'Law and Order: SVU' Star Talks Timely Finale, Season 19 and Trump Episode

Raul Esparza also speaks about the upcoming showrunner change and finding his voice behind the scenes this past season.
Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

After 18 seasons, Law and Order: SVU has produced its fair share of finales. There have been huge cliff-hangers — like when Benson [Mariska Hargitay] was abducted by a serial rapist — and emotional, close-ended hours such as last season when Sgt. Mike Dodds was killed on the job during his last day on assignment at SVU.

However, star Raul Esparza says to expect something out of the ordinary for the long-running NBC drama's two-hour season finale Wednesday.

"It's different from what I've been used to over the last few seasons, but not wrong in relationship to this particular story because it's not resolved," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The ending of this season is about putting very painful and morally dubious issues in front of an audience and letting them reverberate. It ends a little bit like a blast from a bomb. It's not something big that happens at the very end, it's just this sense of that ringing in your ears."

That's because SVU is tackling particularly timely, and ongoing, national issues in its final episodes. Premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m., the episode tackles Islamophobia as well as immigration issues when a hate crime is committed against a Muslim family and a crucial witness in the case is subsequently deported.

"Barba and Benson both end up really tested because she can't hang onto the witness legally and she can't make the case, and Barba starts wondering whether or not they can provide alternative facts, so to speak," Esparza says. "It's all about truth-telling and their version of the truth and why they tell it; what justice are you serving by inventing something even though you might be omitting something or lying a little bit but the end result is going to be the best for everybody."

The episode comes in the wake of President Trump's short-lived Executive Order 13769, dubbed as the Muslim Ban because it banned refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. In effect from Jan. 27 to March 16, the order led to airport protests across the country and the detainment of more than 700 passengers.

"It was a very interesting sequence of episodes to film because the work on set got pretty emotional and that was nice because we're all kind of in it," he says. "We're all thinking about it all the time and getting angry about it in our own minds, so that's really good fodder for acting and for storytelling."

Ahead of SVU's timely two-hour finale, THR spoke with Esparza about how those emotions influenced the episode, the lost Trump episode, Season 19 and the upcoming showrunner change, and more.

Given the topics the episode tackles, how much did that color or influence the episode?

It influences it greatly. I think the writers sit down and think about what can this show say about what's sort of bubbling in the world right now. Under [former showrunner] Warren Leight's guidance, Warren made such an effort to try and insert the show into the zeitgeist. It's not that SVU is necessarily water cooler conversation because it's just been on the air for so long, but having such longevity doesn't mean that the show abdicates its responsibility to be good and to be relevant to what's happening. Warren was really, really into the idea of having us connect to not just the latest scandal ripped from the headlines, but something that people were just talking about and couldn't let go of in their minds. So I think this is a continuation of that idea under the new leadership we had last season.

It's a big way to end the season and try to engage in a conversation. We know we've got millions of people who will watch the show Wednesday night, and seeing how these particular characters relate to a situation that everybody's thinking about is really interesting television, and I think interesting for fans who want to see how Benson or Barba or Rollins relate to the stuff that they're hearing about in the news every day.

How do you think it affected you personally to be able to talk about those issues? Was it cathartic or stressful?

I'm first-generation Cuban American and my family are Cuban immigrants, and there are some who voted for Trump and some other members of my family did not. It's been tough since Thanksgiving to even discuss what's going on in the world and here in America and what the status is about immigration and who constitutes an American and who constitutes an immigrant worth having and how we state that. For me, it's something I cannot stop talking about. So this just is part of my day-to-day, it got so bad that I literally have to turn the news off at seven. We have a rule at home, no more Trump after 7 o'clock because…I can't keep thinking about these things because it is personally, insanely upsetting to think about a nation like this being so completely unwelcoming to immigrants.

The stuff is so big that's happening around us and it makes us feel very powerless sometimes or it feels so gigantic that we can't do anything about it. These stories are interesting when they try to make the big, huge repercussion feel a little bit more personal.

Given that Barba is a Cuban American as well, did you bring some of your personal perspective and viewpoint to the character? What's his take on what's happening in the episode?

Yes, I brought some of that to it and they wrote a little bit about it, just in terms of whether he feels threatened himself for what his own status is as an American for a moment. Not that he's not an American citizen, but that's referenced. There are conversations with Benson and Barba that I'm actually really proud of, mostly because I remember the joy of filming them. My favorite thing in the world to do on that set is get to a scene late night when it's Mariska and myself. She's one of my favorite acting partners I've ever had, and she's just someone who is so willing to go there.

There's a couple of scenes in this that are all about who's telling the truth and who isn't and why. Some of them are about exactly this subject and about justice and how justice works and what makes someone angry either because of the color of their skin or their cultural background so we come at it from different places.

