Interview: Raul Esparza, Anna Chlumsky Chat Guest Roles on NBC's LAW & ORDER: SVU

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Raul Esparza and Anna Chlumsky will guest star on NBC's LAW & ORDER: SVU on a special episode titled "Twenty-Five Acts", based on the best-selling novel '50 Shades of Grey.'  The show will air October 10th at 9 pm ET. 

In television, Anna Chlumsky can be seen in HBO's new series "Veep." She starred in 1991's 'My Girl' and will soon star as Sabrina in Bert and Arnie's Guide to Friendship. Her New York stage credits include Love, Loss, and What I Wore (Westside Theatre); So Help Me God (Mint Theatre Company); Unconditional (LAByrinth Theater Company) and The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero (DR2).

Raul Esparza first drew attention with his performance as Riff Raff in the 2000 Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show, which won him the Theatre World Award. The following year he appeared off-Broadway in tick, tick... BOOM!, garnering a Drama Desk Award nomination as Outstanding Actor in a Musical. Additional Broadway credits include Cabaret (2001), Taboo (2003), for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical and a Drama Desk Award, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2005) and Sondheim's Company (2006), for which he received his second Tony nomination as well as his second Drama Desk award. In April of 2012, Esparza took on the role of con artist Jonas Nightingale in the Broadway musical adaptation of Leap of Faith directed by Christopher Ashley.

The two talented actors recently spoke with reporters about the exciting upcoming episode on the CBS drama. 

Mr. Esparza, you're known as a Broadway star. Is there any satisfaction in working for the camera that isn't true of doing stage acting?

Raul Esparza: What's great about being in front of a camera is that you can do it over and over again until you get it right. You can make lots of mistakes and nobody knows about them.

Another thing that's amazing, actually, without being flip is that you get really challenged to try to find the most simple and direct way to convey all the things that it might take you a whole play to reach, you know the back of the house with. You have to figure out how to do that in the simplest and most direct way in that moment in front of the camera, and that's a real challenge to figure out how little you can do that conveys all of that, you know that conveys the most. And it's a big learning curve and it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Ms. Chlumsky, can you talk about the difference in adapting your performance tone from the style of comedy of Veep to the style of drama on Law & Order: SVU?

 Anna Chlumsky: I don't really kind of take into account whether it's comedy or drama. I really - what I - the way I like to approach anything, regardless of the tone of it is just to get the truth of it as close as possible to, you know play the character and play her scene and play - you know play her story, you know as truthfully as possible.

And so, I - you end up having to trust the text very much to - in a comedy to get the laughs, or in a drama to, as Raul was saying, just really convey what's happening. And as long as, you know you're present then you're getting it across.

Raul Esparza: That being said, she's try - she's really a laugh riot in this episode.

Anna, I know that you started off working in films, and then you kind of took a little break and went to school, and then went to work on stage a lot, and now you're back to television doing some British television. What is the biggest difference between doing television versus movies? 

Anna Chlumsky: I think the biggest difference between television and film is - I mean, there's two main differences that I'm learning right now, and one is speed. It's - you know on a TV show you've got probably like a five to seven-day episode where you have to get all - everything in and tell a really complete story, you know in very little time. And so, it really kind of teaches you to be as prepared as possible, and then to just kind of fly by the seat of your pants once you get on set and hear "Action." And then, you just kind of, you know have to really trust what you've prepared, and you may only get one shot at it, you know? You may not get a whole bunch of takes. And in a film sometimes you get a little bit longer, depending on who's directing it and what the budget is.

And also, the other thing is with a film you have a beginning, middle, and an end that you are telling. Like, you know how this story ends. When you're on a series you - you know you can find things out about your character that you never knew or that you never maybe analyzed back when, you know you did the pilot. You're always learning more and more about this person you're playing, and you're playing just that person usually, you know? I mean, some - you know I can't think of many series where you switch out the roles, like on stage sometimes you do.

So, you know it's really just a very intimate relationship, and then a - and hopefully an ongoing relationship with the character on a series.

For the two of you, were you both Law & Order: SVU fans, and what was it like coming onto this iconic set?

Raul Esparza: The set's really friendly actually. Yeah. I mean, the set's great. And Mariska, particularly is just like an incredibly welcoming host, so to speak...

