HA & ORDER
A Conversation with the Hilarious DIANE NEAL of LAW & ORDER: SVU Fame
By Tyler Malone
It was in the wee hours of the morning, when I noticed that the ladies on the CNN show playing almost inaudibly on my television in the background were calling someone and waking them up. It just happened to be one of the first days of a new CNN morning show called Early Start, hosted by Ashleigh Banfield and Zoraida Sambolin. One segment they do (which has since been mocked by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show) involves calling various newsmakers and celebrities and waking them up to discuss with them, in their somnolent state, things pertinent to the news of the day. The premise was interesting enough, but I was even more intrigued when I heard who they were going to call: the lovely Diane Neal. (The Law & Order junkie inside of me took over and, as though in a hypnotic trance, I set down the book I’d been reading, reached for the channel changer, and turned up the volume to listen to the call.)
If you know who actress Diane Neal is, you probably know her as ADA Casey Novak from Law & Order: SVU, and thus picture her as quite serious, summoning up perhaps in your imagination an intense image of her in a courtroom discussing rape, maybe even badgering a witness, but the real Diane Neal is a hilarious wise-cracking New Yorker with personality to spare. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s a policy wonk when it comes to politics, and she’s a self-proclaimed nerd when it comes to just about everything else. She wanted to be an astronaut, she wanted to be an archeologist, and really she’s a comedian, but strangely enough, she ended up on Law & Order:SVU as the lovely but ever-serious Casey Novak.
She’s an actor, a comedian, a writer, but I’d like to see her run for politics. I’d vote for her. She’s a straight-shooter, tells it like it is, but always with a sense of humor. She’s as knowledgable on the goings-on in the political circus as anyone on CNN, MSNBC or FOX. Wolf Blitzer watch out, I think she could have your job if she really wanted it. So I talked with her about politics, about Law & Order, about being an actor, and about what she wants to be when she “grows up.” But mostly, I spent our hour-long phone conversation just laughing my ass off.
Tyler Malone: Casey Novak, the character you play on Law & Order: SVU, she’s become such a major part of the Law and Order universe. She’s even the second longest running D.A. in the franchise, second only to Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy, if I have my info right.
Diane Neal: Yes, you’re right, good work Tyler! Good investigation.
TM: Done my research. Actually, I didn’t even have to do research. I watch Law and Order so much that I just know these things. Tell me a bit about how you got the role.
DN: It’s really funny, I got a guest starring spot on Law & Order first. It was one of my first jobs when I got out of theater school at Atlantic Theater Company. It was amazing. I played a rapist and murderer. So fans are always like “How come you did that? How come you played a rapist and a murderer, then a lawyer?”
But actually, if you kind of look at everyone who’s ever been on Law and Order, almost everyone started off with a guest spot. Sometimes the episodes are bizarrely close together time-wise too. For example, Jeremy Sisto was playing a lawyer, I think, and then literally came back the next season as a different character, as a cop. Everyone, Epatha, Ice, pretty much everyone has played a different character at some point, it’s really funny, I think that’s how they audition people.
So yeah, it was my first job, it was hysterical, I had no idea what I was doing, but it was great fun because evil people are awesome. Yes, a rapist and a murderer. And it was really funny too. When I was done filming my guest spot, the director said, “Okay, and that’s an episode wrap on Diane,” and everyone started clapping. I was like, “Wow, I must have done really well!” Then, on my first episode, there was a guest star, and as soon as they were done filming, the director said, “Okay, that’s an episode wrap on so-and-so,” and everyone started applauding. Suddenly, I was like, “Oh! We do that for everyone! I see how it is. I get it.”
I did that episode, and then that year I shot a couple pilots, a couple movies, and actually, a writer, who was writing a spec episode of SVU, watched my episode, and ended up writing a pilot that he cast me in the lead for. It was this really cool sci-fi thing, set in the future, based on something by Philip K. Dick. It was produced by Lee Silver, and shot in Australia. There was lots of leather and guns–all of my outfits were made by the lady who made Trinity’s outfits from the Matrix movies. It was so cool I couldn’t stand it. It was for NBC, and it didn’t get picked up.
TM: That’s a shame. Sounds like it could have been interesting.
DN: At the time, when my manager and I watched the pilot, we were laughing, thinking, “Wow, now that is some counter-programming. There’s nothing sci-fi on, there’s nothing remotely futuristic.” And then, of course, Lost and all these cool cerebral shows came on soonafter.
