Q&A with Mariska Hargitay

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.


Pictures: Mariska & Family on Set (March 16)

Mariska, Amaya and Andrew were on set today. You can check out the pictures below.

Mariska & Family on Location
March 16, 2015

Pictures: SVU/Chicago PD on Location (March 10)

More pictures of the crossover episode have been added to the gallery.

SVU/Chicago PD on Location
March 10, 2015

Pictures: SVU & Chicago PD on Location (March 9)

The SVU & Chicago PD cast were on location in Queens today filming the crossover episode. Looks like they were having fun taking selfies. Pictures in the gallery!

SVU & Chicago PD on location
March 9, 2015

How to Land Yourself a ‘Law & Order: SVU’ Cameo

It was 8 a.m. and approximately 2 degrees when, standing on a Manhattan street corner, I broke a long-standing personal taboo of participating in “gotcha” journalism.

The doors of a Lincoln Town Car opened, and a small, tense woman jumped out of the car, parting the sea of cameras and cell phones belonging to myself and other, lesser, reporters. Behind her emerged the famous redhead … you’d recognize her anywhere.

I took a deep breath. “Charmaine!” I screeched with all the desperate self-righteousness of an Inside Access correspondent. “CHARMAINE! WHAT DID YOU DO WITH YOUR HUSBAND’S SPERM?”

At that exact moment, I realized three things:

1) I was holding my microphone upside down.

2) The top half of the mic had fallen off.

3) Law & Order: SVU cameos are not as easy or glamorous as they appear on TV.

Well, perhaps no one will ever be as glamorous as the Maleficent-cheekboned Marcia Cross, who played the sperm-stealing bandit with a Not-So-Desperate Housewives poise. In last week’s episode, “December Solstice,” in which my belligerent and elaborately-coiffed Reporter #2 debuted, she played a woman scheming to have an heir for her aging husband’s fortune. So desirous indeed that (spoiler alert!) she used an “electro-probe anal erectile procedure” on the corpse of guest star Robert Vaughn to harvest his Man-From-U.N.C.L.E. sperm.

It was Ms. Cross’ allegedly murderous character, Charmaine Briggs, that motivated mine (“Reporter #2) to stand outside in the freezing cold, jostling with a large scrum of tabloid types to get a quote. If you watch the episode, you can clearly see the moment I, among the lessers, accost the ostensibly grieving widow: “Why did you keep Walt from the kids?”

“Jackals!” Ms. Cross’ character cried at us all. “You just want raw meat!” For the moment, I am diligently trying to get the one story of my career; in the next you can see the intensity leave my eyes as I waddle-wander out of frame like a miserable, freezing penguin woken too early. But I’m not gone yet: Two seconds later, you hear my disembodied voice interrupting Charmaine’s lawyer (played by Susie Essman). “CHARMAINE!” I’m yelling questions through a TV inside the TV, as the Sex Crimes Unit watches the melee from their squad room. “WHAT DID YOU DO WITH YOUR HUSBAND’S SPERM?” “Hey, they are not bad questions,” shrugs Detective Rollins (Kelli Giddish). With a shrug, someone mutes the TV report. And me.

Since then, “#GiveReporter2HerOwnShow!” has become a nationally trending hashtag and I am an overnight celebrity. (One Observer colleague who attended my editor’s viewing party noted that she had been watching me play a reporter for years.)

But, here, some backstory may be helpful.

I first met Warren Leight a year after my first real TV trend story, called “Sickos on the Sofa,” where I linked SVU’s tenacious success—outlasting the rest of the franchise, it’s the only Law & Order (stateside) that hasn’t been canceled—to the counterintuitive demo the show attracts: Young adult women. In 2012, I wrote, “Since the show launched 13 years ago, females age 18 to 34 have been its most consistent viewers.” (And it’s most consistent victims.)

“Two-thirds of our audience are women,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and SVU showrunner Mr. Leight had said at the time. (This gender breakdown is pretty much unheard of for police procedural shows.) “I honestly don’t understand why, completely. I don’t get it when parents say they watch the show with their kids, either.”

