To fans of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Christopher Meloni will always be obsessive New York detective Elliot Stabler. To fans of HBO’s Oz, the actor will always be sociopathic inmate Chris Keller. But to fans of Wet Hot American Summer, he will always be the d— cream-owning, sweaters-fondling, refrigerator-molesting, Vietnam vet and camp chef “Gene.”
To mark the 10th anniversary of director David Wain‘s cult comedy classic we spoke to Meloni about his days at Camp Firewood.
Now shut the f— up and eat the corn!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get cast in Wet Hot American Summer?
CHRISTOPHER MELONI: I was called to audition. I remember very clearly, I was in the waiting area and I heard what they were doing through the wall and I was like, “Mmm, that’s not the character.” Someone else went in, did their thing, and I just went, “That’s NOT the character!” I knew exactly who the character was. So I went in there and I see Michael Showalter and I’d bumped into him at a chess shop. I’d played chess with him. My first thought was, “S—, I shouldn’t have beaten him.” [Laughs] But he was a very sweet guy and blah-blah-blah. And that was it. I knew I’d done well and, this is rare, I felt they were going to hire me. And they did.
How did you tackle the part differently from the other people who were auditioning?
Well, they were playing him big. They were playing him a little out-of-control. And I thought his natural weirdness was kind of inherent in the lines as written, so you didn’t need to add any extra sauce to him. David Wain and Michael Showalter had written enough weirdness and you really had to kind of pick your shots as to how behaviorally out of bounds you were going to play the guy.
What did you think of the script? It is in many ways an odd film. It’s a summer camp movie, but it’s also a spoof of a summer camp movie…
I got it. I mean, I recognized it as a new wave of comedy. It really wasn’t your daddy’s comedy. It wasn’t in the same vein as Animal House or Stripes. Some parts I would read and I would go, “That’s funny, I wonder how it will play?” Other things, I just thought, “That’s so f—ing out of bounds and outlandish, it’s got to play. And to be honest, some stuff I didn’t understand. But I knew that these guys were from The State. I said to myself, obviously they have a very clear idea of how to handle this comedy. This is theirs, this is their baby, this is what they do. So I never had any worries.
What was the shoot like?
Let me put it this way: Day four into I think a 28 day shoot, the local paper said, “Four Year Drought Ended, Rain Expected to Continue.” And by the end it had rained, I think, 24 out of 28 days. Every f—ing day it rained. And it was a summer camp, right? They literally set you up on these circa 1938 bed springs with a one-inch thick plastic mattress, if you want to call it that. I don’t know if you know what a “steakum” is.
I do not.
It’s like calling a piece of baloney a porterhouse steak. It wasn’t a mattress. There was mud everywhere. You didn’t take off your clothes, because you’re not going to be comfortable anyway. You just laid out a sleeping bag. Everything was muddy. Everything was damp. And it was nothing but fun, because everything was awesome.
There was a lot of extracurricular partying, right?
Oh, Jesus Christ, it really was the lunatics were running the asylum. I tried to get some sleep and you know, someone would come stumbling in, going [adopts drunken voice], “Oh, let’s talk.” I’m like, “Oh, s—!” And, you know, I am a weak man, so, yeah, we’d go drink.
A lot of the cast would go on to be big stars. Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper…
Who’s Bradley Cooper?
Who’s Bradley Cooper? I can’t remember him.
I actually have no idea if you’re joking or not. You really don’t remember Bradley Cooper?
Nah, it doesn’t ring a bell. Anyway, go ahead. I’m sure he’s very talented. I’m sure he’s done quite well for himself. Anyway, go ahead…
Actually, I’ll give you a f—ing Bradley Cooper story! So, right before my big monologue at the end of the movie, I’m just looking at a map, waiting to roll and Bradley settles up to next to me. He says, “Hey, do you mind me asking what you’re doing?” I look at him. I go, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Are you looking at Vietnam, remembering where your character came from?” He thought I was like looking at the map to get some kind of inspiration, or get to the moment by my sense memory work. I was like, “No. I’m just looking at the map!”
What was it like to act with a talking tin can?
Probably the most talented actor on the set. [Laughs] That was actually really difficult. But, you know, you do the best you can with what you’re given.
David Wain and Michael Showalter say they’re going to start working on another Wet Hot script later this year. Would you be up for appearing in that?
Oh, f— yeah. In a heartbeat.
What if they could only pay you scale?
You know, ironically, I didn’t get into the business for the money.
You can watch Meloni give his big monologue — and hump a fridge — in the clip below.
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