But I was kind of in NBC’s mind when Stephanie March decided she wanted to leave. I went to one audition and as far as I remember it was literally me and Dick Wolf and a video camera. I remember thinking I’d blown it. I remember walking home, and my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, was like, “How did it go?” And I was like, “I don’t know! I don’t even know why I’m in this business!” You know, one of those moments. And I didn’t hear anything, didn’t hear anything, and then, a couple weeks later, I got a call saying, “Would you like the job?”
TM: So what’d you do to prepare once you knew you had the job?
DN: Amanda Green–who was at that time one of the producers and writers, and who is still one of my best friends–flew out. She was a real forensic psychologist for the real SVU in Brooklyn. So she flew out and we started watching real cases, which were horrifying. Instantly, I was like, “Wow, I don’t ever want to get arrested, nor do I want to trust my fate in the hands of twelve anybodys.”
TM: I used to always say that if you can’t get twelve people in a room to all agree that evolution is fact, then I don’t want them in charge of my life and my freedom.
DN: Amen, Tyler. If the GOP debates are teaching us anything, it’s that a lot of people refuse to believe anything factual.
TM: How did the character change over time (since you’ve been playing her for so long)?
DN: Well, I don’t think she ever changed. It wasn’t until the last episode that I was a series regular that she ever did anything wrong. It was kind of out of the blue. It cracked me up that my character left the show for what she did, because at the same time you’ve got Stabler beating up suspects on a weekly basis, literally breaking every law in the book. You’ve got Bensen hiding federal witnesses from the FBI. But it was great when they wrote Novak out of the show because, though she did do something illegal, it was solely for the cause of justice.
TM: So the show is now in it’s thirteenth season, and it’s the last Law & Order standing, which is very sad.
DN: It’s crazy.
TM: I know. Now you’re back, you’re not a regular, but you’re kind of in and out a little bit…?
DN: Don’t ask me. I’m just as confused about it as you are.
TM: Good, I’m not the only one.
DN: I’m always in trouble for saying things publicly, but I have no idea what’s going on. It’s really funny.
I never would have left in the first place, but it’s not my show. So when they called me back at the end of last season, they had an all law episode, and the writer had said “I need Diane.” So they called and asked if I would come back for the episode, it was just me and Terrence Howard. I remember thinking: “That sounds like so much fun, I can’t stand it.” So I did it. I had a brilliant time, and I was like, “Awesome, okay, that was great to go back!” I love the crew, and everyday I was even gone, I would get at least one text from somebody on set. And I missed them. So it was such a great opportunity to go back and have one last hurrah. But I didn’t think anything of it.
Then I was in Mexico over the summer with a buddy. I turned my phone on and I had a bunch of texts saying congratulations. And I was like, “I actually have no idea what you’re talking about!” It’s so indicative of the business.
TM: What I love is that you’re also a stand up comic.
DN: Yeah, I actually was before I ever did SVU. None of my friends and family could ever watch SVU. They’re always like, “You’re so serious!” Because to them, I’m the ultimate goofball. Even at age ten, I would do my own versions of all the Kids in the Hall skits. You know, in the basement, all the kids would come over and I’d… [She goes into various voices and impersonations that would get anyone with any knowledge of Kids in the Hall chuckling.]
Yeah, it’s a very bizarre thing. I’m even a goofball on set a lot of the time. You learn how to adjust for different guest stars and different people in the cast because everyone has a different methodology. I think I calculated once that I’ve worked with 4,000 guest stars.
TM: That’s pretty crazy.
DN: It’s insane! It’s so much fun! And I really enjoy everyone. But some people need peace and quiet before they go on, especially if they’re guest starring for something really heavy, like testifying about being raped. But when I’m not bothering anyone, I’m literally laughing and cracking fart jokes until the second they yell “Action!”
TM: I’d love to see you do some comedy work. You’re a riot.
DN: It’s funny, now I even have trouble getting into auditions for comedies. I had a casting director recently ask me if I was a real lawyer. I was like, “Right, that’s why they call it acting. I am not a real lawyer. But thank you! I’ll take it as a compliment.”
TM: Exactly! Shows how convincing you are! That’s great acting!
DN: There’s this other thing that happens in this whole industry, it happened this week for a show that will remain nameless. It was down to a few of us for a new sitcom coming out. And they don’t like it when the chick is funnier than the guy. If it’s like a male/female dynamic with a guy who’s supposed to be funny, they want you to be the foil, the straight woman. You can’t make a joke yourself, you have to be like “OH, you!”
