The Law & Order franchise of shows is known for the caliber of its guest stars. From movies, TV and theater, they come to play victims -- or, more often, perpetrators -- of horrible crimes. And to kick off the new season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the producers scored a couple of doozies. Luke Perry, formerly of Jeremiah, Oz and the original 90210 plays the father of a troubled boy, and Sara Gilbert of Big Bang Theory and Roseanne fame plays a rape victim who had to give up her child. The two of them participated in a conference call recently with show producer Neal Baer, and they talked a lot about the process of playing such intense roles -- including a certain Dylan McKay... read on for the highlights of the conference call.
Sara, can you tell us how your character, Kaitlyn, factors into this particular episode?
Sara Gilbert: My character is a rape victim and she has post-traumatic stress disorder from the incident, to the point where she can't really function anymore. And in order to basically save her child, she has to give him up. So then I end up seeing him again -- I run into him when I come in to the station.
Neal Baer: And what's interesting with Sara's character is she's really -- I mean, just physically and emotionally -- a mess, as you'll see, and Mariska's character feels guilty because she didn't remember at first taking on this case some years ago. And Sara's character is the impetus for Mariska to deal with really dark things in her own life. And so there are scenes with Mariska alone where she flashes back onto some very bad things that happened to her in a previous episode when she is attacked. And that's kind of launched by this very intense scene she has with Sara where she goes to see Sara's character and empathizes, and then later is kind of reliving her own attack.
Luke Perry: And I think that's great, because this show -- you know, they don't just do "victim of the week" or "bad guy of the week." All this stuff comes back to inform their regular characters, and it really keeps that part of the engine of the show running. That's how you get a show that stays on the show ten years. People care about all that stuff across the board. And they're really smart the way they lay it out there.
What was it about this particular story, this particular group of characters that made you want to do this show?
Gilbert: I'm a fan of the show and the writing and the actors, so I was excited that they were interested in me to begin with. And then I always think it's exciting when I get to play a dramatic character. People know me more for comedy I think, so it's always exciting to me when I get to play something so dramatic.
Perry: Yeah, and it was great for me to get to watch her do that, you know, because from what I know of Sara's work, we all think she has razor-sharp timing, perfect delivery, you know, and those are the great tools in comedy. But it was great for me to see that she's also got a really deep bag of dramatic stuff that she can do, too. And that's always exciting as an actor when you get to work with somebody and you get to see them do something completely different.
Gilbert: Yeah, I felt that way about Luke, too. I watched him growing up, and it's really fun to work with somebody that you've only watched on television before.
Baer: You'll cry when you see Sara and Luke, and you'll be shocked, seeing them both in really interesting roles that are unexpected.
Perry: And that's what's great about a show like Law & Order because, you know, it's been around so long. Those guys have such a well-oiled machine. It's great for people like me and Sara to come in, and they have the confidence in you to let you try something completely different and completely new.
Sara, what did you do to get into the head of your character?
Gilbert: I worked with my coach Katelyn Adams, who I love, and then I also talked to a couple of rape victims, one in particular who had had post traumatic stress disorder, to kind of figure out what that's like. And, you know, I guess she talked about a lot of numbness and stuff, so that really helped me understand how it's hard to function and what happens. And then I just tried to think about losing the things that are most important to me. What would make me so disabled that I would, you know, start to lose the things in my life that mean something to me.
As an actor playing a role on a show with such dark subject matter, how easy is it to get into the role at the beginning of a day and how sort of hard is it to shake it off at the end of the night?
Gilbert: I find that it's not easy to shake a role. It really kind of sticks with you through the shooting. And, whenever I read a script I'm kind of like, "Uh-oh, this one is going to be a bummer in a few weeks," or "This will be easy, emotionally," because when you say words all day and go through situations it's pretty powerful.
Perry: Yeah, you know, the saying is true. Some characters you can just -- literally, I can just walk out of them at the end of the day, never think about it again and go home. Some of the stuff that has a little more gravitas to it, it just -- there's so many things especially with this show because it's all happening right now, and it's all very contemporary. So even after I'm done doing it, I walked away from it and for a couple weeks I still -- things would happen and it would make me think about it. It would still be relevant in my mind. And once you've played a part, and you've put yourself in the position of the "bad guy," you start to see things a little bit differently. And, you know, it's funny -- I knew that was going to be your answer to this, Sara, because I could tell just from the few days that we were together here you had like a weight on your shoulders every day at work.
Gilbert: Yeah, and I feel like with some characters like you can go to lunch and forget about it. Like you were saying, you kind of can go in and out, and I think the heavier characters require a discipline, where you kind of keep yourself in it, because otherwise you're back from lunch and they're like "Okay, we're rolling." And you're still eating your sandwich in your head, and it's just not going to work.
Neal, this show goes to some pretty dark places. Does the subject matter ever wear on you? Is it ever hard not to take it home with you?
