AFTER playing the beloved Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU for a whopping 16 seasons, Mariska Hargitay seems so familiar, that you want to hug her. According to Hargitay (who is very generous with her hugs), this happens a lot.
“I get so many people coming up to me on the street just wanting to connect, or I get letters from women saying, ‘I wish you were my SVU detective, I wish you were my mother, I wish you were my father, I wish you were my friend,’” smiles the actress, when we meet on the show’s famous New York set. (“Let’s sit at Benson’s old desk,” she says, sitting down, and gesturing to a desk opposite. “That’s where Stabler used to sit.”)
“I think people are drawn to Olivia because she’s built to protect, and she makes us feel safe. She’ll take care of you emotionally, she’ll take care of you physically, and then she’ll go and pop the guy who did the injustice. She’s just a total badass.”
For her part, Hargitay says she feels privileged to be part of a show that has long brought difficult subjects into our living rooms. (As a result of her experience with real-life stories of fans, Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, which helps women who have suffered domestic violence and sexual assault.)
“This show has been shedding light, truly shedding light, on darkness for a long time,” she says.
“And people feel vindicated, and feel like justice is served when we get the bad guy. But what’s brilliant about the show is that justice is not always served — life is grey, which is where the truth lies so many times.”
“The show wouldn’t exist without her,” adds SVU showrunner, Warren Leight. “I can say that plain and simple. The show survived Chris [Meloni] leaving, but it wouldn’t survive her leaving.”
Still, when Meloni announced his departure at the end of season 12, Hargitay thought it might be time for her to pull the pin, too. “I really did think I was done. When Chris left, I didn’t know how I could continue. I mean, how many times can she be kidnapped?”
Hargitay says that the addition of Leight post-Meloni’s departure changed everything.
“It was one of the greatest lessons for me personally that truly one door closes, and another door opens. Warren breathed new life into the show, which gave me a new hunger, a new challenge, and a new vitality.”
Sixteen seasons in, Hargitay is not ready to say how much longer she’ll pin on Benson’s badge. “Who knows? I mean, when my kids look at me, and say, ‘Mommy, are you going to work again?’ That makes it hard — we work long hours, but I still love what I do. I just make them give me a few longer breaks these days.”
Indeed, when we speak, Hargitay had just returned from a holiday to Italy with husband, actor Peter Herman, and their three kids, August, Andrew, and Amaya.
“I had an Australian nanny come with us, and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t have a lot of Australian friends, but this chick was awesome,” enthuses Hargitay. “I’m now in love with all Australians. You guys rock.”