Chris Meloni Isn’t Your Typical Camp Chef

Everyone’s favorite fridge-humping Vietnam vet talks life back at Camp Firewood.

To most people, Chris Meloni will always be Elliot Stabler, the intense senior detective who struggled to balance being a family man and a member of New York’s finest on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. To some of us, though, he’s Gene, the dick cream-owning, sweater-fondling chef from the 2001 cult classic, Wet Hot American Summer. When we’re teleported back to 1981 where it all began in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, we discover that everyone’s favorite chef didn’t always spend his days conversing with a can of vegetables. Instead, the suave-looking, newly engaged employee seems almost…average? Along with the rest of the all-star cast (ranging from alums Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, and Amy Poehler to newcomers Kristen Wiig, Jordan Peele, and Lake Bell), we’re finally graced with the knowledge of what happened to those horny counselors leading up to Camp Firewood’s final day of the summer.

Chris Meloni talked with Maxim in-between filming about even more antics with the WHAS cast, learning the real backstory of Gene, and teaching Mad Men’s Jon Hamm a thing or two.

It’s been a long time since Wet Hot was first released. Was there any thought back then that the film would turn into the classic it’s become today?

No, absolutely not. I chalk it up to correct amount of marijuana usage. The smart and perceptive youth of America.

What did you expect when you heard the Netflix series was being developed – and that it was going to be a prequel?

I’ve worked with these guys (David Wain and Michael Showalter) before, so I’m smart enough not to expect anything a normal person would expect. They’re coming out of left field, and it’s a joy whenever I get a script from them because they’re so outlandish. I don’t know how they think this way.

Just like with the film, the prequel really stresses the joke of how old the actors are in contrast with their character’s actual age. The audience knows it, you guys know it, and we love every second of it. Is that concept a driving force behind the series?

To me, even when I first got the original movie script fifteen years ago, I’m reading it and going, “This is really absurd, and I appreciate that.” The hook was always that all the counselors were played by people in their late twenties, early thirties, and that just struck me as really funny. And now to continue—I mean, the balls of these guys to continue on with the series and to make it a prequel fifteen years after the fact—that’s great to me. There’s built-in comedy, and they’re not flogging it. They like making sure that we’re so in on the joke, that we’re not in on the joke.

The cast has expanded drastically with an all-star lineup, like Kristen Wiig, Jason Schwartzmann, and Jon Hamm, just to name a few. Did you have any advice for the newcomers on set?

Oh yeah, I told that kid Jon Hamm.. that young guy Jon Hamm.. [laughs]. No, I didn’t. They definitely knew what they were doing.

Is Jon Hamm your rival in the series?

Yeah, he’s almost like a mirror. He’s a more dashing aspect of Gene, I guess.

What got you most excited about the idea of playing Gene again?

I wanted to see the evolution of Gene. I figured they’d be giving him something more than just the Gene that you know, who is the wacked-out Vietnam vet who jumbles his words and humps refrigerators and fondles sweaters. I was curious about that, but as I got the script, and as I saw there was a certain amount of tension and war-like fervor in the rise of camp, I thought, well, Gene’s got to jump in there. Give him something physical to do. And we worked in an action sequence, and I really looked forward to that.

At the conclusion of the series, do you think there’s anything that’s missing? Is there a possibility for another summer at Camp Firewood?

With David Wain and Michael Showalter, I wouldn’t put anything past them. They can do anything they want.

Photos by Saeed Adyani/Netflix