To give credit where it’s due, the show serves as perhaps the best PSA on issues of consent, and the difficulty of getting sex crimes cases to court. But how can I LOVE a show that’s about rape and child molestation? Every week? How is THIS what I crave, along with chicken soup and ginger ale, when I’m sick at home? It was nice to know that I wasn’t alone in binging on hunk-with-anger-issues Elliot Stabler (the early years!) and gorgeous, moral, tragically lonely Olivia Benson’s disgust over the depravity of New York’s most heinous sex crimes. But the fate of SVU, in recent years, has been handed down notoriously late in the television season, a clear sign that NBC, like an SVU judge, was only going to allow the show to continue … for now.

My relationship with SVU, New York’s most New York-y show, has always been colored by my (tempered) fandom. Usually I avoid press junkets, but when they invited me to the anniversary of the show’s 16th season in September, I showed up with my iPhone camera already flipped into selfie mode. Come on, there’s Mariska Hargitay photo-bombing Ice-T and me. If I had violated some ethical code of conduct about getting too close to my sources and had been fired the next day … it would have been worth it. There is no better feeling than watching the collective freak-out of all the Cool Kids from high school when you post a photo with the cast of SVU on Facebook.

This year, NBC renewed SVU earlier than usual, a sign that the network has clued in that they have the rare double-jackpot: A basic cable hit with the cultural cache of a “prestige” program that one finds on network TV (FX), premium cable (HBO) or streaming outlets (Netflix). (Other “basics” that are getting it right: The Good Wife, ABC’s Shondaland block, The Simpsons and Hannibal.) I can’t claim my cameo had anything to do with the renewal.

So, does Reporter #2 get her own spin-off storyline next season, the show’s 17th? Perhaps not. As it turns out, I hate acting and am very bad at it. You don’t think someone can ruin a take if they only have two lines? I think the increasingly worried assistant director correcting me—“it’s SPERM, not CUM”—would beg to differ. I also didn’t realize that despite all the permits, filming SVU has a distinctly guerilla feel; you don’t get any notes on what to do … you just get in front of the camera and keep doing it until they let you stop.

One time, Ms. Essman pushed me out of the way—as her character would do—and I spent an hour having to convince myself she wasn’t being aggressive because she was mad about me flubbing a line. ACTING! Also, JOURNALISM!

We had to reshoot the scene about seven times. Though the crowd was large, only myself and Reporter 1 (played by E! Online editor Chris Harnick) had any lines. Yet during the hour or two spent shooting the scene, no one besides myself seemed visibly distracted by, OR IN CRIPPLING PAIN from, the brutal cold. The crew did have one person assigned specifically to find different places on my body to put hand and feet warmers, draping a large coat over my shoulders between takes and ushering E! Online and I inside the brownstone doubling as the day’s interiors whenever we had more than four seconds of down time.

Finally, “O.K., last take! Last take! We’ll get it!” beamed a guy nearby, after the microphone fail.

“In your dreams,” I hissed—but only in my head, because I was worried he might be an unrelated insane person ironically blending into a crowd scene of a cop procedural. Who else would seem that jazzed about just standing around, being very, very cold, having to remind the extras, “SPERM. Not cum. SPERM.”

Eventually, the shoot did end, which meant that my actual job was starting. “So,” I asked Ms. Essman once I had turned my (real) recorder on, “what did you do with YOUR husband’s sperm?”

“Swallowed it,” Ms. Essman barked, not missing a beat. “Next question.”

We talked about her recent appearance on Broad City, as Ilana Glazer’s mother, and how she “wouldn’t be surprised” to see that character make a return appearance. I told her it was pretty remarkable that the Comedy Central series had managed, in the course of her one episode, to instantly render every Sex and the City and Fifty Shades of Grey reference obsolete when Abbi Jacobson ends up “pegging” on a first date.

“I’m sorry,” said Ms. Cross, who had been sitting nearby (and mentioned she’s looking for a new series; Hollywood take note, we’d watch it). “What is pegging?”

The look on my face was probably incredible. “I can always look it up on Google…” she feinted for her phone.

I finally sputtered, “It’s a sex thing where a woman wears a strap-on dildo for anal intercourse with a man … for sex, like … in his butt…”

“Oh my,” said Ms. Cross, mildly.

