Spotlight: Sam Waterston

Sam Waterston entered Law & Order’s courtroom in 1994 as District Attorney Jack McCoy. His career spans decades and genres:…

Credit: Michael Permelee/ NBC

Spotlight: Sam Waterston

Sam Waterston entered Law & Order’s courtroom in 1994 as District Attorney Jack McCoy. His career spans decades and genres: television, film, and stage. Before ever hearing the words, “Law & Order” or getting a phone call from Dick Wolf, Waterston had earned a number of accolades, including an Academy Award nomination.

Now, nearly 30 years and 370 episodes later, Waterston sat down to discuss stepping back into Jack McCoy’s shoes after a 12 year hiatus.

Q: How does it feel to step back into playing Jack McCoy? Did picking up the character come right back to you?

A: I’m finding nuances, and that’s fun! It’s part of what makes it so interesting to be back.

Q: You first joined the cast of Law & Order in 1994. Do you remember how you came to fill the role? Did you have to audition?

A: Dick Wolf called me up and asked me if I wanted to do it. That was the audition process! It’s the nicest possible audition process that anybody ever thought of!

Q: What about now? When were you first approached about Law & Order coming back? What made you decide to return?

A: I had a lot of different feelings about it, honestly. But the one that prevailed was not wanting to miss it! And boy, was that the right idea because it would’ve been awful to have missed it. It is so much fun to go back to. The first time around, everything’s so busy, and you’re working so hard and all that stuff– you could miss what a cool thing it is that you’re doing. And, and to be able to come back, have the set to rise up around you. It’s like NBC is giving us the most expensive episode of “This Is Your Life.” It’s just very, very cool.

Q: What does preparation look like? Do you consult with attorneys?

A: When I first started the job, yes, I did. I went downtown, and I met an ADA, and I talked to him. I relied very heavily on his attitude. But the writers define the character, and that’s really, mostly where I found him.

Q: In your career outside of the courtroom, how do you decide what roles to take on? What makes a character compelling to you?

A: I think the people who experience gigantic ethical dilemmas are the ones that are most interesting to me.

Q: What do you think it is about Jack McCoy that makes him such a fan favorite character in the Law & Order Universe?

A: Well, part of it is that he loves his work, and I think that is infectious. It’s serious work, but it’s honest work and he likes the fight. I used to think of him as an attack dog, but he’s kind of mellowed with time. And so, that was what drew him into the law in the first place– an appetite for the fight.

Q: What, what else have you noticed about the ways that McCoy’s evolved in the course of playing this character?

A: Honestly, I’m just finding out! We are on Episode 5. Talk to me when we get to Episode 10! He’s the same guy. He’s playing a different position, but he’s the same guy.

Q: Because you are so fluent in the character, did you consult or assist the writers in scripting Jack McCoy in Season 21?

A: Not a bit. We used to have big conversations that kind of pass, or fill the role of rehearsal in the old days. But Rick Eid is in California, and we are in New York. So, we haven’t been doing that– but I have to say, the scripts are really good!

Q: What memories stand out to you from playing McCoy in the 90’s and 2000’s?

A: You know, the memories are more physical than recalling any one episode. Originally, we stepped onto these sets that were constructed in a studio on the Hudson River in Manhattan. And now we’re stepping on the exact same sets. Only, the paint is fresh in a studio in Brooklyn. But they’re the same! The floors, the books on the shelves, and the old layout are all the same. It makes the hairs in the back of your next stand on end. It’s really a thrill. And it brings back a sort of sea of experiences, not one particular show. It’s a great treat really, and a rare one. It’s proof that you can go home again, even if it’s just for a visit.

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