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A nanny hands Mariska Hargitay her young charge, a 1-year-old girl in Gucci sneakers. “Her mother loves you,” says the woman, as she steps back and holds up her phone for a photo. It’s an oppressively humid September afternoon, and Hargitay and the crew of NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit are shooting at a Manhattan park. More nannies with more babies approach. “I watch you every night,” says one.
You would not hand your baby to just any TV star.
“No, you wouldn’t — but they trust me,” says Hargitay, 55. “People can hand me their babies all day long. That’s just one of the perks of my job.” It’s a job the daughter of Mickey Hargitay (a Hungarian-born actor and 1955’s Mr. Universe) and Jayne Mansfield (who was killed in a car accident when Mariska, asleep in the back seat, was just 3) has been doing for a long time — 21 seasons as of Sept. 26, making SVU the longest-running TV drama ever (Dick Wolf’s Law & Order mother ship made it to 20).
The role of Olivia Benson, who has risen from detective to a lieutenant in her NYPD unit, has changed Hargitay’s life in big and small ways. She met her husband, Younger star Peter Hermann, on the show in 2002 (they have three children ages 8 to 13). In 2004, she founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, becoming a powerful advocate for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“She quickly realized that telling these stories and depicting the journeys of survivors was more than a good part, it was also a great responsibility,” says SVU showrunner Warren Leight. Hargitay has earned eight Emmy nominations for playing Olivia, winning the lead actress trophy in 2006, and this year, she’s nominated for a news and documentary Emmy for the HBO doc I Am Evidence, which she produced. A four-year effort from directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, the film examines systemic prejudices that led to a scandalous backlog of untested rape kits (11,000 in Detroit, more than 12,000 in L.A.).
Hargitay has become an icon of empathy and a pop culture touchstone whose legions of fans include Taylor Swift (they met in 2014 at an Ingrid Michaelson concert). In 2014, she began directing and in 2016 was made an executive producer on SVU. She is now among the highest-paid actor-producers on television, earning a reported $450,000 per episode. “When I walk down the street and people say, ‘I knew what to do because of watching your show. I knew not to shower. I reported immediately. I took myself to the hospital instead of saying forget it, forget this ever happened,’ ” she says, “that’s what I’m most proud of.” Recalling the show’s evolution, its star also reveals her own.
HARGITAY: I remember getting the pilot script; it was called Sex Crimes at the time. I had just come off ER [she had an arc on season four]. And I always thought that I would go into comedy, that’s what I loved. My agent said, “Listen, this show, it’s very dark. I don’t know if it’s up your alley.” But then I read it. And I went, “Wait, this is what we’re going to talk about every week?” I remember feeling so passionately about it, and not scared of it, weirdly.
I came to New York, I started going on ride-alongs and met real SVU detectives. I hung out at precincts. And then, very early on in my casting, Dick invited me to [an event] for the Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention program at Mt. Sinai. That night is branded on my heart. I learned that one in four women will be assaulted by their 18th birthday, one in three women in their lifetime, one in six men in their lifetime. I went, “Hold on, what?!” I just couldn’t download those statistics. I did a 40-hour training to become a rape crisis advocate. It was very eye-opening. I wanted to play this character in a different way, and not as a woman in a man’s world.
Then the show went on the air and I started to get the fan letters. And that’s when everything changed for me. These women were disclosing their stories of abuse. I was just absolutely floored. On ER, it was like: “Hey, I love your show. What’s it like working with George Clooney?” Now it was: “I’ve never told anyone this before, but my father’s been raping me since I was 6.” Letter after letter after letter. And the same thing that was happening in these letters was happening on the street with women disclosing: “Oh my gosh, thank you. It happened to me, I never told anyone.”
The themes of the letters were shame and isolation and so much suffering — private, excruciating suffering alone. I have boxes full of them. I actually hired rape crisis counselors to help me respond. I was on my honeymoon as I was formulating Joyful Heart and I had seven rape crisis counselors with me. Peter was heroic. (Laughs.) I didn’t know anything about foundations or advocacy. I just was a young person with a lot of motivation and passion to figure out how to respond. If this many people were reaching out, there was definitely a huge need.
The show has gotten better, more responsible, more aware, more thoughtful. We’re pretty careful. And we tell such a whole story. We don’t have a perfect record, but we don’t mess up too often. On the whole, all of us — writers, producers and actors — have respect for the subject matter as a bottom line. Yes, we solve crimes quicker than detectives in the real world. Yes, the wheels of justice in the real world turn more slowly than they do on our show. We’re not shooting a documentary every week. But I don’t think that we linger on the lurid details of a crime for the sake of enhancing the drama of an episode.
