‘Law & Order’ may come calling to L.A. theater rolls


It’s not every TV series that can count itself a close friend of struggling theater actors.

During its 20-year run, NBC’s “Law & Order” provided countless New York stage actors with a paycheck, employing them in bit parts, supporting roles and guest appearances.

The series came to be regarded among stage thespians as a rite of passage: spend years building up your theater credentials, get cast in an episode of “Law & Order” and finally be able to pay your rent on time.

The recent launch of “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” which starts airing on NBC in late September, means that Southern California theater actors will have a shot at working in the popular TV franchise for the first time. But in a city filled with TV veterans, will stage performers be able to compete for space on the show’s casting couch?

While it’s still early — shooting for the first season began in August — some of the show’s top brass have said that they intend to continue the “Law & Order” tradition of tapping into the theater community to populate the show’s supporting ranks. They said that local stage talent offers them something they can’t get elsewhere — fresh faces that viewers haven’t seen in umpteen other series.

Christopher Misiano, an executive producer on “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” said that the series’ emphasis on verite-style, realistic drama means that unknowns are a highly desirable commodity.

“Those are the people you love to find — people who haven’t broken into television yet,” said Misiano, who has also worked on the series “The West Wing” and “E.R.”

“We want to capitalize on some of the actors who get lost in the mix because they seem less ‘ Hollywood.’ ”

Megan Branman and Dylann Brander are in charge of casting principal actors for the series. They said they hope to tap into the theater community as well as other sources to satiate the series’ high demand for actors.

“One of our jobs in casting is to pull you in to the story, to have you lose yourself in the story. So unfamiliar faces really help that,” Branman said.

Each episode of “Law & Order” typically has 30 to 40 speaking roles, which is well above the norm for a TV series. And since each episode is usually shot on an eight-day schedule, the producers are looking for actors who can learn their lines fast and have the discipline to work in a condensed time frame.

With an estimated 1,000 theater companies scattered across Southern California — a number that gives New York a run for its money — “Law & Order” has a wide pool of acting talent from which to draw.

“If a series is smart enough to use theater actors, they will benefit. Most actors start out as stage actors, but it’s the ones who stick with the stage — they go deeper,” said Amy Lieberman, a casting director who has worked for various L.A. theater companies, including Center Theatre Group.

Compared with New York, the boundary between stage and screen actors in L.A. is much more porous. Many L.A. theater actors have worked in television in some capacity due to the proximity of the industry. But many continue to make the stage their primary vocation, toiling away year after year in 99-seat houses.

“Law & Order” has a high demand for extras — the nonspeaking parts that include playing a corpse in a morgue, a background pedestrian in a street scene and a stand-in for a lead actor.

Extras on the show will earn the standard union rate, which can be as much as a couple hundred dollars per day when factoring in overtime, according to Jennifer Bender, a vice president at Central Casting.

“Law & Order,” which is shooting at L.A. Center Studios in downtown, wouldn’t be the first cop show to seek actors from area theater companies. “The Closer,” on TNT, makes regular use of L.A. stage performers to populate its supporting cast.

“My producers love theater actors,” said Bruce H. Newberg, casting director for “The Closer.” “They’re not necessarily theatergoers, but they appreciate the craft and skill that theater actors bring.”

In its two-decade history, the “Law & Order” franchise has turned a handful of stage actors into household names. Jerry Orbach and S. Epatha Merkerson worked mostly in theater before being cast in the original New York-based series.

For the L.A. spinoff, the producers have hired Alfred Molina, fresh off his Tony-nominated run in Broadway’s “Red,” for one of the lead roles. The other leads include Terrence Howard, Skeet Ulrich, Regina Hall and Wanda De Jesus.

Some local theater leaders have expressed optimism about the latest “Law & Order” spinoff but added that it’s too early to say whether the stage community will benefit from the series.

“Anything that is not a reality show is a good thing,” said Michael A. Shepperd, the artistic director of the Celebration Theatre in West Hollywood. “I’m glad it’s coming here because it will be another show that employs actors.”

Daniel Henning, the artistic director of the Blank Theatre in Hollywood, said that small roles in the “Law & Order” franchise tend to be more challenging than they appear.

“It’s not just the cute cheerleader, but the cute cheerleader who’s also a homicidal maniac. That requires acting chops, which you’re more likely to find in the theater,” he said.