Feeling your body immediately break out into a full sweat as a wave of excitement and nervous energy washes over you is a strange feeling, but as an anxious person it's something I'm familiar with. It happened to me in July when I answered my phone. It was a 212-area code, which I assumed was a spam call, but I answered anyway. And I'm glad it did, because it was the casting department of Law & Order: SVU calling to offer me a role in the landmark season 21 premiere.
"You know I'm not really an actor, right?" I asked the polite casting woman named Reilly.
After some confusion and stammering (on my part), I got all the details. Once again, I'd be playing a reporter, not a far stretch given that's actually what I do for work, and this time I was determined to nail it.
I've been on SVU once before, roughly five years ago during one of the coldest periods in New York City's history. The scene was outside, and after several takes, I was beyond freezing while yelling various things, including the phrase "rectal probe," at Marcia Cross and Susie Essman. My performance? It was, uh, something else. Wooden doesn't even describe it. See it for yourself in "December Solstice." You'll understand why I immediately reminded the casting department I am not an actor. However, with this offer, I was determined to nail my one line as Ian McShane, Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T walked by me. This was my chance at redemption—and an opportunity to be part of TV history.
With season 21, Law & Order: SVU becomes the longest-running scripted, live-action primetime series in American TV history. The record was previously held by Gunsmoke and the mothership Law & Order. Not only would I be getting a chance to prove I can "act," but I'd have a tiny part in TV history.
Law & Order: SVU and I go way back. When I first started my professional writing career more than 10 years ago, I was assigned SVU as one of my shows to cover. I've been watching since the beginning, so it wasn't a difficult assignment. I, like millions of other viewers out there, find comfort seeing the same episode time and time again in those day-long USA Network marathons. There's a reason why SVU endures.
Anchored by Mariska's soulful performance as Olivia Benson, the series tells satisfying stories that are generally wrapped up at the end of the hour. Under showrunner Warren Leight, the series shifted and began telling serialized personal life narratives in season 13. This brought the show to another level. Viewers were already invested in the day-to-day casework of Olivia Benson, but now she was dating. Now she had a life outside the Special Victims Unit. Now viewers got to see her heart swell when she adopted a child of her own. The stories became more compelling, the performances were more nuanced. Leight is back for season 21 and the stories continue to be timely reminders of how far we've come as a society—and how much further we have to go.
When I got the script for the season 21 premiere, I immediately jumped to my part. "Toby, they have you on film this time?" Easy enough.
After devouring the whole script, I joked (to anybody who would listen in my close social circle) about going method. What kind of reporter was I? The character's name was simply "Tabloid Reporter No. 2." So, was this reporter a bit smarmy? Just hungry for the story? Both? I wouldn't find that out until we shot on the steamy night of July 18. In the week leading up to that fateful evening, I said my line hundreds of time, emphasizing different words, throwing in a pause where appropriate. Don't ask me how many times I said the line wrong…it was frequent. "Hey Toby, they get you on camera this time?" just made more sense to me.
On my shooting day, I conducted some interviews as a real reporter, then I got the fake reporter treatment. My hair was attacked with a variety of products to make it immovable and my makeup was done to hide the crow's feet. Then, I waited. For a while. Almost three hours. This is the life of a TV actor!
When it came time to shoot around 10 p.m., everything happened so fast. I was miced (RIP to the chest hair I lost in the process) and became instantly aware that everything I said would be heard by the crew. After a quick rehearsal, we were off. I lost count of the amount of takes we did, I want to say seven from one angle, then several more from the others.
In between shoots, Ice (I can call him that now, I think we're on that level) made sure I was aware of the camera, a reference to our interview from earlier, and Mariska gave me words of encouragement, joking that this was going to be my big break, and that I was nailing it.
I could tell the other actors who, well, were actually actors, were thinking, "Who the heck is this guy? Why does he have a camera crew and why do the series regulars keep talking to him?" During the shoot, the kind makeup folks kept getting rid of my nervous sweat as much as possible. At one point, it started to rain, and much to my surprise, I was assigned a large umbrella. Mustn't get anymore "dewy" than I already was. I could get used to this treatment. Like really used to it.
At around midnight, we wrapped. After 10 years of writing about this show that has entertained millions around the world since 1999, I felt privileged to have little part in TV history. As a TV nerd, I mean my job is to literally watch TV and talk about it, this was something I never fathomed—and I'm still having a hard time wrapping my mind around it. Here I am, a little part (and I don't mean the chest hair left on the mic tape) of SVU's enduring legacy. Part of me will live on as long as the show is able to be viewed.
And for those wondering, yes, they did get Toby on film this time.
Law & Order: SVU airs Thursdays, 10 p.m. on NBC.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)