EXCLUSIVE: Meet the 'Law & Order True Crime' Stars Playing TV's Menendez Brothers

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NBC

Law & Order True Crime is taking on the Menendez brothers murder case.

In NBC’s new eight-episode true-crime drama, Edie Falco plays defense attorney Leslie Abramson, who represents Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Erik Menendez (Gus Halper) in the brothers’ trial for the murders of their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez. The brothers were convicted in 1996 of the crime, and Law & Order True Crime attempts to examine why they did it.

For relative newcomers Villanueva and Halper, the road to seeing Law & Order True Crime come to the small screen has been long and arduous. Villanueva, a former Young & the Restless soap star, turned down role of Lyle due to a previous commitment to a play, before the part came back around again months later. Halper first auditioned for Lyle last October (“Right away they said, this is wrong,” he laughed) before re-auditioning for Erik and landing the part in February.

The TV brothers (and real-life pals) jumped on the phone with ET ahead of Tuesday’s series premiere to dish on playing real people, why they’re avoiding the true-crime genre at the moment and the most draining part about playing the Menendez brothers.

ET: How difficult was it to slip into these characters and find that point of connection for you as actors?

Gus Halper: Extremely difficult. Playing a real person, for me, feels like a greater responsibility. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. These guys’ lives were not easy. The story that we’re not telling is not easy. As far as I’m concerned, they endured some of the greatest trauma that a human being can. It’s a really tragic, high-stakes, highly emotional story, so it was really hard. It still is really hard. It hasn’t gotten any easier.

Miles Gaston Villanueva: Daily, weekly and monthly, there were new challenges. It’s so difficult and so challenging in so many difficult ways. It’s amazing how you think one thing is challenging, “OK, we got past that,” but then we’re coming up on filming the actual shooting of the parents and then doing the testimony. Gus and I have high hopes for ourselves and we’re too critical of ourselves, but just because we want to do it justice. But it’s been such an exhausting, daunting, challenging [experience] -- everything you can imagine for this role and this project. Having Gus to talk to and do these things with and to calm each other down, has been such a relief and gift. Could not be doing it without him.

What was the most draining scene or episode to film, emotionally, physically and mentally?

Halper: On Thursday, we did the shooting scene over and over and over. We got different versions. We got every angle.

Villanueva: Fourteen hours.

Halper: The very next day, we did the most intense part of our testimony about the sexual abuse [claims] on the stand. Those two days were enough to make us really sick as dogs.

Villanueva: Yeah, those back-to-back days were it. That takes the cake. We got sick and we’re still recovering, and that was three weeks ago. Still on the mend.

NBC

How much footage did you watch or research did you dive into to prepare yourself?

Halper: There’s no shortage of information about these guys. A lot of trial footage, a lot of documentaries about them, a lot of stuff written about them, so all of it really, as much as you can. You can’t have too much. And then [it’s] trusting the script and trusting the research our writers have done. They’ve spent over a year fleshing everything out, making sure everything’s accurate, uncovering details that maybe haven’t been previously uncovered.

What has it been like working alongside Edie?

Halper: She’s amazing.

Villanueva: Beyond amazing. Capital J.O.Y. It’s amazing how effortlessly talented she is. She does everything with ease, but she also has this incredible conviction and power in her work. She doesn’t make a big deal of these big moments. She just says them with truth and conviction and it just pops. One of the big surprises was how funny she is: her wit and her sense of humor and her quick timing, and I’ve seen that a little bit on Nurse Jackie -- I’ve been watching that [on the side]. The fact that we can make her laugh in between takes, in the midst of really dark material, has been so amazing. She leads by example with the way she treats everyone, so we’re grateful to be watching her everyday. I get why she’s a multiple award-winning, multiple award-nominated actress. She’s so strong and so good.

Are you both fans of the true-crime genre?

Villanueva: I think we’re really into watching comedies these days. (Laughs.) It’s actually hard. We’re part of this world, so watching anything dark and escaping into a dark world on TV, I don’t think I have the energy for it. These days, I’m wanting to watch something lighter or an animated movie or a favorite feel-good movie because we’re in the middle of it all the time. But true-crime is something everyone talks about. I have so many friends and loved ones [who are obsessed]. 

Halper: I was a huge fan of the documentaries. I watched The Jinx, Making a Murderer. I was more [into] the documentary end of the true-crime phase, but when I got the audition for this, I watched the O.J. series [Made in America]. 

What’s in store for these eight episodes? Is it surprising?

Villanueva: You’re going to get layer after layer after layer of the case, the politics surrounding the case, the trial, the behind-the-scenes of the trial, the [brothers’] history and the [alleged] trauma they experienced as young adults. It’s going to be one layer after another peeled away. It’s very complex and week after week, the audience is going to get deep into everything. I’m so curious [to see] how surprised people are going to be, or not, by our story and by what we show them, because it’s very intense. As all the trailers say, it’s the big “why” -- and not about what they did.

Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders premieres Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.