SVU on Location
March 31, 2015
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.
Mariska Hargitay: Honey, how are you?
Sophia Bush: I just got home and I feel like I’ve won the lottery.
MH: “Home” home, like LA home?
MH: Good for you! So, sweet Sophia, let’s start at the beginning: Tell me when you first knew that you wanted to become an actor.
SB: It was honestly an accident. My junior high and high school had a series of arts requirements, and I put off my theater requirement until the last semester. I knew it would interfere with all my extracurricular activities. The second semester of my eighth-grade year, they said, “You have to take a theater class,” and I protested because I was on the volleyball team, and they said, “It doesn’t matter. You could have done this last semester, but you waited and now you have to do it.” We did a production of Our Town—
SB: Something just clicked, and I realized that my passion for English and my love of literature could be put into action. It rocked my world and I just thought, I get this.
MH: I have a similar story. I was an athlete. I met somebody and he was like, “You should go on auditions,” and I was like, “Nope, I’ve got a volleyball game; I’ve got a cross-country game.” It wasn’t until I did a play that I went, Hey, wait a minute. I like this. Doing sports as a young girl really teaches us how to strive for something. In so many ways, too, it makes you a better actor.
SB: Absolutely, because you have some understanding of the need to persevere. I get this question all the time about our schedules—people say, “What happens when you’re sick?”
MH: And you say, “Nobody cares.” [Laughs]
SB: If you’re sick, you come to work with a bucket and you deal with it.
MH: Speaking of work, tell me what you think it is about Chicago P.D. that the audiences connect to.
SB: First of all, we’re so lucky to be part of this larger wheelhouse that you’ve influenced and that Dick [Wolf] has been growing for so many years. Television has grown as an industry. When I was a little kid, there were only a handful of channels, and now there’s a thousand to choose from. That has widened avenues that we have for storytelling, because we’re not looking at shows the way we used to. I grew up watching reruns of Dragnet on Nick at Nite. There was a crime and then they solved it, and that was that. Now we’ve been given permission on the show to allow our heroes to be flawed. Are they bending the rules to service the law? Are they breaking the law? Do we root for them? Are we afraid of them? Nobody’s always playing perfect.
MH: What’s your favorite thing about playing Detective Lindsay?
SB: She’s not one of those bleeding hearts that sees the world and wants to fix it. She wants to fix the world because she was taken advantage of as a child, because she was recruited to work in a gang environment, because she was a drug addict, because she’s been at the lowest point and seen what one person who cares about you can do for you, and now she wants to give that to other people.
MH: And what initially drew you to it?
SB: I’d been on location doing [One Tree Hill] for nine years, and then I worked a season on a show in LA and was so excited to be home. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do next, but I always wanted to work for Dick, and I always wanted to work with you. I get this call, and my agent said, “Dick Wolf is doing this show, and they really want to see you for the lead female, and it shoots in Chicago,” and I’m like, “No way. Chicago’s so cold, it’s so far away, I don’t know anybody there…. I’m not going.”
MH: [Laughs] But Dick Wolf has a pretty good record.
SB: I know. And they were like, “But Sophia, it’s literally two of the three criteria for a job you’ve ever wanted. You could just read it.” And I said, “All right.” I was protesting, but not much, because in the back of my head I was so excited. And you know what that feeling is like, when you read a script and from the first moment it gets its hooks in you? I just went, “Uh-oh.” [Laughs] I knew I was in trouble.
MH: You’ve said that Law & Order: SVU, which you starred in, obviously, in the crossovers, is your favorite show. What was that experience like? I want you to be honest. [Laughs]
SB: For so long, I talked about how all I would do on a day off was bingewatch SVU marathons and how Mariska Hargitay was just the coolest woman on TV. I was this shameless gusher. I was doing this as an actor on a show, so these words were being printed—it wasn’t, like, on my private Tumblr page. Then six or seven years ago, I was walking down the street in Soho, and I looked up, and it was like all the lights on Broadway started shining in my face—it became a weird sort of Wes Anderson film—and there you were, and I just blacked out. I know that I went up to you and that I probably babbled. I think you knew my brain was short-circuiting, and you touched my arm and said, “It’s so nice to meet you. I think your show is just great. Want to take a walk with me?” And I was like, “Sure.” What? And we just talked for 20 minutes, and it’s weird because now we text, we e-mail, we chat, we send each other stupid pictures, but I remember that day not understanding how to compute just how genuinely lovely you were.
MH: That’s so gracious, but it’s been such a pleasure getting to know you, working with you, and having you teach me how to tweet and Instagram. And your photos are amazing. This is a fun fact about Sophia Bush: She is such a great photographer. You wouldn’t even know she’s an actor, and she’s like, “Okay, stand over here.”
