Mariska Hargitay on Making a TV Icon, Dick Wolf’s ‘Tough Love,’ Fighting for Kelli Giddish and 20 Years of Helping Survivors of Sexual Violence

Mariska Hargitay on Making a TV Icon, Dick Wolf’s ‘Tough Love,’ Fighting for Kelli Giddish and 20 Years of Helping Survivors of Sexual Violence

Mariska Hargitay Variety Power of Women

When a little girl can’t find her mother in a pocket park in New York City, she inexplicably runs crying straight into the arms of Mariska Hargitay. Though Hargitay’s in the middle of shooting a scene from “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” she doesn’t hesitate. She scoops up the child and begins circling the playground looking for the missing mom.

She doesn’t stop to think about the cast and crew, all of whom are waiting at the other end of the park, hoping to finish the scene before the sunlight reappears from behind the clouds.

Hargitay isn’t NYPD Capt. Olivia Benson, but after portraying her for 25 years on the NBC procedural, their names, and some of their qualities, are synonymous. Benson’s compassion radiates from Hargitay. It’s evident from the moment we meet: Just one day on the set of “Law & Order: SVU,” and she’s asked me everything from when I knew I wanted to be a writer to what TV shows I grew up watching. She has no problem scolding me when I tell her I found my first New York apartment on Craigslist.

“I thought you said you watched ‘SVU’!” she exclaims.

 

Dick Wolf created Olivia Benson, but Hargitay made her an icon. Longtime viewers still approach her when she walks to her car after a day of shooting wraps, telling her they’re Olivia’s biggest fans.

“I feel like I have different kinds of fans because of the subject matter. They’re so loyal and protective, it feels personal,” says Hargitay. Since the start of “SVU,” not only have viewers told her how much they love the show, but they’ve shared their own trauma. “This show is such a unicorn,” she says.

Victoria Stevens for Variety

She doesn’t realize that this week, they’re shooting another milestone episode: 550. Luckily, she has a reminder at home of just how far she’s come: When the series hit 500 episodes, her husband, actor Peter Hermann, painted the number on the living room wall. She’s excited to find the photo of the mural on her iPhone. “It’s so muscular, powerful and strong,” she says, zooming in on the big red numbers. “It’s beautiful.”

Numbers are a big deal for Hargitay this year. She’s celebrating 25 seasons of “SVU” and 20 years of marriage, and she turned 60 in January — “The new 25,” she says. “I really feel like I’m just getting started.”

 

Before she got started as Benson, Hargitay wrapped up a 13-episode stint on “ER” and thought she’d jump into comedy. Then she was sent a pilot called “Sex Crimes” that changed everything. “My manager goes, ‘Dick Wolf has a new show. It’s a spinoff, but I don’t know if it’s going to be up your alley — it’s very dark,’” she recalls, now sitting at a table inside her trailer. “I read it and I just remember going” — she lowers her voice to a whisper — “‘This is my show.’”

What came next is a well-known story: She read with Christopher Meloni, and their chemistry lit up the room.

“Mariska and Chris looked like they had been working together for five years,” Wolf says, adding that Hargitay is why the show, produced by Universal Television and Wolf Entertainment, still works today. “She’s America’s sexual-violence detective. She and Chris, as Benson and Stabler, reshaped the way America thinks about sex crimes. As a result, Mariska has turned into the only true female icon on broadcast television.”

Well, the drama came at the right time, Hargitay says with less bombast.

“The world and the culture needed an Olivia Benson, needed somebody to talk about these things and fight for survivors and believe victims,” she says. “The inception of the show was so genius that way, because Olivia was the loving mother that we all want and Stabler was the angry, protective father. It was this beautiful, perfect construct of what an injured soul needed.”

Meanwhile, Meloni and Hargitay bonded over their senses of humor. “We were all about the work and laughing at the same time — and keeping everyone happy,” she says of her friend of more than two decades.

Filming was seamless, especially because they could be honest and say things to each other like, “I know you can do better” or “Tell the fucking truth and stop your bullshit,” Hargitay remembers with a smile.

In 1999, the year “SVU” began, Hargitay became an advocate for women in general and victims in particular. She even took a 40-hour course to become a rape crisis counselor. But she’s also been an advocate for herself as a woman on a set. When it comes to negotiations, she credits her late father, actor Mickey Hargitay, for her confidence.

“My dad really taught me a lot about the truth — he was never afraid of it. There was no polite bullshit in our house. It was very ‘The truth sets you free,’” she says. “Dick is also a very straight shooter. He’s tough as nails, but I’ve also learned a lot from him.”

Mariska Hargitay flanked by Zsuzska Beswick and Caitlin Houlahan on the set of “Law & Order: SVU”Zach Dilgard/NBC

Hargitay says she and Wolf have an “excellent relationship.” He’s encouraged and supported her. There’s a “beautiful, mutual respect” there. But he’s also strict.

“We’re extremely close, like family,” she says. “He and I have had some gnarly negotiations. And I don’t think he’s had that with anyone else. He’s said things to me that are almost paternal over the years, but tough. When I say tough love, I mean, tough love. There’s no coddling.”

 

For example, he threatened to fire her one time when she cut her hair. He told her that there’s no crying in TV. But over the last quarter century, she’s learned when to push back and when to accept that he did know best. “He’s almost made me a warrior in a way,” she says. “He makes me stronger.”

While it’s been “ugly at times,” she looks at the positive. “I can do hard things now. I don’t know that I was always like that. I think in the beginning of the show, I had to fake a lot of it. I was still learning it,” she says. “Now I fit into these shoes. It’s been a magnificent journey. I have learned to advocate for myself, ironically, from Dick.”

