An Interview with Law & Order: SVU’s Warren Leight and Andy Karl

I had the extreme pleasure to participate in a round-robin style conference call with Law & Order: SVU‘s Executive Producer, Warren Leight, and upcoming guest star, Andy Karl. Read the interview below.


Andy, what is the challenge for you with this new character that you’re taking on?

Andy Karl: There’s several challenges. One is this character is new to SVU entirely. He’s never been an investigator in Special Victims Unit. So there’s a lot of nuances that go along with that type of investigation. And things that he’s not used to, he comes from anticrime which is really, you know, going out and busting the perps and bringing them back and throwing them in jail kind of way.

So now the interrogations and things like that have a little bit of a nuance to find out more information that’s very important to SVU. I think that’s probably going to be the hardest thing for him to deal with.

But also I think there’s some great things like he’s – I don’t think he’s ever had a strong woman boss which I find very interesting. Lieutenant Benson is very strong presence and she’s very knowledgeable and making sure that he shows her respect is top of the list too.

Warren, I know you said that this is probably your last year with the show. So I just was curious how that’s changed your approach to everything this year. Are you going bigger on everything or how are you taking this last year?

Warren Leight: It’s kind of – By the way, we gave Andy the speech before this starts. Everything we do is fictional and inspired by real-life events. So if he screws that up, it’s on him. We gave him the speech.

I think the thing that’s different for me this year, it’s somewhat liberating. It’s a little – it’s bittersweet but there’s something liberating about “This is your last season.” So you want to – I think we’re taking bigger chances. I think we’re pushing the narrative more quickly.

I think we’re – I’m trying – the last thing in the world I want anyone to think is I was distracted or I phoned it in for the last year. I want this to be the best year I’ve done out of the five and just sort of, you know, the old basketball, leave nothing on the court. I want to walk off at the end of the season and be exhausted and know I couldn’t have done anything better.

And I’ve got – it’s interesting to have – you know, we’ve had some shifts again in the cast. Instead of maintaining the status quo, we lost Danny Pino’s character, Amaro; we’d bring in a new guy that Andy is playing who’s – and there’s a host of – any time someone new comes into a squad room, it affects everybody’s equilibrium.

Everyone has – it’s the new guy. The new guy is the son of an important guy, the police department played by Peter Gallagher, and it’s so – everybody’s usual way of doing things is thrown off at this time. I just kind of like it. Everyone – I’m in transition this year and so – in a strange sort of way, we put a lot of the characters into transition as well.

Warren, you’ve given us episodes based on Black Lives Matter and the troubles facing transgender people. What other kind of big issues can we expect to see then?

Warren Leight: Yes, well, we have one coming up about those – a religious family that, you know, tries to impose their morality on the viewers of their reality show and features one thing but may have a dirty secret festering within their home. So we’re – a lot of what we’re going after this year is hypocrisy. There’ll be – it seems like it was the summer of hypocrisy in a lot. You know, these iconic figures we certainly saw story after story about the former – I think we read today the former Speaker of the House just took a plea deal rather than admit to what he – why he was bribing somebody, why – we saw the – obviously we saw the Cosby story, we’ve seen the Duggar story.

There’s just been a state of stories about powerful men behaving badly and doing their best to cover it up. And that’s an interesting area for us to explore as the season goes on.

And we almost began the season with obviously a powerful rich man almost getting away with multiple murders. So I think for better or for worse, what we see in the news – I think we do it here as it’s our responsibility to discuss these issues.

So many TV shows now are, you know, the zombie stories and the superhero stories and there’s very few places left to really discuss issues of sexual politics and rape culture and moral hypocrisy in our life.

So that’s – I kind of – I think we’re – it’s a privilege that we get to write about that stuff and that we have an audience that pays attention to it. So we’ll keep going.

Andy, because we know that Benson seems to have a pretty good working relationship with Deputy Chief Dodds, so I was wondering how that’s going to be affected now that he’s found his sort of number two.

Andy Karl: That’s a – it’s definitely part of what she has to deal with. I think as – coming from my perspective as Mike Dodds, he doesn’t like to depend on his father for work but he loves to live up to the reputation of being really good at his job.

I think, you know, Mike Dodds, Sergeant Mike Dodds, I’m going to have a lot to prove and I’m not afraid of that. There’s actually one of the lines in my first episode is sink or swim that Chief Dodds says to me and I think I’d choose to swim.

So it’s – I think there’s definitely some sort of some mix of awkwardness between her relationship with my father but something I don’t think Mike Dodds really brings up in any way.