Anna Chlumsky: Dreamy.

Raul Esparza: She feels like the - she's not the star of the show, she's sort of the welcomer...

The den mother?

Raul Esparza: ...for everybody. Yeah, she's the den mother or the Queen Bee, which may be sounds insulting, and that's not what I mean. She's...the thing is, if she didn't set that tone, then you couldn't play. And one of the best things I think that I felt, I don't want to put words in Anna's mouth, but certainly the two of us had a good time. We had fun trying stuff. It was a friendly, welcoming, warm set.

And it is very easy to feel very unwelcome when you are a guest star on a TV show, because you know they're in their thing, they're in their mode, you just jump sort of jump in, you jump out, you're done, and this wasn't like that at all. We felt like a group of hoodlums actually who had taken over the courtroom. We had a very good time, and she just kind of set that tone. But, they all did it...it's a good group of people over there.

Anna Chlumsky: Really inviting. Really, really inviting.

And were you big fans [of the show] beforehand?

Anna Chlumsky: Yeah, I certainly was. I kind of have my own personal rule as a woman in the city to only watch three in a row before you start to like check under your bed and check your closet, you know? But...

Raul Esparza: Before you go into a panic.

Anna Chlumsky: Exactly. But that said, that means that - you know that I'm the type of person who wouldn't watch a fourth one in a row if I didn't know it was good for me. So, I do enjoy the show.

Raul Esparza: What's great about this particular series is that it's - there's a warmth to the characters on this that I have never felt on any of the other Law & Orders, and that sort of personal investment is fascinating. There's a great deal of care that goes way back inside these characters and these stories over the years, and Law & Order's a show you can pick up sort of anywhere...but this one in particular you find that you invest more in the characters than you do in the story. And - you know, or as much as you do in the story, and that's pretty cool actually. For an actor to be able to do procedural work and sustain that for 14 seasons that's an extraordinary accomplishment. So yeah, there's a lot to admire here.

Anna, everyone's known you since My Girl. What drew you specifically to guest start on this type of show, and do you find that it's difficult or easy to do more guest spots possibly in the future when Veep isn't filming?

 Anna Chlumsky: What drew me to this particular job was, you know (Joslin) gets to - we really get to see a whole picture with (Joslin) in this episode. It's, you know sometimes when you guest, you know you hope that our character can matter to that episode, and in this one it's kind - it - she unequivocally matters to this episode, and that's - that was really encouraging.

And also, the way she's written, you know she's, I think on the surface she has all of these kind of qualities that people like to assume they know. But, she's got a lot of other kind of textures going on inside her life, and you know she's just - she's not one note whatsoever the way she's written, and that's what I'm always drawn too. I think that that's something that is always worthwhile for me as an actor is to play around with all of the deeper layers of a person. So, they really gave me a shot to do that with (Joslin), which I mean, I'm thrilled.

And as far as, yeah, guesting when - you know like during hiatus and stuff, I - you know I love working. So yeah, it's always nice to breath in a hiatus, but at the same time it's an absolute joy to get a shot to play around with other types of roles, you know when you - when you're on break from the one that you play a lot. So, it's - yeah, it's a delicious thing to be able to work this much.

What was it like for the both of you working together? I mean, it's such an iconic show, but at the same time it is a serious storyline, would you love to guest star again if asked?

Raul Esparza: We're never going to be asked back because all we do is laugh.

Anna Chlumsky: Well, you're lying Raul because you got asked back.

Raul Esparza: No, all we do is laugh. It is an iconic show that has a very cohesive family over there. But, aside from the part that they were very welcoming to us, we had our own little sort of group, particularly in the courtroom stuff that we were doing where, you know Anna and I had a really good - I had a ball.

So SVU has a reputation of giving its guest stars some of the more serious or scary scenes. How do you guys get into that mindset, and what do you do in between takes to relieve that tension?

Raul Esparza:  You answer that, Anna, because that's more about your character.

