Skip to main content

The Good Lieutenant, the Best Actress

Actress S. Epatha Merkerson just won the triple crown of television honors: an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actor's Guild award. To many Law and Order viewers, Merkerson will always be Lt. Anita Van Buren.

27:32

Other segments from the episode on February 13, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 13, 2006: Interview with Kristin Henderson; Interview with S. Epatha Merkerson.

Transcript

DATE February 13, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Author Kristin Henderson discusses book "While They're
At War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the new book "While They're at War," my guest Kristin Henderson writes
about what it's like for women whose husbands are in Iraq. Henderson's
husband is a Navy captain who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the new
book, she writes about her own marriage and about the other military wives she
got to know on the home front. Kristin Henderson is a frequent contributor to
The Washington Post magazine.

You never really wanted to or expected to be a military wife. In fact, you're
a Quaker, and most of the men on your father's side of the family were
conscientious objectors. Your husband was a civilian when you married him,
and he later became a Navy chaplain. Does this complicate your feelings about
your husband going to war?

Ms. KRISTIN HENDERSON: When he first went in the military, you know, as a
couple, we've always tried to support each other and, you know, support each
other's dreams. And when I married him, I knew that the military had a
special attraction for him. He had been Marine Corps razi--or Navy razi with
a Marine Corps option in college, and then because of health issues wasn't
able to complete that. So I knew that he always felt like in the Marine Corps
that was sort of almost a substitute family for him and a way to feel like
what he was doing was worthwhile and valuable for his country. But I never
expected it to actually happen. So when it did, you know, I felt like, `OK,
if that's what you want to do, go for it.' But I figured that was his job, not
mine. And so, you know, I kind of kept that distance, and we lived off-base,
and I didn't really get to know a lot of other spouses initially.

But, you know, September 11th really took everything I believed in and turned
it on its head. I mean, before that, you know, when I felt like maybe my
Quaker principles as a pacifist were being called into question when I pulled
out my military ID card and let the Pentagon pay for my, you know, medical
care, and now, all of a sudden, here with my husband going off to war. And,
you know, when I looked at the--you know, I'm from Washington, DC. When I
looked at the Pentagon that was smoking at that time and the pictures from
Manhattan, you know, I couldn't help feeling that going to war was the right
response.

And so, you know, I dealt with it like a grown-up, I ran away. While my
husband--he deployed right after September 11th and went to Afghanistan with
the Marines. And I decided to take a cross-country trip. And I put my dog in
the car, and I drove off, trying to just kind of escape all the inner turmoil
I was feeling.

But, you know, somewhere along the way, I did come to some sort of inner peace
or certainly to a fuller understanding of what the place of our military in
our democratic society. By the end of the trip--I was gone about six weeks,
and by the end of the trip, I had concluded that I was glad that there were,
you know, Marines and sailors and airmen and soldiers who are willing to save
us when we found ourselves in a position like this. But I was also glad there
were people like the Quakers who are willing to save us from our own worse
selves. I think that duality is just part of being human and trying to walk
that gray middle and make those tough choices is what the journey is about.

GROSS: You mentioned that you and your husband lived off-base, that you
really didn't know a lot of the other spouses of people in the military. When
you started writing your new book, "While They're At War," about the wives of
soldiers, did that help connect you to military culture in a way that you
hadn't actually connected to it before?

Ms. HENDERSON: You know it was actually before that. It was during my
husband's second deployment, which was to Iraq, that I came into contact more
fully with the volunteer spouse support system that was in place. And in
talking to the other spouses, I found that they were often feeling the same
way I did. And that was when it began to hit me how important it was to
connect with other people who are going through the same experience. And, in
fact, I really think that's almost the only way for people who haven't been
through a wartime deployment experience to fully understand what it's like, to
really walk a mile in those families' shoes. Because the home-front
experience is sort of a drip, drip, drip experience. It's a lot of little
things that add up day by day. Sometimes, there's a big dramatic moment, but
most of the time, it's these little stresses that just keep building over a
long period of time.

GROSS: One of the things you write about is the difficulty of the period
right before a spouse deploys. And you write about irritability, that both
the husband and wife can become very irritable before a deployment. And you'd
think it would be the other way around, that there would be such appreciation
that spouses would have for each other before they were forced to be separated
and before one of them was about to be in mortal danger. What explains that
kind of irritability? And maybe you can describe how you experienced it in
your own life.

