Stephanie March was 11 years old when I met her. She was pale and tall and bookish, with the posture of a Victorian schoolmarm. We were in sixth grade together at McCulloch Middle School in Highland Park, and Stephanie was the little girl adults always praised for her "maturity," the little girl who waited patiently with her book open while the boys around her made underarm noises. She was the kid you figured would grow up to become a teacher or an architect, a lawyer even. And in a way, she is. She’s a lawyer on television. And sometimes, on the subway, people ask her for legal advice. After all, she has picked up a few pointers from three and a half seasons on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. "If the police want your DNA," she once told me, "be careful what you drink at the station. They’ll use your saliva as voluntary evidence." I’m not saying she’d be my first call after an arrest; I’m saying she’d make the short list.
After two years off from television—during which time she married celebrity chef Bobby Flay—Stephanie is back on primetime in NBC’s Conviction, a Friday night drama about young lawyers in which she reprises her SVU role, hotheaded assistant district attorney Alexandra Cabot. "Nobody ever asks me if I like her," Stephanie told me once, "and I always wonder why. She’s so different from me, you know?" For one thing, I doubt Alex Cabot would run around in public in her bra and panties, like Stephanie and I once did at Fountain Place, in downtown Dallas. Second, Alex Cabot probably doesn’t like tequila nearly as much.
At Highland Park High School in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Stephanie and I became close friends. We were typical honors students—which is to say we were unpopular, which is to say we were fairly miserable—filling up our extra time with drama and choir and the literary journal. (In her sophomore year, Stephanie had a computer class with then senior Angie Harmon, a woman whose career would strangely parallel her own. They didn’t speak two words to each other.) Stephanie and I had a mild rebellious streak, and on weekends, we’d take our fake IDs to Taco Cabana and drink margaritas until we were pink-faced and quoting Monty Python. Or we’d go to the park and share a pack of Marlboro Lights. We were like most other suburban kids, driving around in her mother’s Mercury Sable with no end point in mind, trying to burn up time till we’d be older, cooler. Sometimes, we’d just kill an evening at the Black-eyed Pea. Free refills on Diet Coke, you know?
Over the years, the prim little sixth-grader turned into something of a superfox. It wasn’t just that she was pretty, or that she had a body that could conservatively be called slammin’. It wasn’t just the way she pouted her lips and strutted down the hallway in knee-length black boots. She just seemed—I don’t know—older than the rest of us. Even at 17, she looked 35. This came in handy when we needed to buy beer. And it made her a natural for the stage. In our junior year, she pulled off a role as Queen Elizabeth with nothing but some age makeup and shoe polish in her hair, while the rest of us announced our adolescence like a nagging cough. This quality was not lost on the male population, and guys—popular guys, guys who dated the homecoming queen—began to start conversations with me. It didn’t take long to realize these all would end in the same place. "So, you know Stephanie March? What’s she like?" Even as a senior in high school, she was kind of a celebrity.
When she landed a role on television, it wasn’t a surprise. But the fact that the role was a hardnosed Ivy League lawyer was a bit of a trip. After all, this was the same girl who bought Point Break because she was so in love with Keanu Reeves. And there she was on my television each Friday night in sassy Robert Marc glasses and serious heels, reducing perverts in the courtroom to blubbering confessions, snapping at the detectives to get their jobs done. Sometimes, I felt the need to call her afterward and discuss what happened. "Dude! You just totally chewed out Ice-T!"
CONVICTION IS FILMED IN A STUDIO IN QUEENS, New York, about an hour’s drive from where Stephanie lives in the Chelsea section of Manhattan (in the same building as Law & Order’s Sam Waterston, for the trivia buffs). It’s the same set that was used for last year’s Law & Order: Trial By Jury, and very little about it has changed, including the desk calendars, which all date from 2005. Trial by Jury was the first flop in the Law & Order franchise, and though no one knows exactly why it failed, conventional wisdom is that, after three network series and approximately a bajillion reruns on TNT and the USA Network (and, now, Bravo), Law & Order had finally reached its saturation point. Anyone involved with Conviction is quick to point out that, although the show is by the same creator, Dick Wolf, it is not a "Law & Order show." Conviction is about young lawyers and their tumultuous private lives, a bit like Grey’s Anatomy for the legal set.
After a brief rehearsal for this afternoon’s shoot, I meet Stephanie in her character’s office. "Do you like what I’ve done with the place?" she asks, gesturing grandly to blank walls and bleak lighting.