Anna Chlumsky: Oh, okay. You know it's interesting. This is the first time on film - or on screen that I've had to do such intense, violent-type work. And yeah, I've done stuff like that on stage before, but not so close up and on screen. And, you know it is - it's a different animal, so it's like - you know it - you definitely know you're at work, which is a wonderful thing. It's like after you say, "Cut," like you're not in that anymore, you know? They definitely allow you to communicate as - you know as an actor. I did the scene and I always felt reminded of that, you know? I never felt necessarily that I was - that I didn't have voice or, you know like I was definitely always a part of the collaboration on those scenes, and that was really generous of them and important, I think, you know given the nature of those scenes.

And yeah, they made me feel really comfortable right away. I mean, you know one of our first rehearsals was a stunt rehearsal, and so that - you know I - that right away just made me go, "Oh yeah, they got it figured out. They've been doing this a long time."

Raul Esparza: But particularly, you've got that - you got the sexual side of things in this since it's - you know it's - the episode's called Twenty-five Acts. It's clearly hinting at 50 Shades of Grey. So we're - there's the extra level of SVU covering sexual crimes, but on top of that there's an extra sort of level of disturbing quality to that in this particular episode.

Anna Chlumsky: And the questions that it raises. It was all very compelling to do. It was - you know, yeah, the subject matter and the actual execution of it I think also. So, they knew what they were they doing the whole time, so that's good.

Raul Esparza:  And I had the opposite of that because, you know - and usually it's the criminal or the victim that ends up getting the meaty stuff. In this case Warren Leight has written a spectacular new DA character for a guest star, and that's not typical. And so, to come in and play something that's - I mean he's a really delicious son of a bitch to play. I mean it was - that was just fun. That was a lot of fun, and that's different from coming in and playing the bad guy.

The show generally deals with things that are going on in real life; stories and events that are going on in the news. What did you guys think when you read that this episode was going to be centered around a 50 Shades of Grey-style book?

Raul Esparza: Hey, bring it on.

Anna Chlumsky: Yeah, totally. Why not?

Raul Esparza: Why not? It's - you know everybody's reading that book. I just took a trip to Hawaii a few weeks ago and everybody in the airport, like all the women were reading this book. Every time you turned around. Like, in every state. I was in California and Hawaii and New York. It was actually thrilling to see how sort of current and on topic it is. I haven't read it yet, so...

Anna Chlumsky: Yeah, I didn't finish it. I picked it up during the filming of this.

Because the book has such intense themes and the show is kind of exploring how those themes can, I guess, become even more perverted, what do you think about the popularity of the book in general?

 Anna Chlumsky: You know, again, I haven't read it all the way, so I don't - I really can't speak to, you know the subject matter. But also, I mean, really it's - you know there's no (accounting flirtation), so I think that, you know if everybody's very into something that's obviously striking the chord in them, I think, you know power to you. You should definitely - you know you should definitely read what you want to read. 

Raul Esparza: You know what's fun though, what's fun about these books, I think, is just that there's like - we have this civilized and very prudish conversation generally about sex in America.

People get very uncomfortable. And especially when you're looking at sort of middle - sort of a middle class suburb vision of what sex is supposed to be. We live in very protected kind of safe bubbles about it. And it's not a - this is the way we handle it in America, and that it's very interesting, of course, when a book like this come out. It gives you permission to open up a conversation about things that maybe people secretly think about, but are afraid to even consider.

And so, the popularity of the book, I think, has opened up - you know it's - yeah, it's titillating, it's silly, it's also fun as hell, clearly, but it also kind of like (root) - it takes off that little layer, I think, that we've all put on that kind of behavior in bedrooms. It's something that we're clearly not comfortable with as a country. And we're very fast to say that anything that deviates from the norm is bad and should be punished, which is actually what this episode is about, much more than it is about the book.

Anna Chlumsky: Yeah, I think the episode is really capturing, I think, a lot of the questions that something like this - that this raises, you know which is - you know it strikes that note of, "Oh, you know are we shamed of the - you know ashamed of things like this? Are we not? Should we be ashamed of things like this? Should we not? Are there consequences? Are there not?" You know things like that, you know? And even just a matter of also public and private life and, you know is something that's written in a book, does that necessarily make it real? You know, if you like to read something or if you like to fantasize about something, does that necessarily mean that or that?

Raul Esparza: And I would say too, that another central team in the episode is how women are perceived, what kind of power women have, and whether it's - whether or not a woman is allowed to fantasize and write about it. And if she does indeed, what's the difference between - it's the - in this case they're suggesting that she's as good as a whore, and therefore deserves to be treated like one.