Ms. HENDERSON: Hmm, actually that happened before a couple of deployments.
And I didn't realize until later that it is very common. But, yeah, you start
picking fights, and subconsciously, what's happening is that you're making it
easier to say goodbye. So, for instance, before he left for Iraq, we had to
write a letter to the landlady letting her know that I'd be moving out. And
we were taking turns writing the drafts. And it just built to this huge
fight. And, you know, finally, just sort of turned to me and said, `I'm
sorry. You can go ahead and write the next draft.' And that completely
defused it. And I went, `You know, I think I just want to control something.'
I mean, there was so little that I controlled at that point. You know, here
was my husband being sent off to war again. I just wanted to control the darn
letter. And then we recognized what was happening and we were able to move
through it.

But, you know, if you're fighting before your service member leaves, by the
time they leave, you're like, `Good riddance. Goodbye. Get on the ship. Get
on the plane. Go.' And that makes saying goodbye easier. But then, of
course, once they're gone, you start to feel guilty.

GROSS: Another thing you write about is the awkwardness of the moment of the
spouse actually leaving for deployment, like if you go with them to the place
of departure. Would you describe why that's so uncomfortable in ways that
maybe you didn't expect.

Ms. HENDERSON: Yeah. I had always gone to see my husband off. And I never
understood why there was so few people. His first deployment, I was one of
maybe half a dozen spouses on the pier waving goodbye, and this is a ship of
almost 500 people. And I couldn't understand why people didn't go. But when
my husband was leaving for Iraq, the unit was all gathered at the headquarters
waiting for the buses to come, and the number of family members were there and
it was getting late. It was getting close to midnight. And I overheard a
young Marine say to his commanding officer, `Sir, can we send our wives home
now?' And somehow I just suddenly realized that, I mean, he was looking for
someone else to be the bad guy, you know, and send them away. And I realized
that it must be so hard to have what you're leaving behind staring you in the
face and it makes it even harder to go. And so a lot of folks would rather
just be alone with their thoughts or with some friends or, you know, a
chaplain like my husband, where there is not so much at stake.

GROSS: When your husband was deployed for the third time, this is the second
wartime deployment, you moved out of the house that you had been living in
with him and moved in your with your sister and brother-in-law. Why didn't
you want to stay in the house and live alone?

Ms. HENDERSON: Well, again, I was fairly isolated at this assignment. His
prior wartime deployment, I had known the spouses in that unit pretty well.
But the unit that he deployed to Iraq with, he had been--he actually went in
another chaplain's place. He got the call shortly before they deployed that
this other chaplain had family health issues and would not be able to go. And
so it was on pretty short notice, and I didn't know any of the spouses in that
unit at all. And I felt fairly isolated, and so for me, the best solution in
that case was to go to my family support network rather than staying alone
where I really didn't know anybody.

GROSS: Were you able to keep in touch with the wives in the unit that your
husband was deployed with?

Ms. HENDERSON: Yeah, I stayed in touch with my unit through another spouse
in the unit who had volunteered to act as a liaison between the commanding
officer and the families like me. And she did this by phone. And these
support groups or "readiness groups" like they're called in the Army are new
actually. During the Vietnam War, there was literally no support for the
families. When a soldier--in the Army, when a soldier deployed, the family,
if they were living with him on base, had to move off-base because housing on
base was for soldiers. It wasn't for families. So right at that moment where
they were most in need of information and support, they were being asked to
leave their community. And so, after the war, the Vietnam spouses pressured
the military to come up with a better system, you know, a way to get
information to the families and a way to provide them with more support.

And so these readiness groups are now a part of every service. And they're
staffed, for the most part, with volunteer spouses, and I actually now act as
what they call a "key volunteer" in the Marine Corps in this regard. And I've
gone through the half a day of training where you learn all about, you know,
the different services that are available. And if families have an issue,
they can call me, and I can tell them where they can get help.

I was trying to understand why they volunteer, because the spouses are already
dealing with all the stresses and extra responsibility of a deployment. It
would seem like the last thing they need is more volunteer work, but what I
came to understand is that, you know, a spouse who is in trouble is just much
more likely to go to a fellow spouse than to go straight to the care provider.
And it's partly because in the military, if you go to a psychiatrist, a
doctor, a social worker, all that becomes part of the permanent record. And,
you know, you may not necessarily, right off the bat, want to spill your guts
that way. First, you might want to talk to another spouse and kind of work
your way up to that.

GROSS: My guest is Kristin Henderson, author of the new book "While They're
At War." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kristin Henderson. Her new
book is called "While They're At War: The True Story of American Families on
the Homefront." And her husband is a Navy chaplain and has been deployed three
times, twice during wartime.

You know, you write the spouses of soldiers live in fear of the knock at the
door. What is the procedure for letting a spouse know or for letting a family
member know that a soldier has been killed?