"You got the biggest office," I whisper, giving her a high-five. "Score!"
She directs my attention to a blanket tossed over the couch. It’s embossed with something I can’t make out, something T-shaped. "It’s my scales-of-justice throw," she says, clapping her hands together proudly. "It’s my favorite prop."
It’s a diva fantasy to be waited on like this, but like most fantasies, it isn’t nearly as delightful as you might think. As the afternoon drags on, it starts to wear on Stephanie. She’s like a party hostess flagging as the last guests refuse to leave. "It can be hard to have people touching you all day, needing things from you, fixing your hair," she says. "I’m a pretty private person. If I’m not on set, I’m pretty much in here, reading." Unanswered fan mail lies in a pile near the coffee table in her dressing room. Books are scattered throughout. She’s a fast reader; I’ve given her a novel before only to get a call that night, telling me she how much she loved it. What else is there to do in here? The other day at 2 am she put half a dozen ginger snaps in her mouth to see if she could do it. "I mean, what the hell? It’s 2 am. I’m still at work. I got curious."
Her dressing room is nearly as bare as her fake office on-set. "I’m waiting to find out if we get picked up before I decorate," she says, and raps on the table. Stephanie has always been horribly superstitious, and the mention of anything important causes her to knock on wood. This makes it amusing to talk about important things where no wood is present—in a car, perhaps, or a big pool.
Anyway, what Stephanie’s talking about is the uncertain fate of Conviction. NBC has ordered 13 episodes, but even Trial by Jury was pulled after 11. You just never know. She’s been in projects that flopped and some that caved altogether. She spent six months on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith only to end up in a handful of scenes. "I made it onscreen more than Angela Bassett and Terence Stamp," she says, shrugging. Their parts were cut entirely, but that’s just the way it goes with these things. Sometimes, it’s just pure dumb luck. And she knows she’s lucky just to be here.
She moved to New York in 1999, after a production of Death of a Salesman at Chicago’s Goodman Theater wound up on Broadway, winning a slew of national press and Tonys. She had a small role, as Miss Forsythe, but it was enough to take her from Chi-town, where she studied drama at Northwestern, to the city she’d longed to make home. About a year later, she landed the role on SVU, which, along with her startling classic beauty, earned her all sorts of fashion spreads. Her face started popping up in the strangest places. InStyle Magazine, Maxim, some tabloid show where they accompanied her to a spa. Once, I was driving through the Yukon when I saw her on the cover of a Canadian magazine. The poor clerk. I screamed at him, "I know her!" Then I knocked over a display of chocolate roses.
I can’t say I was always so excited by her success. I spent a ridiculous amount of energy in high school racking up petty jealousies. Her beauty has always been so effortless, and I have always been the kid with four different sizes in her closet at any given time. I competed against Stephanie for better parts in plays, for better grades, for more laughs at the lunch table. In the end, it came out pretty even. We even graduated side by side in class ranking. But it never felt that way to me. Because to me, she still commanded all the sunshine, and I was the girl beside her—cracking jokes, spinning my wheels—hoping to get a little scrap of light.
I think Stephanie is genuinely surprised I ever felt this way. She was a messed-up kid, full of secret sorrow, but it took me awhile to understand that. We might have cried about it over Bud Lights in a dark park after midnight, and I might have told her I got it, but I didn’t really.
Long after high school, longer than I would like to admit, I visited her in New York and broke down about all this. I had been depressed and had come up to visit her, hoping to lift my spirits. But watching people gawk at her in the streets, watching every man’s head swivel as she passed, it underscored how miserable I felt about myself. "Do you know how hard it is just to walk down the street with you?" I asked her one night, pathetically wiping away tears. I still don’t know how you’re supposed to respond to that—"When I’m with you, I hate myself"—but I do know that after the whole thing, I felt better. She hugged me, and probably cried a little bit, and we didn’t talk about how she understood, because she didn’t, and we didn’t talk about her long legs or her flat stomach, because they weren’t as important as why I persisted in judging myself, solely and stubbornly, against them. We never spoke of that conversation again, although someday I’d like to read a story where she tells it from her perspective. It probably involves me getting a lot of snot on her.
The next morning the car service picked her up at 5 am to drive her to the SVU studio in New Jersey. Back then, Stephanie lived across from Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, and in the morning, before the nannies clogged the streets with a million strollers, it was so quiet and still you could almost believe you weren’t in New York. That’s when I heard the cry: "Help! Somebody help me!"
