There’s a certain nickname that S. Epatha Merkerson — the TV warhorse who’s played Lieut. Anita Van Buren on Law & Order for 13 years — likes to use with friends, family, and pretty much anybody that she meets. And she shouldn’t count on even her closest buddies, like costar Jesse L. Martin, to keep it a secret. ”Ask her why she calls everybody ‘[sweet] motherf—er,”’ he suggests, days before Merkerson sits down to salad and chardonnay at a Manhattan restaurant, only to have that revelation become the first talking point in the conversation. ”He is so bad!” she yelps. ”Someone who’s a sweet motherf—er is a really nice person. It’s a term of endearment!” she explains, her throaty laugh erupting forth.
Merkerson’s blue-nickname habit certainly hasn’t hindered her popularity: Thanks to a critically beloved performance in last year’s HBO film Lackawanna Blues, the 54-year-old actress has spent much of the past six months walking to awards-show podiums. She snagged an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a SAG award, and finally, it seems, some hard-earned respect. The film, based on Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s autobiographical play of the same name, follows Rachel ”Nanny” Crosby (Merkerson), who runs an upstate New York boardinghouse packed with castoffs. ”Everybody knows someone who’s a Nanny,” says Merkerson, explaining her character’s universal appeal. ”Someone who serves the community, someone who everyone says, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s Mrs. B. She’s taking care of so-and-so.”’ After her three decades in the business, though, Lackawanna can hardly be called Merkerson’s big break. ”She was well-off,” says Santiago-Hudson. ”She was successful. But now everyone wants to know how to say her name.” (For the record, it’s ee-PAY-thuh.)
It’s taken a while to get here: Back in 1986, Merkerson kicked off her career in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and began playing Reba, the chirpy Mail Lady who dropped by Pee-wee’s Playhouse every Saturday morning. ”[It was] all I could do to not laugh all day,” she recalls of her stint on the CBS phantasmagoria. True to form, she and Pee-wee’s alter ego, Paul Reubens, grew close. ”We send each other gifts every year for birthdays and Christmas. He really is one of the sweetest motherf—ers out there.”
There’s that term again! Obviously, Merkerson can’t hold her tongue. At the Emmys, she announced that her acceptance speech was lost down the front of her dress. With her, there’s just no hiding some things. ”Which is why I can stand up in front of the whole world and thank my divorce lawyer,” she cracks about her SAG Awards speech. ”That was another reason [the award] was so exciting. It was happening at a time when someone was trying to take my spirit.” She’s mum on the details, except to report that the decree — which granted the split from Toussaint Jones Jr., her husband of 12 years — came through on a special day: ”February 14. I love that.”
Winning an Emmy and a Golden Globe in the same season is bound to raise an actor’s asking price — or at least increase the volume of choice scripts delivered to her door, right? Not so much, she says, matter-of-factly listing the reasons why not. ”I’m still black. I’m still a woman. I’m still 54.” To be fair, she will appear opposite Samuel L. Jackson and Justin Timberlake in the Southern drama Black Snake Moan, which was shot before her recent awards-show victories. But since those awards haven’t yet translated to more starring roles, what she really wants to do is…produce. (Ha! Fooled you.) ”I have that kind of clout now,” she reasons. Not that she’ll get to hone the craft on her home turf. ”The one thing I can’t get [L&O creator] Dick [Wolf] to let me do is produce an episode,” she reveals. ”Every now and then I throw the reel out and see if I can pick a fish, but he’s pretty sure about that.” (Indeed, Wolf confirms that he doesn’t allow any L&O actors to produce episodes of the series.)