Ms. HENDERSON: Yeah, actually, this was a subject that I really didn't want
to write about in the book. It took me a long time to work up to it. I
wanted to write about the typical deployment experience. And the fact is
that, you know, losing the person you love is not typical. It doesn't happen
to most of us. But one thing we do all have in common is the fear that it
will. And I was talking with the chaplains on Fort Bragg, and they said when
the war first began in Iraq, they started seeing this wave of grief going
through the spouses who had been left behind, so they did some research and
they started looking into, you know, what might be causing this exactly. And
they found that they were seeing symptoms just like people who have a loved
one with a terminal illness, and it's called anticipatory grief. And when
this particular chaplain I was talking to started listing off the symptoms, it
was like such an eyeopener for me because I said, `Oh, you know, I had those
same symptoms when my husband went to Iraq.' There were times I couldn't get a
deep breath. I was sitting in church one time and just got this overwhelming
feeling of claustrophobia and agitation, like I just wanted to get up and run
out. I was crying in the shower. I was having insomnia. And essentially,
what I was doing was grieving as if he was already dead.

GROSS: You write about one phone call that your mother got. And your mother
said to you, `Kristin, it's a corporal on the phone for you.' And you
panicked. You thought this is the call. This is going to be the call that
your husband is dead.

Ms. HENDERSON: Yeah, it was actually a sergeant. But, yeah, and that gets
back to the procedure, you know, of how you are notified. And the fact is
that fear that's in our minds that causes anticipatory grief, it also colors
how you see everything. So, you know, my mother letting me know that I had a
phone call from a sergeant, the distance from my bedroom to the phone
is--takes me about four seconds to cover it. And that was enough time for me
to bury my husband and then resurrect him because I was thinking, `OK, maybe
he's just wounded.' Because they don't, you know, maybe if they call, then
it's probably just because he's wounded. And here I am already killing him in
four seconds, even though I know as a chaplain's wife that death notifications
are always made in person. They don't do it by phone. And, sure enough, it
was just a sergeant from the unit returning my phone call.

And I'm not alone in this. There was a woman whose story I tell who was on
the phone, and there was a knock at the door, and her young son came running,
eyes wide, saying there were two soldiers at the door. And she completely
freaked out, and she didn't know what to do. And her friend finally talked
her into putting down the phone and going to the door. And when she opened
it, it was two dog catchers.

GROSS: In uniform?

Ms. HENDERSON: They had uniforms on. Yeah, they had animal--you know, they
were uniformed animal control officers. And her two dogs were running loose
in the neighborhood. But she burst into tears. I mean, in that moment, her
whole body had gone through that stress of, you know, what I call the tragedy
that didn't happen but it feels like it did.

GROSS: Do you know the reasons why the military breaks the news the way it
does, how that procedure was developed?

Ms. HENDERSON: Yeah, it was actually begun during the Vietnam era again,
early on, at the battle of Ia Drang, which is covered in the book "We Were
Soldiers Once and Young." During World War II, death notifications, all
casualty notifications were generally made by telegram. And, you know, that
seemed sort of cold-hearted except everyone around you in your neighborhood
had probably gotten something similar at some point or they had someone
deployed. So you had your support all around you.

During Vietnam, the families were pretty isolated, and at the Battle of Ia
Drang, they suddenly had a lot of casualties all at once, more than their
normal notification system could handle, so they started sending out these
telegrams by taxi. So people were getting the news from a taxi driver. And
within a couple of weeks, one of the officers' wives began pressuring the
Pentagon to do a better job of notification. So that was when they began the
system of sending out two or three fully uniformed officers or noncommissioned
officers to deliver this kind of news in person and then not leave the person
they notified alone until they can get family or friends there to be with
them.

GROSS: I interviewed one soldier who had served in Iraq who was saying that,
you know, now that we have like cell phones and e-mail, it's much easier when
you are at war, when you are stationed in Iraq, to communicate with your
spouse at home. But at the same time, it sometimes widens the gap instead of
bridging the gap. An example he gave was that, you know, one day he was
speaking--I forget if it was his wife or his girlfriend--and she had spent the
day or part of the day cleaning up dog poop and he had spent part of the day
cleaning up the brains of somebody who was killed. And it made him feel this
widening gulf, and he found it very difficult to call home.

I'm wondering how you experience those phone calls when your husband was
deployed.

Ms. HENDERSON: You know, my husband actually didn't call very often. We
relied a lot more on e-mail. What I found with e-mails is that there is no
tone of voice, no facial expression. It's great for getting quick answers for
things and for sharing what's going on in your life that day. I didn't find
it--you know, I didn't find it terribly bonding. A lot of people do. They
like that real immediate connection. But the problem--it's easy, I found, to
get into a fight by e-mail. You know and sometimes the fight is, `Who's got
it worse?' You know? Which isn't very productive. But during my husband's
deployment to Iraq, there was no telephone, no e-mail. This was very early in
the process, in the war. And so all we had were letters, and it took two
weeks either way. So two weeks for a letter from me to him, and then two
weeks back from him. And I found that I really liked the letters best.

