Just Find What Makes You Happy

UPDATED: June 8, 2010
PUBLISHED: June 8, 2010

When he was a young man, Christopher Meloni’s mother gave him a simple gift that would change his life. At the time, Meloni was conflicted about his career path. Drawn to acting, he loved how it allowed him to slip into different characters and play at different occupations. It would be cool to be a doctor, he recalls thinking at the time, but I just hate hospitals. I want to be a lawyer, but I don’t want to study. But I could be Perry Mason. Meloni had gained a strong work ethic from his parents—his father was an endocrinologist who often worked 16-hour days while his mother was busy at home raising him and two siblings. As much as Meloni loved acting, it hardly seemed, well, like working. It didn’t seem a worthy professional endeavor for the doctor’s son. A conversation with his mother set him straight. “I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Meloni tells SUCCESS. “My mother said ‘Why are you making such a big deal of everything? Just find what makes you happy.’ ” Just find what makes you happy. She made it sound so simple. His mother had given her blessing, and Meloni committed to pursuing his passion. “ ‘I’m going to be an actor or I’m going to die trying,’ ” he remembers telling himself. “That’s a lot of pressure!” As always, naysayers chimed in: How was he going to make it as an actor? How many others had tried and failed? At first, the negativity upset him, but then Meloni determined their underlying motive: The doubters were voicing their own fears. “Some people don’t want anyone to rise above, go beyond the norm,” he says, and it’s just part of the human condition. But he didn’t have to let them hold him back from achieving his own goals. Disproving the Naysayers He took in university drama classes, but his spirit strained against the school setting. After getting his undergraduate degree, he packed up and moved to New York to make good on his promise—he would become an actor. “There are a million and one ways to get to where you’ve got to go, and you have to find what’s right for you.” Taking evening drama classes at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse, he worked part-time gigs in construction and bit parts in commercials. Landing his first TV role in 1989, he displayed a wide range of ability throughout the 1990s, playing everything from a dinosaur (Dinosaurs) to a gangster (The Last Don). He continued taking classes until he scored his big break in 1997, with a leading part in HBO’s prison show Oz. “I feel as though I’ve been in a Ph.D. program for acting, but I’m still learning,” Meloni says. “If you’re on the job 14 hours a day, every day, if you don’t learn something you’re either unconscious or actively not trying.” In 1999, Meloni’s efforts paid off big with a lead role on NBC’s popular dramatic series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. During his 11 years playing tough guy Detective Elliott Stabler, Meloni has earned an Emmy nomination and become one of the highest-paid actors on TV. His reputation as a hardworking, exacting actor with a sense of humor has provided many opportunities. Meloni’s filmography ranges from comedies such as Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle to film dramas such as Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He’s also been involved in producing and directing. Meloni is at the top of his game. But he’s also blunt about the risks, work and patience required to get there. “Out of 1,000 auditions, I’ve probably blown 850 and did OK on 150,” he says. Of those 150, just a handful of parts came through. Getting Back in the Game He revels in a job well done, no matter the outcome. “In auditions where I rocked it—but I didn’t get the part—I didn’t care,” Meloni says. “I proved what I needed to prove.” But he never allows rejection to get him down or slow his ascent. “You’re going to slip and get a boo-boo and you’re going to get your butt back out there,” he says. Just as his mother encouraged him to just find what makes you happy, Meloni has tried to impart to his children his no-holds-barred approach to life. With Sherman, his wife of 15 years, he has a 9-year-old daughter, Sophia, and 6-year-old son, Dante. If one of his kids displays a scraped knee, he awes in it as proof of an adventure: “ ‘Did you just get that? Look, it must mean that you’re having an awesome summer,’ ” he says. “The point is you’re alive, you’re in the game, and you’re having fun.” Meloni adheres to that ethic, as well. As rewarding as he finds his work on the intense crime drama SVU, the schedule can be grueling. “It’s the nature of the beast,” he says. “We’re making a small movie every eight days.” With 14-hour days as the norm, he sometimes doesn’t see his children for several days at a time. “I go into their rooms when they’re sleeping and check on them. It’s cute, but not satisfying,” he says. Although it takes a little effort, Meloni carves out personal time, taking the kids to the playground, the circus, bowling. “I have to work out for my sanity, but I have to see my children for my soul.” A Soft Spot for Kids Meloni says he never counted on being so successful and satisfied, and he doesn’t take his good fortune for granted. That sense of appreciation informs his giving. “There comes a point when it’s almost criminal you’re so blessed. You’re, like, over-blessed,” he says. “You’ve got to give just to get comfortable again.” Helping children is of particular interest. “They have not lived long enough to acquire the tools, and are so dependent upon parenting and their environment,” he says. “So I have a soft spot for the kids.” The Melonis donate money and time to the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program, which sends clowns to bring humor to terminally ill children in hospitals. Sherman Meloni serves as a board member with the organization. Meloni also is a spokesperson for Smile Train, an organization that sends surgeons to underdeveloped countries to repair children’s cleft lips and palates. Meloni’s hands-on involvement in Smile Train included a trip last year to Haiti, where he and his wife documented a girl’s surgery and eventual smile. After returning from their trip, they showed photos to their children and discussed what they’d seen in a low-key way. Their older child clearly got it. Nine-year-old Sophia set up a lemonade and cookie stand to benefit Smile Train, raising $250 she presented to the organization in a cashier’s check. “I don’t think you can force-train empathy,” Meloni says. Instead of enforced donations and long lectures, he prefers modeling charity and low-key education for the kids. Meloni encourages other achievers to “find your bliss.” But he adds that bliss found him once he accepted its role in his life. It wasn’t until his 30s that he appreciated the satisfaction that comes with hard work. “But it requires constant work and vigilance,” he says of that balance, “between taking out the garbage and wrestling with the kids.” “Happiness is an important thing, and I try to impart that to my kids,” Meloni says. “Work hard, be happy and enjoy it.”