And they say that it's the hardest case to prove when a prosecutor says, "You know, I can't win that case." A prosecutor can't win the case where a prostitute is saying that she was raped. And they're essentially treating the author of the book, in this case, in that fashion. And that's a really interesting double-standard that we have because if the tables were turned...

Anna Chlumsky: Yeah. And we've come such a long way in the dialogue of it, but really aren't - you know doesn't sex still - you know or does it still objectify the female party, you know? Does it - you know even the characters in this episode that are uncovered who you may not think are involved with a book like this. You know, they - you know yeah, it's - everybody kind of gets the - it's a little bit about prejudice. It's a lot about prejudice, I think, as well as all the sexual things.

I was wondering if you could both talk a little more about your characters as individuals, what sets them apart from just, "Okay, he's a prosecutor. She's a book author who's written," in real life it's actually Twilight (Fan Sick), the 50 Shades of Grey, which is - I don't know if that's what it is in the Law & Order: SVU universe, but who are they beyond those roles?

Anna Chlumsky: Sure. You know, (Joslin) is someone who - she's still very young and I think she's gotten herself into a life that is very public, and very fast-paced and very exciting, probably before she ever imagined she would. You know, I think that she's - that she probably, you know dreamt of a life like the one she's leading right now, but definitely kind of has been plunged into it very quickly.

And I think that we meet her in this episode in a place where she's kind of going along for the ride, but is always a little bit nervous about maybe when the ride is over or when she - you know she hits ground. Like, what's left for here there when the ride slows down?

Raul Esparza: I think on the other side, like Law & Order this season is really kicking it. I don't know if you saw that first two-parter, which is I think they're going into whole different territory honestly for the series, which is really exciting. And I was talking about how on set it doesn't feel like you're part of a show that's been going on for 14 years. It feels like it's a series that's got it blood flowing and it's very exciting to be there.

So, one of the things that they're - that that they did, like the character that I'm playing is DA, the name is - named Rafael Barba, which I think is a riff on my name...Raul Esparza, Rafael Barba. Knowing Warren I'm sure he's doing that. And he just - he said he wanted to write a part for me. Wanted to play some - give me something really meaty to sink my teeth into and boy has he. Barba is a DA that is moving sort of laterally from Brooklyn into Manhattan. He's ambitious. There is - if you saw the two-parter that opened the season, some serious scandals going on in the police department in the DA's office.

So, there's a lot of open spaces and Barba moves in to fill one, and he moves in fast. And he's known as a closer, essentially, in terms of being able to win the unwinnable cases. As a matter of fact, when he's introduced they say, "He's a guy who can put away two johns for raping a prostitute." So, when Benson comes to him and says, "I heard you could win these cases," he said, "I - he says, "I can put stuff together, but it doesn't necessarily mean that I can win it. Let's see."

And he plays - he's an arrogant man and he's a very tough man, and he's - he and Benson go head-to-head a great deal in the episode, which I like a lot. He's not necessarily a likeable or a pleasant DA. He's a real tough son of a bitch, which I like a great deal. He's even contentious with his client. At the same time he's got - he's a good man. So, there's that question of, you know how he - what he accomplishes or what he doesn't accomplish. In the end you think that this man is a good man, is an honest man, is a man who's trying to do right, and is - but is also a DA who is ambitious and tough and a little bit ruthless, and is butting heads very severely with the department.

It's an interesting character and I think that's part of the fun of playing it is there's a lot of depth on the outside.

In your travels around New York, had you ever worked with or known (fellow guest star) Roger Bart before?

Raul Esparza: I've known Roger for many years, but we've never worked together. Roger - I knew of Roger actually when I did a show Off-Broadway called Tick, Tick...Boom! that Jon Larson wrote, because the Larson family had been close friends with Roger Bart for a long time, and Jon Larson named the role of Roger in Rent after Roger Bart. And so, Roger's been - he's been - in the Broadway circles, you know he's someone that I have admired greatly, and boy is that man funny and wonderful to play with.

