Photo by Emily Assiran
When Law & Order returned on Sept. 22, the iconic NBC franchise made history. As reported by Variety, the crossover premiere event— which brought together SVU, Organized Crime and the flagship series— was the most-watched and highest-rated program the night that it aired.
It also marked the introduction of Mehcad Brooks as detective Jalen Shaw. Following the big premiere, Brooks spoke with LA Confidential about the history-making episode, what’s in store for season 22 of Law and Order and how playing Jalen has been part of his healing journey.
On Twitter, you said the live premiere was the first time you saw the big crossover episode. How did it feel to finally see it all come together?
I'd seen little pieces of it here and there, but put together it's so good. The script was fantastic, the writing was great. But just seeing the whole thing put together, it knocked me off my feet just as a fan. I've been watching Law and Order since I was a kid, and to me, this is the best one I've ever seen. I might be a little biased, but I thought it was fantastic. And it has personality that I think the old one didn't have. It has the banter that the old one definitely didn't have. It feels really fresh and updated and gritty and it just doesn't feel like your grandpa's Law and Order. That's what we're going for. When you work that hard and it comes off that well, I did my little dance and my wife and our friends laughed at me.
This was the first time Law & Order has done a three-way crossover episode. Why do you think it was important for the three series to come together for this one big moment?
I think it's reminding us of what you can do when you unify. We’re at a time in this country where there's a lot of political division and a lot of social unrest and people are divided up amongst their tribes. And I think that Law and Order, this crossover event, was a wonderful opportunity to see what it looks like when people just put down their guards and they put their heads together to solve particular problems. And coming together to do that, I like to think of it as art imitating life. That's a lesson that Americans can take from the episode is that if we put our differences aside, put our egos aside and we put our heads down to solve these collective issues, they're not so heavy.
Jalen is working alongside Lt. Kate Dixon (Camryn Manheim) and Detective Cosgrove (Jeffrey Donovan). What does he bring to the team?
He's a calm wolf. I'm a nerd and I break everything down to the etymology of the word. Why does he exist that way? Why is he structured that way? “Jalen” is “peace” or “calm” Latin in and “Shaw” is “wolf” in Welsh. And so that informs everything that I do. He's this wolf hunting for peace. If you get in the way of that, you meet the wolf. There's something really interesting about being able to take that part of me, that part of Mehcad that wants to right the wrongs in the world, that wants to protect people, that wants to help people. I really am that person, but I can't go around the streets and do that as an actor. So there's a part of me that gets to play off this dimensional karma that I feel like I have in some ways where I want to go out there and help people and I want to go out there and establish things, and I can do it through this character.
Jalen was at NYU Law School. He practiced law for about three years or so. He knows the law inside and out. He sort of works backwards as in, “What is the district attorney going to need to prosecute this case? If we don't have that, let's go get that.” He's a shining example of how police should be doing the job. Not to toot my own horn or something like that, but as a character, that's what he is.
He brings a younger perspective, a more diverse perspective. He's making sure that some of the issues that maybe some of the older cops who have less diversity in their experience, who have some blind spots, he's filling those in.
He's more liberal. I think he's a great example of where policing can and should go in the future where it's more equitable and more fair and it’s reflecting of the social climate that we're in.
On Instagram in August, you opened up about your personal interactions with the police and how you’ve been working on healing from that trauma. How has playing Jalen helped you in that process?
I think everything is an opportunity for a healing journey if you see it that way. And for me, my first violent interaction with the police, or some call it police brutality, I was seven years old and I was playing hide-and-go-seek and these police officers didn't believe that me and my brother and my cousins belonged in the place that we are in, so they assumed we were trespassing. And they were wrong. And they were very aggressive with us. I've had to go to therapy about it and what I've learned is it also creates this mentality inside of— I don't say victim, I say the target because I don’t believe in victim mentality. But I do believe in a target mentality, which is when you know there's a target on your back and that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways. I experienced inequitable, unfair and aggressive treatment by the police as a through line throughout my life, culminating with an experience where I was hospitalized by police in 2004 for quote, unquote jaywalking. So I've seen the other side of it. When this job was on the negotiating table, part of me was hesitant to want to be behind the badge. And then I started realizing that that's the wrong way to look at how you affect change. Do you do it from the outside of the building by throwing rocks at the window? Do you do it at the desk inside the building? And the more I've learned, the more I talk to police, the more I've talked to particularly homicide detectives, there's a differentiation between policing and over policing. There's a difference between even policing and crime solving. There's a difference between the politics of it, which is how do we allocate resources to mitigate the circumstances that cause desperation, which causes hopelessness which causes crime? So there's a lot of different sides to this conversation that must be started. And it's making me realize that there's this compassion that is deserved on both sides. There are people who have lived experiences where they feel like the police are unfair to them. And it's true. I can tell you from personal experience. And then there's people who are police officers and detectives who have a very tough job, a high stress job. And sometimes people bring their indoctrination into their jobs and sometimes they just have bad days. And sometimes it's a systemic problem, sometimes there's just bad apples. But what I'm healing from, what I'm learning is that as a homicide detective in particular, you work for God. You're one of the last bastions of hope, one of the guardians of this dimension for a family who's lost a loved one or who's had a loved one violently removed from this dimension. I found a lot of solace in that the homicide detectives, they're not working for the police in particular, they're not working for public safety in particular. They're working to ensure that less people want to remove other people violently from this planet. And that was something I couldn really wrap my heart around. It has caused me to open up my consciousness, it has caused me to open up my experience and question some things that I thought were fairly ascertained by my lived experience. But at the same time, as one of the adults in the room now, what can I do to change it? What can I do to change it for people who look like me? And what can I do to change it for people who might see me on television and want to be someone like me? And I think that there's a wonderful opportunity, it's a unique opportunity and I'm taking it to heart.
I'm not smart enough to know what the answers are. But I'll say that America has to start the conversation about what do we do about people who have the lived experience of unfair treatment by their own public servants? And what do we do with the fact that police have a very dangerous job? And the answer is not defunding everything and the answer is not backing the blue for everything, it's somewhere in the middle. And that conversation has to start and I hope that I can be part of it.
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What can fans look forward to from the rest of the season?
They can look forward to more Cosgrove and Shaw banter. That's not part of the iconography of Law and Order, but they are letting us play with it a little bit and we are so happy and so thrilled and grateful that the producers of an institution are allowing us to lay down our own dance floor in some ways. I think you're gonna see, once again, us ripping things from the headlines and topicality is king, but also at the same time, these characters, particularly Cosgrove and Shaw, are reflective of the space that we're in right now and the conversation that needs to start happening between marginalized communities. So you're gonna see more of that. You're gonna see us tackling things like reproductive rights, white supremacist terrorism, just a lot of things that are happening in the world. And I think you're gonna see it done with a little pizzazz and flavor and some more style that people are used to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Emily Assiran