She can walk the walk. She can talk the talk. But Kathryn Erbe, one of the stars of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, freely admits that nearly a decade of playing a police detective has yet to rub off on her. In real life, Erbe says, she's still "too much of a wimp." If she were given a badge and gun and dropped off at an actual police station, Erbe estimates that she could blend in and look like she belongs for a few minutes. But it wouldn't take long before she gave herself away as a fraud. "I'd be wondering where the hair and makeup people are and who tells me what to do when the perp is coming at me and who do I hide behind," she says. "I can't even touch what the real guys do every day." Still, she has always been quite good at faking it as Det. Alexandra Eames, longtime partner to Vincent DOnofrio's Det. Robert Goren. Goren and Eames were the original L&O: CI team when the show premiered in 2001, but they went missing in Season 9. Now they're back in what probably will be the farewell season, with episodes airing at 8 p.m. Sundays on USA. "I was devastated not to be doing the part all the way through," Erbe says. "But it's a huge joy to be back."
You were phased out in Season 9, because D'Onofrio wasn't doing Season 9. If it had been your choice, would you have stayed and teamed up with someone else?
"If Vincent wasn't my partner? I probably would have gone on to do it, but I wouldn't have been happy without him. So in hindsight, the way things happened, this is the perfect way for it to have gone down. I don't think that Eames would have been the same without Goren. This is what the audience loves to see and they made it very clear in their feedback: This is the team they wanted to watch."
What was the first day back on the set like?
"It was awesome. I felt actually very emotional being back. I was so glad. But I worried. I didn't know how it was going to be, whether we were going to be rusty or not. But my memory of it is just walking down from my dressing room onto the set, passing one person after another who I've known for 10 years, some longer, and it was really like coming home. It especially felt that way doing the things with Vince. It just was like riding a bike. We have done it for so long. I've now done this show for a quarter of my life. So we just have a shorthand and there's a lot of unspoken communication how we think the things should go. Plus, we have 95 percent of our crew back, really out of loyalty. They left jobs or they waited to come back and do these last eight episodes with us. It just has felt really, really wonderful."
How have you felt over the years about those handful of episodes in which the bad guys get away?
"I loved those, actually. I thought it was always interesting to mix it up a little bit, especially with Nicole Wallace [a frequent villain, played by Olivia d'Abo, who became Goren's arch nemesis]. Those were episodes I really looked forward to. 'What was Wallace going to be up to this time?' I wished that Eames could have been the one to take her down in defense of Goren, protecting him. But it didn't go that way."
When it's all said and done, is there something you'd like to take from the set as a memento?
"When I left the last time, I took what I wanted. I took the picture of my dog, Frieda, which I keep meaning to bring back. When we started shooting this show, the building we used was where they printed the New York Post. The reporters weren't there anymore, but we used a lot of their old paperwork as our prop paperwork. And there were three notebooks from the '50s and '60s in which the reporter kept a record of every expenditure. They were written in this impeccable script and I found them fascinating. I would spend so much time looking through them. I have them now and I'm never going to bring them back. Also, I would like to keep my badge if I could, but that would be illegal."
When the final episode airs, how would you like it to end for your character?
"I'd just really like for her to be happy. I don't want her to be killed. She's had a tough time in little ways here and there over the years. It would be nice for her to wrap everything up being a happier person."