For actors, bad guys are always supposed to be the best parts. But after playing criminals on both Law & Order and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Raul Esparza says he's having just as much fun playing someone on the right side of the law on Law & Order: SVU — if not more.
"I don't think there's anything nice about [ADA Rafael] Barba. He's kind of an a--hole, but I love him," Esparza tells TVGude.com. "And that's OK. He's fundamentally a good person and gets the job done."
Since debuting in the third episode of the season, Esparza has become the SVU squad's new go-to-guy in court. Despite his brash — and sometimes downright rude — demeanor, Barba has slowly but surely become a part of the team. "I think that once they see that Barba is good at his job, it serves a purpose for them as a team of investigators to know that this is a guy who is going to push something through no matter how hard it is," Esparza says. "Because the actors have embraced me a little bit, the writers have opened up the possibility that the team begins to trust him a little bit more."
Esparza was first approached to appear on Law & Order: SVU (Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC) over the summer by showrunner Warren Leight after the two worked together last spring on the short-lived Broadway production Leap of Faith. "Warren said that he needed a new ADA and that he wanted to write something for me because he wanted to keep working together," he says. "We really went through the wringer together, and it was a nice thing to do because I think we were both hurting."
Despite his open schedule, the four-time Tony nominee admits he was "cautious" about signing on for the role. "I was concerned that this kind of work would not feel as satisfying as what I do onstage," he says. "It's acting, but they're very different skills. ... I didn't know how much there was still to learn and that's great. It's been a real surprise and a real challenge."
Among those challenges was saying goodbye to six weeks of rehearsals afforded to most stage productions. However, co-star Mariska Hargitay helped him adjust. "You can make a lot of mistakes around her. You can try stuff and she'll run with it and that's an amazing thing," he says. "What happens with television is that you create parts like this on your feet. You don't have rehearsal time, so working with her, I figured out the character by making a lot of choices and making a lot of mistakes."
Although such mistakes may have served Esparza well behind the scenes, his character has not been so lucky so far. "Barba doesn't necessarily always get it right. If you notice, he hasn't really won that many cases," he says. "He's taken a lot of leaps."
And he's not done jumping yet. Barba will again find himself in hot water on Wednesday's episode when he severely underestimates his opposing counsel (Nia Vardalos). "She seems like she doesn't know what she's doing and is not as polished as he is. So he judges her off the bat. There's some comedy to be had in that, but she turns the tables on him very quickly," he says. "It's a case about shame and about how we're perceived, and self-loathing, so I think it's great that they open it with an attorney opposite Barba that Barba makes judgments based just on appearance."
Esparza jokes that Vardalos "went out of her way to look as bad as she possibly could" for her role — a stark contrast to Barba's flashy, high-fashion suits and those snappy suspenders that get so much attention online. As a Bronx native, Barba didn't always have such an expensive closet. "He's someone who comes from a place where he felt like he had to put himself up and distinguish himself. He's got a huge chip on his shoulder about coming from a poor Latin family and for not having the opportunities that other people had," Esparza says. "He makes sure that he really looks the part and clothes are power. I've always said I wanted him not to feel slick, but he is someone who dresses to intimidate."
While Barba's designer duds have been a hit with fans thus far, Esparza has otherwise avoided looking for feedback on the character — another big change from performing live in front of an audience night after night. "I feel proprietary to him even if he is a jerk," he says. "As it goes on, I'd like to peek in a little bit more at what people are saying. I'm not strong enough. I don't know Barba well enough yet."
Now that he's juggling roles on SVU and NBC's upcoming drama Hannibal, Esparza doesn't have much time to search the message boards anyway. "I feel very spoiled right now," he says.
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC.