On the screen, they're dealing with the most hideous aspects of humanity. When the director yells cut, the actors from "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" leave the rapes and murders their characters encounter and fall into easy patterns established after years together.
The 12th season closes Wednesday, May 18, a pretty remarkable run for a spinoff. On a recent drizzly day in the expanse that is Manhattan's Chelsea Piers, the cast finishes one episode and begins the season finale, the 24th of the year. Official word had not yet come from NBC as to whether this would be renewed.
"We're not going anywhere," says Richard Belzer, who plays Detective John Munch. "The show makes too much money -- for other people."
"You know that cha-ching sound?" adds Ice-T, who plays Detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola. "It's (creator) Dick Wolf's cash register."
Ice-T is playing a video game in his dressing room when Belzer pokes his head in. They're very different guys, but playing partners all these years gives them a deep bond.
"We don't finish each other's sentences," Belzer says. "We just look at each other, and whole paragraphs are finished."
They've played partners for 11 years, which Belzer notes "is longer than my first two marriages -- combined."
Ice-T is convinced they're all playing heightened versions of themselves.
"Chris is definitely an angry white man," Ice-T says of Christopher Meloni, who plays Detective Elliot Stabler. "Fin is really Ice-T, if I was a cop.
"I just use me," Ice-T says. "I'm cheating, I guess. I'm a career criminal in real life."
"He's kidding," Belzer interrupts.
"No, I'm not," Ice-T says. "But to have a career criminal playing a cop, you get a cop with an interesting dynamic. You can get a player to act like a square, but a square never comes across like a player."
Maybe, but many actors over the years have guest starred on the show, if for nothing else, to play against type. Independently, many cite Carol Burnett as a favorite. She knew the crew's names before she stepped on set.
By now, this is a fabled set. In the courtroom, always the second half of the original "Law & Order," two floor tiles, invisible to viewers, reveal special moments. One reads, "On this spot Gregory Hines danced for us 2/4/03." The late, great tapper played a defense attorney.
Another states: "A striped bass blew up on this spot 3/3/11."
John Stamos guest starred in an episode in which someone was killed with a scuba diver's knife that pumps out explosive gas. A bass (an already dead bass, the publicist notes) was blown up during rehearsals to replicate how the knife could be used. Pieces of the huge fish splattered everywhere.
"SVU" moved into this studio full-time when "Law & Order" was abruptly canceled last year. There are a few vestiges from the first show, beginning with Dann Florek, who has played Capt. Donald Cragen since 1990.
He recalls a line from the audition for the pilot: "Fellows, you've got to find me something. I'm getting my butt barbecued," Florek says.
With that he launched a career as a man who rarely tightens his tie and sits behind a desk with a signed baseball in a Lucite cube. Incidentally, though Cragen is a Mets fan, the ball is signed by crew members.
Over the years viewers learned that Cragen's wife, a flight attendant, was killed in a crash. "I got the call she was always expecting" of a spouse dying on the job, Florek says.
Fans also know he was a Green Beret, and when Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was being stalked, Cragen handily took down the perp.
"The old, bald guy knows what's going on," he says.Florek says he still likes his character, and Meloni feels the same way about Stabler.
"I've always thought the mood of him was the quiet hero," Meloni says of Stabler. "He is a flawed guy. He has taken on the code of honor to protect and serve. It's indelibly tattooed on his brain."
"At the end of the day, he has a heroic core, or a heroic thread," Meloni says. "He is the best kind of hero. He is not going to bust through the wall with two guns blazing. He lived up to the best part of himself. In the end, his trademark is the core."
As is his partner, Benson. Hargitay isn't on set; she's adopting a baby. Still, the season's two final episodes run on schedule.
Though not a typical cliffhanger, the aim is to make the season enders a bit bigger, says writer Dan Truly. And contract negotiations are ongoing; if actors don't return, the finale would leave plausible reasons for why their characters are absent.
In the season finale, Truly says, what begins as a purse snatching leads to a multiple murder. The person on a shooting spree admits the gun was $300.
"Guns are such a force multiplier," Truly says. "An evil intention, or bad mood, or mental illness can be amplified in the destruction of dozens of lives, and it's horrifying."