You know, maybe they weren't as helpful in getting quick answers to things,
but when I was--he had--when he was traveling light, he had no paper, that
kind of thing, no stationery with him. So what he would do is take the little
cardboard boxes that held his meals, the meals-ready-to-eat, MREs, and once he
had eaten a meal, he'd cut it apart, and he'd take one side of the box. And
on one side it was the nutritional data or the meal, the menu of the meal he'd
eaten. And on the backside he would, you know, lay it out like a regular
postcard and write me a letter and send it to me. And I found that when I
could hold that in my hands, it was something physical, and it had his very
familiar cramped handwriting on it. And I knew that he had held it. And
there was something deeply comforting about holding that in my hands. And
anytime I missed him, being able to pick out, the whole rubber-banded pack of
them together, and reread them. Much more comforting than, you know, just
light on a screen. So good old-fashioned letters were my favorite way of
communicating.

GROSS: You write very eloquently about what it's like when you're left alone
with the memories of the person that you love while they're far away. And I'd
like you to read this passage for us. It's on page 159.

Ms. HENDERSON: (Reading) "When the person you love is far away for months on
end, when his body is beyond you reaching, you can't hold him and smell him
and be reminded of his realness, when he blurs in your mind like a ghost, then
each day, you must dream him back to life. But each time you recreate him,
you change him a little. You fill in the blank spots. Sometimes you feel in
his outline with the details of his own best nature, the person he could be,
his finer qualities taking up all the space his annoying habits and human
failings used to inhabit, and you fall in love all over again.

Then again, sometimes you fill in his outline with the details of someone
else's best nature, the person you wish he could be. A person who, unlike
him, is within your reach. And in a time of war, when the rules no longer
seem to apply, when young people may not grow old and tomorrow may be worse
than today, and love may not heal all wounds, you can dream yourself into a
nightmare."

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. HENDERSON: Thank you.

GROSS: Kristin Henderson is the author of "While They're At War." She went to
Iraq herself this past December, where she was embedded with the American
military in Mosul. You can read her dispatches from Iraq at
kristinhenderson.com.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Actress S. Epatha Merkerson discusses her career and
winning an Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is the longest serving actor on the long-running TV series, "Law &
Order." She's also the longest serving African-American actress on a drama in
TV history. S. Epatha Merkerson plays Lieutenant Anita Van Buren. She
started her TV career in uniform, a postal uniform, while playing the role of
Reba the Mail Lady on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." She received a Tony nomination
for her performance in the August Wilson play, "The Piano Lesson."

Merkerson recently walked away with three big awards for her performance in
the HBO movie, "Lackawanna Blues." She got a Screen Actors Guild Award, a
Golden Globe and an Emmy. She played a woman who is a surrogate mother for
many of the people who stay at her boarding house in the late '50s and early
'60s. They all called her "Nanny." She even ends up raising the son of one
boarder who isn't doing a very good job raising him herself. In this scene
from early in the film, the boarder is angry that while she was gone, Nanny
took care of her boy.

(Soundbite from "Lackawanna Blues")

Unidentified Actor #1: Nanny, we need to talk.

Ms. S. EPATHA MERKERSON: Yes, we do.

Actor #1: Just 'cause you let me stay here don't give you no right to go in
my room and take my baby.

Ms. MERKERSON: Alean, ain't nobody took nothing from you. You can't leave
that child in the room by hisself. That ain't right.

Actor #1: And it ain't right that you go invade my privacy.

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, I'll invade Russia when a baby is concerned. Now, you
ought to let his father keep him when you're working.

Actor #1: Nanny, I can take care of my baby. I am working my ass off, got
two jobs, and I'm doing the best I can. I'm just down the street at the
Flame, and I'm running back and forth and checking on him every chance I get.
He sleeps, Nanny.

Ms. MERKERSON: What if this child wake up? He'll be scared to death.

Actor #1: Nanny...

Ms. MERKERSON: Look, 'cause you and Ruben can't make it don't mean the child
got to suffer. Let me keep him when you go to work, that way you ain't got to
worry about him and I ain't got to worry about him. Plus he'll get a nice hot
meal.

Actor #1: Nanny, I feed my baby.

Ms. MERKERSON: You ain't got to worry about him. And I ain't got to worry
about him. It ain't no trouble at all.

Actor #1: Ricky come up in the Flame and she put my business in the street.
I know I'm a good mother.