Again, I’m always in trouble with somebody. My manager’s always like, “Can’t you tone it down?” But you know, I don’t want to play an audition in a way that I wouldn’t be happy playing for six years.
TM: Now, of course, you’re not the only comedian on set. Richard Belzer is a stand-up as well.
DN: Belzer is crazy! He’s crazy to think of himself as a comedian. I like to think of him as a geriatric with some even older jokes.
No, he kills me. He’s funny. He would poke his head out of his dressing room and say, “How’s the crowd?” and I’d say, “Geriatric.” He’d say, “How’s my material?” and I’d say, “Dated! Does that boost your confidence?”
And anytime we’d do interviews that go on and on, where you do station after station after station, and Richard and I would do them together. Whenever I’d say something funny, I’d say, “You’re gonna steal that aren’t you?” And he would always steal it!
He kills me. I love him. We call him Uncle Richard. He’s fantastic.
TM: Another coworker that you had an interesting discussion with is Fred Thompson. I heard you on CNN, and you were talking about the fact that you were thinking of running for political office at some point. Tell us a little bit about that, if you could.
DN: The funny thing is, I’ve always been a concerned citizen. I’m definitely an activist. I think that people really need to participate. It always frustrates me because there’s people who complain constantly about the government and then don’t do anything, including vote to change anything, or they’re not informed in any sort of way. You have all these people who voted in a reactionary way in the 2010 midterm elections. For some reason they’re pissed with something that somebody has named Obamacare, which isn’t that bad, nor will it cost them any money, and without doing any research, thinking, or looking into anything, just out of a knee-jerk response, they vote in the most tyrannical, dictatorial, right-wing people that will take away all your rights, yet you fanaticize about small government. These are also the people who will give you a urine test before you get unemployment. Is that not invasive? Is that small government? I’m so confused by people who refuse to learn anything.
I’m a very liberal progressive, because I like humanity! That’s one of my jokes. Most of my stand-up is political. One of the things I say is: I don’t care if you are Republican, I have tons of friends that are Republicans, as long as you don’t vote that way!
I could go on about politics forever…
TM: Feel free to keep going. I love it.
DN: There are so many inconsistencies. All I aim for in all of life is some variant of consistency. That’s all I’m looking for. You can’t drink until your 21, but you can go to war at 18? Hey, let’s just pick one. It seems like if you can die for your country, you should be able to have a beer. Things like that. I just don’t get the inconsistencies. Like gay Republicans. That blows my mind. Why would you want to be actively a part of a group that is trying to destroy your life in just about every way. There’s no consistency in that. And they’re like, “But I’m a fiscal conservative, I’m not a social conservative!” Right, but they spend more money and destroy the world economy, how is that working out for you fiscally? I don’t understand any of it. People, give me just a little bit of consistency.
TM: So what political office were you thinking of running for?
DN: Well, SVU used to shoot in New Jersey, because it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than Chelsea, so we bought a place in Jersey City. Jersey City is notoriously one of the most corrupt places on earth. And so you’re constantly entrenched as a homeowner, especially an urban homeowner, in the minutia of government which was incredibly inefficient and corrupt in Jersey City. If you heard me joking about it on CNN, the night before the election, the current mayor of Jersey City, who was just a candidate at the time, was literally photographed passed out drunk and nude on his front porch. And yet won the next day…
And then, of course, you remember all the recent roundups of like every city official in Hoboken and Jersey City. The only ones that didn’t escape are the ones who turned state’s evidence. It’s pretty mind-blowing.
New Jersey is famous for outrageously high property taxes. Now, I don’t mind paying property tax. But we’re paying an insane amount for very little service. And so I was really considering running for city council.
TM: But Fred Thompson talked you out of it?
DN: I love Fred [Thompson]. We agree on absolutely nothing, but I love Fred. Judith Light was also in that particular episode. And they were like, “Don’t do it, you will get killed. What happened to the last mayor?” Right, suspected murder. This guy named Cunningham, he died and they didn’t know if he died of natural causes or not. I think it’s still an unresolved issue. It’s just madness, and I’m like, “Yeah, but one day…”
They suggested I do this for a while and then move on. But yeah, maybe one day.