I don’t view her as “Oh, you and my father have a working relationship, and therefore, I need to sort of go along those lines.” It’s more about I’m coming in here to kick some butt pretty much as much as I can.

But I think there’s – but there’s going to be lessons to be learned because Lieutenant Benson is a very strong force and making sure that I don’t, you know, step over the lines is sort of priority me of Mike Dodds. And he respects SVU for what it is. He’s certainly not going to try to take any privileges by being the son of the chief.

Warren Leight: That said, if I can just – everybody in the squad room, even though Mike Dodds is doing his best to be one of the guys, everybody is walking on egg shells because they don’t know if he’s going to rat them out.

And there’s a lot of tension about nobody wants to work – no offense, Andy, but nobody wants to work with the boss’s son. And that’s one of the things we’re enjoying. And when I think Fin’s character is particularly put out by it and then upcoming episode Benson looks right at Fin and goes “I offered you the chance to be sergeant.

You weren’t interested. Shut up.” So there’s a lot of – there’s a ripple effect when the boss’s son comes to work with you. It’s – imagine in all of your – all the places you guys work, if you had a summer intern who is the boss’s son and how pleasant…

Andy Karl: Right.

Warren Leight: …and simple that would be.

Andy Karl: And also in my own life, I’m – so I’m joining this ensemble cast that has all their, you know, friendships and off-camera time that’s all sort of established and how they work together on cameras is really interesting. So it’s a unique experience to walk into something that works so well and be the monkey wrench, so to speak.

What is the crime that Dodds comes into?


Andy Karl: The crime that I come into was…

Warren Leight: You mean his first, first or…

Andy Karl: The first case. Am I allowed to mention the first case.

Warren Leight: Yes I think so. I think so.

Andy Karl: Okay. Yes.

Warren Leight: It’s on next Wednesday.

Andy Karl: Oh yes, they actually already saw a commercial for it. So yes, the first case I come into is actually interesting because it deals with the internal drama of the characters that are established already like Rollin’s character has a sister that is – she’s obviously created problems in the past and she’s wearing her head again along with Virginia Madsen arrives on set as Rollin’s mother.

And seeing how protective certain other people in the force are of their own I’m trying to find out the case of a guy who was drugged and had his things stolen from him but he’s accused of rape.

So in that – all that internal ideas I’m finding out there’s an established family within the force and it – Rollin’s sister is – creates a problem and I see that there’s, you know, there’s problem inside that’s for you and I see it firsthand first day. So it’s really interesting.

Andy, you briefly mentioned the cast and the characters having a longstanding relationship. I was just wondering how you approached Mike knowing that they have this long relationship with each other both on set and off?

Andy Karl: It was interesting. I was doing some research and I met with the first precinct in New York and just sort of talk to their detective and I talked to one of the lieutenants there and try to figure out if they’ve ever been through that situation of being the new guy and, you know, they all said “Come in strong.” It all depends on the type of person you are, whether you’re like one of come in and try to solve every case or you just want to be, you know, part of the system.

I think being progressive and being forward moving when you first come in is a plus. So it is that thing of “I’m here, let’s get right on it.” So as soon as I’m introduced into the squad, I’m out on their – I’m out with a case the very next minute. So I’m definitely trying to prove that.

And, you know, I think along the way, I’m going to figure out how loyalties are and also my own sense of loyalty where I can, you know, Mike Dodds can show everybody that “You know what? I’m here. I’m not going to – I’m not here to tear down the system. I’m here to be a part of something and make this a better squad.”

You know, there’s – the father is very proud. Chief Dodds is proud but it also comes with a bit of, you know, I don’t want to be my daddy’s boy. I want to be my own established sergeant and it’s a mixture of all that stuff. So it’s very interesting to play that.


Andy, how strange is it to be playing the son of your rival on the Twentieth Century?

Andy Karl: It was awesome. I think I signed up first and I never mentioned it to him. And then I think he found out eventually and texted me before I came on to set and he was very excited that I was coming in.

You know, I think Peter Gallagher is one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with and he’s also just such a charming guy. You know, I’m not nearly as charming as him. So I try. So I was more like “How was Peter in this character? Is he super charming?

And do I look at that as being a son as like ‘Oh, dad, stop being charming’?” It’s really wonderful to have had that history with him in that show prior to coming on to SVU. It’s sort of made things very easy to like step up that first scene with my father and, you know, have a relationship already set. So that was a plus. I think it’s great. I hope I see more of him in the future and prove that, you know, little Dodds is doing good.

