Christopher Meloni has been a fixture on American television since that television fixture was a box with rabbit ears. He appeared on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as Elliot Stabler during its first season in 1999, investigated fake murders for 12 full seasons, left, and has now returned, reprising Stabler for Law & Order: Organized Crime, soon returning for its second season. Meloni is back. Meloni hasn’t gone anywhere.

But, as Meloni tells Men’s Health in his September Cover story, scoring that first lead SVU role felt more like a curse than a boon. “When my career started to happen, I could feel it,” he told us. “But I didn’t want to trust it, because I had struggled for so long—or at least it felt like I’d struggled for so long—and I didn’t want it to go away. I don’t know how many people get this opportunity to dream a dream and have it come to fruition. Because everyone does the first part, but to have it come to fruition then starts a whole other journey of Now what? And What is this? And How do you manage?

Meloni knows this feeling—the what-do-I-do-now-after-I’ve-made-it feels—is one of those Good Kind of Problems to Have. But the struggle to get there was the opposite sort of problem. Failing to secure work made Meloni furious with himself. When auditions would go badly, Meloni says he would stand in front of his mirror and berate himself, screaming, “What the fuck are you doing? You get the opportunity to be in the room to take this job, and this is what you do? This is the best? That’s what you did? You sucked!”

That pressure boiled over after Meloni secured the role as Elliot Stabler. After being cast, Meloni says he woke up in the middle of the night trembling. He thought he might be dying. “When something weird and out of the norm happens, I don’t panic,” Meloni says. “I always sit with it and go, All right, let’s experience what’s happening, because getting tenser is not going to help the situation.” The trembling subsided after Meloni realized he was having a bout of anxiety. He says it occurred multiple times over the next few months.

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It’s not something Meloni wants to dwell on. “Is this ‘Chris Meloni’s unstable’?” Meloni asks us about the direction of his Men’s Health article. “Is this the fucking theme we’re going with? Because I’m not going to stand for it.”

So we’ll end instead with this: What does Chris Meloni think of his Men’s Health cover? “The aspect of age comes into play as far as the cover of [this magazine] and how I feel about it,” he says. “A friend of mine said, ‘Did you ever think in a million years you’d be on the cover of Men’s Health?’ I said, ‘Certainly not at age 60.’” And yet here he is—looking fantastic and feeling great. Yeah, that’s the fucking theme we’re going with.

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