'Law & Order: SVU': Ice-T Sounds Off on Romance for Tutuola & His Complicated Feelings on Cops

Ileane Rudolph
Q&A Virginia Sherwood/NBC

A case about a woman’s murder in what’s known as a “pop-up” brothel may not sound like a great set up for a Valentine’s Day episode of Law & Order: SVU. But as Ice-T, who plays Sgt. Fin Tutuola on the sex crimes procedural, puts it: “In an SVU kind of way, it works!”

The outspoken Ice-T (aka SVU’s philosopher) who’s been on the show since year two of its 20-year run — surpassed only by star Mariska Hargitay — talked to TV Insider about the episode, working with guest star Jennifer Esposito (Blue Bloods), his deep respect for Hargitay, Valentine’s Day with wife Coco Austin, and his personal dealings with New York cops.

First off, what’s a pop-up brothel?

Ice-T: It’s a brothel that moves from place to place, so by the time somebody’s tipped off about it and goes there for a bust, it’s gone.

Why is the episode a good match for Valentine’s Day?

In the show, a woman from Vice named Phoebe Baker, played by Jennifer Esposito, helps us with the case. She’s someone I had history with. It’s like somebody you dated 20 years ago and the question arises: Is she the same person now and can we trust her?

Does that mean she could be a dirty cop?

[Chuckles] It’s difficult to talk about an SVU show without giving it away.

Is there any hint of sexual tension still there?

There’s going to be a little bit of that.

Ice-T as Odafin "Fin" Tutuola and Jennifer Esposito as Sergeant Phoebe Baker (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Will Esposito be back?

Anything can happen. She doesn’t die. Of course, in the Wolf Films world, you can come back as another character, like Peter Scanavino and Kelli Giddish have. As for me, I’ve appeared on five Wolf television shows!

Fin doesn’t get much of a romantic life. He had a wife a long time ago and has a son and a grandchild. Would you like a girlfriend for Fin?

The writers tease me saying, “We got to find a girlfriend for you but it can’t be [your wife] Coco! America’s not ready for that.” That would blow everyone’s brain cell out the back of their head!

Coco has appeared on the show. 

She’s been in three episodes. She played a porn star, she was the girlfriend of an MMA fighter — we actually had a scene together — and she played [an entertainer] in another. But they won’t let her be with Fin. I’m cool with that. Also, on a Dick Wolf show, it’s better to just be a cop because if you get more of a personal life, you can end up dying. It would be nice to have someone for a couple of episodes, though.

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How was working with Jennifer Esposito?

She’s wonderful, very laid back. Like Kelli [who plays Det. Amanda Rollins], she’s got a tomboy edge to her. It’s always nice when you get a guest star who comes on, blends in, and is ready to have fun.  You’ve been on our set; everybody’s loose. We get down to business when we have to, but you can’t do this for 20 years and be tense.

Have you worked opposite her before?

No, but when I told her I started on New York Undercover [his first credited TV role in 1995], she goes, “I was on New York Undercover too!”  We were never on the same screen though.

Ice-T as Odafin "Fin" Tutuola, Jennifer Esposito as Sergeant Phoebe Baker (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Do you ever ask for particular storyline for Fin?

I don’t. I just kind of wait every year to see what the f**k is going on in Fin’s life. I don’t steer it; that’s not my job. My job is to do it until directors see what they want to see. I’ve been trying to do that for 20 years and it’s kept me employed.

So how are you celebrating Valentine’s Day this year with Coco?

We usually go out to dinner; sometime dance after that. But now that we got Chanel [their three-year-old daughter] and a new puppy, you have to really plan it out and get a babysitter. My birthday is February 16, so we’ll usually celebrate both at one time.

 

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What’s the most romantic Valentine’s Day present that you’ve given Coco?

In truth, I try to bring Coco unexpected flowers — even from the gas station — any day. Not the kind she says, “What did you do?” [Laughs] I also watch what she looks at that she thinks might be too expensive and I might pop in and get it for her one day. But on Valentine’s Day, we just try to share the love. We don’t really buy gifts.

How has Fin changed over the years? Is he still a Republican?

That was a wild line. I don’t know. The writers know who Ice is, so they try to throw things at Fin that are alternate to Ice’s real life. But I think that Fin is just trying to do the job and stay out of everybody’s business. I'm kind of like the OG in there that's trying to lead the others in the right direction to stay out of trouble.

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Over the years, Olivia Benson, now a lieutenant, has really begun to lean on Fin, hasn’t she?

She counts on him. He’s the backbone of the unit. Olivia knows Fin will get it done.

Describe Mariska Hargitay in a few sentences.

Mariska’s a very, very nice lady. She’s embodied the character of Olivia in her real life, with her foundation Joyful Heart and everything she does for rape survivors. Everybody doesn't get on a television show and become the character. That doesn't happen. But she did and she’ sincere about it, and that’s a beautiful thing. I’m very fortunate to work with her.

What else keeps you on a show for 20 years!

We have fun. When people ask how I can be on a show for so long, I say, “It’s easy.” Everyone on the show is very cool, no one has harsh words and Dick Wolf’s checks clear, so it’s nice work. [Laughs]

Ice-T as Odafin "Fin" Tutuola, Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson, Kelli Giddish as Detective Amanda Rollins (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Years ago, your songs were considered by some to be anti-cop brutality. How have your views changed after playing NYPD for so long?

I know they work hard and they’re underpaid. But I also know, when you play a cop, you realize there is a blue wall. They do cover for each other, and it's kind of like them against the world, and the world against them. They live in a bubble. They go to cop places to eat, they go to cop bars. But cops are people, you’ve got good ones and you’ve got bad ones. And some of them bring their personal issues to the job, like you see on our show when it affects how we handle a case.

I think SVU tries to honestly show all the different dynamics of police and that's important. But it’s always felt it’s kind of a roll of a dice with cops. When one pulls you over, it's like, "Which one did I get today? Did I get the cool one or did I get the a-hole?”

You’ve played a cop on TV for decades, does that affect how you are treated by law enforcement?

That doesn’t matter. I got arrested last month. I was on the George Washington Bridge on the way to work and went through a toll without my EZ Pass card. If you're a celebrity, some cops will be cool. Others are going to try to prove you're not special. Again, it’s a roll of the dice. This time it escalated. I think it was a chance for them to put a little extra on somebody. Fin wouldn't have done it. I’m like Chris Rock, I’m famous at about five feet away. Ten feet, I’m just a n***a. SVU shows that too, because it’s as honest as it can be about judges, police, everybody.

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I have one more question for you. Will we get to see Fin and his old girlfriend in a kiss this week?

You’ve got to wait for that. That would be like “Hold all TV shows. Ice-T has just kissed someone on national television!”

Law & Order: SVU, Thursdays, 10/9c, NBC