Warren, SVU has such a history of hiring theater actors, especially musical theater actors. Did you seek Andy out for this part and, if so, what in him made you think he was right for the role?

Warren Leight: It’s funny I like using dance or musical. I write by ear and I try to have a rhythm in my writing and I find that it may just all be in my head but it’s – I’ve noticed over the years that people with musical chops can hear that rhythm or seem to hear that rhythm intuitively and it’s helpful to me.

We have an extraordinarily musical cast. Danny Pino is a very good singer. Kelli is a very good singer. Ice is a, you know, is a musical legend, Raul, Mariska, I think (carried a tune). Mariska can sing, you know, in any other cast, Mariska will be the best singer.

And so I like – I always find singers can act, you know, look at – I think – go back to Sinatra, if you don’t see it.

And so – and I’ve seen a musical Andy did I guess two years ago, Andy. Was it two or three? “Rocky” was…

Andy Karl: About a year and a half ago.

Warren Leight: Year and a half ago. And “Rocky” was, in my mind, every year there’s the unfairly vilified actually very good musical of the year, the – and it was… It got pigeon holes because theater critics in New York are snobs and so they didn’t appreciate it. It was brilliantly staged. And Andy had – and I went in with – not knowing what to expect and probably thinking it’s going to be another one of these movie remakes and I was knocked out by Andy’s performance.

So that show – that entire show was on his shoulders. It was a nice ensemble cast but he’s in every moment of it and he’s boxing every night. And, you know, it’s good for us to have a detective who has a certain physicality, which Andy has, who has a certain emotional availability, which I saw in that show, and I just made – I always like these little “got to work with that guy” mental notes. And that was a – it was clear to me this was – I thought “Oh, this is good.

This is a fantastic performance that people aren’t talking about. So I’ll be able to work with him.” We’ll be able to get him. He will – it’s horrible calculus but that’s what – this is good and underappreciated. That’s great. That’s great. And having said that, it actually took a while to work it all out because Andy got more popular after “Rocky.”

But I like knowing – also this – I like – it gives me a certain security, a guy who can go out and do that eight nights a week is not going to get tired on a TV schedule, is not going to complain about long hours, is not going to shrink from the task.

If you go out every night live in front of 1000 people in that house and have to box and break your heart and sing, you’ll be okay, you know? You know, it certainly worked for Raul. And so I – it’s my little – and actually in last night’s episode, we brought in Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr., who are currently starring in “Hamilton.”

Andy Karl: “Hamilton.”

Warren Leight: The week before that, we had Geneva Carr and Chris Sieber who are in – I want to say “Hand to God,” “Hand of God.”

Andy Karl: The three of us…

Warren Leight: That’s right. I like having that kind of – it’s great energy and it’s something you can do in New York that maybe more difficult to do in LA.

Melanie Votaw: Thanks.

Warren Leight: So far, I feel like I got lucky with Andy. I haven’t told him that, though.

Andy Karl: Oh. I’m the lucky one.

Warren, now that we know Declan is the father of Amanda’s baby, which, by the way, I did not see coming, can we expect or hope to see more of him, you know, provided “Gotham” gives him a vacation?

Warren Leight: Well, it’s really tricky for us because he is dedicated to the citizens of Gotham or the network that produces “Gotham.” So for Declan’s – for the sake of “Gotham’s” fans, I hope we don’t get to see him but if anything changes over there or if his character doesn’t stay there, we’ll be around to sweep up the pieces as quickly as we possibly can. It’s just great for us.

And I, you know, he’s – we remain – I mean, we do it. I wish him – that show is – I think is a powerful show. It’s doing very well. We wish him well there and I think technically we’re still holding the torch, I guess. Rather than say we’re in second, I’ll just say we’re holding the torch for him.

Warren, you mentioned Leslie Odom and Daveed Diggs. And I know Leslie has been a recurring character. Are you going to have Daveed back as well?

Warren Leight: Yes, I think, you know, it’s funny because we were shopping around for a believable activist advocate lawyer and I had, you know, it just seemed like, how about the guy who’s playing Thomas Jefferson? He’s pretty good.

Andy Karl: He’s great.

Warren Leight: And, you know, he’s – when you see “Hamilton,” you’re struck by, boy, this is a cast I haven’t seen – you don’t get to see that mix of cast, that talented of cast, that fresh of cast and immediately – it was immediately believable. I don’t – I would use him again tomorrow. I think, you know, he has to work around the schedule of that show because evidently “Hamilton” is going to run for a while. But…

Andy Karl: Big hit.