Baer: Well, I'm a pediatrician, so I've seen, you know, just in my training a lot of -- a lot. But, you know, our show is also about the social issues and the psychological issues, so even though it's intense, there's heart to it. For instance, Sara's character is really suffering because she's lost her child and she's given him up. And people can relate to that, and even though it may be psychologically challenging or dark, it's not, to me, grim. It does have, you know, some positive outcomes in this particular episode.
Luke, you've had a number of really good guest-starring roles in your career. What do you look for in a guest role?
Perry: It has to be for me something that is absolutely different than anything else I've played, and it needs to be on a show that knows what they're doing. It's really hard to -- I haven't done a lot of guesting. It's hard to do it because you're the new person in the room. You don't always know what you can say and how you can say it, and when you can say it. And, you know, a show like this where everyone is pretty secure in themselves, in their craft and what the show is about, it's great because they give you a lot of room to play. They give you a lot of room to move and they also took really good care of me the whole time I was there. So that was pretty good. I like that.
Do you enjoy playing the bad guy?
Perry: Well I don't see them as plainly bad, first of all. I mean, you know, nobody is bad all the time. Nobody sits around being bad 24/7. So there are always moments where you've got to try to find the humanity to people who may be considered the bad guy. And, you know, this is one of the things about this particular script -- as I read it, at first I saw it kind of in primary colors. And the more I read it, the more I started to realize there was so much room in there for me to find places where the guy can be likeable, because in his mind he's doing a good thing.
Baer: What's really interesting about Luke's character is that he's a really good father.
Perry: That's right. I felt that my character is a really great guy that loved his kid and wanted to see the best thing happen for him.
Baer: And that comes through. He really loves the kid, and so it's not just good guys, bad guys. And Sara's character was a good mother, but because of the circumstances she's no longer a good mother. But one will hope that she becomes one. So it's very complicated.
Perry: Yeah, and that's like life. Life really is like that. It's not all black and white, you know, it's complicated. There's a lot of layers to people. And these guys really did a good job of putting a script together around that.
Gilbert: And I agree with Luke. Like when you look at the great villains that we've seen and loved in TV and movies, you love to not like them, and I think part of that is approaching it with like a, you know, dimensional kind of way -- like that it's not just that they're all evil, or we wouldn't love them, you know. And that's part of the enjoyment of supposedly evil characters.
Did you two seek out any advice from friends or colleagues who have done the show before?
Gilbert: Mariska (Hargitay) -- she reached out to me, but then I continued to reach out to her, because she's there every week, and she's like a budding director as far as I'm concerned. The director, of course, was awesome, but she definitely helped me. She's so used to playing a dramatic part every week that, you know, she helped me with little shortcuts to get inside the character.
Perry: I felt good going into this show because, you may ask your question. I've known Belzer forever, it seems like, and I worked with Chris on Oz, and Ice and I had done something together. So I'd worked with some of these guys before, and I felt that there would be some measure of comfort with that. At the same time, just because you come in and you know a few people doesn't mean they're gong to cut you any slack. You got to really pull your end of the rope, especially on a show like that.
What other kinds of shows from this genre are you guys fans of? Are you big "crime show" people?
Gilbert: I don't really watch that much TV. This is probably a better Luke question.
Perry: Well, when I was a kid I was a big Starsky & Hutch fan you know what I mean? My mom was divorced and there was no strong male role model in the house, so I just picked up Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul -- loved it, loved it. You know, in the '70s, all the great cops shows were on: SWAT, Beretta, Rockford Files. It was very easy to love them. I have always loved the Law & Order shows because Jerry Orbach was a friend of mine, so I started watching the original one. And I thought, you know, what a great idea -- two shows in one. You get the law and the order! And I always wanted to be part of that famous "ch-ch," you know, that sound you get between the things.
Luke, the most recent 90210 episode had a reference to Dylan. Does that mean that we'll see you there soon?
Perry: They own the name and likeness there.
So that's a yes or a no?
Perry: That would be a no.
Do you guys ever get tired of talking about the old shows, especially in light of all the great things you've done since those series?
Gilbert: I just feel like I'm really honored to have been a part of Roseanne, and I know that it's going to be part of my life forever, so it's a waste of time. I've just got to accept it, and I'm proud of it.
Perry: Yeah. You know, I've had some time lately to think about that kind of stuff, too. And what I've determined is that stuff doesn't happen by accident. We put a lot of hard work into it, and so do a lot of writers and a lot of directors. And when shows take off and they become part of the American psyche like that, there's a time when it's happening that you're a little resentful for it because you had no idea it could possibly get that big.But like Sara says, when you stop and you look at the whole of your life and you look at the whole picture of it, from that perspective I'm very proud of it. And it was a lot of fun and I think it gives you a neat relationship to the American public. I mean, it really does put you on a little bit of a closer basis with all kinds of people. And the world could use a little more of that.
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