Because of Mariska Hargitay—and her intensely loyal fan base—Law & Order: SVU is now the longest-running drama in TV history. Here, the woman who brought Detective Olivia Benson to life opens up about God, her guy, and grappling with sexual violence both on-screen and off.
Inside a vast warehouse space overlooking the Hudson River in lower Manhattan is a warren of rooms as familiar to millions of TV viewers as their own homes. Outside one is a sign reading “Stage B: Special Victims Unit Courtroom.” It’s here that many of the most climactic scenes are filmed for the show Law & Order: SVU—a police procedural entering its 21st season on September 26, making it the longest-running primetime live-action series in TV history. The premise of the show is explained in voice-over before every episode: “In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” This intro is followed by the satisfying clanking sound of a prison door slamming shut, an audio cue signifying that the crime you are about to witness will not go unpunished.
For Detective Olivia Benson (now Lieutenant Olivia Benson)—played since 1999 by Mariska Hargitay—seeking justice for sexual assault victims is more of a sacred calling than a job. Benson believes the people who come forward to report their rapes, and she takes them seriously. Even if they were drunk. Even if they were wearing a short skirt. Even if they were attacked by a date or an acquaintance or an intimate partner or a family member. And once she’s held their hands through their disclosures and encouraged them to submit rape kit evidence, she hits the streets and follows every lead until she’s found the assailant. She kicks down doors, chases runaway perps, tackles them to the ground, reads them their rights, and testifies powerfully on behalf of their victims in court (on the aforementioned Stage B).
Off-screen, Hargitay is equally powerful. Within a year of taking on the role of Olivia Benson, she underwent training to become a rape crisis counselor in real life. By 2004, she had founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to healing, educating, and empowering survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. Then she started producing—ensuring the issues she wanted addressed made it to the screen. She took on the mantle of executive producer at SVU in 2016, produced the powerful HBO doc I Am Evidence—about America’s shameful backlog of untested rape kits—in 2017, and this year, she co-produced Emanuel, a heart-wrenching documentary about the senseless murder of nine Black worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, by a white supremacist in 2015.
For all these reasons and more, Hargitay has become an icon of female power. Her character on SVU is an example we can all point to of how we want to be treated by the criminal justice system. And her producorial efforts, though only just beginning, already reflect a strong social justice ethic that makes excellent use of her massive platform. Which is why I have found myself in this warren of rooms beside the Hudson River. I’m looking for Mariska Hargitay, because she is exactly the kind of woman who should be on the cover of BUST magazine, and I can’t wait to interview her.
Down the hall from Stage B: Special Victims Unit Courtroom, and Stage A: Special Victims Unit Precinct, through a maze-like succession of doors and corridors, is Hargitay’s dressing room, though to call it that does it a disservice. The space is basically an efficiency apartment, with a room for makeup and hair, a small dining table, a corner housing a cute little trampoline, and a swank purple living room set surrounded by framed photos, artwork, feminist books, and a few Wonder Woman figurines. I’m setting my recorder up on the velvety couch when Hargitay, 55, emerges from a lofted meditation area I didn’t even realize was there. She looks effortlessly chic in gray slacks and a white peasant blouse. Her hair is loose around her shoulders, her smile is warm and genuine. Around her neck is a delicate gold chain hung with tiny gold charms that spell out M-A-A-A-P. I ask if the letters stand for the members of her family: Mariska, her 13-year-old son August, her 8-year-old daughter Amaya, her 8-year-old son Andrew (both Amaya and Andrew were adopted in 2011), and her husband of 15 years, actor Peter Hermann (whom she met on the set of SVU). She nods yes.
We sit side-by-side on the purple sofa, and all at once, our conversation takes off like a rocket. I have my notes of what I’d like to talk about, but Hargitay brought her own notes as well, and there is a lot she wants to tell me. “I’m in a very big time in my life here,” she says, leaning forward and making serious eye contact. “I’ve been co-producing this movie, Emanuel, that I’m so very passionate about, so my head is very in that movie right now.”
I let her know that I watched a press screener of the film at home before our interview, and that I cried so much, my cat came over and put a comforting paw on my leg. It’s a weird thing for me to say, but Hargitay just rolls with it. “I just went to see it in the theater,” she replies. “After the movie ended, a woman stood up and said, ‘Would anybody like to pray?’ About 15 people in her row stood, and then slowly, 16, 17, 18…. I was with my husband. We [had our first date] in church and God is a huge part of our lives. So we stood there, holding hands with strangers, and we prayed. Aside from my children and my marriage, it was one of the top five most beautiful things that I’ve ever witnessed in terms of humanity. It was spectacular. It was stunning.”
