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Investigating 'Law & Order: SVU' Star Danny Pino

February 8th, 2012 4:09pm EST

Law & Order: SVU Law & Order: SVU fans: you landed the best detective working in television.

After seven seasons as a major part of what made Cold Case a cult hit (one that's still talked about two years after its cancellation), Danny Pino has revitalized SVU in its thirteenth season. If anyone could fill the major void left by the departure of series star Christopher Meloni, it was Pino, who created a memorable character of his own in Cold Case's smart and often smart-mouthed Scotty Valens (and stepped in to replace a character on that series as well; current Grey's Anatomy star Justin Chambers had his job for the first six episodes).

He was the only Cold Case member to win an award for his acting, when he took home an ALMA Award for Best Television Actor in 2008. Yet the real proof is in talking to fans of the show, who watched him work every week. Every Wednesday - ironically right before new episodes of Law & Order: SVU - my friends and I get together to watch three hours of syndicated Cold Case reruns. As much as we enjoy the entire ensemble, we always end up talking about how much we loved Scotty.

That's because in seven years, Pino did just about everything you could ask an actor to do - whether it was saving the life of his partner Lilly Rush (an also underappreciated Kathryn Morris), dealing with the apparent suicide of his schizophrenic girlfriend Elisa (Marisol Nichols), or having a previous undercover stint bite him in the here and now ("Sanctuary"). With Scotty, he created someone who was a talented cop, but was also a very real human being, and we embraced him because he felt like someone we knew.

Even now, I find myself talking about him that way, making a joke that Scotty needed a girlfriend who wasn't his partner's sister or crazy. "I think Kathryn Morris said that too," Pino replies with a laugh. He completely understands my love of the character, because he shares it.

When it was announced that Pino was joining the cast of SVU this season, the buzz was instantaneous. We tuned back into a series that we hadn't watched regularly in a long time, and we weren't the only ones. My colleague Aryeh Shudofsky at CliqueClack told me that he thought Pino's addition "revitalized" the show. But after seven years, why would Pino want to return to TV playing another detective?

"I originally resisted going back into a procedural. It was definitely not something that coming right off of Cold Case I was trying to do," Pino tells me when we connect for a conversation. "But I think Law & Order is not just your common regular procedural. Certainly SVU isn't. It has such a storied history with incredible actors. I really felt it was an opportunity that I could not pass up."

On SVU, Pino plays Detective Nick Amaro, who's already seen threats made against his family ("Official Story") and punched out a rape suspect ("Double Strands"). He completely understands if this gives Cold Case fans a little bit of deja vu.

"You watch Law & Order for five minutes, you realize, 'Where are the flashbacks? Where's the music?'" he says with a laugh. "Law & Order scripts have a lot of the things that made Cold Case incredibly compelling. I think it sticks to the closest to what real police officers and attorneys have to deal with. Cold Case certainly was, that was its foundation, but through the use of music and time and the flashbacks, it was much more artistic. It felt much more cinematic.

"Myself and [SVU showrunner Warren [Leight], we got on the phone several times and discussed what it was he envisioned in the character and what I would want to play. Being on Cold Case for seven seasons, we explored quite a bit. I think we found some interesting differences between Valens and Amaro, in making him essentially a single dad. One of the big differences between the two is I think Scotty was much more tightly wound. He was much more quick to violence. To lose his patience. He had a shorter fuse than Nick does. Nick is much more of a con man. He's more manipulative. He'll become whatever a person needs in the interrogation room to get to what they need."

For any actor, being a regular on a Law & Order show is a huge opportunity; one only has to ask Meloni and co-star Mariska Hargitay about the popularity they came into after signing on way back in 1999. Yet having treaded similar ground before, Pino knows exactly what to do with the chance. We've only seen twelve of this season's twenty-two episodes, and Amaro already feels like he's been around a lot longer than he has. That's thanks to an actor with deserved confidence in himself and his abilities.

He also has some experience many actors don't: he's written for television. During his run on Cold Case, Pino earned co-writing credits on two episodes (season 6's "Stealing Home" and season 7's "Metamorphosis"). To have an actor who knows exactly what you're going through is a blessing to any writer, and Pino tells me it's also helped him in front of the camera.

"Without a doubt," he says. "To take a look behind the curtain, you immediately get an idea as to structure, story development, the fundamentals of how a script is put together. When you're around the writers, who day in and day out are pitching stories and plots, you can't help but feed off of that. Especially when you're in a room with the writers who worked on Cold Case, who are in my opinion the best of the best, and you go to SVU and they've got writers who match those writers. It can't help but make you a better actor."