[Benson’s assault in the ninth season] was a big conversation because so many people didn’t like the idea of Olivia getting assaulted because she’s so strong. And that’s the reason that I wanted it to happen. That was a really important message to send — that sexual assault doesn’t discriminate. It was a painful episode to shoot. I threw up afterward. I wanted to go as far as I could to make it as real and frightening as it is for people who are assaulted. It was important for me to make it as profoundly real as I could. It was super ugly and frightening. But I’ve never been scared of that.
I was scared in 2009 when my lung collapsed from doing a stunt. I had a 3-year-old son. I’m super athletic and I’m just strong. It happened three times. So I had to keep going back to the hospital. And I had some catastrophic thinking. I thought I was never going to get better. I certainly know trauma and I certainly know suffering. And I certainly understand the value of community, and not feeling alone. And that informs how I play this character. I feel things deeply, sometimes too much. I’m trying to rein that in.
When I learned about the backlog of rape kits around the country, that became our advocacy focus at Joyful Heart. How is it possible that there’s evidence and we’re not testing? What are we saying about women? They don’t matter. That’s what we’re saying. My head exploded when I found out in 2009 about it. My number one priority was to get everyone to be as outraged as I was. It took four years to make I Am Evidence. We interviewed 14 women, but we only had 90 minutes [for the] documentary. And [then-HBO documentary chief] Sheila Nevins was like, “Well, we could make five movies here.”
I look at the #MeToo moment as a complete and utter celebration. Twenty-one years ago, nobody wanted to talk about these issues. When I started the foundation, I was trying to enlist [corporate partners] and they wanted nothing to do with it. They thought it was icky.
So as much as I’m enraged that it took this long, I’m also celebrating that we are in this moment. Women are turning the light back on. There’s so much healing in justice. There’s so much healing in having someone bear witness. Everyone just wants to be seen. People are bystanding less. People are becoming more accountable. There’s still a whole lot of cleanup and whole lot of education that needs to happen. But it’s happening. The conversations are happening. There’s #MeToo, there’s Time’s Up. Now Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein. Everywhere you look, people are talking about sexual assault and sexual violence.
The show is challenging, it’s exhausting, it’s a marathon. And there are hard days and there are days when I’m like, “You know what? I might be done. I’m so tired, I can’t see straight.” And then there are days when I get on my knees and I say, “Thank you, God.” I have a unique position to walk down the street and have women say, “I love you.” I get to meet women in their most vulnerable and strongest place. Who gets that? I just get right in, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s a different kind of existence. It’s a different kind of intimacy with people. Not just a job.
When I’m done, I’ll know it. When I’m like, “OK, there’s no more to mine here and now I’m phoning it in and I’ve got to go.” But I’m not yet. I still get nervous, still get super excited. I’m directing; producing is a whole new world. I grew into boss lady, and I like it. I like it and I’m good at it. There were a couple of years where I was like, “I might be out.” There were some changes that I wasn’t on board with or I felt like, “Oh, I don’t know if we’re going in the exact right direction.” Now I love the show.
But I take it year by year. I remember when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show [after 16 seasons], I said, “Well, if he’s throwing in the towel, maybe I should.” And then I went, “No, not done yet. Not done yet.” And Dick wanted to break the record. But I didn’t care about the record. I already was the longest-running female character on TV.
I’m engaged and excited and still very much in it. As actors, we’ve seen so many shows get canceled and we’re in love with them and we don’t understand. So we don’t even dare to dream. We have to protect ourselves. So 21 years ago, I never in a million years would have dared to dream.
MILESTONES OF A DOMINANT DRAMA
The show and its star have made history together.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit premieres Sept. 20 on NBC to 14.1 million viewers, growing to 17.1 million by the 15th episode.
Hargitay forms the Joyful Heart Foundation while on her honeymoon with husband Peter Hermann in Kailua-Kona.
In her Golden Globe acceptance speech, she thanks her dad, Mickey. She wins her first Emmy in 2006, earns a second Globe nom in 2009, and scores two more Emmy nods, the last in 2011.
Robin Williams appears on the show and earns an Emmy nomination, one of SVU‘s 16 for guest stars (five, including Cynthia Nixon and Ann- Margret, have won).
Hargitay directs her first episode, “Criminal Stories,” for its 16th season. She is named an executive producer on the series in 2016. “I grew into boss lady, and I like it,” she says. “And I’m good at it.”
Hargitay stars alongside Ellen Pompeo in the video for Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” one year after Swift names one of her cats Olivia Benson. “What could be better than that?!”
I Am Evidence, an HBO documentary Hargitay produced about untested rape kits, is nominated for a News & Documentary Emmy (awards are Sept. 24).
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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