When Mariska Hargitay first played Detective (now Sergeant) Olivia Benson on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in September 1999, Bill Clinton was president. Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace was in theaters. J.K. Rowling had just published Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the series.
And when the 17th season of SVU kicked off last month, kids who were babies during that long-ago first season were entering their junior year in high school.
Hargitay is one of the keys to the seemingly endless popularity of the often gut-wrenching crime drama: Her Benson is at once amazingly heroic and totally relatable. She's the nurturing friend you'd call first when you found out your boyfriend was cheating on you -- and the badass cop you'd want in your corner if that boyfriend turned out to like to use his fists.
Hargitay was the first lead actor from any of the behemoth Law & Order franchise series to win an Emmy Award (in 2006), and she earned leading actress Emmy nominations 8 years in a row.
Art and Life
But after all this time, isn't she ready to try something new? No way. In an era when few people stay in the same job for 5 years, much less 16, Hargitay says she's just as excited to be playing Benson today as when she auditioned for the show in the spring of 1999. In those days, she was a virtual unknown whose biggest role had been a short-lived stint as Dr. Mark Greene's girlfriend on the TV medical drama ER.
"That's a question I get asked a lot, and something I've asked myself, but the truth of the matter is that the show feels like a completely new show to me now," Hargitay says. "We had such a great run for the first 12 years, and then our new showrunner Warren Leight came on board and brought Olivia to incredible new depths. It's great writing, and that keeps me so invested."
She admits that she considered leaving SVU when her longtime TV partner, Chris Meloni, moved on in 2011. "When Chris left, I thought, 'I can't be on the show without him! We're partners and we started the show together and we have to finish together.' But it turned into such a beautiful lesson of life, that things change and they evolve into something different and something beautiful if you let them. And now that I'm directing and producing as well, I have to work harder at it and use very different muscles. There's so much more for me to learn. All good things have to come to an end at some point, of course, but sometimes when I thought things were over, they just began again.
And last season, her character took on a role that Hargitay herself has been playing for nearly 10 years: mother. In a series of suspenseful episodes, Benson adopted a baby boy named Noah, the son of a sex trafficker and one of his victims. Hargitay and her husband, actor Peter Hermann (they met on the set of SVU in 2001) had their first child, August, in 2006, and adopted daughter Amaya and son Andrew Nicolas, both now 4, within months of each other in 2011.
"That's one thing I have in common with Olivia: We're both working moms. And we're both tired. Really, really tired!"
Of course, her kids are too young to watch the show, but 9-year-old August "catches glimpses, and hears conversations, and he'll ask things," Hargitay says. "It's really important to me to instill in my kids confidence in what they know inside, and trusting their gut in a deep way. We talk a lot about who to trust and who not to, and how to feel that in your body, and also about being respectful of other people, their boundaries and personal space. Sometimes August and his sister will play-wrestle, and we've taught him to recognize when she changes her tone and says 'stop,' when it's not fun for her anymore."
Having kids has definitely changed the way Hargitay reacts to some of her storylines. "I have had so many of my friends who, when they became new moms, said, 'I can't watch the show anymore.' I say, 'I don't blame you!' I do find myself hugging my kids a little harder after certain episodes."
That depth of emotion was her impetus to launch the Joyful Heart Foundation, now in its 11th year of healing, educating, and empowering survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse through survivor retreats, education, and advocacy.
"Like Olivia, I'm a very protective person. But before I started on SVU, I think I had my eyes closed. I didn't know that as many as 3 million children witness violence in their homes every year, and that one in three women report being assaulted or abused by a partner at some point in their lives," she says. "And then I learned these statistics doing research for the show, and I was like, 'This is happening to people every day.' I remember thinking, 'Why isn't everyone talking about this? Why isn't this making headlines?'"
And then the letters started coming in. Not the typical fan letters asking for an autographed picture, but letters that entrusted Hargitay -- because of how fiercely and protectively she plays Olivia Benson -- with people's deepest, most painful secrets. Stories of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of parents, partners, loved ones -- people they should have been able to trust. Often, the stories went back years. "Over and over again, they'd say, 'I've never told this to anyone,'" Hargitay recalls. "I have chills now just saying that to you. The courage to speak, and have somebody receive the story and hear it -- not being alone in it -- is sometimes the most healing thing of all."
She trained as a rape crisis counselor shortly after signing on to play Olivia, but Hargitay's vision for her foundation was not a "first response," like a rape crisis center, but a "next response" after the immediate crisis.
"Our retreat programs began in response to what we felt was an unmet need to help survivors heal in mind, body, and spirit," she says. Since the foundation's inception in 2004, thousands of survivors have participated in retreats held both in urban settings and places of natural beauty like Hawaii and the Bahamas, featuring components such as art therapy, yoga, surfing, and meditation.
Mary Jo Barrett, MSW, co-founder of Chicago's Center for Contextual Change, which treats clients affected by trauma, violence, and abusive behaviors, says that Hargitay's choice of retreats as a way to help survivors of violence heal may be unique. "Other communities are using a retreat model for healing, like organizations for veterans and their families, but I don't know of any other programs doing it for survivors of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault."
She praises Hargitay for focusing on a "collaborative" model -- that is, letting the survivors determine what they need from the retreats instead of having organizers or therapists dictate to them. "Over and over again, people who have been abused say that they feel completely powerless, out of control, devalued. Like they don't matter," Barrett says. "Traditional therapy can sometimes replicate that feeling of powerlessness. Instead, you need to find out how each person feels safe and protected, not violated. We all heal differently, and a retreat gives you lots of opportunities to find that out and figure out the natural process of change."
The foundation recently launched a multi-year research project, led by noted Georgetown University trauma psychiatrist Mary Ann Dutton, PhD, to document the long-term impact of retreats for survivors, and to design a model based on the retreats that can be adopted by other organizations.
Hargitay says that Joyful Heart's approach to helping survivors of intimate violence heal is pretty much how we should approach all our relationships. "Survivors want to be heard. They don't want to be silenced or ignored or told it's not important. It's really been a lesson to me about the power of listening to another human being and not putting your opinion on them, but instead hearing them and mirroring that back to them.
"Isn't that what we want to do with our kids? With our partners? Make them feel heard. That seems so simple, and yet it's deeply profound."
Protect & Serve
She turned 50 last year, she's raising three young children, and she works 14.5-hour days. How does Hargitay stay vibrant and healthy under all the pressure? She has a few go-to strategies, but just like the rest of us, admits she's not always successful at meeting her health goals.
SVU's plots aren't exactly long on comedy, but behind the scenes, Hargitay says there's a lot of laughter -- even if it's sometimes gallows humor. "I'm telling you, the best thing I do for my health is laughing a lot. I try to do it as much as I can and as often as I can. It balances everything out and releases great hormones."
"I eat a lot of green vegetables. I love spinach, kale, squash, zucchini, and asparagus. I could live on them."
"I feel best when I'm off sugar, but I sadly do that about 4 minutes a year. When I stop eating sugar, I feel great, but then I have just one thing and it's truly addictive!"
"I don't sleep a lot, but I'm really trying to change that right now. I'm trying to go to bed earlier, because I've read that that increases your more restful sleep. When I'm in other time zones and get to bed earlier than usual, I really notice that I feel more refreshed."
"I started doing transcendental meditation in February, and I try to do it twice a day for 20 minutes. It's been life-changing for me. Even if I don't get enough sleep, I find if I meditate I have more energy and I can get through the evening beautifully. Everything's doable."
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