Christine Lahti and Neal Baer Talk Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will return on Wednesday, September 23 at 9 PM ET on NBC and the show will premiere some new blood. Christine Lahti guest-stars as Assistant District Attorney Sonya Paxton in a four-episode arc this season and Lahti and executive producer Neal Baer recently held a conference call to discuss this new season. Here's what they had to say.
Christine, I saw a picture of you and Stephanie shooting a scene together recently and wanted to know if you're coming back for more than your original four episodes?
Christine Lahti: Yes, I just signed - in fact that was yesterday; that was quick that you saw a picture - it was shot yesterday. And I think that's Episode 9, is that correct Neal?
Neal Baer: Yes, Episode 9.
Christine Lahti: It's one scene, yeah, I come back.
Will your character and Cabot be working together or clashing or...
Christine Lahti: Well in that one scene there was a little - there was a clash; I would definitely call it a clash.
Neal, any new guest stars you've added to the roster recently?
Neal Baer: Since you probably know the first, what four, do you know, Rosie Perez is in Episode 5 and John Larroquette in Episode 6. So those are the main ones coming in the first seven.
And are there any guest stars that you haven't had that are on your wish-list?
Neal Baer: Well, we always have a wish list but we actually have some guest stars coming that I just can't say who they are yet, but, you know, really, you know, wonderful people, you know, as always so, you know, it was good. We had three nominations for guest stars, Carol Burnett, Brenda Blethyn and the winner Ellen Burstyn so that's five in a row counting Mariska. So I'm hoping next year will be the same thing.
Christine Lahti: Yeah.
What have you found challenging about your role on SVU?
Christine Lahti: It was an incredible journey. I don't want to give away what happens but she does have some hidden secret demons that are very intense. And what starts of as just kind of a control freak, you know, strong, demanding ADA turns into a kind of wild ride. So it's been a great challenge and a really satisfying one.
The cast has such great chemistry together because they've been working for so long together; was it instant when you began working with them or did it take a bit of time for you to develop some chemistry with them?
Christine Lahti: It was kind of instant. I was nervous of course because this, as you said, this is a - kind of a family that's been working together for nearly 11 years. So to be kind of the newbie on the scene was, again, a challenge. But they were all really welcoming and I think they loved having sort of this new blood on the set. And that was me and it was - my character was I guess so different for them and again without giving it away she really does ruffle some feathers and shake things up a bit.
Are there any shows on TV now that you would love to guest star on?
Christine Lahti: Let's see - gosh I haven't been watching any TV but I do love The Office. I think that would be really fun. And of course Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry is a friend and that would be a dream. I'd like to just do more comedy because I've been doing such intense dramas lately that it would be - I'm ready to go back to comedy.
Christine, what do you like the most about Sonya Paxton?
I love her gray tones even though she pretends to be very by the book black and white; I love how just, you know, the complex gray tones in her character. I love her vulnerabilities and her underbelly that is pretty well hidden until the third and fourth episodes.
Neal, how long are we going to get Wentworth Miller, is it just for one episode or...
Neal Baer: Well you're definitely getting him for the premiere. And, you know, it's quite intense at the end as Christine knows because she's in that whole scene at the end with Wentworth and what happens to him. But it doesn't mean that he can't come back I should say. Wait, you'll understand that more when you see the whole episode and what happens to him. But what happens to him isn't necessarily something that could prevent him from coming back just as what happens to Christine's character in Episode 4 isn't necessarily - well you've already heard but she does make an appearance but it's in a different way so you're not going to see her in the same way in Episode 9. Never rule anything out.
So it's Sonya I guess that ties into her demons she was talking about?
Christine Lahti: Yes.
Neal Baer: Yes.
Christine Lahti: Exactly. Exactly.
Neal Baer: You know I want to say what I love about the character is that it love - and Christine and I talked a lot about this - I low how she's aggressive and how she looks because it's so interesting to see - to really like - what I love about working with Christine too is the care that gives to all of these details that really tells you a lot about the character and how these details protect a character as well as tell us how they are. So and I'm talking cryptically, you know, for various reasons. But she really nails this woman. And I think that's why even though she is, as we've said, a hard ass and likes to rule we end up caring a lot about her because of what she goes through. And the other thing I really like is that Christine as an actor takes amazing chances. And we just saw - we would sit and watch the cuts and go wow. In lesser skilled hands, you know, this wouldn't necessarily work. But this like works gangbusters and we're just like, you know, we were really amazed and lapped by her performance because she really takes us to places that we haven't seen a character who works with Mariska and Chris do before.
Christine Lahti: Oh well thank you.
Neal Baer: In other words she's really good.
Christine Lahti: Thank you Neal. It reminds me of what I'm doing right now as we're speaking is I'm staring at these fake red perfect fingernails, these acrylic fake nails which normally in my life I have these horrible like bitten, you know, lost a cuticle horrible nails. And the perfection of the seemingly perfect Sonya would have these nails. So what's so interesting is the contrast between this manicure I'm looking at how imperfect she really is. And that was what was so fun about her.
