Mariska Hargitay Bids Farewell to Outgoing 'SVU' Showrunner Warren Leight (Guest Column)

Mariska Hargitay and Warren Leight -Publicity-P 2016
Courtesy of Sunshine Sachs

When star Mariska Hargitay and the rest of the Law & Order: SVU team first welcomed executive producer Warren Leight (Lights Out, In Treatment) onboard in 2011, the show was at a major crossroads. In addition to outgoing showrunner Neal Baer, who was departing after 11 years, star Christopher Meloni abruptly exited the series after 12 years as one of the drama's two leads. The series' future lay in question.

However, five years later, a lot has changed on camera and behind the scenes. Olivia Benson (Hargitay) is now the squad leader and a mom (and in a stable romantic relationship). Hargitay is now a producer on the series and has directed four episodes of the drama, and will be directing two episodes in season 18. And SVU is one of just a handful of scripted shows to have seen ratings rise this past broadcast season — in its 17th season, no less. The series will return for season 18 in the fall, but without Leight, who is stepping down as showrunner to develop new projects.

Ahead of Wednesday's season finale, and more notably Leight's last episode as showrunnerHargitay looks back on his eventful tenure with The Hollywood Reporter.

Prior to Warren’s arrival, I was doing a lot of thinking about how and if I’d move forward with the show. Chris was my partner for 12 years and we were in this groove together. I didn't know how the show was going to continue and how my character was going to continue. and the prospect of working with him was very exciting to me. I had actually always wanted to work with him. Then, when I met with him, he just felt like such a kindred spirit. Then, I met with him and he just felt like such a kindred spirit. There was this huge exhale and I just thought, "Oh, oh, he gets it." He had such a different sensibility and ideas for what this show could be.

He pitched me this beautiful story, based on a detective that adopted a baby. That of course became my character adopting baby Noah. I wanted Olivia to have a baby on the show for so long. There were episodes about it, which ended with social workers not approving my character adopting a child because the work is so high-risk. Then Warren told me the story about this police officer who adopted this baby, and we both sat there with tears streaming down our faces. I felt like he understood exactly what I was looking for. 

The way he's woven in these deeply personal themes and moments, the opportunity to let these characters stretch in a three-dimensional way, has been very fulfilling, not only for me, but for all the actors on the show to play. I think that also expands the show's original conception. The show gave us the opportunity to tell important crime stories, and now, we also get to tell our characters’ stories in a deeper way, how they evolve, how they live. I feel like I've gotten to grow up with Olivia Benson. I've gotten to see her change and evolve so much. That's why I'm still here.

There's also this whole new territory of leadership. It's one thing to be a sex crimes detective and go out there and be able to do your job. It’s a whole different thing to be in charge of a squad, to be the boss, to have everything that happens be your responsibility. I love the way Warren dug into all that.  

And he’s done the same digging with the other characters, the way he has woven the personal aspects from Rollins to Carisi to Barba to Amaro to Fin to Dodds — it's been really beautiful to have all of our lives intersect in new ways. One of the most exciting things is that many of the moments between characters feel earned in a new way. We've known these characters, especially Fin and Olivia, for so long. We’ve been on such a long journey with them, and somehow now there’s this sense of reward.

Warren writes like a musician. His father was a jazz musician and his writing is so much like jazz. He understands rhythm. That was also a very fun component of watching him work. If you understand music, you understand his writing. I love all the different rhythms he's given to all these different characters. Benson's rhythm to Raul Esparza's rhythm, to Peter Scanavino's rhythm — they're all very specific and different, like a bit of symphony.  Every time Warren's on set, the scene just gets better. He listens and then he tweaks. "Oh, Warren's here." Your heart goes a little bit aflutter as an actor.

This last episode was such a difficult episode for all of us. We were all crying through the read-through — the read-through! That's never happened. This is the time at the end of the season when we are all just incredibly exhausted and it's hard. Warren poured his heart into the season finale, incredibly moving, incredibly powerful. This spirit of the show is the same and yet, the evolution has been so invigorating and inspiring to me.

I just feel so honored and grateful that I got to work with him and spend five years — five years — telling stories with this master storyteller. I feel like I acquired a new way of seeing things, through a different filter, through a deeply thoughtful, soulful lens. I have such deep admiration and appreciation and straight-up mad love for this person. I will miss him terribly. 

The Law & Order: SVU season finale airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

May 25, 2:00 p.m. Post updated.