He's my favorite kind of actor to work with: the one who gets just as involved in the development of the character as I do. When I finish a script and hand it to the person who's going to bring it to life, I'm wanting someone who's a partner, who will contribute to and possibly even improve upon what I've started. I can't help but smile when we talk about character development and I can hear the interest in his voice.

"There's hundreds of ideas," he tells me. "Synapses start to pop when I read a script. I think, "Oh, this is fantastic, and then what?" I feel like I have a sounding board in Warren Leight. Sometimes I've been part of processes where there really is no avenue to voice what ifs, and I feel like Law & Order is definitely a place where the actors are taken seriously. They're taken as members of the creative process. Largely, what you see on screen is what I've contributed to Nick."

"I'm always chasing roles that make me nervous," he explains when I ask him what he looks for. "It's always the role like, I wonder if I can pull this off. I just played a police officer, so how do I play one different? What would be compelling about that? That was a challenge. There's not one specific role that jumps out at me, but it's always the challenge to play something new."

Those who know him best for carrying a badge might be surprised at the versatility of Pino's resume. Even he has a hard time pinning down a favorite. "Playing Desi [Arnaz in the 2003 TV-movie Lucy] was definitely a highlight for me. For people who like twists and mystery, Cold Case and Law & Order. The people who like watching something much darker, The Shield is definitely an avenue, and a film I did called Across The Hall."

Pino can do pretty much anything he wants to. But having played two cops for what amounts to nearly a decade now has changed the way he considers the world. "I think I look at it differently because of the police officers I've had the chance to meet. They influence how you see the world I think. You see it through a much more stark lens," he says. "I think there's a certain sobering reality as to what the public doesn't have to deal with and police officers do. We constantly hear a lot of negative press. The police officers who break the law deserve the negative press, but it reflects back on the officers who do their job to their full potential."

Nick Amaro is certainly doing his job to his full potential. That's something that you could also say about the man behind him. No matter what role he's in, it's always readily apparent that Pino is giving his best effort, whether it's the half-dozen times he made us cry during his run on Cold Case, or a memorable stint on Burn Notice that saw him go from client in one episode to antagonist in the next. "I'm from Miami, so it was a no-brainer to go down there," he says, although things certainly went much better for him than for his character.

And there's the reason I like him so much. When someone's giving a role everything they have, you know. I appreciate him because in giving us the best he's got every week, he shows that he appreciates us. He embraces my enjoyment of his work as we crack jokes and ask serious questions in equal measure. He cares about what I have to say as much as I'm interested in what he's saying. I'm so thrilled to be talking to him that I catch myself actually blushing, but he's so warm and gracious that not only am I not self-conscious, I feel like we're two friends having a conversation. For the record, one of TV's good guys is played by a remarkably great guy who deserves his fan following.

The one thing he doesn't quite get is the number of female viewers that think he's cute, but he does say a lot of people come up to him and tell him they loved him on CSI (for the record, he only appeared in one episode of CSI: NY, and that was as his Cold Case character).

Thinking of my friends, who will soon be gathered around my television talking about how good this guy is, I can't resist asking him about Cold Case's less than definitive final episode that left many fans wanting more.

"What happened with Cold Case, it's an advantage that cable series have," he explains. "In general, they know how to wrap it up. I think Cold Case suffered from not knowing when the end was until it was already over. We wrote the finale thinking it might be the finale, but also with the possibility that it could get picked up and continue. I feel like we really didn't wrap up the lives of these characters."

So what might have happened to Scotty Valens? Maybe he just moved to New York.

"He had a kid, he changed his name, and he no longer wants to be a homicide detective," Pino quips.

It might not be a fresh start for Scotty, but it is one for Pino. He built one memorable character that fans will always love, and now with Nick Amaro, he's well on his way to creating a second. If anyone can do something that impressive twice, it's Danny Pino, who's established himself as an actor we're not going to forget.

Congratulations, SVU fans: you've got somebody amazing to enjoy for years to come.

My thanks to Danny Pino for this interview! If you haven't already, you can follow him on Twitter, and watch him as Law & Order: SVU airs a new episode tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on NBC.

(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.

Related: Burn Notice, Christopher Meloni, Cold Case, CSI New York, Danny Pino, Grey's Anatomy, Justin Chambers, Kathryn Morris, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay, Marisol Nichols, Starpulse Exclusives, Television, Drama, NBC

Photo Credits: NBC, CBS

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