How S. Epatha Merkerson, Actor, Spends Her Sundays

The actor S. Epatha Merkerson is perhaps best known for her 17 consecutive seasons as Lt. Anita van Buren on the “Law & Order” franchise. But she has held many stage, film and TV roles over her nearly 50-year career, ranging from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” to “Lincoln” and “The Piano Lesson,” and has won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and several NAACP Image Awards.

This time of year, she usually spends weekends commuting between her two-bedroom condo in Harlem and Chicago, where “Chicago Med,” the NBC medical drama in which she now stars, is filmed. Until the SAG-AFTRA strike is settled, though, Ms. Merkerson, 70, doesn’t mind staying home. “During the week I’m always running around, taking care of some kind of business,” she said. “Sundays give me a chance to just breathe.”

APPOINTMENT TV I’m not an early riser — I’m still a night person from my theater days — so I might get up at 9 or 10 a.m., and the first thing I like to do is have a cup of coffee. It’s the only time during the day I drink coffee. I love to watch the “CBS Sunday Morning” show with Jane Pauley. I might miss half an hour of it because I was sleeping, but I’ll watch as much as I can.

REPURPOSED ROOM I’ll take my coffee and walk into the room where all my sewing equipment is. Let’s say it’s the primary bedroom in the apartment. I added a Murphy bed to it specifically for my mom when she came to visit from Detroit, but I lost her last year, three months shy of her 96th birthday. So the thing I do now is, when the Murphy bed is up, I use the back of it to put my quilt pieces on, so I can see them. I also have my sewing machine in there, and I had a big table made so I could cut the fabric and assemble things.

Ms. Merkerson still considers herself a novice quilter, but has turned a large bedroom into a sewing room.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

SELF-TAUGHT When we were kids my mother used to sew all the time. She was always trying to get me to the sewing machine or to do things in the kitchen, but I didn’t do either of those things. Then I went to college. When you go to college, you’re broke. So I would get a bunch of remnant fabric, and I taught myself to sew. By the time I got to New York in my mid-20s, I was sewing all my own clothes.

Then these two friends of mine were having a baby, and I took some fabric and made a quilt. Those two friends were Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson. The quilt was for their daughter, Zoe. They still have it. I’ve gotten a little better at quilting since then, but I’m still very much a novice. A lot of young people on “Chicago Med” are getting married and starting families, so in the past three years I’ve probably made 10 quilts. The first one was for Colin Donnell and his wife, Patti Murin, for their firstborn. People take pictures of the babies with the quilts and send them to me.

Audiobooks are her soundtrack. “It took me a while to figure out how to listen and work at the same time,” she said, “but now I love it.”Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

NARRATION OR NOTHING I will work all day on a quilt. One of the things I’ve taught myself to do while I’m working in there is to listen to books. I just finished listening to “The House of Eve” by Sadeqa Johnson, and that was a great story. So was “Hello Beautiful,” by Ann Napolitano. One of the things I’ve learned is that if the narrator isn’t good you lose the thread. The narrators for both those books were good.

If I’m not listening to books, it can be completely, absolutely silent, and I love that, too, because your hands are moving and you’re busy, but you can just sit in your mind and work over things you’ve been thinking about. Then, when it’s done, you’ve also created something.

BFF I might go to brunch on a Sunday with my best friend in the whole world, Rockell Metcalf. Rockell knows my entire family. For years he has come with me to Detroit for Thanksgiving dinner. We might go to a little restaurant right up the street called Lido. Sometimes we’ll go to Balthazar or the Redeye Grill. I don’t eat much before then — I’m not a big breakfast person — but I might have a hard-boiled egg and some toast just to take my medicine. I’m diabetic, Type 2.

APRON STRINGS If I’m not going to brunch, I’ll try to eat something around two or three. What I learned during the pandemic is, I like the kitchen. I’ve been cooking more than I ever have in the past 60 years. I like the slow cooker. I’ll do oxtails in there, and I just got an air fryer, so I’ll do chicken wings in there. I’ve been baking as well: peach cobblers and blueberry cobblers and German chocolate cake.

Ms. Merkerson has only recently come to enjoy cooking and baking.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

SCRIPTED LINES, PICKET LINES If I’m working the following week, I might use my time on a Sunday to learn my lines for the scenes I have coming up. I’ll read the script and learn how the character is involved and then walk around the house repeating my lines. Because it’s “Chicago Med,” I may have to learn a medical term: how it’s used, the phonetic breakdown. I hate that we’re on strike, because it’s going to affect so many people. A lot of people don’t understand. They think it’s just the actors, because that’s all they hear about. But there are so many people who depend on these SAG jobs. Still, I am content, and I’m taking advantage of this time to be home, in a place that’s really comfortable for me, doing the things I enjoy doing.

UNHURRIED, UNWORRIED I might cook for friends for Sunday dinner. I have two friends who are professors at Columbia, and then I have my director friends who may come by. But I really don’t mind spending my Sunday by myself. I’ll hop in the shower before I go to bed at around midnight or 1 a.m. Maybe I’ll watch some TV or a movie or read a book first. It doesn’t matter. Sundays are slow. I just like to take it really slow.

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