What conversations did you have with the writers going into this episode? How did your own emotions end up bleeding into the character?

These are people who have been writing for Barba for at least a few years. Barba was kind of created on me when Warren was the showrunner because Warren and I had worked together

So they know what Barba's point of view would be and then we just kind of talk about it on set a little bit. It might be in casual conversations between scenes or I might read something and say, "Here's an opportunity to discuss this," but generally, they're a couple steps ahead of me.

Speaking of Warren, how has it been continuing to find Barba's voice after his departure given that he helped create the character? How did you go about making sure the character remained true to his creation?

I became very protective of him. I've never been through anything like this because I've only ever been involved in series briefly in a guest star or recurring role. Even on Hannibal, we only lasted three seasons and [executive producer] Bryan Fuller thinks like a mad genius from outer space so you just have to follow and have faith in him. (Laughs.) But this was like losing your playwright halfway through and the play's not done.

How did you become more protective? How did you demonstrate that?

It was a little bit of a struggle for me at first but I found that I would speak up a great deal about how Barba would respond to something. I know he's fictional but he's also in a way tied to me and I want to care for him. I know him better than the writers do, even Warren would say that, and I also know how he works.

I always say each character in SVU is a chess piece on a board and you have to know how to play us — Benson is the Queen, Barba is the rook, Rollins is the knight. We have specific skills that our characters are really good at doing for a story. So it was about making moves in the best possible way. Is this the most interesting way to put Barba into a situation? Is this smart enough? Is this angry enough? You become fiercely protective of how you work in the scheme of the show, how your character fits in and that was an interesting thing for me. It was a learning curve, but it also feels very collaborative. You don't often get to get your hands dirty and make those kinds of suggestions on television because it moves so fast. I'm not saying that everything I say is taken to heart, but it does feel like you're very much a collaborative part of the series. You feel like you're in there and trying to stand up for the characters, which is a totally new experience for me.

How are you feeling about going through that showrunner change again now that Rick Eid is moving to Chicago P.D.?

I feel like I know how this works without having to be resistant to it, but also to be able to speak up for myself without having to seem too tough or unhappy. I don't know what the future holds in terms of the series.

How concerned are you about making that showrunner change for the second time in a year? Or is it different that you've been through it?

It's just the nature of the beast. It's just what happens in television, the show has been on for a long time. I think whoever it is will hopefully be someone collaborative and excited to be part of the process and I also feel like we're really taken care of. NBC is really supportive of the show and on top of that, we have Mariska as our fearless leader who treats every episode — and I am not exaggerating when I say this — like it's her first. I don't know how she does it. She's like a fierce mama bear taking care of the show and taking care of us, and I trust her. I think whatever growing pains there are are mitigated by the fact that everyone is trying to do their very best on this.

How much do you think season 19 of SVU will tackle what's going on in the real world right now given the recent headlines?

I think very much so. I can't tell the future, but if I were a betting man, I would say that the odds are good that stuff will show up in our show because we have an insane amount of material to pull from, sadly. I often think we're going to run out of stories and then we don't.

Sometimes they come up with insane things like they did this season. There was one about a guy hypnotizing people to [have sex with him] and I thought this is ridiculous and I joked about it and got handed an information packet with research about a guy who did exactly that in the Midwest. I was like, "You are kidding me! (Laughs.) How is this a thing?!"

So unfortunately, we’re not running out of subjects and the way things have been going lately, particularly the health- care conversation, I think is deeply related to the show and I'm sure that all that will come into it because it's part of why Law & Order exists. Dick Wolf set out not to just create these procedurals that are delicious and compact, he also set out to create a show that riffs on headlines so that's part of the mission of the show.

Speaking about the ripped from the headlines episodes, SVU did an episode inspired by Donald Trump and the allegations about his inappropriate behavior toward women. What was your take on that episode and the decision, so far, not to air it?

Luckily, I can't address it because I wasn't on it. (Laughs.) So I never even read the script although I heard Gary Cole was pretty sensational.

I do remember thinking, "That's weird. How are they going to get sexual assault allegations in there about a presidential candidate? That's a long shot, that would end anybody's campaign." And then that happened. (Laughs.) At a certain point, it might feel a little morbid, maybe that's why they made the decision they made, or maybe a little too political. It's a TV show; it is not our job to adjudicate national politics.

You recently hit 100 episodes of Barba, but it sounds like you're not ready to walk away from this character. What can you say about your future on the show?

Television fame is a fascinating thing because people really relate to it. You aren't generally known much beyond a particular radius or a particular group of fans with theater work. Television, they know you all over the world and that is a really interesting thing about how people might not know my name but they know the character's name and they’ll call out to me as I walk down the street. So it isn't so easy to say I'm just going to walk away from him, but I don't know what the future holds. 

Law & Order: SVU's two-part season finale airs Wednesday at 9 p.m.