So no, we had never done anything on stage together, but we've known of each other and been around each other socially a great deal. And it took a TV show to make it happen instead of a Broadway show, so that's funny

Anna Chlumsky: This cast was just so much fun. Both the regulars and - you know who were so inviting and so playful, and the other guests. Like, we had this little clubhouse going in the courthouse and it was excellent. And Raul and I had just met on this too, and you know we were like coffee daters now, so...

Raul Esparza: Yeah, we were like fast friends. And let me tell you that never happens. You never become friends with people you work with.

What's your advice to actors?

Raul Esparza: My advice to actors generally is be yourself. I think it's a business, particularly in Hollywood that goes out of its way to try to find the next, you know insert name here. And you cannot be that person. You cannot be that start. Actually, I've always said that seeking celebrity or stardom, which is what a lot of things seemed to be geared towards now, particularly reality television, which is about nothing but seeking celebrity, which is an entirely different thing from being an actor.

I've always said that doing that is like trying to get struck by lightning. So, what you have to do is do your work, and you do your work and you do your work, and stick with it. And the best work you can do is use yourself and be yourself. Now, that sounds simple, but it's so damn hard, because especially when you're starting out you have no Goddamn idea who you are and who you're supposed to be.

And so, it's easy for them to say, "Be like this. Be like that. Change this about yourself. Change your name. Act this way. What we're looking for is the next Brad Pitt." Well, I will never be the next Brad Pitt. It's simply not going to happen. But, I can be the next Raul Esparza. So, you have to somehow hold onto that.

But, I do believe that, and it's not an easy task to set yourself, because it requires faith that what you have to offer is worth something, even if everybody else tells you it's not. But, it - that's, honestly, the only way I've managed to stay sane.

And also, the other thing I'd say is everybody's path is their own. I could no more build my career exactly the way Anna has built hers if I tried to follow her every step. I just -we cannot - you can't say to somebody, "How did you do it," and then try to do it that way. The questions asked, "How do you get an agent? You know, how do I get into those calls, and how do I get that part?" And, you know as though they were a formula. Everybody's path is their own and there are no mistakes along that path, which is another hard thing to remember.

I wish we had a cookbook that told us how to do this. You know what I mean? But, we don't.

And that kind of honesty with yourself, my God, it's hard, because you - it's so easy as an actor to lose hope and to feel like it's not going to work out and - when all you have to hang on to is yourself. It helps to have good friends and it helps to try to know your own heart and believe that what your heart has to say is - somebody wants to hear.

Anna Chlumsky: And my advice, I'll try to kind of list the things I've said in the past. But persevere, number one. Again, harder said - you know easier said than done, but do it; persevere. Trust your work, because that's what you've got and that's what you're doing it for is your work. The best recipe I can think of, and - I mean, and I don't - you know there is no recipe, and Raul's absolutely right, but I do think that there's a universality to be seen doing your best work. You know, do it. Don't just sit there and, you know, "Oh, oh, so and so doesn't like me," or whatever. Like, just do your work. 

Raul Esparza: When you're starting out, like for me it was like take everything you can, because you just want to work. You've just got learn...I learned from other actors. Anna, I watch - I just watch you and steal shamelessly.

 Anna Chlumsky: Well, good for you, because you're going to be amazing if you watch me. And be cheek at all times! ...  Bette Davis said this, but I always, always - have it written in every one of my little notebooks and everything, is "love the sweat. Love the sweat." 

Raul Esparza: fantastic quote, "Love the sweat."

Anna Chlumsky: Isn't that - it's the best

NBC's Law & Order: SVU"Twenty-Five Acts" episode airs 10/10 at 9pm ET. In the episode, the young author of a wildly successful S&M romance novel (Chlumsky) goes home with a famous television show host (guest star Roger Bart), who forces himself on her. Detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Rollins (Kelli Giddish) work to convince the victim to file charges, with the assistance of a brash new Manhattan District Attorney (guest star Raúl Esparza.) As the SVU squad digs into her background to uncover potential trial pitfalls, Detective Amaro (Danny Pino) uncovers a secret that threatens to destroy the young woman's career as well as her case. Also starring Ice-T (Detective Odafin Tutuola) and Richard Belzer (Sergeant John Munch.) Adam Baldwin (Captain Steven Harris) guest stars.

Photo Credit: Walter McBride / Retna Ltd.