The apartment was on a fourth floor walk-up, not exactly convenient to save lives, but could I really ignore that? Then it came again. "Help! Somebody help me!" I pulled on my sweatpants and headed for the door. Then I heard: "Cut!"
When I finally went downstairs for a bagel, I saw the Law & Order vans parked up and down the street. In a town of 8 million people, everyone’s got a story like that.
ON A BRISK NIGHT IN JANUARY, STEPHANIE AND I are walking to the Levee, a dive bar near my Brooklyn apartment, when I spy something in the window. "A Lone Star beer sign!"
She softens like I just pointed out a puppy dog. "Awww. It’s such a nice shape," she says of the neon Texas, as if considering it for the first time. "Think about people in Pennsylvania. They don’t have signs like that. Think about people in Hawaii. How awful is their sign?"
Inside, she orders a Texas two-step—a Lone Star beer with a chaser of tequila—and we sidle up into a corner booth near the pool tables. It’s funny how much we talked about wanting to leave Texas when we were kids and yet how often we talk, now, about missing it.
"It’s like Texas is my mother and New York is the love of my life," she says. "I’ll always be longing for Texas." She talks about being sad that she probably won’t raise her kids in Texas. That they won’t know the blistering summers, the way an egg can fry right on the street. They won’t have chili and tamales at every party they go to.
In high school, we were so against everything—against country music, against cowboy boots and jeans, against football and rich people and all the redneck, red-meat associations that came from being a part of the Lone Star State. As we grew older and moved farther away, we tempered all that kneejerking. We’d give anything tonight for a bowl of queso and some frozen margaritas, some Willie on the jukebox. These days, Stephanie’s mom and her stepfather Bob live in San Angelo, where she visits three or four times a year. Last Christmas, she and Bobby went to a party where rich women in Manolo Blahniks ate barbecue from a buffet line. That’s the kind of stuff she loves. "Texas is just special," she says. "And if I tell Bobby that one more time, his head is gonna fly off."
Around midnight her phone rings. "You don’t mind if I check this do you?" she asks, knowing exactly who it is.
It was about five years ago Stephanie began dating Bobby Flay. They had been set up, at his request, by Stephanie’s co-star on SVU, Mariska Hargitay. At the time, I’d never seen his shows, never read his books, never eaten at his restaurants. But I’d heard one thing: he was kind of a jerk.
It wouldn’t be the first time a good friend had dated a jerk. (It wouldn’t be the first time Stephanie had, either.) At the time, I was still living in Dallas, and we’d go out whenever they both came to town—for Dean Fearing’s summer barbecue or for the Breeders’ Cup—and Bobby and I began jawing with each other. He was reserved at first, but after a while, I discovered ways to crack him up, and I suspect the way to his heart—or, at least, an alternate route—is a good sense of humor. Now, when I see him, I like to greet him different ways. "Hey, you’re not Mario Batali!" Or: "I’m so gonna blog about meeting Danny Bonaduce." He laughs generously at this—which is, as it turns out, the way to my heart.
"He’s a slow burn," Stephanie says. "He saves the best of himself for the people he loves." For a present one year, he gave her a menu item at his new restaurant, Bar Americain. Miss Stephanie’s Biscuits and Gravy is a tip of the hat to his wife’s beloved Southern heritage, although he’s still perfecting the recipe. ("He doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t put onions in cream gravy," she says. "But I tell him you just don’t.") On Thanksgiving he made dinner for a group of us at their apartment. It was probably the nicest, warmest day I’ve had since I moved to New York. And the girls beat the guys in Trivial Pursuit.
Last time Stephanie and I went out in Brooklyn, we stayed out a bit too long. By the time I started prank-calling her husband, she did me the favor of walking me back to my apartment, tucking me into bed, and leaving a sweet note on my kitchen counter that made me feel less like an idiot when I woke the next morning.
Tonight, we leave the Levee with all our wits about us. As we’re signing out the bill, a scruffy college kid comes up to her. "I need you to settle a bet," he says. "You’re not, like, the woman from Law & Order are you?"
She puts on her trademark glasses and sticks out her hand. "Yup."
He bangs the end of the bar. "Daammn!" He turns back to his friend. "You win." He throws up his hands in exasperation and laughs. "I just didn’t think the woman from Law & Order would be at, like, the Levee bar in Brooklyn on a Tuesday night."
That’s where he was wrong. She gives him a big smile. "But, see, I’m from Texas."