Over 20 seasons, her empathetic TV detective has become something of a pop culture icon.
When Mariska Hargitay isn’t grilling perps in gloomy interrogation rooms, she spends most of her time in a real-life Pinterest board.
Just down the hall from the ‘Law and Order: SVU’ squad room set, in the show’s new Chelsea Piers production hub, is Hargitay’s “oasis” — a hybrid office/dressing room full of inspirational “visual aids.” Her very first cover story, in Time Out New York, is framed above a millennial pink couch. Nearby is an array of photos — subjects include her husband, actor Peter Hermann; her children; her ‘SVU’ co-star Ice-T; and, in a life-size poster, Hargitay and her former ‘SVU’ partner, Christopher Meloni. Fittingly for a feminist hero, another wall is devoted to Wonder Woman memorabilia and an end table is covered in Ruth Bader Ginsburg-themed books and tchotchkes.
Olivia Benson would be proud. Over 20 seasons, Hargitay’s empathetic TV detective has become something of a pop culture icon for her all-consuming drive for justice for the “special victims” she works with, generally female survivors of sexual assault.
In recent years ‘SVU’ has come into new relevancy as the #MeToo movement has spurred a broader reckoning with the prevalence and consequences of sexual harassment and assault.
For Hargitay it’s been a long time coming.
“I am appalled and jubilant at this moment,” she said. “I’m horrified, and I’m doing a happy dance that this is what is dominating the media because I say thank God, finally, the collective culture is focusing on this. Because that is the only way, that we’re going to eradicate it.”
On Thursday, ‘SVU’ begins its 21st season, which will make it the longest-running prime-time drama in US TV history (surpassing its parent show, ‘Law & Order,’ and the western ‘Gunsmoke’) and make Olivia Benson TV’s longest-running prime-time drama character. (‘The Simpsons’ holds most prime-time longevity records at this point.)
Neither the series nor the actress plans to shut down the unit anytime soon. That’s partly because ‘SVU’ still draws respectable ratings for NBC, but also because what started as a job for Hargitay has become her life’s work.
Since taking on Benson in 1999, Hargitay, 55, has also spent much of her life off-screen working for victims of sexual assault. She trained to become a rape crisis counsellor, and in 2004 she founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, a non-profit that helps survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. On Tuesday night she accepted an Emmy for ‘I Am Evidence,’ the HBO documentary she produced and starred in that investigates how police handle sexual assault cases in the United States.
“I’m more engaged now than ever, and I was engaged when I started this,” she said. “It turned me from sort of actor to activist.”
The daughter of actress Jayne Mansfield and bodybuilder-actor Mickey Hargitay, she studied acting at UCLA and landed her first role in the 1985 comedy-horror film ‘Ghoulies.’ She starred on her first TV series one year later, the crime drama ‘Downtown,’ and went on to appear on shows like ‘Falcon Crest,’ ‘Can’t Hurry Love’ and ‘ER.’
But everything changed in 1999 when she landed the role of Benson on ‘SVU,’ and she hasn’t looked back since. “I fell so in love with her and so in love with the idea of this show, as progressive as it was at the time, and telling these kinds of stories,” she said.
The show brought her awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a spot in the cultural imagination. Taylor Swift, who famously named one of her cats Olivia Benson, recruited Hargitay for the video for her song ‘Bad Blood’ in 2015. More recently, Hargitay starred with Ice-T in a ‘SVU’-themed ‘Game of Thrones’ parody on ‘Saturday Night Live.’
More meaningfully, the character at times has been a source of comfort for real-life victims and survivors. In the 2016 book ‘We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out,’ a writer discussed how “Olivia Benson shattered the self-blame and uncertainty I had endured for years.”
Hargitay said that viewers often approach her to share their personal experiences with sexual assault. The topic, and that of Benson’s broader impact with women and survivors of abuse, makes her emotional.
“It became very apparent to me early how much, culturally, we needed this character who relentlessly fights and advocates for women and for survivors, and who does it with compassion,” she said through tears. “Somebody who is unequivocally committed to righting wrongs, who believes survivors, who’s aware of the healing in it.”
At her foundation’s Being Believed panel in May, where Hargitay spoke alongside author Roxane Gay and prosecutor Kym Worthy of Wayne County, Michigan, some women disclosed their assaults for the first time. She has also made the widespread rape-kit backlog at police departments a personal focus — her documentary ‘I Am Evidence’ investigates that issue in particular.
“If somebody’s rape kit is not tested, what’s that saying?” she said. “That says you don’t matter, and should experience not mattering.”
Dick Wolf, the ‘Law & Order’ mastermind, calls Hargitay “the mother of the #MeToo movement.”
In addition to its own two-decade run, ‘Law & Order’ generated six spin-off series. ‘SVU’ is the only one left standing. Last season it drew more than 7 million viewers on average, which was enough to keep it in the Top 50 of all broadcast series. (It ranked within the Top 30 among coveted viewers ages 18-49.) According to NBC, the show also thrives on Hulu, where it draws a much younger audience.
Producers credit Hargitay with the show’s longevity, pointing to both the enduring appeal of the character and the actress’s steadying presence on the set.
“The reason the show is 21 years in is Mariska,” showrunner Warren Leight said. “The No 1 on the call sheet defines your show. If it’s toxic, it starts there, and if it’s open, warm and generous, it’s a different kind of show.”
Hargitay never imagined she would be playing Olivia Benson for over 20 years, but she remains committed to surprising the ‘SVU’ faithful as well as herself. “This is Season 21, baby — there’s never been a Season 21,” she said. “We’ve got to do it differently.” (She was tight-lipped about details, aside from mentioning that Ian McShane would make a guest appearance.)
NBC hasn’t yet renewed ‘SVU’ for a Season 22. But with the show’s move several years ago from New Jersey to Chelsea making it easier for Hargitay to coordinate her family schedule — her children go to school in Manhattan — she isn’t thinking about the end, she said.
As the conversation came to a close, her gaze fell upon another photo on her office wall, a black-and-white shot of a woman running on a beach. It was of Hilary Swank, a close friend, taken from a Vanity Fair cover shoot.
“When I saw that picture, I said, ‘Hilary, I need this,’” Hargitay said. “Because that’s a marathon. That’s what I’ve been on for 21 years.” And she doesn’t plan to stop running anytime soon.