American television’s pantheon of prime-time goddesses is, by some accounts, a modern construct. Women such as Tea Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord in Madam Secretary and Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife, who are defined by strength of character more than simply gender.
But both those women, and their peers, have a forebear, a woman who was defining feminine strength long before the so-called present golden age of prime-time television. Her name is Olivia Benson and she’s played by Mariska Hargitay. For more than 350 hours of television she has been the star of the seemingly indestructible Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Though the male/female partnership concept is not new, what made creator Dick Wolf’s interpretation so distinct was that Benson and her then-partner, Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), were not shoehorned into the cliche of unresolved sexual tension. Rarely, and powerfully, they were presented as genuine equals. That partnership lasted 272 episodes.
“I know Dick cast me because I was strong and this was a very empathetic character, but I think that she has grown in to what she is now, I think I’ve grown her if you will, and that’s what’s interesting about it,” Hargitay explains to The Guide. “I wanted to make her tough but also empathetic and compassionate … I thought they were such important things.”
For Hargitay, what mattered was that Olivia Benson was a “very strong, a very three dimensional character. Take no prisoners but empathetic and flawed and complex. This is a person who thinks outside the box and so is Dick Wolf and so am I. It’s been a beautiful evolution.”
The peculiarly dark nature of Special Victims Unit – it focuses on violent sex crimes – makes it a tough platform for storytelling. In some 16 years, however, actress and character have fused in an unusual way. Hargitay has, in her own life, become an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, creating a foundation named Joyful Heart.
It began, she explains, when she was researching the role. “I was trying to figure out how to best serve and play this role and how to best inform myself and how to best deal with these crimes,” she says. “By educating myself and learning the statistics I was just so horrified, I was so in shock. I just remember my jaw dropping.”
After shock, she says, came anger. “I was so enraged that this was something that was going on in our society and in our culture and in our world and that people just weren’t talking about it,” she says. “The show was a platform for me to effect change. And with people disclosing to me their stories of abuse, I realised there was indeed an epidemic.”
One of the many empowering aspects of Hargitay’s performance is in some respects the least overtly stated. At the age of 50, she is in an age bracket when, historically, actresses struggle to own high-profile real estate in the television schedule.
“It’s been liberating for women because I think late forties and early fifties is when women are really connected to their fearlessness and look at life differently, [we] have all this beautiful wisdom to draw from, to make even better decisions,” Hargitay says.
“It’s been beautiful for me to have this evolution on television,” she adds. “It’s been beautiful to grow this woman up and to be this character that we’ve all watched earn her place, right? And it’s been a very exciting journey and I hope an inspirational one for people.”
Hargitay was born in 1964 into the most of Hollywood of showbusiness dynasties. Her father was the Hungarian-born bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. Her mother the iconic sex symbol Jayne Mansfield. The subject is a sensitive one for Hargitay and despite the passage of time her mother remains a powerful figure in her personal life.
“I think she has influenced me in more ways than I know,” Hargitay says. “She was such a pioneer, she was a woman before her time, and she was doing things that nobody else was doing. Being a movie star and having five kids, and sort of living out loud and being fearless and breaking all the rules.
“She was somebody that beat to her own drum and was such a free spirit and I really admire that,” Hargitay adds. “Not to say that it was easy, but she was ambitious and wanted so much of life, and had a huge appetite for it. I think I’m like that a lot. And I think obviously she gave me the idea to be an actor which is a career that I have fallen madly in love with.
“She had a love for family and a love for children,” Hargitay says. “She was a compassionate woman, an empathetic woman, but again somebody who did it the way she wanted to and by her own design, especially at the beginning. She was somebody who had big dreams and followed them. That’s pretty inspiring to me.”
In the 16 or so years that Hargitay has starred in Law & Order, the cast has shifted dynamically around her. Her longtime collaborator, Christopher Meloni, departed the series in 2011. The show’s other senior detective is now Odafin Tutuola, played by Ice-T. In that time, however, there has been one unchanging constant: the show’s creator Dick Wolf.
“Dick surrounds himself with passionate people who are committed and who are artists, so he hires great people and then he trusts them, which is part of his success,” Hargitay says. “He’s a visionary obviously, he has this huge vision and huge appetite, and truly is a seer.
“It’s been interesting to get to know him,” she adds. “He’s a very interesting man. But I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I appreciate his vision and I feel grateful to be part of his world that he created.”