The apocrypha Interview: S. Epatha Merkerson
By Kitteridge
 
S. Epatha Merkerson
Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, 1993-Present
Denise Winters, February 26, 1991
Typical Line: "Mr. McCoy, when my detectives get back from their needlepoint classes, I'll put them on the case."

If Dann Florek (Cragen) had to get bumped off the show for a skirt, we can't help but liking his replacement just as much. A Tony-nominated stage actress whose early TV appearances included a stint on Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Merkerson is a tough lieutenant - who shows her detectives just who wears the pants in the office.

 
Did you think there was any chance this show would make it to 300 episodes?
Who would ever have that thought? I knew this, that the particular episode I read in the first season was probably one of the best scripts I had read for television since I had started moving my career towards television. It was an incredible script, but most times the good ones don't last. Do you know what I mean? It's been a real coup for Dick [Wolf, creator, EP] and NBC and Universal to put themselves behind the show to really make it work. Specifically, NBC and Universal for moving it on and for aiding it and allowing it to grow.
There was "Mushrooms" -- that was a regular casting call, right?
I didn't go to a casting call. A casting call is very different from getting an audition. Joe Stern, the executive producer, who is a huge theater fan, had come to see The Piano Lesson [for which she was nominated for a Tony] on Broadway, and from him coming to see the show, they called me in to audition for this character.
Then, later on, how did the connection resurface?
The connection resurfaced in a show called Mann and Machine, that Dick produced, I believe, in 1991 or 1992 and from that connection, when they decided to bring women onto the show, Dick called me in.
You were in Mann and Machine?
I was a regular cast member. 
He does have doozies of ideas.
There've been quite a few shows that have come in-between the first season of Law & Order until now, he's had some interesting shows. That was just wild. I think it was a stab in the dark. The premise was interesting, it was futuristic, puts you into that sci-fi genre, he's so good with reality shows that I think he wanted to try something different. It was still in the genre of law enforcement, but I thought it had a fascinating premise, because I like science fiction.
So they called you?
I had maybe four shows back to back on NBC, and there was some weird statement about maybe I'd been saturated by this look I had, which is kind of unusual, because at that time there weren't a whole lot of black folks on television to be saturated with. But it was a hair thing.
The dreads?
My hair isn't dreaded, it's just twisted. But yeah, because of that. So I took them out and went to Dick and after he laughed at me for three minutes straight, he said this is the look, this is the look.
So you wear a wig now.
Yeah, it's a wig.
Do you mind not being able to wear your hair naturally?
Not at all. Because I don't think Van Buren would look like me, especially when I started the show there were no black lieutenants in Manhattan. Females. I also think that -- it's pretty much a militaristic -- it has a corporate feel in that when this woman, when Van Buren became a police officer, I'm sure she had to look palatable to whoever was in charge, or anyone in the academy and wearing your hair like this then would have been connected with being militant, and if you were militant, you couldn't follow orders, if you couldn't follow orders, you shouldn't be in law enforcement. So I really believe at the time Van Buren came into this, her hair would have been coiffed anyway.
I like that there's a story behind the hair.
There's always a story behind something. Dick will swear to me it's because his kids loved Pee Wee's Playhouse that I got the job, so they would think he was really cool to bring Reba the mail lady on, but I know it was my hair. And I'm sticking with that story. But the reason I say it is since then everyone has gotten to know me, and they've been trying to get me to take the wig off for the last eight years. But I refuse. The character's been introduced this way and for her to so drastically change the way she looks, there'd have to be a story around it, and we don't talk about those things. I think it's who she is, I think it's a part of who this character is. It's funny, just the other day [director, EP] Michael Chernuchin was saying, "Why don't you take that wig off," it's still happening, because they know me now. That's the difference. I think it keeps a clean line between Van Buren and Merkerson.
When you came on, they'd just kicked off two guys. Was there any resentment?
We always run into Dann at one of our favorite restaurants. Richard I don't see so much because he's in L.A., but Dann is the one I replaced. Dann is really cool. It was a seamless transition, honestly. I can't say how they felt about it in terms of when it happened, all of them have moved on, but at the time it was a seamless transition.
No resentment on the set?
Hell, no, I had been on with "Mushrooms," so it wasn't like they didn't know I couldn't do it. It was clear I could handle the gig. I can't say anything but that, it was so seamless. And I think all of the transitions have been like that, because we're all understanding that now, especially since the initial change, that it is something that happens every three or four years. So you allow your friendships to continue with the people that were there, and allow the new people to bring in a new energy.
Is it hard interacting with all those new people? Or does it keep the character fresh?
It has less to do with the characters and more to do with the scripts. We don't serialize any of the scripts, so it keeps it fresh because we're dealing with a fresh issue.
Do you have a favorite episode from over the years?
"Mushrooms." I say that because it was the first one, and it was such an incredibly written script and it was such a great character and the simplicity of the information, it was so clear and so provocative and so strong. There have been dozens since, because I've done over 200 episodes, but my favorite has to be that one simply because it was the first.
You're not leaving any time soon, are you?
If they push me away, if they tell me not to come back. Listen, it's a great gig, and this year, this season I did two movies, I did a play, you know, what the hell would I be leaving for when I could continue other parts of my career and do a great job that is prestigious that is good work and still be able to get my acting jones off in a play. So I'll stay as long as they want, because it's been ten years. Hell, if I haven't gotten bored by now, I ain't going anywhere until such time as they feel there's been enough of Van Buren. Any of us who think our jobs are stable are crazy in this show. It's been evident, there is a revolving door, and more times than not people leave because they're ready to leave. It isn't because they're pushed. I think the only time that happened was when they brought on the women. Now that we have the women on the show, folks leave because they're ready to do other things. And they're interested in not being on the little tube any more. But I can be on the little tube and the big screen and the stages. So hell, I'm not complaining.
You live in Washington, D.C. Do you mind the commute?
I appreciate it now. I love the Amtrak now, I love the train, and it's a really great three hour journey you can use for personal thought, if that's all you're doing. A very easy and peaceful ride. In the past 10 years I can count on two hands maybe the times it's gotten me to work late or my husband has been stuck waiting two hours.

 
 

whaddya think?