Hargitay is not afraid to share her emotions and encourages other women to do the same. “I think I’ve always known my vulnerability is my superpower; it’s not something that makes me weak. I always try to share that with women. I think so many women are confused. They’re like, ‘Don’t cry in front of a man.’ I’m like, ‘Fuck that!’ I’ll cry in front of them, but I’ll also go kicking and screaming. It’s part of us and it’s part of the human condition.”

Hargitay becomes animated talking about the strength of women. “That kind of integration has been the most liberating because I can cry and I can be a badass and scare the fuck out of you,” she says. “We’re a pie; we have all these different pieces. I’m many things and I accept that. So being all of it makes me feel I’m more compassionate with myself and therefore others.”

While the set is now filled with women — from the script supervisor to the unit production manager — that wasn’t always the case. There wasn’t a female executive producer until Season 13, when Julie Martin came in. Her arrival was “a game changer,” Hargitay says, and happened at the perfect time — as Meloni was leaving at the end of Season 12 because of a contract dispute.

For Hargitay, the loss was shocking and destabilizing. And then there was the fact that she was now, for the first time, No. 1 on the call sheet.

“She was rocked a little bit,” says Martin. “Obviously, it was a big sea change. But she quickly pivoted. It was an empowering journey for me to watch. It was really impressive.”

While “everything was foreign” at first, Hargitay says, the new team eventually found its footing. “I see it as the perfect feminist story,” she says. “I started off as this little detective with this very powerful man, powerful showrunners, co-star, alpha, alpha, alpha. That’s a very specific energy to navigate — great artists, super-talented people. I learned so much. And then it was time for change.”

The changes didn’t stop. In Season 15, Hargitay directed for the first time and became an executive producer. “I said, ‘Let’s name what it is that I do here.’” Now she has a say in the big decisions.

But Wolf still has the final call. Which means that Hargitay couldn’t stop him from writing Kelli Giddish off the show at the end of Season 24, after she’d portrayed Det. Rollins for 12 years.

Kelli Giddish and Mariska Hargitay on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”Zach Dilgard/NBC

“Kelli is my favorite actor to work with,” Hargitay says. “Kelli is my heart. It’s a sore subject. I have a lot of say on the show, but I didn’t have enough there.”

Hargitay says she fought to keep Giddish and is trying to get her back next season. “I don’t like not being listened to, especially when I’m right,” she says. “That relationship was one of the most powerful relationships in television because you saw these two badass women, so flawed and so there for each other.”

In 2021, Meloni came back to the show after being gone 10 years. His return in Season 22 of “SVU” was welcomed by viewers, as was the launch of his spinoff, “Organized Crime.” When Stabler’s wife, Kathy, played in 32 episodes by Isabel Gillies, was killed in his first episode back, it opened up the possibility for a romance between Stabler and Benson.

Hargitay understands why the audience was hopeful: “Our chemistry is undeniable. It’s just the way it is,” she says.

Since Kathy’s death, “SVU” has leaned into the will-they-won’t-they; a teaser showed Benson holding his face, just inches away from kissing. But when the next episode aired, there was no face holding and no kiss.

“To be honest with you, Chris and I thought it should go one way and the powers that be didn’t, so it got changed at the last minute, that near kiss,” she says. “Obviously Dick gets final say. It’s his show and he didn’t want that.”

Meloni hasn’t appeared on Season 25 of “SVU,” but Stabler and Benson’s story remains open-ended. “We want to hold the tension,” Hargitay says, “and do what’s right and truthful for both characters.”

While both “Law & Order” and “SVU” have been renewed, Meloni’s “Organized Crime” has not. If it doesn’t get picked up, could he return to his first home?

“I don’t see why that wouldn’t happen or couldn’t happen,” Hargitay teases. “I think that we’re sort of irrevocably locked.”


CHARITY SPOTLIGHT: Joyful Heart Foundation

In 1999, the year that Mariska Hargitay landed the role of sex-crimes detective Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: SVU,” she learned that one in three women is a survivor of sexual abuse. Those staggering statistics shocked her into becoming a rape crisis counselor.

“The training really informed how I wanted to play this character in terms of understanding what survivors needed,” Hargitay says. “I think it informed my entire life.” Five years later, on her honeymoon, she started the Joyful Heart Foundation.

Now, when young women send Hargitay letters about their trauma, she knows how to help — especially if the women come forward shortly after their assault. “I swing into action. If you catch it early enough and you process how to feel about it so the shame isn’t integrated into your person, then we can say, ‘This is something that happened that shouldn’t have. It doesn’t define you.’”

The foundation works not only to support survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse but also to change society’s response to them. “People are starting to pay attention to these numbers,” Hargitay says. “People are going, ‘Oh, it’s not just me.’”

Throughout the last 20 years, Hargitay has launched numerous programs, including the End the Backlog initiative, which has prioritized eliminating the backlog of rape kits that sit untested in police departments. Additionally, the Foundation created the Heal the Healers grant initiative to support trauma professionals through micro-grants awarded to help alleviate the effects of vicarious trauma.

This is all because of Hargitay’s hard work.

“Her decades of steadfast advocacy on behalf of survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse has truly changed how we all talk about these crimes,” says executive director Robyn Mazur of Hargitay’s hands-on work with the foundation for the past 20 years. “Her passion and encouragement has been the driving force at the organization, and every day I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish next.”

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