For actor Danny Pino, it seems that crime really does pay, albeit the fictional kind.
He’s made a fine living in the ‘criminal’ sector of television, first as a Detective Scotty Valens on the drama “Cold Case” for seven seasons, and three years ago he joined the long-running “Law & Order: SVU” as Detective Nick Amaro.
Many viewers felt “SVU” was starting to feel a bit weathered at the end of the 12th season in 2011. The departure of long-time lead character Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) as well as series showrunner Neal Baer seemed to signal that the end was near. But, then along came Pino. He joined the 16th precinct about the same time another newcomer to the show, Kelli Giddish as Detective Amanda Rollins, showed up.
Now, not only is the show still on the air, but it’s thriving in the ratings; quite a phenomenon for the 15 year old series. Pino, asked about his role in the revitalized show, humbly says, “Thanks for implying that my part in this is bigger than I think it really is. By that I mean, I think that it’s such a massive effort that to just to be any part of this endeavor is an honor. I’m just always happy to go to work and contribute what I can to this show, which is essentially entertainment but is also a series where we explore issues that are very real.”
While the “Law & Order” franchise was born as a strict procedural series with closed-ended episodes and not so much as a hint of serialization, ‘SVU’ of late has been clearly transitioning into more of a ‘character-cedural;’ a type of hybrid that while using a criminal case as a tent pole also examines the personal lives of those involved in the investigation.
Pino believes it’s the exploration of these character nuances that drawers viewers even closer into the core of the show. “People who watch the ‘SVU’ don’t just want to see uncaring, unfeeling police officers go about doing their job,” explains Pino. “They want to know what’s informing the choices the detectives make; why they behave the way they do, how they truly feel about the things that are happening in the squad room and in the world as a whole. You can’t know these things about a person unless you know something about their private life.”
When it comes to interacting with fans of the show, Pino happily admits that social media has changed the way actors connect with the public in a way he feels is for the good. “Sure, I get on Twitter once in a while when I have the time. It’s cool to have that immediate link with fans. They’re incredibility intelligent and have some interesting things to say. I think that what’s happening in entertainment now is that there is a way to connect with people who watch your work, have a back and forth with them, and develop a relationship with them in way that couldn’t be done before.”
The immediacy of social media feedback gives Pino a sense of fulfillment about the effort that goes into the show. “The work doesn’t exist a vacuum,” says Pino, “It isn’t meaningful without our fans who look forward to, watch it and then talk about it.” He goes on to clarify this saying, “Think about it: the piece is written by a writer who’s basically sitting alone with a laptop, then shared with the other writers on our show who give notes and working all together they iron out the kinks. Then those written words are shared with the crew and the actors who work collectively to pull all of the pieces together on film. Next, it’s passed to the editors who finish it up, putting the final touches on the narrative. Up to that point, only insiders have been privy to it.But then, the final step is to share it with the public. The cycle isn’t complete until it’s out there for everyone to see. So to be able to have that feedback from viewers once they take in the final product really does complete the whole cycle.”
For his role as a police officer, Pino has to look no further than his family for a role model. “My brother is a police officer,” he says proudly. “He’s not in the Special Victims Unit but he is on the force and it’s important to both of us that cops are accurately and honorably represented on television. All too often the public only hears about officers who are corrupt so it’s really essential to show thatthe majority of police officers are incredibly hard-working, caring individuals who believe that their job is to uphold the law while at the same time do everything they can to help people. Knowing this, it’s an honor for me to be a part of that, to promote the correct image of police officers. I truly look forward to doing this every single day on this show.”
While Pino clearly takes great pride in honing his portrayal of Detective Amaro every day, dealing with the heavy subject matter is something he had to get used to. “It absolutely gets to you,” admits Pino, a father of two young sons. “As a parent, especially when the case deals with children, it’s very easy to project your own life into it. You feel like the stakes are extremely high even though this is fiction. You viscerally understand what parents are going through, what kids are going through, and I think you feel a responsibility to represent that as truthfully as possible.”
Delving further into his real feelings about the tough topics covered on ‘SVU,’ Pino quietly adds, “Yes, I’ve had some sleepless nights after I’ve read some scripts…but I think that’s normal. I need to feel those things to do what I do. Our cast is paid to embody these characters as fully as possible and if that means it impacts you personally then that might be giving you an indication of how well you’re doing your job.”
To decompress from the heaviness of what comes from immersing himself in his work, Pino brightens up when he says, “I have two incredible young men I’m raising. I have a fantastic wife and a family that I always look forward to being with. I’m never far from a playing field of some sort, football or baseball, or the gym. I stay as active as I can. I also write a little bit, I read, and my wife and I go to plays. There is so much to do in New York, it’s amazing here. I’m so glad to be back in this city.”
Pino returned to New York after spending nine years in Los Angeles. He reflected on how this go-around in the Big Apple is markedly different from his early stint in the city. “I knew New York as a student at NYU; a starving, unmarried student with no children. Then I went to Los Angeles for nine years. To come back married and with kids, it’s a completely different city to me now, not just in terms of how the city changes so quickly, and it has in the time since I graduated and the time I’ve come back for ‘SVU,’ but also clearly in where I am in my own life. My life has changed so drastically between then and now, and it’s exciting to now be here in this amazing city as a husband and a father. To be able to share all of my new New York experiences with my wife and my boys is just really amazingly fun.”
He obviously finds his new hometown inspiration, saying, “There are so many different influences here, so much culture and diversity in everything. As an actor, I try to observe and absorb everything that I can. I try to look past clichés to find nuance in things. There’s no better place in the world to soak all of that up.”
With ‘SVU’ thriving in the ratings this season, it seems that a 16th season may be on tap. When asked his feelings about the future of the show Pino admits that he’s happy being in the dark about what’s in store for the ‘SVU’ squad, saying, “I really don’t know what’s coming, but I have total faith in our leaders. I know that whatever they come up with will be relevant, provocative, engaging, challenging and incredibly surprising for everyone involved, and by everyone, I really mean everyone; our cast, our crew, and certainly our fans. I just don’t think you can ask for any more than that.”
Viewers can watch Danny Pino as Detective Nick Amaro on “Law & Order: SVU” with new episodes airing Wednesdays at 10/9c on NBC.
For more information about ‘SVU,’ please visit NBC.com.