SB: Taking photos together now, it’s like, “Wow, I basically accosted this woman on the street in Soho, and now we’re working together—”
MH: And now you’re telling me where to stand for photos. [Laughs] But let’s talk about support: The environment is something that means a lot to you—you’ve done beach cleanups, marathons to benefit The Nature Conservancy. Tell me about conservation and why it’s so dear to you.
SB: I honestly think it’s a no-brainer, and some of that comes from growing up in Southern California—spending all my time as a kid exploring beaches and the sea and the mountains, and just realizing that we’re such a small part of this giant planet, yet we wreak the most havoc on it. When the president of the United States is saying that climate change poses a greater threat to American citizens than terrorism, people are finally opening their eyes and realizing that the world doesn’t exist for us to trample and use. I really hope that citizens will start to demand change both from the companies where they spend their money and the governments they elect to represent them.
MH: What are a couple of things you’d suggest to readers who want to protect the environment?
SB: It’s important to realize that every dollar you spend casts a vote. When you have to spend money, look at where it’s going. There’s actually a company that a friend of mine helped start called Conscious Commerce, where you can look up all kinds of conscious beauty products, gift items, fashion items. I switched over to a clean diesel [car] a couple of years ago, and it’s made a great impact on my life and saved me a ton of money in the process. I don’t use plastic bags anymore; I take my own bags to the grocery store. I try to drink bottled water that I bring from home in a glass bottle, but if I have to use plastic, I make sure I’m recycling. Buying my groceries at the farmers market on the weekend instead of buying produce that’s shipped using pesticides to stay fresh…. In the minutiae of our everyday, we have the chance to create change.
MH: It’s been beautiful to see how you’ve used your social media to get the message out there, and it says on your social media that you call yourself a “storyteller” and an “activist,” and “I believe a pencil can change the world.” How do you want to change the world?
SB: The notion of a pencil changing the world to me comes from all of my work with Pencils of Promise and really seeing that we have the capability to change the world by educating its children. I’d like to see us investing in education, in the environment. I’d like to see us treating one another like we’re all in this together. If every one of us really embraces that and says, “I should start with myself, then I can have a ripple effect in my universe,” that’s it.
Vegas: Local car dealers talk about how you wrote a Huffington Post op-ed in 2013 about the benefits of buying a diesel vehicle. What inspired that article?
SB: I would love for clean-diesel vehicles to be a huge thing everywhere. It all ties back to being passionate about the environment and looking at ways to lower our fossil fuel consumption, looking at ways to create cleaner vehicles. Even when I was just looking for a car a couple of years ago, doing all the research and being able to sort of compare a regular gas option, a hybrid option, and a TDI—a clean diesel vehicle, and clean diesel won far and away—I just think it’s something we can do so easily, and I really wish that people were being given more options. This isn’t the kind of thing that we can wait on, taking care of the environment.
MH: Now, hold on—I heard you were at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Vegas last September? I was there, and I did not know that you were there. [Laughs] Tell me about that, and how was your experience in Vegas?
SB: Oh, it was so much fun.
MH: How great is that city? Unlike any other place on the planet.
SB: It is. It’s so wild—kind of like Disneyland for grown-ups.
MH: I feel like it’s another planet. [Laughs]
SB: It is. [Laughs] I’ve only ever really been in Vegas for a weekend, and it’s usually to celebrate—we’ll do a bachelorette party, or a birthday…. We always just have a great time. Tao has always been lovely; Light has always been lovely…. Usually my MO in Vegas is, if I’m going for the weekend, I love to go out with my friends one night, and then love to hit the pool the next day, have a great meal, and see a show, and then head home on Sunday. I think that’s kind of the perfect mix. I’m not one of those people who can have a crazy night out two nights in a row. [Laughs]
MH: Yes, exactly.
SB: Two of my best friends and I, we flew in on Saturday morning. We spent a day lying by the pool and drinking smoothies and catching up. We saw so many of our favorite musicians play. I got to present Lorde, which was awesome ’cause I think she’s the coolest, and I was backstage with her before I went out to present her performance, and I’m watching her warm up, and I sort of forgot that she’s only 17. And then she gets out onstage, and she’s such a force, and it was really cool. I thought, We’re lucky we’ve got another really amazing generation of strong and incredible women who really have something to say and really care about their art.
MH: That’s exciting to watch. I feel like the younger generations are so much more self-possessed than we were. I remember thinking that even when I met you—I was like, God, if I knew what you knew when I was your age, I’d be a lot further along in the game, ’cause it’s exciting to see young women go after what we want and not have any sort of trepidation about it, but just be like: This is what I want, this is what I do, this is what I’m capable of, and I know I can do it, and I’m going to go after it. It’s fun to see people put sort of self-doubt and limitation behind them.
SB: I think it’s taken me forever to learn that. I feel like something sort of magical happens to women in their 30s, where suddenly you go, Oh! All the things that people told me—stop worrying and don’t doubt yourself and you’re doing great—oh, I see why they said that. And then I was looking at this girl and I was thinking, Look at how much she knows about everything.
