Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Lieutenant Takes Center Stage

'Law & Order's' Lieutenant Takes Center Stage
By Rick Porter

NBC's venerable series "Law & Order" is, famously, not a show filled with big, emotional scenes on which its stars can feast. Story is paramount on the show, and that approach has served the show very well for 15-plus years.

Every now and then, though, a cast member gets a chance to step out of just-the-facts mode and become the center of a story. Such is the case Wednesday (Nov. 30) for S. Epatha Merkerson, who for 13 years has played NYPD Lt. Anita Van Buren.

"Whenever an episode is written specifically around a character, it's always so interesting," Merkerson says. "It's great when you have that opportunity, because Van Buren is a constant character, but she's not always in the forefront. And it's really lovely when the character has that opportunity to stretch."

In the episode, titled "Acid," Van Buren leads a relentless search for a "serial abuser" after a young woman, her face disfigured by corrosive acid, is found hanged in her apartment. The victim, the lieutenant soon realizes, is the daughter of an old friend, and she goes nearly too far in pursuing the suspect.

"It really is about friendship, and how one will try to bend the law to make it work for a friend," Merkerson explains. "We really get to see her make some very strong and decisive moves in this episode. It'll be interesting to see how people react to it, because it really is how one can bend the truth to get to righteousness.

"I think it tests this character in a way we've never seen her tested before."

Not that there's much doubt Merkerson herself will be up for the challenge. The 53-year-old veteran of screen and stage work is about two months removed from her first Emmy, for playing Rachel "Nanny" Crosby in HBO's "Lackawanna Blues." Her trip to the stage at the ceremony became one of the more memorable moments of the awards, as the speech she had prepared became lost somewhere in the front of her dress.

"The whole idea was I didn't want to seem like I was so prepared, so I thought if I just drop it [there] ...," she says. "But I didn't realize at the time that it was a strapless dress, and it didn't occur to me that it would move with my movement. So it was there, and in fact it stayed there until I took off the dress."

She also says she has thanked everyone whose name was on that piece of paper: "I make it a point to tell them every so often that I appreciate what they've done for me."

With her 13th season of "Law & Order," Merkerson has become the longest-tenured regular in the show's history -- and Van Buren is now the longest-running African-American character ever on a prime-time drama ("I'm a trivia question," she jokes). "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf has said he hopes the show lasts at least 20 years, and Merkerson is willing to stick with it as long as it's around.

"It's a great gig," she says. "You know, I'm able to do theater, which is where I came from, it allows me to do other films. It's a great base. And I really love New York and want to stay in New York, and this job allows me to do that. ...

"And it's one of the better things on television, so there's nothing wrong with being connected to something that has this kind of integrity and skill and drama. I'm having a great time. It's kind of one of those, If it ain't broke."

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