Edie Falco and Cast of ‘Law & Order: True Crime’ Discuss NBC’s Intense New Series and the Menendez Murders
After 27 years of taking stories ripped from the headlines as the basis for fictional characters and situations, the “Law & Order” franchise will tackle real people and events with its new series “Law & Order: True Crime.” The first installment of this anthology series will tell the story of Erik and Lyle Menendez, the Beverly Hills brothers who were convicted in the 1989 murder of their parents, Jose and Kitty. Entertainment Voice recently spoke with stars Edie Falco, Heather Graham, Carlos Gomez, Sam Jaeger and Gus Halper about the series and their experiences in playing real-life figures from one of the most notorious trials in recent history.
This eight-episode series features Emmy-winning actress Edie Falco, who transforms herself into famed defense attorney Leslie Abramson, who worked tirelessly to prove that the brothers were left with no choice but to kill their abusive parents. Falco revealed to EV that she drew from the extensive material out there on Abramson in preparation for her role.
“She wrote a book. There’s a fair amount to be learned from just what’s out there,” Falco said.
Falco empathized with the character, but was also struck by the professional ethic of her real-life counterpart, who not only represented Erik Menendez, but also Phil Spector.
“I respect her, is really what it comes down to,” Falco said. “She worked hard. She really worked hard for these guys, and she cared about what their lives were like before this event, and she really was about giving these people the best trial possible based on the law. She didn’t always think [her clients] were innocent. But she defended them, because that was her job.”
“I didn’t necessarily know that I would care as much as I do, surprisingly,” Falco divulged when asked what she learned about herself in playing a key player in this sensational trial. “It hooked into something, maybe being a mother, but something made me realize, ‘Wow, this is intense. I really feel for this situation.’”
Falco, who is perhaps best known for playing mob wife Carmela Soprano on “The Sopranos,” revealed the key difference between patriarchs Tony Soprano and Jose Menendez. “Tony did a lot of bad things, but his family was sacred,” she explained when asked how the two dysfunctional families compare.
Having recently appeared in “Landline,” a comedy set around the same time as this new series, Falco joked about being brought back to that early nineties era.
“It’s a lot of shoulder pads,” Falco said. “That’s all I can say. I thought I was rid of them, and they keep pulling me back in.”
Falco also earned laughs in a recurring role as Alec Baldwin’s congresswoman girlfriend on the second season of “30 Rock,“ and on Showtime’s serious comedy “Nurse Jackie.” After playing such an intense dramatic role on “Law & Order: True Crime,” she is not sure how soon it will be before she returns to comedy.
“I don’t know,” Falco admitted. “I never know what’s going to come at me next. If I read [a script] and I want to keep reading it, then I’ll do it.”
Heather Graham plays Judalon Smyth, the mistreated mistress of Dr. Jereme Oziel (Josh Charles), Erik and Lyle’s psychiatrist. “I do remember the trial, and I remember it was very disturbing, but I didn’t use that in this,” Graham said about preparing for her role.
“I got to do a lot of research, like watching Judalon and seeing her Diane Sawyer interviews. I have taped transcripts of conversations she had with Dr. Oziel, I have love poems that they wrote to each other. There’s all the footage of the trial, so you can watch all the real people, so there’s so much stuff that you can watch and do research.”
Does Graham emphasize with Judalon? “I do, completely. If you watch the Diane Sawyer interview where they expose Dr. Oziel and they show Judalon and two other women that he had abusive relationships with, you feel really bad for the women. And after that time, his license was taken away, because of how he treated them. It’s disturbing.”
Carlos Gomez, who plays Jose Menendez, said one of the most surprising things was learning that the man he plays had accomplished so many admirable things.
“He was an immigrant, came to this country at 16 from Cuba,” Gomez said. “He went to business school, he became a very successful businessman, worked for RCA records, worked for Carolco [Pictures], who developed ‘Rambo’ movies. That part I didn’t know about him, when I saw the trial, because he was just a dad who abused his kids.”
There’s no doubt that Jose is to be the chief villain of “Law & Order: True Crime,” as he is shown primarily through flashbacks from the POV of his sons, who have to convince a jury that their father was so monstrous that death was their only escape.
“As an actor, I’m playing a reflection of what these kids remember of their parents,” said Gomez. “Through their eyes, he was a brutal, brutal man who abused his kids. He was very tough on them. But again, when I did the research, you see the other side of it.”
Gomez went on to discuss his journey in playing such a complex character. “The fact that it was a memory, gave me a little bit more of an openness to be able to do the scenes and play the reality of it,” he said. “With any character, you have to find the compassion of some sort. You have to play a sense of reality. It was very challenging to have to go there as an actor, but as an actor that’s what I had to do because it was on paper and it’s a very well-written series, so that’s what I played, but it was very challenging.”
Sam Jaeger, who plays Les Zoeller, the Beverly Hills detective who investigated the murders, discussed preparing for his role, and the preconceived notions he had going in.
“My memories were just like, ‘Oh, yeah, those guys did it,’” Jaeger said. “I researched what the detectives went through, I researched Detective Zoeller. He conducted quite a few interviews over the years, because this is one of those cases that never seems to be finished, even after the sentences are made. It’s a storyline that keeps coming back up, because it’s one of those trials that keeps people guessing. Were these boys as abused as they say? A lot of people in this cast tend to say yes. We have a lot of interesting conversations on set about it. Did they or didn’t they? And does the punishment fit the crime?”
Has Jaeger’s opinion of the the brothers change? “It has, a little bit. When I started off, I thought, you know, number one, don’t kill your parents. That should be pretty basic. But, number two is don’t abuse your kids. I don’t know if they were as big of victims as they claimed, but they certainly weren’t treated with as much kindness as little kids need, and I think that is what’s important about this story, that it brings that to light, the power of a broken home.”
At the end of the day, the central question of “Law & Order: True Crime” is not whether Erik and Lyle Menendez killed their parents, but if they were justified in doing so. “I don’t think that they were right to do it, but they would be the first people to admit that it wasn’t the right thing to do, that it was a huge mistake,” explained Gus Halper, who plays Erik. “They regret it. Do I understand why they did it? Yes, absolutely. Do I think that they got the right sentence? No.”
“Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” premieres Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. ET and airs Tuesdays on NBC.