MH: Already! [Laughs]
SB: Yeah, and it’s just going to get better for them.
Detroit has an astonishing idea for how to solve the crisis of its backlog of untested rape kits: raising $10 million through charitable donations. This first-of-its-kind strategy is led by tenacious Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, herself a survivor of rape, and it is an historic effort to motivate individuals to fill a yawning public sector gap.
The campaign struck a chord: It raised more than $900,000 from all 50 states and a number of foreign countries in its first month. That total continues to climb. Sheryl Sandberg’s foundation sent an unsolicited $25,000 check. Actress Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order: SVU backed the project through her Joyful Heart Foundation, and stood beside Worthy in recent press conferences. Comerica Bank, DTE Energy and the MGM Grand Casino Hotel signed on. Even small local groups like book groups and a canasta club are taking action.
Worthy also says that her office is in the “very, very beginning stages” of partnering with UPS. Detroit will be a pilot site for a program that will track rape kits the way that the big shipping company tracks packages, following them from the hospital to the lab to prosecution. “It’s in the initial stages, but we hope it will be a success nationally,” Worthy says.
USA Network announces a very special look at the longest- running primetime drama currently on television, DICK WOLF PRESENTS: LAW & ORDER: SVU, 16 hours of the series, personally selected by the Emmy Award-winning producer and creator of the hit series, Dick Wolf. As the host of the marathon, Wolf provides viewers with an intimate look at the most iconic episodes of the entire series, beginning Sunday, March 29 at 7/6c with four back-to-back episodes. Additional marathons will run on April 12, May 31 and June 28.
“Each episode of SVU features terrific acting and outstanding storytelling, but these are truly some of the most memorable,” said Wolf. “As we close in on our 400th episode over 16 seasons, it’s the perfect time to look back at the episodes that most resonate with viewers.”
Mariska Hargitay, who plans Sergeant Olivia Benson in the long-running drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), talks about her character and her directing debut.
TV DRAMA: What do you like about Olivia Benson?
HARGITAY: I love her because I am challenged by her. I never know what’s going to happen. She surprises me. This character has evolved, which is the most exciting part of it. In many ways I feel that it’s a new character because she has gone through so much that has truly transformed her and she sees things differently. She’s getting new opportunities with what happened last year. This dark thing that happened [the kidnapping] changed her, and now she’s been given this gift of light and love and possibility and something that fills her so deeply and yet scares her beyond fear. They say when you are a parent your heart goes from inside to outside. She is just trying to figure it out. I’ve got all these new notes to play. This show has a different tone now and it feels new. After last year, even though in many ways I felt like we kind of peaked, now I’m feeling like we haven’t and there is so much more story to tell.
TV DRAMA: Fans of the show have very faithfully followed Olivia’s personal journey over the last few years.
HARGITAY: Olivia’s journey in so many ways is about hope and truth. As we grow, new doors open for us. Because she [went through so many challenges] it’s like the reward of the universe in a way. She went through the fire and then there was light at the end of the tunnel; there are new challenges, obviously, but it is exciting to be on a new journey. Because of that, the show feels so new and the character feels so new to me. There is nothing old about it; it’s all new issues, new challenges. Olivia has new relationships with each person because of what she has going on in her home life, having the baby that she never had. Even with her boyfriend, work was first. But with this life in front of her, nothing is first and yet her instinct is that work is first, her instinct is justice—do what we need to do to get it done. Now Olivia has new instincts that are like new shoes. It’s very unwieldy.
TV DRAMA: You directed for the first time last season. What was that like?
HARGITAY: It was thrilling for me. It’s something I wanted to do for a long time and something that in some ways felt extremely familiar and was a completely natural fit. I was panting, Let me get in there! Let me get in there! And in other ways it was extremely challenging and I’d think, Oh, I didn’t know about this! It was invigorating and thrilling and part of it was that I’ve done this for so long, I wanted to try something else. Sometimes I get so invested in the acting and the story that I know, because I’ve been acting for so long, that I can help push it to a new level. There are things we know that we can do and then there are things we don’t know that we can do, but we try because we want to stretch ourselves. But it was thrilling. With Warren [Leight, SVU’s showrunner] I have to say it was our biggest partnership because of the writing and the way he tones the show—I have him in my head. I felt so safe because the show’s so good. It was this unbelievable creative experience because even though I was doing something new and was so scared, there I was, with my family [the cast and crew]; I had my safety net and him. It was the safest high-wire act ever. I was up really high, but I knew they had [the rope] pulled tight. So it was really great. My good friend Alec Baldwin came in and gave such a stunning performance. It was thrilling working with my co-stars and the team in a different capacity. Everyone was so supportive, and fortunately I was lucky enough to direct again this year.