Her huge brown eyes get wet with tears and mine get a little misty, too, as I imagine the scene she’s describing. I look down at my recorder and report that we’re only six minutes into our interview and already we’re both crying. This makes us both laugh. But in all seriousness, I suggest that the times in which we are living are provocative in so many ways, folks are carrying a lot of emotions close to the surface. “I have to say, I believe with everything I am and feel that that is our superpower,” she says. “For me, my vulnerability, my ability to sit in the pain, is where healing begins. It’s where our strength comes from. We build tolerance for the painful things in our lives like we build muscles—because the only way out is through.”
It’s difficult not to think about Hargitay’s childhood when she speaks so candidly about moving through trauma. The daughter of 1950s Hollywood bombshell Jayne Mansfield and Hungarian bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay, Mariska’s parents split the year she was born. Then in 1967, when Mariska was only three, Mansfield, her boyfriend Sam Brody, her dog, and their driver were all killed in a terrible car wreck outside New Orleans. Mariska and her brothers Miklós and Zoltán were asleep in the back seat of the car at the time, and all escaped with minor injuries. But the emotional scars are perhaps one reason why Hargitay found herself so attuned to the suffering of others after taking on the role of Olivia Benson in 1999.
“When SVU first started airing,” she explains, “I had just been on ER [from 1997 to 1998], which was, up to that time, the most popular show I’d ever been on. I’d get letters like, ‘Oh my God, what’s it like working with George Clooney? Can I get an autographed picture?’ So I’d sign pictures. But [on SVU] the fan mail was from women disclosing their stories of abuse, many for the first time. I was like, I don’t know what to do. I had to educate myself. I joined the Board of [the victim services nonprofit] Safe Horizon, and I joined SAVI [the Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention program] and I became a rape crisis counselor. I joined all these organizations that were already doing the work and asked, ‘Can you help me? How do I respond?’ That’s how I started the Joyful Heart Foundation. I felt like I needed to build out a response with some structure where I could actually do something. Because [acting on] the show is one thing, but how do we change all of this? My idea was to put the smartest people together and start a think tank.”
“For me, my vulnerability, my ability to sit in the pain, is where healing begins. It’s where our strength comes from.”
At this point, I’m honestly not sure I’m hearing Hargitay correctly. Did she really start an entire foundation to address the mail that came pouring in to a TV show? “Yeah,” she replies, as if it was the most natural decision in the world. “I had hired a bunch of therapists and rape crisis counselors at the beginning. I hired them to help me respond [to the letters] because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I was like, ‘I can’t respond, I don’t know what to say other than I’m so sorry that happened to you.’ I got a website and the letters just kept pouring in, and obviously, with the statistics of women and men that are being assaulted—1 in 4 women by their 18th birthday, 1 in 3 women in their lifetime, 1 in 6 men—there was just no way I could respond to everyone. There are not enough hours in the day. But I could do something on a larger scale, and form an organization that is about survivors, and about healing and creating responses to these issues.”
“Listen,” she continues, “it’s a different time than it was 20 years ago [when SVU began]. There’s the internet, and #MeToo, and #TimesUp! It’s so exciting. When we started SVU, nobody was talking about [sexual assault]. It was swept under the carpet. People were writing me letters because they weren’t being believed. But over these last 20 years, brave women and men have been coming forward and telling their stories—it’s been a symphony of change and all these cracks. And with the cracks, all this light has come through.”
I mention that a lot of these reckonings that are coming to the surface now are connected to anger surrounding where we are politically. We have a president in office who has been accused of assaulting multiple women. He brags about grabbing people by the pussy while his party pursues extreme anti-abortion legislation. In light of this, I’m curious how Hargitay is personally experiencing the Trump administration and the run-up to the next election.
“It’s painful,” she says. “I’m not understanding how people are compartmentalizing his political agenda versus how he treats women. There’s a ginormous disconnect. I was listening to the podcast The Daily and they were discussing the latest Trump rally. I was trying to be open to what these people have to say. But it’s just heartbreaking. I understand some people like Trump’s agenda, but he’s selling something, and he’s a salesman like nobody’s business. I want a new president. I want a leader who will soothe this country and unite people. I want this country to heal. Women are not being treated with respect and compassion. That’s where we need to get as a society.”
This is when I ask Hargitay if she considers herself a feminist, and, though she obviously fits the bill in every way, her answer is not what I expect. “Sure, sure I do,” she replies. “I’m all about and for women. But do I call myself that?” I nod. I wait. “Well, other people call me that, and I welcome the title, but as opposed to what? You see what I’m saying? Opposed to what? I’m a personist. Am I a feminist? Yes. Do I promote and support women? You bet I do. Do I think that women’s voices need and deserve to be elevated? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Am I grateful for badasses like this?” She picks up a copy of Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road from the coffee table in front of us and holds it to her chest. “Am I grateful for her leading the way? Yes. Do I want to follow in her footsteps? Yes. Yes I do. What I’m not interested in is a divide. What I’m interested in, is figuring out through heart, through compassion, through non-judgment, and through tolerance, how we can get closer together.”