Ms. MERKERSON: We ain't worried about what nobody else say. This here is
between you and me. Let me help you with this child until you're able to help
yourself.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: S. Epatha Merkerson, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on your
awards.

Ms. MERKERSON: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Now, I have to ask you about the things you said upon receiving those
awards. For the Golden Globes, you were having a hot flash and let everybody
know. And then for the Screen Actors Guild Award, you thanked your divorce
lawyer. What kind of response have you gotten to your thank-you comments?

Ms. MERKERSON: Do you know, I think it's the women that have approached me.
It's been kind of cool. Women of my age who are, you know, experiencing hot
flashes and changes in their lives, they feel that they've been vindicated
and, you know, someone is talking about an event in our lives that is
happening to us now. And hot flashes, you know, are a part of my life now.

GROSS: A lot of women would prefer not to talk about it and not to admit that
they are at the stage of life where that's happening to them. So is it like a
big decision for you to say something?

Ms. MERKERSON: No.

GROSS: Or are you already just out there with stuff like that?

Ms. MERKERSON: No. I--you know, I don't see the point in holding back,
because certainly someone can see when your face is flushed. And, you know,
I've never had problems growing older, and that's a part of it. And, you
know, as I walked up to the stage that day, the evening of the Golden Globes,
you know, and excitement, that's what happens sometimes. And it just seemed
the right thing to say because, indeed, I was feeling like a kid but feeling
my age, as well, but experiencing this moment of my age at the same time. So
it felt like the right thing to say.

GROSS: One more question about hot flashes. Do you ever get a hot flash
while you're shooting on "Law & Order"? And if so, like, do you have to do
another take or is that OK?

Ms. MERKERSON: I actually have a great story about that.

GROSS: Let's hear it. Let's hear it.

Ms. MERKERSON: This was a couple of years ago, and when Jerry Orbach was
still on the show. And it was late, very, very late. I guess maybe 1:30 in
the morning or something. And we had been there all day. And it was a
particularly grueling scene where there were tons of background people on the
set and the lights were blazing. And it just seemed to be taking forever, so
I turned to Jerry and I said, `Man, if we don't get this, I'm going to be in
full-fledged hot flash, and then we're going to have to do it again,' not
realizing that we were mic'd. And the next thing we heard was, `Action!'
Because they knew if they let me get to that hot flash, my face would be
flushed. We'd have to pat me down and start all over. But I--Jerry looked at
me afterward that, and he goes, `Kid, this is what I think. I think every
time they're running slow, you have a hot flash.' So it actually came in handy
that time.

GROSS: Now, I want to ask you about "Lackawanna Blues." The character that
you play in that movie is somebody who has such like emotional wisdom, and
they are a maternal figure for a whole community of people. Was there ever
anybody in your life who was like that?

Ms. MERKERSON: You know, there were many women like that in my life,
starting really with my mother. My mother--I'm the last of five kids, and my
mother raised us alone in Detroit. And because there were so many kids in the
house, there were always kids over. So my mother was sort of like the den
mother for the neighborhood. She is an excellent cook, so there was always,
you know, there was baking and food and things at the house. And my mother
always had a really good ear, so the kids would also come to her with, you
know, things that were going on with them because she was an easy person to
talk to.

GROSS: Now, you wore a wig, I believe, for your character in "Lackawanna
Blues."

Ms. MERKERSON: Yes.

GROSS: And you also wear one on "Law & Order."

Ms. MERKERSON: Yes.

GROSS: What do wigs do for you as an actress? You know, it's giving you a
type of hair that not only isn't yours but it's a style you probably wouldn't
wear in real life.

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah, I'm a...

GROSS: So when you see yourself in that, does it change you?

Ms. MERKERSON: You know, it allows me to focus on someone other than me
because I've always been a natural girl. You know, either wear my hair like
in twists or I wear it like it is now, very short afro. And, you know, Van
Buren, I always laugh. I say Van Buren is the sister that goes to the beauty
salon twice a week. You know? And there are girls that do that. You know
what I mean? Every two weeks, they go to the salon, they get their coifs
done. And Nanny was a woman who always had to look her best because she never
knew who was coming to the house. And they made the decision--actually, the
producers--to give her such long locks, because the real woman had very short
hair. But, you know, it's another way of looking at yourself in the character
of someone so that when I look in the mirror, I don't see me completely. I
see my face but there's something that's different that allows me to go into a
character in another way.