Neal, I'm interested to know if you - if the writers have had to tone anything down moving from the 10 o'clock hour back to the 9 o'clock hour in terms of the show's content and possibly language?
Neal Baer: No because for one the show is on USA like at 3:00 in the afternoon, 4:00 in the afternoon so it would be kind of hypocritical to say oh we're going to change it when it runs all the time. Also now it's in syndication Monday through Friday starting yesterday and it's on, you know, some cities like in Denver I think like at 3:00 in the afternoon and in Chicago at 9:00 pm. So I think - we always try to be too graphic visually so that you don't - I think Mariska and Chris have fired a gun maybe three times in the whole 11 years of the - or the 10 years of the show. And we try not to - we try to not show terrible violence unless it's really sort of so intricately part of the show - possibly Christine will know what I'm talking in Episode 2 - but it really plays to the story. Also Chicago and the Midwest has always had the show on 9 o'clock because they're always an hour earlier so it's only been the Coasts that have had the show first run at 10 o'clock. So I think we're okay. It's really a show about the psychological elements of the crimes as opposed to the visual violent acts. So yes it's still a very - it's an adult show but, you know, I think that we haven't pulled back in the kinds of stories that we're telling.
Christine, were you a fan of the show beforehand? And if so were there certain characters you were really looking forward to play opposite of? And if not then how did you prep for the role?
Christine Lahti: The truth is I've never seen the show. But now I'm a huge fan. I had no idea how smart it was, how involved I got into the characters. Neal sent me several episodes to watch just to get a feel of the show and a feel for the characters and the world. And I was really blown away. And I'm just ignorant about a lot of television. And of course I've been out of the loop I guess for 11 years about Law & Order: SVU. And so I'm very happy that I'm a new fan of the show. And I'm happy it's in my life.
Neal are you looking to permanently fill the role of ADA or just keep kind of having some great guest stars come back?
Neal Baer: Well Stephanie couldn't come until Episode 5 and so that was the beginning of my thinking about whom we should get for the first four. And I actually had some ideas and I was thinking about Christine and then it just like - by chance I saw a pilot that Christine did and then I knew that that's who I wanted to do the show. It often happens that way that we go after the actor and say please come and do the show. So I'm not sure because Stephanie is doing 10 shows and then she has other things to do so at the end of the season the last five shows is - anything could happen. So I don't - I have some ideas actually, yeah.
And what's one thing that fans should be most excited for in this 11th season?
Neal Baer: A big thing? Well I think there's - there's so many things that I guess I would say - I would say that we're building up Benson and Stabler's relationship in the sense of their partnership and how we really will test it and show the strength of it this season. So this is a real Benson/Stabler season. And you're going to see - we're going to be surprised, you know, you're going to see Chris with Christine and then there's going to be surprises. And then you're going to see, you know, by Episode 9 a very profound episode with Chris and Mariska that really pushes their - the bounds of their relationship, their friendship; things like that. So I think that's what we're sort of focusing on.
I think, unless I'm missing somebody, all or at least most of the ADAs have been women.
Neal Baer: Right.
And is that on purpose? Is it because that's the way it is in the real world or did you have a specific reason for writing it that way?
Neal Baer: Well for this year I really wanted someone who would come in and shake Stabler up. And I thought it was much more interesting to have a woman do it than a man because Stabler has issues with women I think in terms of, you know, you know, being the alpha male. And Benson's character can handle him but he - and, you know, and they respect each other but he has these difficulties. So I wanted a very strong woman to play opposite him and that's why we wanted Christine. And, you know, we haven't ruled out having a man but the show is all men but Mariska - well Tunie as well but so - but and all the cops are men except for Benson. So I think that it kind of rounds out the show to have a woman as an ADA. And that's why we haven't really gone the male route like Law & Order possibly. But, you know, it doesn't mean we'd rule it out.
I really love Ice-T on the show and I was wondering if we're going to see any cool plot lines for Fin this year?
Neal Baer: Well indeed you will. They're shooting it right now. And Ice-T is starring opposite John Larroquette, can you imagine?
Neal Baer: And as a fantastic episode about hate and speech. And it is a tour de force for Ice-T. It's, you know, an amazing show. It is an amazing show that really, you know, goes to the heart of some issues that we're dealing with in our country about how far should speech go, you know, is it entertainment or is it hate? So we thought - we really wanted - we hadn't done one for Ice in a while that was really just on his character. And possibly maybe he's going to meet a woman who interests him as well.
It's about time.
Neal Baer: Yes. In fact I wouldn't even say possibly; I would say he will be meeting a woman who interests him. And she may return so.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit premieres on Wednesday, September 23 at 9 PM ET on NBC.