Christopher Meloni courtesy Nickelodeon
Christopher Meloni is best known for depicting intense, scary guys in shows from NYPD Blue to Oz and his current long-running gig as Law & Order: SVU's Det. Elliot Stabler. But he's also been known to moonlight as freaky characters in gross-out comedies like Wet Hot American Summer and the Harold and Kumar flicks. Meloni again is veering off the usual path in two upcoming projects - tonight's Nickelodeon family movie Gym Teacher (Friday, Sept. 12 at 8 pm/ET) and the romantic weepy Nights in Rodanthe (hitting theaters Sept. 26). We talked to the busy actor during one of his SVU lunch breaks. - Ileane Rudolph

TV Guide: Has tough guy Christopher Meloni gone soft? First you're reading on Noggin, then Gym Teacher, a Nick movie. What's up with that?
Christopher Meloni:
I like to think of that as expanding my fan base. Trying to capture the under-12 market. I like to exercise and sometimes it's nice to change up the exercise a little bit and go to different places. Comedy's a good place to go.

TV Guide: Since Gym Teacher is a family comedy, unlike your usual, more raunchy funny pictures, will your two kids [Sophia, 7 and Dante, 4] finally be able to see Daddy act in something?
Meloni:
They already have. That's why I took the job, to prove to them that I actually work for a living.

TV Guide: What did they think of Daddy's work?
Meloni:
They liked the physical comedy stuff.

TV Guide: Who is this gym teacher?
Meloni:
Dave Stewie had a chance to win gold for the U.S. gymnastics team in 1988, and he face-plants the vaulting horse. Fast-forward 20 years, and Stewie is coaching middle-school kids to win the National President's Gym Teacher of the Year competition. Unfortunately, just as they're about to compete, an awkward uncoordinated student is transferred into his gym class. The problem is the student also has a mother who is a new teacher at the school, and Stewie falls in love with her.

TV Guide: Was it your decision to wear the tightest short shorts since Oz?
Meloni:
I thought of it as, "Here's a guy who hasn't really evolved since 1988." That was behind the getup. I'll say this: A couple of crew members accused me of padding my shorts. I assured them I wasn't.

TV Guide: In the front or the back?
Meloni:
Sadly, in the back.

TV Guide: How was working with the very funny Amy Sedaris, who plays the lustful principal?
Meloni:
Have you ever seen the Mona Lisa? It's a work of art. I am president of the Amy Sedaris fan club. I'm also a member of the fan club of Paul Dinello, who directed the movie and played the woodshop teacher. They were Strangers with Candy people, so I knew they would have a unique comic sensibility.

TV Guide: You've been doing a lot of gross-out movies - Wet Hot American Summer and the Harold and Kumars. Are they particularly fun for you?
Meloni:
Yeah, because you're given greater latitude to express yourself. Plus, each generation is always looking for something new to call their own. If you bring work that's deemed edgy, they're really ready to get in there. That's a great energy to be around.

TV Guide: And then you sneak in an entirely different type of movie, Nights in Rodanthe, a mature romance. Who do you play?
Meloni:
I play Diane Lane's husband who made a fatal mistake by having an affair and running off with his secretary.

TV Guide: You left Diane Lane! Are you nuts?
Meloni:
Please. I didn't say I had good common sense. [ Laughs] As the movie starts, you find my character begging her to take me back, full of mea culpas which I believe are genuine.

T V Guide: Do you get to kiss her?
Meloni:
Oh, not deeply passionately. She's not ready for that.

TV Guide: Aw
Meloni:
You're telling me "Aw"? I travel nearly a thousand miles down to Wilmington, North Carolina, and no pucker for Chris.

TV Guide: Diane's character meets a charming doctor played by Richard Gere. Do you at least get a knock-down, drag-out fight with Gere?
Meloni:
Unfortunately not. I think they're afraid of a lawsuit ever since Runaway Bride, when I punched him out there over Julia Roberts.

TV Guide: I hear it's going to be a really revealing SVU season for Stabler. True?
Meloni:
They've written me an awesome show this year. You'll learn about Elliot in a very deep, long-term way.

TV Guide: There are several "awesome" guest stars who interact with Stabler. On October 14, James Brolin shows up.
Meloni:
He plays a hotshot astronaut and former marine who was a surrogate father to Elliot, who himself had dreams to be an astronaut. He's in town for a conference when a female astronaut winds up dead. He then helps with the case.

TV Guide: And the week after, we meet Elliot's mother, played by Ellen Burstyn. Why?
Meloni:
Things happen with my daughter Kathleen that only my mother can help me with. And she's pretty eccentric!

TV Guide: How will all these figures from Stabler's past affect his relationship with Olivia Benson? We're sure it will.
Meloni:
[ Laughs] I don't know yet. That remains to be seen.