Melissa Seymour: Hi, Mariska! Thanks so much for speaking with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
Mariska Hargitay: I’m an actress an activist, and a mom of three. I’ve played Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for the past 16 years. I’ve also taken my turn behind the camera, directing the groundbreaking NO MORE PSAs and a number of episodes of Law & Order: SVU. I am also the Founder and President of the Joyful Heart Foundation.
MS: Has your role as Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit changed your perspective? How so?
MH: When I first did research for my role on SVU, I couldn’t believe the statistics I was learning. Then people starting sending me letters and e-mails disclosing their stories of abuse—stories they had never told anyone before. I was holding in my hands the stories behind the statistics I had learned. And they made a very deep impression on me. ?The fact that these people were revealing something so personal to me—someone they only knew as a character on a television— showed me how much they wanted to be heard, believed, supported, and healed.
MS: ?What was the most difficult scene you ever had to shoot? How did you prepare for it?
MH: There were two, and both involved me facing off with my kidnapper, William Lewis. In “Surrender Benson” summoning the fear and rage to attack Lewis with a pipe after escaping my handcuffs was draining and challenging, but in the end, very rewarding. And before the “Beasts Obsession” scene where I was forced to play Russian Roulette with Lewis, I didn’t sleep for days. It was a true exercise in the “what if” game of acting: believing what you are experiencing. There was really no way to prepare for that. They were both harrowing experiences.
MS: Why did you create the Joyful Heart Foundation?
MH: ??I was proud to be on a show that was going into territory that no one was talking about, but I knew I wanted to do more to help survivors heal and reclaim their lives. The Joyful Heart Foundation, which I started in 2004, was my answer.
Over the past 11 years, Joyful Heart has evolved into a national organization that is paving the way for innovative approaches to treating trauma, igniting shifts in the way the public responds to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and advancing policies and legislation to ensure justice for survivors.
We’ve raised more than $17 million in private funds from some visionary and very generous people – and leveraged $74 million in-kind contributions – directly served more 14,000 survivors and the professionals who care for them; connected over 2.5 million visitors to our website and social media to resources and life-saving help; garnered more than 2 billion media impressions about these issues and our work; and effected policy changes in jurisdictions across the country.
I am proud of all the work Joyful Heart is doing and especially proud that we are at the forefront of the movement to test the hundreds of thousands of untested sexual assault evidence collection kits – known as rape kits – sitting in police storage and crime lab facilities across the country. For more information on the rape kit backlog, you can go to: www.endthebacklog.org.
MS: Why is the “NO MORE” campaign so important?
NO MORE unifies the movement to end domestic violence and sexual assault for the first time. The campaign seeks to break social stigma, normalize the conversation around domestic violence and sexual assault, and increase resources to address these urgent issues. Hundreds of organizations working at the local, state and national levels have aligned around NO MORE and the commitment to bringing this violence to an end.
I am deeply proud that the Joyful Heart Foundation is a part of this transformative initiative. I was honored to direct the NO MORE PSA campaign, which involves more than 75 celebrities, athletes, and public figures stepping up join this cause. The campaign challenges bystanders to engage in addressing domestic violence and sexual assault.
Much of the reason survivors stay silent about domestic violence and sexual assault is that as a society, we simply don’t talk enough about these issues. It’s so much easier to join a conversation than to be burdened with starting one. On top of that, victim-blaming is woven deeply into the way we think, talk and behave around these issues. The NO MORE PSAs highlight the myths and excuses that create misplaced blame on survivors and allow perpetrators to evade accountability for their crimes. NO MORE calls on bystanders to end the excuses and inaction on these issues.
Since its launch in September 2013, an audience of more than 1.6 billion has seen the PSAs.
MS: What needs to happen in order for our society to truly tackle and defeat domestic abuse? ?
MH: We must all foster—envision, pursue, create, not settle for anything less than—a society that simply does not tolerate these crimes.
At Joyful Heart, we talk about a society that says, “We hear you. We believe you. And your healing is our priority.” Unfortunately, society tends to question, doubt and assign blame. And perpetrators of this violence rely on that response. We need to talk – to bring these issues out of the darkness and into the light – that is part of our mission at Joyful Heart.
Engage your loved ones and friends in the conversation about sexual assault and domestic violence. And engage in a conversation with yourself. Examine your own attitudes that might be contributing to—or tacitly sanctioning—the perpetuation of violence. As the collective of people willing to take a stand grows, the weight of these heavy issues, the weight of having these difficult conversations, the weight of bringing enormous social and cultural change, will begin to be more evenly distributed. With more people doing what they can, advocates and survivors will no longer have to shoulder so much of the burden of bringing attention to this cause. Visibility will change the landscape for sexual assault and domestic violence. Don’t underestimate the power you have to help can shed light on these issues.
MS: Who is your hero/heroine?
MH: Overcomers. People who overcome their fears every day, without fanfare, without recognition. Quiet, everyday courage, that’s what I admire most.
MS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to provide community for a person who has experienced sexual assault or domestic violence. The amount of blame our societal attitudes place on survivors is staggering, and you can be a real light in someone’s life if you’re willing to be the exception and really be there for that person.
Simply asking a neighbor or friend if they’re okay can be a powerful question in the life of someone who may feel very much alone in an abusive relationship. If an inquiry like that—”Are you okay?” or “I noticed you missed a couple of days of work. Is everything alright?” or “I totally don’t mean to pry, but can I ask you about those sunglasses you’ve been wearing the last couple of days?”—comes from enough people, that person might actually get the message that she has a community of support around her. And that can alter the trajectory of her life and her eventual healing.
And when a survivor shares his or her story with you, listen. Simply listen, without judgment.