'Law & Order: SVU' Star on Carisi's Turning Point and "Possibilities" With Rollins

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT S17E15 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Michael Parmelee/NBC

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT S17E15 Still - Publicity - H 2016

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Law & Order: SVU, "Sheltered Outcasts."]

The latest installment of Law & Order: SVU saw longtime star and producer Mariska Hargitay take another turn in the director's chair, but in front of the camera, the spotlight was on co-star Peter Scanavino. The episode centered squarely on his character, Det. Carisi, as he went undercover in a homeless shelter to find out if one of the resident sex offenders was involved in a string of nearby rapes. Carisi endured a few bumps and bruises along the way, but came out the other side with a suspect behind bars and with a dinner invitation from Rollins (Kelli Giddish).

Suffice it to say, Carisi has come a long way from first joining the squad as Amaro's temporary, and very green, replacement at the beginning of season 16. As has Scanavino, who quickly graduated from what was intended to be a three-episode arc to a fan-favorite series regular.

Scanavino spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about early advice from Danny Pino, Carisi's turning point and his take on a possible Rollins-Carisi romance.

This was a big Carisi episode and it's one directed by none other than Mariska Hargitay. How much pressure did you feel going in?

I felt the stakes were high and that I wanted to come with my best effort. In that sense, maybe I did a little bit, but Mariska's a great friend now and a wonderful director and really pushed me in that right direction, so I was very fortunate to have her as a director. In terms of the episode, when it's centered around your character, you're not getting much sleep. You're maybe taking a little bit more time as you work on your scenes, and for this one, I wasn't dealing with the rest of the cast for the most part. I was in a shelter with the other actors who I didn't know, so it kind of felt like I was really on my own. I was undercover in this weird, bizzaro SVU world. So I felt the pressure that I wanted to do the best that I possibly could for the writer and for Mariska.

Carisi was undercover for a long time and was even beat up at one point. What do you think makes him willing to give so much of himself to the job even when Benson suggests he pull back? What makes him stick with it?

If something happens, if something comes up — like when he gets beaten up by the father and the brothers — maybe somebody else would say, "OK, this is kind of dangerous. I'm going to pull back," but I feel like he's the type of person that says, "OK, I'm even further in now. If I were to pull out now would be even more of a waste." So I think that just makes him commit even further: I've gone this far, I need to see this through. Also what always drives Carisi is he wants justice for the victims. That's what's guiding him in everything that he does. If he feels like he's making progress, he's definitely going to hunker down and stay with it because that’s the type of detective he is.

This season, Carisi has been in law school and he recently mentioned that he took the bar exam. What do you see as the future for him? What do you think pushes him to wanting to go into the law?

With him, it's kind of, what is the best way that he can pursue justice for the victims? Is it through prosecution or is it through collecting evidence and building a case as a police officer does? He knows this is what he wants to dedicate his life toward. I think he's still on the fence about how he can best achieve that; whether it's being a detective or a lawyer. He wants to have the ability to do whatever he decides. But I don't think he has any definitive [plan], "I'm going to be a police officer and then I'm going to become a lawyer, definitely." I think that's still open for him and that's a question in his mind, which he's going to have to resolve in the near future.

Do you see a point where he could be the prosecutor instead of Barba?

He would never take over Barba's job. (Laughs.) He's got such respect for that guy and that would be so far off. If he passes the bar, that's the first step of many steps in terms of becoming an A.D.A. But I can imagine as the actor in my trailer, doing court jargon, and I'm sure Carisi does that in his apartment. He's sitting there and probably doing mock cases in his bedroom. He's that kind of person.

The episode ends with an interesting moment for Rollins and Carisi. It's been hinted that she may have feelings for him, but how do you think he feels about her?

They definitely have a very special friendship that's developed very organically over the course of these two seasons. At first, they were very at odds and she was very dismissive of him. He was kind of a pain in her side. And then, it bumped up and he was sort of like an annoying little brother. And now, especially with her having her baby and how Carisi was there for her, I think it's developed into something of great mutual respect. It's still definitely on the friendship level, but who knows? It could stay there. It could develop into something itself. That's what's really interesting about the relationship with Rollins. I think there are a lot of possibilities there, and I think all those possibilities have grown from Kelli and I interacting with each other onscreen. It wasn't like we were getting steered into a storyline. It's just growing organically so it can go wherever it wants to go.

