S. Epatha Merkerson
S. Epatha Merkerson, Law & Order
likely gave fans of NBC's Law & Order
(Wednesdays at 10pm/ET) a jolt with her downright giddy acceptance speech at this year's Golden Globes. Far from the levelheaded sobriety of her TV alter ego, Lt. Anita Van Buren, Merkerson let it all hang out. "I feel like I'm 16!" gushed the 53-year-old stage and screen veteran as she accepted the best-actress award for her role in HBO's Lackawanna Blues
TV-movie. "And if I wasn't in the middle of a hot flash, I'd believe that."
Merkerson's been feeling a lot of warmth lately. She's not only the longest-running cast member on Law & Order but the "longest-running African-American woman on a television drama." That makes her, as she laughingly puts it, "a Golden Globe-winning, Emmy-winning" — and, since this interview, Screen Actors Guild Award-winning — "moving-picture siren."
"I'm like a series of Trivial Pursuit answers," quips Merkerson, who came up with the mock-haughty "siren" tag on the L&O set as a way of teasing costar Dennis Farina, whom she's in the habit of calling "the king of movies." But underneath the mock pomp, she's all modest gratitude for the "lovely time" she finds herself in. "It's just cool to get dressed up, put on some pumps, and be cute and hang out," says Merkerson, who was thrilled to hit Tinseltown for the Globe festivities with costar Jesse L. Martin. "I love it!"
At the same time, things back at her Gotham day job couldn't be better. Merkerson's currently clocking her 13th year as Lt. Van Buren. (Some perspective on that stat: When she came aboard L&O, Michael Moriarty's Ben Stone was still calling the shots in the courtroom!) Along the way, she notes, she's been able to reveal Anita's humorous side and get out from behind her desk to visit more crime scenes. She was also front and center in a recent episode, "Acid," in which her concern for a troubled friend nearly causes her to commit perjury. "Anita's not afraid of stepping in it," Merkerson says. "And she stepped in it pretty deep in that episode."
For Merkerson (who is divorced, in case you missed her SAG Awards acceptance speech), the bonds she's formed behind the L&O camera loom as large as the achievements in front of it. "I have a family there," she says of her crew and cast mates. "I've been through parents' deaths and illnesses and the births of children and graduations and sweet-16 parties and marriages and divorces. I really love these people."
And while she won't pick a favorite detective pairing among her collaborators, she holds a special place in her heart for her late costar Jerry Orbach.
"There's so much about my life that Jerry is still a part of," Merkerson says. In addition to being a friend to everyone, Orbach was also something of a fixer, a native New Yorker always ready with an inside tip, a recommendation or a shortcut. "He knew everything!" she says. "Like, I wanted to buy an apartment and he got me a lawyer. And once I got the apartment, he turned me on to someone who had furniture. So his spirit is always around me." And no doubt he's smiling.