'Law & Order: SVU' Showrunner Warren Leight on the Cast Shake-Up and His Approach to the Series
He tells THR: "It was made clear to me when I came in that if the show kept going the way it was, it only had a year, maybe two years, left in it."
It’s been a busy summer for NBC’s long-running Law & Order: SVU.
In April, Lights Out showrunner Warren Leight boarded the drama to replace long-time head Neal Baer, who opted to step down from the procedural after more than a decade with the series. Then in May, co-star Chris Meloni parted ways with the drama on which he starred for 12 seasons after contract negotiations broke down. Meanwhile, rumors swirled that Meloni's on-screen partner, Mariska Hargitay, would be reducing her time with the series to spend more time with her family and new adopted daughter.
Internet speculation then kicked into high gear with rumors about Jennifer Love Hewitt coming in as a second female lead as Emmy nominee Hargitay’s commitment was debated. Meanwhile, the series continued booking stars, enlisting Danny Pino and Kelli Giddish, and bringing back a few familiar faces as well as some notable guests like Andre Braugher.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Leight to discuss how all the changes will impact Season 13 -- which kicks-off Wednesday -- how Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson will handle the departure of her long-time partner Elliot Stabler (Meloni) and if viewers can expect to see any Lights Out stars checking in.
THR: How have you been approaching taking over for Baer?
Leight: The show was running fine without me for 12 years and yet I feel things have to change because 12 years in you get a rejuvenator or you start losing ground. I have the sense that we needed to make changes. Then really before I began to explore how to go about that, Chris Meloni left the show. In some ways it made the task more apparent to everyone – it could not be the same show because the co-star of the show was gone. Some of the questions that I was trying to figure out were forced. People cannot possibly interact the same way since Olivia’s partner is gone. In a way, it forced issues that I think probably needed to be dealt with early on. I believe 12 years in, the show had gotten into – in a very natural way – had evolved and certain patterns had set in and I was going to try and shake them up.
THR: When you boarded the show were you aware of the possibility that Meloni could exit?
Leight: No, no one ever tells you when you’re buying a car what’s wrong with it (laughs). I’ve worked with this organization before and everything always goes to the last minute and always settles. I had five years on Law & Order: Criminal Intent where we never knew if the show was coming back. My assumption was that these guys would play out the negotiation and eventually it would work out that Chris would come back, but that was wrong. At the end of the day Chris was ready to move on and that’s really what it was about.
THR: How did his departure change your approach?
Leight: Our first thought was: How do you replace Chris? And the answer was: you don’t. You don’t want somebody coming in and becoming Olivia’s new partner and trying to manufacture that sort of co-dependent relationship they had. In a big squad room where someone has had a partner for 12 years and they leave, they often are a bit of a lone wolf after that – they don’t take to a new partner too quickly. Olivia and Elliot’s partnership was very a complicated, deep, emotional relationship and they completed each other in many ways. So to just say, “OK, we’re going to swap him out and slug in another alpha male with whom Olivia can have an unrequited love” just seemed a non-starter for me.
I thought, let’s open the field up, let’s look at men and women. When we did auditions, two people popped and to my amazement, NBC and [creator] Dick Wolf were fine with hiring both. That really freed up the show and changed the patterns. Any dynamic after 12 years, people get relegated to certain roles so Mariska’s character was sort of empathic and Chris was the angry guy. Now everybody has to figure out who they are and how they relate to everybody in different ways. With the old guard of Capt. Cragen (Dann Florek) and Fin (Ice-T) and Olivia, they’ve got two new detectives in the squad room along with Munch (Richard Belzer) so there will be moments where people are mentored, where they miss Elliot’s character.
I wanted new blood in that room, I didn’t want another alpha male guy. Danny’s character is new to the sex crimes unit and Kelli is new to New York. That’s fun to play with and they have two very different approaches to interrogations: hers is more analytical, his is more intuitive. He’s more like a jazz musician; she’s more like a classical musician.
THR: How will Stabler’s absence be addressed?
Leight: The first episode revolves around an Italian politician accused of raping an maid, which is the main story line but just as important as an emotional story line is the discussion of, “Where is Elliot? Is Elliot coming back? And what is Olivia’s reaction to his absence?” In the old days of Law & Order, you just slap a new guy in and move on. I don’t think that’s the right approach to this and we’re not doing it. His absence is a big part of the story line of the first episode and we will not be putting a new detective at his desk for the whole season. It’s a big change in the squad room and people will process it in different ways over time. Nobody gets partnered up right away, there’s rotating partners. Mariska will be with Danny and sometimes with Kelli, Mariska and Fin; we’ll pair them up in different ways.
