Dylan McDermott as Richard Wheatley on Law & Order: Organized Crime
McDermott with Christopher Meloni as Elliot Stabler
"There's something about organized crime. It's fascinating to me," says Dylan McDermott.
Good thing, too, because he is playing Richard Wheatley, son of crime boss Manfredi Sinatra (Chazz Palminteri), in the newest entry into the Law & Order franchise, Law & Order: Organized Crime.
The new series has already generated a lot of buzz because it marks the return of Christopher Meloni's Elliot Stabler, originated on Law & Order SVU. But, as McDermott notes, if Stabler is coming back, he needs to have "a worthy foe, someone that is going to go up against him, that's not going to be easy for him to take down." That's where McDermott's character comes in.
In deciding to take the role, McDermott considered several things. He says, "I was immediately attracted to the crime element, certainly. I was attracted to Dick Wolf. I mean, he has just such an enormous track record of success, especially on network television. I was attracted to the diversity of the cast. I just thought that was modern, a modern take on what the world looks like.
"A new version of Law & Order I thought was exciting. There were so many elements of it. And then to create this - I love to create characters from the ground up. How they see the world, how they dress, what they eat, how they talk, where they come from, what the psychological history [is]. All that stuff was interesting to me.
"So Richard - on paper, I thought I could build something that was really fascinating to keep me intrigued because that's the most important thing. How do I stay interested in a character? And that's usually why I like to play these kind of off-centered people because they keep me guessing. And I think that this project had all of those elements to keep me going."
McDermott had some background he could bring to the role, as well. "I know growing up in New York, I was surrounded by [organized crime] as a kid,' he says. "And I remember going down to Umberto's Clam House in the '70s where Joe Gallo got killed, and kind of gathering around and looking.
"And there's always something like that going on, [like] when Paul Castellano got killed in front of Sparks Steak House. There was always that crackle in the air of organized crime when I was a kid. So I found it interesting immediately when they approached me with the role."
One scene in particular in the premiere episode was a thrill. McDermott says, "That Wonder Wheel scene is something else. Coney Island was always pretty steep in my psyche. And just to go out there and just shoot that scene and with Chazz on the Wonder Wheel, there were just so many elements to that scene that I love."
McDermott also loves playing complex characters, even those others might consider to be truly bad people. "When you're playing someone, you always look - at least, I do when I look at someone - I always look for what's good in him because I don't think any criminal says 'I'm bad.'
"I think that people are complex. And certainly, When I think of Richard, he's a great father. He's a great family man. He loves his family more than anything in the world and would literally kill for them and does.
"That's psychotic, of course, on any kind of human level. But there's some kind of code that he lives by. I mean, I would kill for my family, too. I wouldn't kill my father, but somebody who's attacking my family. But I think that he loves his family.
"And when I looked at Richard, I try always to find what is good in this guy. And that's what it is. It's his family. Because if you just look at, 'OK, I'm just a bad guy and I'm doing bad things,' life's not really like that. The bad people don't think they're bad.
"Their reasons for doing things are justified. It may be delusional. But nonetheless, it's justified somewhere. And I think that Richard has that justification as well. And that's what makes him a sociopath.
"Because they know the empathy is always the key with these people. It is like they don't have empathy. They don't necessarily feel bad. They feel justified.
"His father is a racist. And that's certainly not what Richard believes in at all. He loves his family. And, obviously, he can't tolerate his father a moment longer. And he does what he needs to do for himself."
McDermott also enjoys working with strong actors such as Christopher Meloni and Chazz Palminteri. He says, "I mean, [Meloni]'s a wonderful guy, terrific actor. I think it's fun to know that we haven't had the big, big scenes yet. I think we've only had two scenes together thus far. But it's fun to know that we're going to. It's going to get down and dirty pretty soon. So I look forward to that. It's like a heavyweight fight.
"That's the great thing about working with terrific actors is you get your hands dirty. You get in there. Like, with Chazz. Chazz is all about the work and he loves acting. And we went to every moment and every beat. And we talked about it, and we gave feedback to each other.
"And we were speaking the same language about the work because as an actor, the most important thing is the work. That's why you do it. That's why certainly Chazz and I do it. We love it. And we still love it. And we still love exploring and finding and trying to drill down to exactly what we're doing. And I think that the scene at Coney Island really kind of emphasizes all those points.
"So that's why I continue to act, for moments like that. And I'm still in it. And I'm in character, all that stuff. Just, like, it's why I continue to act."
When McDermott began acting, he had the good fortune to study with the legendary Sanford Meisner, which has continued to inform his work. McDermott explains, "He was - he's still always present - Sandy - when I'm acting. I remember I was doing this scene in Hollywood (for which McDermott garnered an Emmy nomination) and the director said, 'OK, we got it. 'And I was like, 'no, no.'
"I want to do another one only because Sandy had tapped me on my shoulder, because he had instilled in me when we worked together, when he taught me he would make me go deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper. There was one exercise, he made me prepare nine times. And I was, exhausted. And finally he said, 'That's how you work. That's where you come from every single time.'
"So he's always whispering in my ear. He's always on my shoulder. And he's always watching. There's some kind of barometer I have with Sandy that I know I'm done with the scene when I feel like he would say I was done with the scene. So that kind of training is really hard to come by anymore. My god, I'm so grateful to have had him in the picture.
"So there's something about that work that lasts the test of time. There's something about his technique and the way he teaches. And it just - it really stays with you. And the magic word is 'deep.' There's a deepening that happens with his work.
"I thought I was at my deepest level. And then he brought me to my deepest level. And I was like, OK. And then he was absolutely right. And now I have that pinch and ouch in me now where when I know I've gone to the deepest place I could possibly go to. Or I won't move on with the scene. I'll ask for another take knowing full well that I have to get there."
So, what's in store for the characters of Law & Order: Organized Crime this season? McDermott can't give too much away, but he does say, "What's interesting about this show is we're going to see Richard with his family. And usually with the Law and Order shows, you don't get to see that. You only see the criminal.
"I love the idea that we come home with Richard, and you meet his family. You meet his ex-wife and his current wife and his kids. And the show is obviously called 'organized crime.' And it is a crime family. So you're going to see the different aspects of the family and how they're a part of Richard's criminal empire."
Law & Order: Organized Crime can be seen on NBC on Thursday nights at 10:00 PM, and the next day on Peacock.