Funny thing about Fred and politics: When Fred decided to run, and he obviously left the Law and Order fold, Sam [Waterston] and I were the two people who had spent the most time with him, more than any of the other actors on the shows, so the two of us were getting lots of press inquiries about him. They kept asking us our opinion of him running. I didn’t want to answer anything because we disagree on literally every issue, so I don’t want to encourage anyone to vote for him, but at the same time, I really enjoy him as a human being, so I don’t want to say anything negative.
But he had some epically bizarre debate performances, so I didn’t have to avoid the questions for long. Those debates were insane. He’d have 120 seconds to answer a question like “Senator Thompson, what do you think about so-and-so?” And he’d just say: “No.” [She says “No,” in her best Fred Thompson voice.] Literally. Like he didn’t want to use his full time. He’d have a bunch of time left and they’d ask him if he had anything else to say and he’d just say: [once again she musters up her best Fred Thompson:] “I said ‘No!’” I loved it. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.
TM: So what do you think of this primary in comparison to that primary?
DN: Oh good God, it’s so insane! I was actually quite sad when Huntsman dropped out because now it’s just a choice between all different kinds of crazy. There was one educated smart individual who was willing to compromise and do what’s best, even if we didn’t agree on stuff. But had he won, I wouldn’t have been devastated. I remember when Bush got in for the second term, I didn’t want to get out of bed. How do I live in this country? How do people not know what’s happening? And apparently they don’t.
TM: Unfortunately a lot of people don’t know what’s going on. And even if many have an inkling of what’s going on, they still often vote against their interests because they are confused or misinformed.
DN: A buddy of mine got his graduate degree under Robert Reich at Berkeley. It was really cool, we actually got the rights to Bob Reich’s last book so we could try to make a documentary out of it in 2008 as things collapsed. It’s funny, actually, it became a victim of it’s own subject matter. “You think we’ll give you money for a documentary about the economy? No.” But I got to sit in on one of his classes and he said one of the best things ever, which is: “Reason never convinced anyone.”
It’s so unfortunate, but you see it play out in the GOP field. It’s all just fear-based. It’s fear of the most insane things.
TM: The craziest thing to me is their fear of knowledge.
DN: Yes! Tyler! Exactly! Their pride in ignorance–pride in being totally, totally, unaware of what’s going on.
TM: Yeah, that’s the thing that kills me. Like Herman Cain’s “Ubeki-beki-beki-stan.”
DN: It blows my mind to be proud of it. It does happen on both sides. You have to be willing to learn no matter what.
TM: So the issue that we’re interviewing you for is the Creative Issue. We’re interviewing people–actors, artists, musicians, fashion designers–anyone in a creative field. I was wondering if you could tell us about your creative process as an actress and what acting entails for you. How you get into your character and whatnot.
DN: I went to acting school kind of on a whim. My acting school’s motto was: “Use your will, learn to act.” I took it to heart and I went in like “Okay, I don’t know anything!” His rules are basically, show up, learn your lines. It sounds really lame, but that’s what I do. And I try to feel the intensity of the moment, and really listen to what the other person is saying to me and really feel, even if it’s an imaginary situation, believably be there, even if it’s just for the moment. So I feel really lucky.
I didn’t ever think I was going to be in a creative industry at all. When I write 40 minutes of a stand-up set, or at the moment I’ve got a couple serious books I’m working on with a literary agent, and a really cheese-ball album I’m working on, a really cheesy bad album of breakup songs that I’m really excited about–no matter what it is–I come from what feels like the real world, as opposed to the creative world, so to me, it’s about structure and analyzing and never taking any of it personally. Chipping away until it’s something I can feel good about.
I know actors that can show up and they don’t look at their lines until they get there. That blows my mind. I need everything memorized. I feel like I can’t live it if I don’t know the words. If I’m searching for a word, it won’t come out the right way. It’s funny, everyone’s got their own thing. It’s a mechanical process. I like to know it all as much as I can, verbatim, have everything down, show up on time, be nice to everyone, enjoy myself while there, and for those few seconds you’re in a different world, be in that world, and let all your synapses fire in the direction of what you’re aiming at. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
TM: You mentioned some other projects you’re working on. I wanted to ask you what’s next for you?
DN: Hoping for another show. Hoping for a comedy. Always happy to go back to NCIS and SVU anytime they ask. I’m also putting together a cheese-ball album of real songs. The fun thing about these days is you can actually create and produce an entire album and you don’t have to actually mechanically and physically make it. You just put it up on iTunes. My album is going to be called Sad Panda. It’s fantastic, old, sad, break-up, heart-wrenching songs that current emo kids might not be aware of. I’m not going to compete with Adele, come on, that would be stupid. But if I whip out a cool acoustic version of Nina Simone, Radiohead, even some Erasure, I’m going there.