GROSS: My guest is S. Epatha Merkerson. She plays Lieutenant Anita Van
Buren in "Law & Order" and received several awards for her performance in the
HBO movie, "Lackawanna Blues." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is S. Epatha Merkerson. She co-stars in the long-running TV
series "Law & Order." Let's hear a scene from an episode that prominently
features Merkerson's character Lieutenant Anita Van Buren. The lieutenant
recognizes a young woman who is found dead. The victim is the daughter of a
good friend from Van Buren's college years. The death looks like a suicide
but the police haven't ruled out foul play, and they aren't convinced that the
victim's mother is telling them everything that she knows. In this scene, Van
Buren is visiting a friend at home.

(Soundbite of "Law & Order")

Unidentified Actor #2: Maybe it's for the better if this just went away.

Ms. MERKERSON: Christine, I'm going to tell you, I'm having trouble
understanding your reaction.

Actor #2: It didn't happen to you, Anita.

Ms. MERKERSON: No doubt. But I think you know something and you're afraid
to tell me.

Actor #2: I understand police procedure. I understand your need to ask me
these questions.

Ms. MERKERSON: I'm not here as a police officer. I'm here as your friend.

Actor #2: Then, as my friend, please leave this alone and let us heal.

Ms. MERKERSON: He's a serial abuser, Christine. He's going to do it again.

Actor #2: Not here, he won't. And you don't understand because it's not your
child at risk.

Ms. MERKERSON: And Emily doesn't deserve more? Or are we not just talking
about Emily here?

Actor #2: Please, just let this go.

Ms. MERKERSON: Christine, has he made threats against Callie, too.

Actor #2: I can't do this.

Ms. MERKERSON: Did he call here?

Actor #2: Anita, I can't lose another child.

Ms. MERKERSON: And you won't if you let me put this man away. But, girl,
you've got to come clean.

Actor #2: Why are you all over me?

Ms. MERKERSON: You remember when I was a rookie and I wanted to quit because
of all the crap I was taking on the job? Well, you said to me, `Don't let
them beat you.' And the reason I hung in was because you wouldn't let me give
up. And I'm not going to let you give up now.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: The characters' personal lives aren't usually explored in "Law &
Order," but we do get to find out a little bit about you in this. The stories
are all about solving the crime and prosecuting the suspect. What did you
know about your character when you first got the part?

Ms. MERKERSON: You know, the interesting thing is I knew nothing, and it
happened quickly. I mean, literally, I got the job on a Friday and I started
working on a Monday. Because that whole thing about NBC asking Dick to bring
women on happened, I believe, at the last minute. So I literally...

GROSS: Wait, wait. What whole thing about asking him to bring women on?

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, they were going to cancel "Law & Order," I think in its
third season, because NBC wanted women on the show. So Dick let two of the
guys go, and he brought on two women. That's how Jill Hennessey and I ended
up on the show because NBC was going to cancel it if he didn't bring skirts
in. It was really...

GROSS: Wow!

Ms. MERKERSON: ...that simple. Yeah.

GROSS: And this is Dick Wolfe, the creator of the series...

Ms. MERKERSON: The creator, exactly.

GROSS: Was this because they wanted more equality in casting or because...

Ms. MERKERSON: Oh, no.

GROSS: ...they thought that women wouldn't watch?

Ms. MERKERSON: I think they wanted skirts. I think they wanted skirts. You
know what I...

GROSS: Oh. Oh. They wanted skirts for the men viewers.

Ms. MERKERSON: I think they just wanted to bring women in, you know, because
they didn't believe that the show could last without women on it. I don't
think it was any really heavy thought other than the skirt.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. MERKERSON: But what happened was when the show went to syndication,
that's when our demographic changed because there are a lot of women who are
at home. And then we started getting more women viewers. So with the change
in bringing women and going to syndication, it really did change the
demographic of the show. But when I first started, I literally just hit the
ground running. I wasn't able to even talk to any lieutenants until after my
first episode, because we were so busy, you know, shooting the show. So, you
know, I had to sort of--and we all did. I really don't think anyone other
than Dick was very clear about who this person was. And he did give me a
biography of who he thought Van Buren was. And she came from a small family.
There was no one in her family who was in law enforcement. It was something
that she wanted to do. She's the kind of woman that shoots straight from the
shoulder. Those kinds of things. She was married. She had two boys. And
that was sort of a basic `hit the ground running.'

And then I had the opportunity to meet a couple of female lieutenants. And
the interesting thing is when I started, I believe there were only five in
Manhattan. There was one lieutenant who was so cool when you saw her, she
literally looked like, you know, someone's aunt or, you know, sweet mother.
But the minute she walked into the precinct, you knew she garnered serious
respect from the guys that worked for her. And it was so cool watching this
change from meeting her outside, walking through the precinct and then going
to her office. And when the door closed, we were giggling like a couple of
girls. Someone would knock on the door, her whole demeanor would change. It
was really interesting having the opportunity to do that.

