done."
It might help that the character of Jack is based on a real person — Surviving Jack co-creator Justin Halpern's father, as seen in his autobiographical book I Suck at Girls. Meloni's take on Jack is "one-third me, one-third Justin's dad, and one-third my dad."
Halpern's dad isn't entirely unfamiliar to audiences: He's the subject of Halpern's popular Twitter account Shit My Dad Says, and a subsequent and short-lived television series with William Shatner in the lead. But beyond that, Surviving Jack has little to do with CBS' $#*! My Dad Says series.
"I won't speak for [Halpern], although to say in this particular incarnation, he has far more creative control," Meloni says. "[$#*! My Dad Says] was his maiden voyage into the big, bad land of TV. I don't think he had quite learned how to guide it in the way that he wanted it to be guided. So in any rate, I think this is closer to his original intent."
As opposed to Shatner's Ed, Meloni's Jack is younger and less crotchety — but more authoritative. The single-camera comedy is more grounded in reality, which makes the show funnier, by Meloni's estimation.
"I look for the rhythms — rhythms that come off of authentic behavior, relationships that I understand and recognize and wanna learn more about, which are very difficult to write," he says. "It's easy to go toward shtick, and I think it takes a far more — you have to dig far longer and far deeper to get into what is funny in this absurd situation that we call life and relationships and family and all that, when all those collide."
In order to jump into the world of network comedy, it was important for Meloni to find a script that actually made him laugh. And while he wasn't set on doing a sitcom, he was looking for something different — and less stressful — than past projects.
After five seasons on Oz and a staggering 12 seasons on SVU, it's no surprise Meloni wasn't eager for another dark and gritty drama.
"We used to say, 'March or die,'" Meloni recalls of his time on SVU. "You go into automatic and you just do it."
Which is not to say that comedy doesn't take work: Meloni is putting his all into Surviving Jack. But as for how he feels after a day of filming the sitcom — in contrast to a grueling day on SVU — he admits that there's no comparison.
"The SVU gig is far more exhausting, and I'd find myself strangely exhausted and yet a little bit amped up," he says. "Leaving Surviving Jack, there's a quiet satisfaction. There's a quiet energy and maybe it's because you had more attempts at solving comedic puzzles, so you actually solved little things, and with the SVU gig, that wasn't the case. It was just trying to survive another horrific crime."
In many ways, Surviving Jack is the best of both worlds, allowing Meloni to exercise his comedic chops and not get dragged down by weekly horror stories, while also giving his fans the trademark toughness they've come to expect.
There are still those — particularly anyone who never saw Meloni hump a refrigerator in Wet Hot American Summer — who will have a harder time adjusting to Detective Stabler in a lighthearted comedy. The way Meloni sees it, that contrast between audience expectations and his comedic sensibility will serve Surviving Jack well.
"I think that'll be an asset to the show," he says. "I hope they'll be pleasantly surprised. I hope they'll come away with a smart comedy that hopefully does not stoop to the lowest common denominator, that hopefully aspires to a little more."
And on a larger scale, it keeps both fans and the industry guessing about what Meloni will do next. When he's not filming Surviving Jack, he'll continue to seek out diverse projects that challenge what people expect when they see that face.
"On a very overt, conscious level it's to keep the powers that be guessing so that I'm not pigeonholed," Meloni says. "But I've just always kind of gone with what felt right and good to me. And that's all."