I had the good fortune to interview the gifted and witty Warren Leight, who is the showrunner for the long-running crime drama, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” What do showrunners do? Well, they do “run the show,” but it sounds like the schedule involves some actual sprinting, too.
“Today, for example, I’m rewriting an episode that’s prepping to shoot, while looking at the cut of the one that airs next Wednesday, while trying to cast the one that’s prepping to shoot, while plotting the one that’s two away from this, while writing the one that’s one away from this…. It’s a good job if you’re obsessive,” Warren says.
The year involves a whopping 24 episodes, and the number of drafts can run from 1-1/2 up to 15 depending on what the script needs. “There’s almost no hiatus for the writing staff, or for the showrunner anyway, because I’m editing until two nights before the last episode airs,” he says. “Then, we’ve got to start shooting again six weeks later, and you have to have something in the bank when the season starts or you’ll never make it through the season.” He says he’s trying to figure out how to clone himself, but it’s clear he loves what he does.
Saying he’s a hard worker would be an understatement. Last year, while working on “SVU,” Warren also wrote the book for the Broadway musical, “Leap of Faith.” “That almost killed me doing that while doing ‘SVU,'” he says. “I had about six weeks of four hours of sleep a night.”
Nevertheless, he relished the process. “It was actually a great joy after, say, spending 12 hours on set on a pedophilia case to go to the theater and hear 2-1/2 hours of gospel music sung by that group and to hang out with them. It was in some ways an antidote,” he says.
He got along so well with Raul Esparza, the leading man in “Leap of Faith,” that he wrote a role for him on “SVU” as Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba. (See my interview with Raul.) Apparently, the lines that Warren writes for Raul are so much fun to say that the rest of the cast likes to try them out during script read-throughs.
Warren is now in talks about writing the book for another musical, but it isn’t yet a done deal. “Because I grew up with music, I collaborate easily with composers, and I get the way musicians’ heads work,” Warren says. This is because his father was a jazz musician.
He wrote a play called “Side Man” that was loosely based on his father’s experiences. The play won a Tony Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer. He has written other plays, as well as screenplays for the feature films, “Mother’s Day” (cowriter), “The Night We Never Met” starring Matthew Broderick and Annabella Sciorra (which he also directed), and “Dear God” (cowriter) starring Greg Kinnear.
Warren’s television CV prior to joining “Law & Order: SVU” in 2011 is equally impressive. He worked as showrunner for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Lights Out,” and “In Treatment.”
Despite his full schedule, Warren still finds time to interact with fans on Twitter. “[It’s] a way of taking a little break from everything, and it’s a way of procrastinating sometimes,” he says. He has used it to dispel rumors. There was a rumor last year that something had happened to Mariska Hargitay, and he was able to stop the story in its tracks with one tweet.
The Twitter experience isn’t always pleasant, however. He took heat for Chris Meloni‘s departure from “SVU” even though he had nothing to do with it. When Mike Tyson was recently cast on the show, a few people bombarded him with nasty tweets about it.
Warren defends the casting of Tyson. He says it can be difficult to find male actors who are willing to play perpetrators, especially pedophiles, or victims of abuse, which doesn’t leave those actors many other casting options on the show. For the part that Tyson took on, they needed someone who could be believable in the role.
“Guys with that kind of ‘tough guy’ cred have no interest in portraying somebody who was sexually abused from age 6 to age 18,” Warren says. “They don’t want to go near it.” Tyson was willing to give the role a go, and he gave a moving performance in the episode.
Is it difficult to work on such emotionally harrowing storylines? “It’s hard to turn it off,” Warren says. “You wake up at 4:00 in the morning. There’s either just figuring out a story in the middle of the night or worrying about something or remembering, ‘Oh, we forgot to say this.’ So, just the work anxiety. Then, a lot of our work is reading every news story that comes out and talking to people – talking to rape counselors, talking to district attorneys, talking to real life sex crime detectives, talking to survivors, talking to guys who run groups for men who were abused as boys, and talking to people who spend their time talking to people on death row.”
Everyone involved with “SVU” is dedicated to portraying the characters accurately. “We try hard to present the reality of what people go through as victims, as perpetrators, and how the system works,” he says.
The show continues to push the envelope, exploring male on male violence and other stories swiped from the headlines, such as the laws in many states that allow men to seek visitation rights with the children of their rape victims.
There are a few occupational hazards of working on a show that deals with this subject matter. “I’m more suspicious, I think, of people around the schoolyard,” Warren admits. “I’m more anxious for friends when they’re going home late at night and they’ve had too much to drink.”
Despite the heaviness of the topics dramatized on the show, the atmosphere on the set is well-known among actors as warm, welcoming, and lighthearted. “Mariska is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” Warren says. That’s quite a statement considering that Warren has written comedy, including stand-up. His wit certainly shows up at times in “SVU” scripts, but follow him on Twitter at @warrenleightTV for a more direct line to his sense of humor.
It will be fun to see what else comes from this multi-talented man, both on “SVU” and on stage. And if he ever figures out a way to clone himself, we’ll be doubly lucky indeed.
Catch the next “SVU” episode on NBC Wednesdays at 9 p.m. or 8 p.m. depending on your area. Meanwhile, watch a clip from a recent episode that has Raul Esparza and Jane Kaczmarek sparring over a case.