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Actress S. Epatha Merkerson wrapped up a 17-year run on Law & Order in 2010, when she said goodbye to beloved Lt. Anita Van Buren — one of the longest-running African American characters on prime-time TV.
Now Merkerson is returning to television to play hospital administrator Sharon Goodwin in the new NBC drama Chicago Med.
Don't expect Merkerson to be sporting her signature Law & Order bob, however. "No wig!" she exults. "No need!"
Merkerson, 62, calls Goodwin "a stand-up person. She'll back up her doctors and try to do what she can to keep the hospital running properly."
But she hopes to take this new character to a deeper place. "You rarely saw Van Buren in a real, personal relationship. That happened only my last year, when she was going through cancer. So here's an opportunity to show a woman who's very capable, but also human and flawed. She still has things to work on," she says.
Because the new gig reunites her with Dick Wolf, who created Chicago Med as a spinoff from Chicago Fire, Merkerson calls it a win-win. "Dick has been a loyal producer and friend. He first hired me at 41, and now he's hiring me at 62. That says he knows the importance of the female point of view at all stages. I consider him a dear, dear friend."
Landing a new job as a female who's over 50 can be tough, especially in Hollywood. "At a certain point the jobs come few and far between," the actress acknowledges. "That's why I'm very proud of being part of this production, as a woman in her 60s."
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Merkerson's résumé isn't all Wolf, all the time. She got her start as Reba the Mailwoman on Pee-Wee's Playhouse in 1986 and won an Emmy for Lackawanna Blues in 2005. And she's already thinking of roles she might play when Chicago Med takes a hiatus. "Jobs and scripts continue to come to me," she remarks, "so I feel appreciative that people still think of me."
Even when she's not starring in a show, Merkerson loves binge-watching Downtown Abbey, Ray Donovan, Empire or Homeland. "I love anything with Damian Lewis!" she confesses. She also loves to quilt: "I've been quilting for 15 years but still consider myself an amateur. I got into it years ago, when my friend had a kid and I didn't have any money. So I got some remnant fabric and made a quilt. Then I started classes and found I liked to work on set. You're actually creating something."
For her young peers disinclined to spend their downtime stitching, Merkerson has three bits of advice.
1. Read books. She's into Walter Mosley at the moment. "You can do everything on the computer, but reading gives you the opportunity to imagine. The strongest actors have an incredible imagination, which enables them to create characters from what they see on the page."
2. Acting is a business. "So take a course in contracts! I didn't, and it's a hard thing to learn, but you should know what's happening with your career."
3. Be observant. "Listen closely. Write things down. Looking back, that's what I wish I had done. It's important to be able to tell your own story."
Ann Oldenburg is an entertainment and culture writer.