“You know, it’s like … an Internet thing?” I said with a shrug, like I knew what the hell I was talking about. “Millennials these days…” I sighed.

And then, it gripped me. I had actually educated an actress on SVU—America’s textbook on depravity—who was, mere moments ago, fielding questions about rectal probes used on the dead, about an alternative sexual practice.

Forget Reporter #2. I think I deserve a bigger role in the inevitable “pegging” episode.


2015 Birthday Project Details

First off, I just want to say I am so sorry for taking so long to get this post up. But yes, Mariska’s birthday project has been delivered! The day I went she was feeling under the weather (poor thing), I didn’t have to wait long for her (unlike previous years where I was there all day), only 3-4 hours. It had been so cold, temperatures in the teens, but when I went thankfully it was in the 20s, so it was still cold but it could have been worse!

Anyway, onto the point. I took the train into the city with the travel book and the mason jar filled with hearts, and a few other things for Mariska’s birthday. I got to the location around 9am and just hung out on the street while they filmed. One of the crew members told me Mariska had a cold (and she sounded congested too), but she’s a pro and was smiling and laughing in between takes.

When they breaked for lunch I was standing by Mariska’s trailer and saw her walking down the street. I walked up to her and said hi. She smiled at me and said hi back and told me to walk with her. I explained the projects, and I also told her that we put something together every year for her birthday. Her smile was huge at this point and she said, “I remember you! Wow thank you so much. You put a lot of hard work into this and your dedication means so much to me. I appreciate this.” She was holding her heart at this point. She said that we made her birthday brighter :) She thanked me again, grabbed my arm and then hugged me. By this point, I was having an outer body experience (lol). I told her I was about to cry- seriously every experience I have with her is like the first time. It will never get old! She said she couldn’t wait to get home so she could go through everything. She thanked me again for all the work I did, and told me to thank everyone involved. So thank YOU for making these projects what it became. None of this would have been possible without any of you. I’m so grateful to everyone who shared, tweeted, commented, reblogged, liked, promoted this project in anyway, shape or form. You guys are seriously the best! And I’m grateful for Mariska because let’s face it without her, I wouldn’t have this website and I wouldn’t do birthday projects for her every year. Can’t wait for next year!

I will add pictures this weekend so keep your eyes peeled :)

Mariska Hargitay: How Olivia Benson Inspired Me to Help Survivors of Abuse

For Mariska Hargitay, separating herself from her role as sex crimes detective Olivia Benson can be a difficult task.

“Being around that subject matter every day seeps into my consciousness,” says the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star. “When I first did research for my role on SVU, I couldn’t believe the statistics of abuse – and the letters that came in from viewers disclosing their own stories.”

She adds, “I was proud to be on a show that was going into new territory, but I knew I wanted to do more to help survivors heal and reclaim their lives.”

So in 2004, roughly five years after her SVU debut, the 51-year-old founded the Joyful Heart Foundation – a national organization that has served more than 14,000 survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and the professionals who help them.

While the organization is taking big steps in advocating for justice (through the movement to test the hundreds of thousands of backlogged rape kits), Hargitay says that simply joining the conversation is a way that everyone can help raise awareness.

That is why she is so proud of Joyful Heart’s participation in the NO MORE initiative – which includes a PSA campaign that she directed involving more than 75 celebrities, athletes and public figures in an effort to “engage bystanders” and “break the social stigma” of abuse.

Most importantly, though, Hargitay – like her TV character – encourages listening to survivors with compassion.

“The experience of sexual assault and domestic violence can be extremely isolating,” she says. “So simply listen without judgement. I always have to remind myself that I don’t have to be an expert. I just have to care.”

For more of our interview with Mariska Hargitay, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday


Pictures: SVU on Location (March 4)

Mariska & Raul were on location today and I’ve added a few pictures to the gallery.

On Location in NYC
March 4, 2015

Pictures: Disneyland’s “Frozen Fun” (February 28)

Mariska visited Disneyland’s Frozen Fun today. Hopefully more pictures will be added soon :)

Disneyland’s Frozen Fun
February 28, 2015

Mariska Hargitay: #IWontStandFor Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault PSA

I’m not sure if this PSA is new or not but I just found this one from the USA Network.