You're on social media. So how has it been to see fans' reaction to that? That speculation has been heating up online.

I'm really grateful for when people support me, but if you believe too much into somebody saying, "Wow, you're amazing," on Twitter than you have to believe when somebody says, "Wow, you're awful," on Twitter, which definitely happens. I had to grow a pretty tough skin when I first came on the show because the majority of the feedback was, "This guy is disgusting. He's a pedophile himself." (Laughs.) So I'm glad I've been embraced recently and especially this season, but don't let that drive you.

Going back to when you first joined the show, you were just coming in for a multi-episode arc. What were those initial conversations with Warren Leight and the writers about this character? Did you have any indication that it might go longer?

When I got the offer, it was three episodes, possibly more. So I definitely made sure when I showed up on my first day that I was not going to be a problem for anyone, that I was going to know all my lines, hit my cues, not ask the writers to change anything. (Laughs.) I showed up ready to work, and fortunately after my first day, they said they were going to give me seven episodes and that progressed pretty quickly that I became a series regular. … Honestly, if Warren Leight had told me, "He wears a pink tuxedo the whole time and clown shoes," I would have been like, "Perfect, I'll do it." Fortunately, I got to grow in it and I had the affirmation of, "They want me to stay on for more episodes, they want to make me a series regular," as opposed to coming on as a series regular right away and having to prove myself. I was able to do it incrementally. That gave me a lot of confidence. They let me do a big character, which I don’t think happens all the time on television — they want you to tone it down all the time. They let me go big with it and I think that really helped me settle into who Carisi was. I don’t think I had a real idea of what this guy's about. I was learning it on the fly.

You mentioned some of the more negative tweets about your character, but you were getting good feedback from the writers. How was it navigating that at the beginning?

Danny Pino was fantastic with that, because you come on, you're the new character and you just get panned by the fans because, in some instances, they don't like change. They don't want someone to go. He really had that in a horrible way when he replaced Christopher Meloni, so he knew what that was about. One of the writers, Kevin Fox, was telling me, "Just wait. In a few episodes, it’s going to turn." I never really took it to heart because to me it was much more important that Mariska was coming to me and saying that I was doing well and that they were giving me more episodes. That really meant a lot to me. It was my first TV show, but I've also done a lot of plays and I've been panned in plays, but you don't let it affect you. You can't get bogged down in that. You have to bet on yourself, bet that what you're doing is good. Even if that turns out not to be good, at least you know that you did what you wanted to do and you didn't let somebody's opinion of you guide you.

When did you first realize that Carisi was clicking with viewers? Was there a particular episode or a scene?

I felt like I was settling into who Carisi was in ["Pornstar's Requiem"]. It was about a college student who was doing pornography and she got raped. Then, I started understanding how Carisi was going to be, kind of a no-nonsense but overall extremely empathetic person. That started to really translate to the audience in an episode called "Glasgowman's Wrath," where there was a mentally unstable person who we thought could possibly be the killer and I was able to talk to him and relate to him and I had some very tender scenes with him. That's when fans started to turn and say, "This guy isn’t just a brash guy from Staten Island, but he has a heart and he's able to listen."

You're already renewed for next season, but you're about to switch showrunners when Rick Eid replaces Warren Leight. How do you feel about that behind-the-scenes change?

It's my first time going through this kind of change, but I've heard wonderful things about Rick. I haven't met him yet. I think Warren is leaving the show in a fantastic place. The squad is really gelling, and I think we really hit a groove, so hopefully we'll continue in that vein. I don’t think Rick's coming in to save a show. He's coming in to continue what we've been creating before.

You're juggling this fulltime gig with a newborn baby, as are several of your co-stars. Have you all been trading parenting tips on set?

We talk a lot about the babies sleeping. Kelli's baby sleeps great. My baby's not sleeping so well, but that's the way it goes. … It is this great community of all of us together, and I think we're going to try to get all the babies together before the end of the season and do a photo shoot or something.

Kelli's son appeared on the show, so has been any talk about your son Leo making an appearance?

I don't know if Leo is going to come on the show. Babies need to be very calm to be on a TV show and Leo's a little unpredictable, so I don't know, but you never know. It might be cute just to show him when it gets older.

Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.