TM: Nice, I like it.
DN: Thank you. If that gets the kids that listen to my album to find the real versions because they’re better and more interesting, then awesome. My job here is done. And, of course, it’s all done with a wink and a smile. Yeah, and working on a couple books. The usual.
TM: On your website…
DN: My world’s craziest face website. Thank you, Tyler! By the way, if one more fan emails me and is like, “I hate your site, it has terrible user interface.” You know what? I think I was pretty clear! I made it over Christmas break with my iWeb program. Do you expect anything great? Come on.
TM: But on it, you say you’re just a gal who’s an actor, student, pal, comic, writer, and goon that is still trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. So my question was gonna be: Have you figured out what you want to be when you grow up?
DN: No, no–it’s terrible.
TM: Not at all?
DN: I’m back in school and I’ve got all these majors.
TM: What are you doing in school?
DN: Everything. No, literally. I just took this semester off. Last semester I took way too many credits. Between all the flying and working on two shows on both coasts, I thought I might actually blow up. I was only sleeping on planes, it was not good.
TM: I still think you should be a politician. Keep that open. Don’t listen to Fred Thompson, what’s he know? I think you’d be a great politician.
DN: It’d be pretty cool. I’ve never smoked crack or done heroine, so I’ve got that going for me.
TM: You seem real, and I think that is sorely missing in most politicians. They always feel so contrived, they’re saying what needs to be said rather than what they actually think or feel.
DN: I definitely tell it like it is. But the only thing I think you need which I’m sorely missing is you need enough ego to think that you on your own have enough power…
TM: To change the universe.
DN: That’s probably why they’re all so dysfunctional. They’re so ego-driven. If you can find a way to do it. Even when Rick Perry bowed out today…
TM: He bowed out today? Usually I’m up on this stuff, but I’ve been working nonstop today.
DN: Dude! He bowed out and endorsed frickin’ Gingrich. And you know he said the usual stuff about God and whatnot, which makes me wonder: Who’s God rooting for? Tebow? God told all of them to run? Honestly? Honestly? Who’s he rooting for? Why would he tell all of you to run?
TM: Maybe he’s just trying to mess them up? Maybe he’s just fuckin’ with ‘em?
DN: Right! I don’t think Jesus, the Jewish liberal trade union worker, would be for any of them. But yeah, he bowed out and he endorsed Gingrich, and he went on trying to justify to the extreme religious right Gingrich’s hideous behavior with his wives and in his personal life. He said something about believing in redemption, that’s the Christian way. He was selling Gingrich and his endorsement of Gingrich as, “This is a story of redemption and repentance.”
TM: Wow. I can’t believe I missed this. I shouldn’t have spent so much time preparing for our interview. I should have been being my usual news junkie self. But I think you’d be a good politician. You’re such a policy junkie. And you’re such a liberal. I’d vote for you. You have one vote already. So you have two votes, I assume: me and your husband.
DN: Yes, he’s an American now so he can vote! He got his citizenship right before the last presidential election. So voting for Obama was his first.
TM: That’s a good person to be your first vote for president.
DN: Yes, very good first vote, pretty cool.
TM: My first presidential vote was for John Kerry, and he lost.
DN: That’s okay, none of us could have known. It’s okay, we tried.
TM: They were against Kerry because he’s a “flip flopper,” but they’re going to end up voting for Mitt Romney and he’s an even bigger flip flopper. But they’ll vote for whoever the pretty lady on Fox News says isn’t destroying the country.
DN: Oh, it’s so hideous, it destroys my mind. They say it with such conviction too. Please don’t do that. Don’t do that. You know you’re lying! It wrecks my head. And lying for money! Is there anything worse?
TM: Not really.
DN: It really is. Intentionally telling people things that are wrong just so you can profit, it’s really bothersome. I would hope humanity would be better than that at this point. What a shame! Man, now I’m depressed. Thank you, Tyler, I’m going to go out back and slit my wrists.
TM: Don’t do that–I’ve got to be able to vote for you! I can’t vote for you if you kill yourself.
DN: Excellent, I love it, I love it.
Diane Neal is an actress, comedian and writer. She is perhaps best known for playing Casey Novak on Law & Order: SVU.
Diane Neal interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Pablo Aguilar
Design by Marie Havens
Diane Neal, 2012, Photography by Pablo Aguilar