THR: You’ve been very consistent this off-season on Twitter noting that Mariska Hargitay will be in all 22 episodes this season.
Leight: Have I? (Laughs.)It amazes me these rumors, I hate this about the Internet! Mariska will be in all 22; she’ll be much more present this year than she was last year. There were a lot of episodes she was barely part of last year where she’d in the first and last scenes. Capt. Cragen is also stronger this year and the squad room is under a lot of scrutiny and he has to step his game up to keep his guys in line. He’s much more engaged as a captain. Mariska will be there all 22; I don’t think Cragen is going anywhere on my watch. Rumors to the contrary are really annoying.
THR: And the rumors about Jennifer Love Hewitt coming aboard?
Leight: That was a great rumor but she will not be joining the show. She did a great job with her episode last year. I’ve got five detectives, a captain, district attorneys and a medical examiner, I have a nice ensemble. I liked writing for and working with an ensemble for Lights Out so one of the things I really wanted to do was return the ensemble feel to the show that’s been missing the last few years.
THR: How much of your desire to return the ensemble feel to the show was behind bringing back original cast members?
Leight: Diane Neal, Stephanie March, Munch is doing more, those guys haven’t been around as much as I think they could have been in the last few years. This has been a bizarre summer for cases that the SVU squad room would catch and a lot of them hinge on what happens in the courtroom and how it plays out between the D.A. and the defense attorneys. Neal, in real life, was a doctor before he was a showrunner so he naturally wrote more medically oriented stories. I find the story lines this year were pulling more toward legal scenes than they have in the past and that allowed me the notion of bringing Stephanie and Diane back.
This is the last Law & Order show on the air and this year there are more elements of the mothership in it than there has been in the past few years. There are interrogations that will remind Criminal Intent fans of the interrogations Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe used to do. With In Treatment, I like getting into the psychology of the perps instead of just blaming them, so it’s a bit of a hybrid as opposed to pure SVU; there’s elements of the other shows popping up.
THR: Andre Braugher is also coming in, what can you share about his role?
Leight: Andre’s character comes in – in the sixth episode -- and his back story is he was a very successful defense attorney for some very bad guys, like drug dealers and made a fortune and lost his soul in the process. Now he’s in this second stage of his life and trying to handle cases where defendants are not getting the representation they would if they were well off or had power. He’s trying to work off some of his guilt about what he’s done as a lawyer by taking on cases and challenging the authority of NYPD and the D.A.’s Office; he’s almost a libertarian in the sense that he sees that the last 10 years have encroached upon civil liberties and the NYPD and the D.A.’s Office in his opinion have overreached and he’s trying to pull the scales back a bit toward the defense side. Even though he and Olivia are on the complete opposite side of almost all issues, they are both weary and true believers of their respective causes so they have some things in common.
THR: So he’s not a love interest for Olivia?
Leight: There was Internet speculation of romance and that started before I’d written a word about the guy. They’re two very smart people who have been pushing uphill for a long time and share a sense of battle fatigue even though they’ve been on opposite sides of the battle. I don’t see a need for it to go there. There’s lots of different kinds of friendships and different ways that people relate. Unrequited love with your partner isn’t necessarily something she needs to replace right away. I like to watch what happens between the actors and it doesn’t matter what I think is going to happen. If things happen, you let the characters and the story take over and you see where it goes and let that dictate. On the other hand, I don’t think Olivia has to be single and miserable for the rest of her NYPD career. It might be nice to see a moment or two where her life is not singularly bleak.
THR: Along with the cast changes, there’s also the big move to Wednesday nights.
Leight: I don’t think about the time slot, I’ve got so many other guillotines. I wanted to make some changes. In basic ways, I think the show was working very well. Neal and I write very differently and I’m inheriting his characters and a squad room and a really interesting show to write for. It was made clear to me when I came in that if the show kept going the way it was, it only had a year, maybe two years, left in it. When the head of the network tells you that, that will be a good thing to listen to.
THR: Did you consider bringing Lights Out star Holt McCallany in?
Leight: I offered Holt one of the first 10 episodes early on that had a nice part all worked out and Holt picked up a movie. I’ll have to find another nice part for him. In fact, it’s been a good luck charm: I offered Stacy Keach (Lights Out’s Pops) a part and after accepting he got Bourne Legacy. I offered Pablo Schreiber (Lights Out’s Johnny) a part and he got A Gifted Man as recurring. I was very close to that cast and I miss writing for them. Anytime there’s something in the right age and gender, I think I could use some of those guys. Every time I have so far, they’ve had offers they couldn’t refuse. I’m happy for all of them.
Law & Order: SVU returns Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 10 p.m.