I suggest that perhaps feminism has a PR problem, and express my desire for the movement to be viewed as something that helps everyone, because toxic masculinity hurts everyone. Hargitay nods emphatically and jumps back in. “There’s a lot of toxic masculinity,” she agrees. “But I’ve been called [a feminist] in a very derogatory way. People have said, ‘Oh what are you, one of those?’ Because they’re scared of it. They’re scared of losing power. People don’t understand compassion is power. I feel like a very powerful person. But I feel powerful probably not because of the reasons people think that one is powerful. I feel like compassion is my superpower. I feel that empathy is my superpower. I feel that curiosity is my superpower. I feel like connection is my superpower.”
“I feel like charisma is your superpower!” I say. “You draw people in.”
“That’s what my husband says about me!” Hargitay replies, and laughs in a way that somehow turns into a blush. Then she gets up and grabs a framed photo from the other room to show me. It’s a black-and-white portrait of Hargitay’s face in profile with words typed over it with a typewriter. She explains that her husband made it for her as a gift, and as I look closer, she beams. “You’re very hot,” it says under her right eye. The sentence, “Your laughter has magical healing properties,” crawls from her right ear, across her cheekbone, to the bridge of her nose. From her jaw to her upper lip are typed the words, “You persevere, you follow through.” The bottom of her jaw reads, “You are loyal.” And on the very tip of her chin is typed, “I loves you.”
This sweet moment is followed by selfies—both with my phone and with Hargitay’s—a quick peek into her meditation loft (which is outfitted with white fuzzy furnishings and doused in natural light), and an offer for me to come back again once the show starts production for Season 21. Hargitay is gracious, she gives me a big, warm hug, and then she’s gone.
A month later, I’m back at SVU HQ. The empty halls I had been nosily poking around before are now literally teeming with lights, cameras, and plenty of action. Extras in cop uniforms peruse a catering table fully stocked with bagels and shmears, costume racks loaded with medical scrubs are stationed outside dressing rooms, and through the door marked Stage A: Special Victims Unit Precinct, is a fully realized police department. I recognize the hallway where suspects are brought in for questioning and the NYPD shield adorning the black cinderblock wall.
The day’s filming is taking place in Hargitay’s character’s office, where her colleagues Amanda Rollins (played by Kelli Giddish) and Fin Tutuola (played by Ice-T) are updating their commanding officer on the status of a rape case. The scene seems simple enough to me as I settle into a chair behind about a dozen writers, producers, and assistants, all of whom are watching video monitors. But I soon realize why less than five minutes of exposition can take over an hour to film.
The scene needs to include close-ups of Benson, Rollins, and Tutuola—each of which is filmed separately. Plus, when she enters the scene, Benson is carrying coffee, a purse, and sunglasses. So, for continuity, each item in her hands needs to be placed in exactly the same spot each time. Hargitay is genial and good-natured with everyone on set, yet she is also undeniably in charge. As both the executive producer and star, it’s clear that she’s not about to do anything she doesn’t want to do. So when the episode’s director gives her an acting note, he approaches her with the deference one would give their boss. Hargitay receives his input enthusiastically. “Good note!” she replies. “Thanks! You’re the best!” But then on the next take, she has trouble remembering the name of a restaurant in the script—a place called “Clemente’s”—and ends up calling it “Clonazepam’s.” Next time around, she calls the bistro “Klonopin’s.” The folks in the monitor room laugh, all the actors laugh, and then everyone slips back into character. Things go well on the next take, and then it’s time for a break.
“I feel like compassion is my superpower.”
“I’m sweating balls!” Hargitay exclaims as she bursts into the room with the monitors. Out of nowhere, a young man pops up from behind her and hands her a bottle of water. When Hargitay sees me, she comes right over and I thank her effusively for inviting me to the set. Hargitay whips out her phone and starts showing me snaps from her BUST photo shoot that had happened the week before. Soon three other women who had previously been staring at the monitors are gathered around pointing out their favorite looks.
I ask Hargitay which photos she likes best, and she replies, “I like the pictures where I look genuinely like myself.” I agree and note that though our photographer, Victoria Will, also shot Hargitay for People recently, the vibes from the two shoots strike me as entirely different. “They are really different,” she says, her eyes crinkling as she smiles. “Doing a shoot for People is like doing network TV. But then doing a cover for BUST…BUST is like cable.” I tell her I couldn’t agree more.
By Emily Rems - @emilyrems
Photographed by Victoria Will
Styled by Lara Backmender (Honey Artists) // Makeup by Dina Sliwiak // Hair by Cassi Hurd // Nails by Kana Kishita using Dior // Set design by Gregory Powell // Stylist's assistant: Nakia Pleasant // Fashion intern: Cassi Alexander
Top photo: Denim Jumpsuit by Frame // Earrings and necklace by Laura Lombardi // Rings by Jennifer Fisher // Bracelet by Loren Stewart
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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