GROSS: Have you petitioned for certain changes in the character?

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah, sense of humor specifically. And, you know, lower that
top button, undo the top button on the blouse. We had been doing the top
button for about four or five years, and I said, `I think we can relax her a
little bit, undo the button. You know? Undo a couple of buttons. Let her
loosen up a little bit.'

GROSS: How did you get the part on "Law & Order"?

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, Dick says it was because his kids were huge fans of
"Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

GROSS: That's great. So Dick Wolfe, the creator of "Law & Order," knew you
because his kids were big fans of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

Ms. MERKERSON: Kids, yeah. Yeah. And he tells me, no matter what I say,
that's the reason why I got the job is because of the kids. So every time I
see his kids, I give them big hugs.

GROSS: Well, they're not really kids anymore, are they?

Ms. MERKERSON: No, they're not. No, not even.

GROSS: So now on "Pee-Wee," you played Reba the Mail Lady.

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah.

GROSS: In fact, why don't we hear a short clip of you on "Pee-Wee's
Playhouse"?

Ms. MERKERSON: Oh, you're kidding.

GROSS: Yes. And this is a scene...

Ms. MERKERSON: You did your homework.

GROSS: Pee-Wee has made a wish, and the wish is that Reba the Mail Lady will
come to the playhouse and mail his letter. And Jambi the Genie has granted
Pee-Wee's wish, and you show up at the playhouse a little baffled, and you're
in your nightgown. And here's the scene.

(Soundbite of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse")

Mr. PAUL REUBENS: Hey, Reba.

Ms. MERKERSON: Pee-Wee?

Mr. REUBENS: How's it going?

Ms. MERKERSON: What are you doing in my house?

Mr. REUBENS: I'm not in your house. You're in the playhouse.

Ms. MERKERSON: The playhouse, how did I get here?

Unidentified Actor #3: Oh-oh.

Ms. MERKERSON: Jambi, did you put a wish on me?

Actor #3: He made me do it.

Mr. REUBENS: You see, I have this letter and I wish that you were here to
mail it for me.

Ms. MERKERSON: Why didn't you just take it down to the corner and put it in
the mailbox?

Mr. REUBENS: Well, as long as you're here, would you mind mailing this
letter for me, please, Reba?

Ms. MERKERSON: Pee-Wee, I would do just about anything for you, but today is
my only day off.

Mr. REUBENS: All right, I'll mail the letter myself.

Ms. MERKERSON: Thank you.

Mr. REUBENS: Wait, Reba. Reba, wait. Wait...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's my guest S. Epatha Merkerson in a scene from "Pee-Wee's
Playhouse," and she was playing Reba the Mail Lady.

You seem to be the only person on Pee-Wee's show who is from like the real
world as opposed to the playhouse world. You're...

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah. Yeah. And I think it was like that in real life, too.

GROSS: What do you mean?

Ms. MERKERSON: What a fun--that was a fun to do. It was a fun show to do.

GROSS: I loved that show.

Ms. MERKERSON: And, you know, it was my first TV gig and I used to ask them
to, after the first year, the first year we filmed here in New York. And then
subsequent shows were filmed in LA. But I used to ask them to bring me out a
day early because, I'm telling you, Terry, I'd get on set, and there would be
something else to feast your eyes on. It was probably the most fun I've ever
had on a set.

GROSS: So did you see yourself ever in that series as like the rational
person in the wacky world?

Ms. MERKERSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think every now and then, she
became a part of it as well. But, you know, that was the whole point, is that
Reba was sort of, you know, the real person, the person that actually had like
a real job and took care of like real things. And everyone else was a little
kooky.

GROSS: My guest is S. Epatha Merkerson. She plays Lieutenant Anita Van
Buren on "Law & Order." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is S. Epatha Merkerson. She plays Lieutenant Anita Van
Buren on "Law & Order."

You grew up in Saginaw, Michigan.

Ms. MERKERSON: I grew up in Detroit.

GROSS: Oh, Detroit.

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah.

GROSS: OK.

Ms. MERKERSON: I was born in Saginaw, but I grew up in Detroit. So that's
home for me.

GROSS: So what was your neighborhood like when you were growing up?

Ms. MERKERSON: It as pretty crazy neighborhood. There were a couple, as
we--you know, whenever my mother's job got better, we moved into a better
neighborhood. You could do that back then. And so it was--I remember the
first neighborhood I can recall was really an inner racial neighborhood,
Italians and Asians and blacks and whites. And, just, you know, really crazy
neighborhoods where, you know, everybody sort of lived in the neighborhood but
they stayed to themselves. We didn't like interchange and play with each
other, even as kids. We did in school but not at home.

