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'Law & Order: SVU's' Maurice Compte: Boundaries between good and bad can be 'blurry'

Compte plays Capt. Mike Duarte on the 24th season of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
Maurice Compte as Mike Duarte on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
Maurice Compte as Mike Duarte on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."Michael Greenberg / NBC

Police dramas often define a clear line between good and bad. But Cuban American actor Maurice Compte, who plays Capt. Mike Duarte on the 24th season of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” says the policemen and gang members he grew up with make that line more blurry in real life.

Compte was born in New Orleans and grew up in Miami during the 1980s on Fourth Street and 27th Avenue, which is near the famed Calle Ocho in the predominantly Cuban American neighborhood of Little Havana. 

The actor told NBC News that he knew both policemen and gang members — some of whom he said were in the Latin Kings. Beyond the imaginary TV line that divides characters into good and bad, there's a more complicated reality that drives both sides to belong to a community, he said.

“At its best, I understood why they were doing it,” Compte said, referring to the gang members that he knew from his neighborhood. “Because they were being marginalized by society and they were being kicked out everywhere and all they had was each other. It was just a natural formation. But there are a lot of dark factors.”

The Jan. 5 episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” titled “Jumped In,” introduced Duarte, the commanding officer of a gang unit in the Bronx, as he took a case after Captain Olivia Benson, played by the prime-time drama’s star Mariska Hargitay, became the target of a gang leader.

In the episode “Soldier Up,” airing Thursday on NBC (NBC News and NBC are part of NBCUniversal), Duarte will reveal a shocking piece of evidence in that case, while Benson tries to help the gang member who attacked her.

On “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Compte described his character as a “cop who grew up in a rough neighborhood” that also felt like “a loving home.” The actor said that viewers are invested in police stories because the shows can make them feel safe and cared for.

“I hear so many people that watch the show when they’re sick or when they’re not feeling well. It’s kind of heavy content, but somehow they end up feeling better watching it. And I think that’s kind of a tribute to Mariska (Hargitay),” he said.

Compte is known for TV roles in crime dramas like “Narcos,” “Power,” “Mayans M.C.,” “In the Dark” and “Breaking Bad.” He has also appeared in small roles on the big screen, including the 2000 biopic “Before Night Falls” about the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, and Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” 

Compte said that police dramas often follow a basic formula that can resemble the storyline of a classic Western movie, where cowboys wearing white hats are pitted against outlaws wearing black hats. While reality tends to be much grayer, fans can get the satisfaction of a resolved case. 

“I think it really is taking an internal dialogue and putting it up on the screen,” he said. “We like things clear-cut. Things aren’t always clear-cut in life. But that’s the reason we can start an episode and 55 minutes later come to a resolution.”

Beneath this simple formula, however, Compte said viewers can also get a deeper understanding of life that could push their boundaries of good and bad. 

“I think a lot of the characters, whether they’re on the right side or on the wrong side of the law, they’re basically there because they think that whatever it is they’re doing, it’s going to bring them some sense of joy, some sense of satisfaction, and some sense of belonging,” he said. 

Off camera, Compte had a unique view of that blurry line between good and bad through the experiences of his father, Roman Compte— a Cuban exile who had been a CIA operative and the general manager of The Mutiny Hotel in Miami, which was reputed as a notorious hot spot for cocaine trafficking in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Mutiny Hotel attracted businessmen, politicians, international narcos, government agents and celebrities. Compte described it as “the ground zero for all the cocaine cowboys and everything that occurred in Miami, whether it was the savings and loans scandal or the beginning of the War on Drugs or the Noriega-Oliver North conflict with the Sandinistas."

An eight-episode series featuring the story of Compte’s father will be released in 2023 on the cable and satellite television network Epix, which was rebranded in January as MGM+ by its owner Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM).