The last time Kathryn Erbe performed at Steppenwolf, Clinton was only a year into his second term, and The Spice Girls ruled the charts. She was playing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire as part of an impressive cast that included Gary Sinise and John C. Reilly. Erbe remains an ensemble member, but her day job keeps her away: Since 2001, she has played Detective Alexandra Eames on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, a kind of Watson to Vincent D’Onofrio’s Holmes. Although D’Onofrio gets most of the attention—after he was hospitalized for exhaustion, producers revamped the show to give the cast more time off—Erbe’s grounded style is CI’s secret weapon. Being underrated has long been part of her career, from films to her recurring role on HBO series Oz. But Erbe prefers it that way. She recently spoke to The A.V. Club about murder, parenthood, and horn-tooting.
The A.V. Club: Has TV kept you away from the stage?
Kathryn Erbe: Yeah, and having my daughter. When Maeve was a year-and-a-half was the last time that I worked [at Steppenwolf], doing Streetcar. It was just too hard to think about being away from her for all those bedtimes. At that time, that seemed like a difficult schedule. Now it’s like I’d give anything for that schedule on a regular basis. [Laughs.] I wish I could go back—I’m dying to be there.
AVC: How are the acting muscles different for stage and TV?
KE: Oh, it’s totally different. I actually did two 10-minute plays at Atlantic here this summer, just for five performances to open their 99-seat theater. It’s their 20th season, and I’m a member of that theater as well. I forgot how scary plays are. The audience is so much a part of the night—I know that a lot of it is trying to shut that out and just do your own thing. I mean Stella, that was such an epic, epic play, and I got completely sucked in to that life. I really wanted to go and be living in 1940s New Orleans, and I completely rationalized all the abusive aspects of the relationship. [Laughs.] It really scared me because I think when you’re doing a play, it just seeps in, particularly in Steppenwolf.
AVC: Does Detective Eames seep into your life?
KE: She’s become my fantasy of how I’d like to be in terms of on top of things and thick-skinned. But I really don’t let the murders or any of that stuff into my head. After Oz, I’ve learned how to check out and not let that stuff get in.
AVC: You consider yourself a blue-collar actor. Is that something you’ve always felt, or did it become part of your career?
KE: I think that I have never had the confidence to really aggressively get behind myself, and so what I do tends to be—I don’t want to say sheepish, but there is a sheepish quality to my ability to toot my own horn. I’m very Midwestern in that way. So I just do what I like to do, and what I think I do well is not very loud necessarily.
AVC: You mentioned in an old interview that ensemble member Laurie Metcalf inspired you, because her role on Roseanne “enabled her to live a life with her family that was sane.” Does Law & Order allow you to do that?
KE: Yes, now it does. Originally when we started, we worked 18 hours a day, five days a week. I would come home Saturday morning, and the sun would be coming up, and I steadfastly refused to sleep in. Anytime I was off, I was with my daughter. Then having Carson three years ago, I honestly thought I was going to have a heart attack, just from the wear and tear of sleeping four hours of interrupted sleep, and then coming to work for 16 hours. So when they changed our schedule—now Vincent and I have every other episode off—that saved our lives, truly.
AVC: So the pay cut was worth it?
KE: Yeah, I would gladly pay money for that time. It felt so cruel to have this dream and have it be unbearable, you know, unlivable.
AVC: You turned 40 last year. Was it one of those big, reflective birthdays?
KE: Oh yes, it was when I decided I was going to get my life in order and live how I wanted to live, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
AVC: People say that every birthday. What made it work this time?
KE: Oh, I probably shouldn’t say. [Laughs.] I just now believe in myself in a way I never have before. I just kind of got it and finally decided to stop feeling bad and choose to feel good.
AVC: So will you be better at tooting your own horn now?
KE: I hope so. I may do it quietly, but I think I’ll do it better. [Laughs.]