But there was just these crazy people that I remember that, you know, the kids
having names for, like, "Crazy Louis" across the street and the two old ladies
that lived down the street that would like cuss you out and chase you with,
you know, baseball bats. It was like a fun neighborhood. It sounds crazy,
but it was a fun neighborhood. I had a great time growing up in Detroit. And
it only changed when the world changed and integration came into play. And
then our neighborhood started changing.

GROSS: How did your neighborhood change?

Ms. MERKERSON: Well, you know, I think integration actually ruined black
communities because, you know, folks who could afford to take their children
to better areas and to better places for schools left the neighborhoods. And
I think those checks and balances really kept the neighborhoods together, you
know, because the guy who is alcoholic knew the schoolteacher, you know, the
preacher knew the merchants, and the lawyers lived in the neighborhoods, and
every--you know, it kept our communities together. But once integration
became law, then folks who could and should better their lives moved from the
neighborhoods. And the neighborhoods changed.

GROSS: Well, your family was one of the families that moved from the
neighborhood, wasn't it?

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah, we actually were the first blacks in the neighborhood
where I went to high school. And when I started my high school, it was only
10 percent black at the school. So we were somewhat pioneers in that area as
well.

GROSS: Was that comfortable for you?

Ms. MERKERSON: You know, one of the things that I can always recall is my
mother telling me that anything I wanted to do I could do it. So I was never
uncomfortable because I just went into school with the thought that I'm going
to get everything I can out of it. I didn't fear too much. I just kind of
went and had a great time. And I found myself in that position lots of times
where I was being maybe one of few or the only black student. But the point
for me was to be educated because I knew that that was important.

GROSS: Did you go through a radical period in college?

Ms. MERKERSON: I think I went through that in high school. It kind of hit
me in high school because all of those things were happening when, you know,
King and Malcolm's assassination, and Kennedy's assassination, both
Kennedys--I mean, all of those were a part of my upbringing, a part of my
formative years. And so I think I became a radical, in thought, very early
because of the things that I saw in front of me.

GROSS: Did you go through an activist period before acting?

Ms. MERKERSON: I think my acting is activist. I think, you know, what I
choose to do speaks of who I am and what I want to be perceived as, the kind
of person I want to be perceived as. My mouth has gotten me out of jobs more
times than not for speaking up on things that I thought were improperly
written or that I thought were derogatory. So I think that my work is
activism. And so whatever I do, I try to do it in a way that I will be proud
of when I look back on it.

GROSS: Can you think of an example of a line or, you know, a scene that you
wanted to change because you thought it was derogatory?

Ms. MERKERSON: No. You know, I've done like 13 seasons of the show, and
there have been times--you know, it's one of the things--I have to tell you,
Terry--it's one of the things that I appreciate the most about "Law & Order,"
because we don't always see eye to eye, but one of the things that I always
appreciate is that my voice is heard. Now, whether that they take heed to it
and change it, in more times than not they do, it's important that you speak
out. Otherwise, I don't think I could continue to do it. And, you know, what
I know about when we sit down at script meeting is that I've lived in a
culture that all of our writers have not lived in. They have never been a
woman. They've never been black. And they've not in their 50s. You know
what I mean? That's a very specific thing right there. So there's texture
that we bring into those script meetings because of who we are, because we're
different, because we're not the same, because our cultures are different.
And I think that's important. And I think the most important thing that
happens on this show is that my voice is heard.

GROSS: Have you ever turned down roles because you thought they were
stereotapes?

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that's another reasons why it took
me, you know, so long to get a lead in a movie, it's because--and it's just
for me. I can only speak for me. You know, I can't speak for other people.
If it's something I don't think is good for me to do, I can't begrudge someone
who does it, though I wish they wouldn't. But I can't begrudge them because
people have lives. They have children. They have mortgages. You know, maybe
their issues are different than mine. So I have to speak as one person, for
Epatha. I'll speak loud, but I'll speak for my point of view and not for
anyone else.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you.

Ms. MERKERSON: Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: S. Epatha Merkerson plays Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on "Law &
Order." She won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for her performance in
the HBO movie, "Lackawanna Blues."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

36:13

No More Mr. Nice Guy: Hugh Grant Embraces The 'Blessed Relief' Of Darker Roles

Grant started out in romantic comedies. Now he's up for an Emmy for his role as a narcissistic doctor accused of murder in the HBO series The Undoing. Originally broadcast Dec. 1, 2020.

05:40

Albums By The Murlocs And King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard Explore New Sounds

The Murlocs are a side project of sorts to King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, where Ambrose Kenny-Smith and guitarist Cook Craig join other musicians to amalgamate all different styles of pop.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue