I was sitting at a warped card table in a church basement on a cold Monday morning last December, surrounded by guys dressed like homeless people, trying to make small talk with Vincent D’Onofrio. He’d called in sick on Thursday and Friday, and the shoot had to be pushed back. He looked uncomfortable in his rumpled suit and tie, his giant frame heaped onto a metal folding chair.
“You feeling better?”
“Yeah, I am.”
He looked at me as if it was still my turn to speak.
“At least you had the weekend to recuperate.”
A long silence was interrupted by one of the extras, something of a local celebrity who calls himself Radioman. He approached the table, tiny boombox dangling from his neck, and dropped a stack of glossy photos in front of Mr. D’Onofrio, which the actor began to sign.
“What’ve you done?” Radioman asked me.
“Yeah? I played Moonvest on 30 Rock.”
I was fulfilling a rite of passage for New York actors: shooting my first episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. On this episode, “Please Note We Are No Longer Accepting Letters of Recommendation From Henry Kissinger,” written by Marygrace O’Shea, I had been hired to play a pastor, of undisclosed denomination, with the misleadingly suggestive name of Minister Lester. Lester runs a soup kitchen uptown and was acquainted with one of the victims. It’s one of those bridge scenes that cop shows are littered with, full of enough exposition to move the story forward, but with just enough suspicion to keep it interesting.
“Yeah, I drove Denise home a few times. She was terrified of her ex,” says Minister Lester, advancing the plot.
“Her ex thought there was something going on between you,” says Detective Goren.
On the day of the shoot, I walked past trees to which pink No Parking permits had been stapled. I reached the corner of 86th and Amsterdam, where I had been told I’d find the “honey wagon,” a term for the trailers where they keep the “talent.” My trailer would have been considered ample were it a walk-in closet, but I was thrilled to have one.
I got into costume—black slacks, white shirt, burgundy windbreaker—and was led to another trailer a few blocks away, where the hair and makeup people sat watching Jerry Springer on TV. The makeup artist blotted my razor burn and the bags under my eyes with a heavy base and dusted my cheeks and widow’s peak with the lighter stuff. Not much they could do with my hair—a quick comb-through and a light spritz. Then back to the trailer to wait for a few hours.
The city is full of people like me. Throw a stone and you’ll hit one. And with every episode of each of the three current Law & Order franchise shows featuring between 10 and 20 non-recurring speaking roles, and with seasons typically stretching over 22 episodes, it’s fair to say that Law & Order is something of a sugar daddy to New York actors.
“I feel like we are a big part of the community, and that’s something that I take a lot of pride in,” said Kimberly Hope, casting director for Criminal Intent. “Not only are we able to give so many people a lot of work very early on in their careers, but … residuals! I mean, people can live off of residuals if they do enough shows.”