Warren Leight: …like forever. But any time he’s available – he’s a terrific actor and just – even the day he speaks there was a quality to his voice that I found remarkable. And yes, and we’ll be happy to have him back. We, you know, lawyers come through our squad room from time to time. So there’s – I haven’t told him that either. But it’s our hope that he’ll come back.

Warren, will you give a rundown of anything coming up that you think fans would like to know?

Warren Leight: Sure. First of all, thanks all of you for doing this. I know this is – you know, these round robins are tough and the phone thing is tough.

The next episode up, which Andy mentioned, is called “Maternal Instincts.” And it is the return of Rollins’ sister. We start off with a celebrated musician accused of a crime that he doesn’t remember. And the reason he doesn’t remember it is he had taken after this performance he had met an escort in the hotel bar, brought her up to his room and according to him, she drugged him and he has no memory of the assault that he gets accused of.

So we start there. And then it gets murky because the escort turns out to be Rollins’ sister who’s got outstanding warrants on her and is, you know, just the person who has been dragging Amanda Rollins down.

So Amanda, like – Kelli has had her baby but Amanda in this episode is 7-1/2 months pregnant. Her mother is up seemingly there to help and the sister shows up. And we call the nickname for the episode around the set was SVU of Osage County.

This is the family – the most dysfunctional family drama we’ve done in a long time. And it’s just – it’s almost too much pressure for Rollins to bear and her mom, played by Virginia Madsen, as is often the case in dysfunctional families, the one who got away and did good is the one that’s considered to be the one who’s betrayed the family. Rollins is really – it’s a tough journey that episode for Kelli.

And I have to say, by the way, Kelli was on our stage working until Thursday and had her baby four days later. And so she is – she was…

Andy Karl: Amazing.

Warren Leight: …as we expected, she and her character are both supers. And so she was shooting this extremely demanding, emotionally exhausting episode about – in this case, about eight days before she had her baby.

But it’s Virginia Madsen headlines and it’s Lindsay Pulsipher. The flautist is played by Zach McGowan. You should look at his exercise video if you want to get a sense of his physicality. But he did a terrific job.

And it’s – we’ve had a lot of very dark emotionally devastating, sad episodes in a row and this one is just – has a different tips to it, I guess, I’d say.

And then right after that, we go to our religious family episode. I mentioned before we have Geneva Carr and Chris Sieber in that episode as the parents of ten kids and there’s a reality show that’s the Baker family and the reality show is “The Baker’s Dozen.”

Chris Elliott, whom you may remember from a lot of different things in the “Letterman Show” and stuff like that, plays the cameraman. Ryan Devlin plays the pastor in the family.

And it’s a question of we opened a purity ball in that episode when a young girl promises her dad she will be faithful to him and virginal until the day he gives her away in marriage. And you kind of know if SVU opens with a purity ball it’s not going to go well.

I think that’s just part of – so it’s finding out – there’s a 13-year-old girl who’s – and dad is – the dad is the head of the clan have this purity ball and they’re dancing together and she faints and that’s when we and they find out that she’s pregnant and how is that even possible.

And so that’s a nice – that’s a good family episode. I think, you know, let the kids watch that one. That’s a good one. But it came out great. One of the trickiest things there, that’s the one that Kelli was in until four days before she gave birth.

So here we have Detective Rollins eight-and-plus months pregnant, trying to get a religious family to talk about how their daughter might have gotten pregnant and it’s a really – we took it – since she got pregnant, we wrote it into every script one way or another. We waste nothing here.

The episode after that is the one I think that we wrote very much in mind of Dodds has been with us at this point for two episodes. It’s called “Melancholy Pursuit.” And it’s the episode that either – don’t take this the wrong way, Andy, but it’s the episode that either makes or breaks Dodds at SVU. It’s the episode that Mike makes some detective think “I can’t do this. It’s a really difficult haunt for a missing girl against the clock.”

And it’s – and then – and the investigation is an extremely difficult one and everyone that Detective Dodds runs into everyone we meet in this episode is in some way or another a victim of a long-buried tragedy. And it’s stepping to the island and it’s one of those episodes that’s self-contained. It’s a 42-minute heartbreak. And we’ll see how Dodds responds to that.

So that’s in the next three up. And we’ll have – you know, we’ll keep going here. We have exciting things planned for the end of November and then we’ll be off the air in December and then January is going to – there’s talk of a crossover with PD in early – in somewhere between January or early February and you’ll be hearing more about – I’m sure we’ll be – we’ll all be hearing more about that crossover if it happens.



Law & Order: SVU currently airs Wednesdays 9/8c on NBC

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