After eight years of exploring a character you would think that there would be no stone left unturned, but for Mariska Hargitay this is not the case. As a turbulent year, marked by the birth of her son August and the death of her father Mickey, shapes a new Hargitay, it is Law & Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson who channels these changes and turns into an even more intense and emotional character. And as Hargitay signs on to maintain law and order for two more years, we find out what it is that makes her and Detective Benson tick.
Hollywood.com: What made you commit to the show for two more years?
Mariska Hargitay: I was so excited by the storylines. You would think that after eight years you would be done, but the scripts that kept coming in seem to outdo the previous one. Each one was better than the next and also so much more complex. I thought, “How can this happen? How can I, in the eighth year, be completely revitalized, reenergized, and re-inspired to approach this in a new way?” I think that I am more invested in her now than I’ve ever been and I’ve been pretty invested all along. I get excited by the material and what this character has done and how she’s gotten into my own heart.
HW: Was it difficult to get back into the swing of things after your time off?
MH: I’d been off for six months. In eight years I’d never been off for so long, so you think that you get rusty. When I had my child I thought, “I’ll never be able to leave his side again. I’ve got to get off the show.” Then as soon as I went back to SVU it was truly like I never left. It was obviously a gift having my son being able to come to work with me every day. So I don’t feel like I’m pulled and I get to see him all day long. I feel like I’m so lucky because I’m living my dream. I didn’t have to choose one and I’m so not done with Olivia Benson.
HW: Was there ever any talk that the pregnancy would be worked into the series?
MH: No, there wasn’t. I didn’t know what they were going to do, but the show being what it is and the writing being what it is I had utter trust that they would come up with an amazing answer to it. It was great. It was actually really fun and really challenging to cover it up and I think that they handled it really well and really creatively.
HW: What is your favorite aspect of the show?
MH: I would have to say that my favorite thing about SVU is the fact that we give voices to people who really don’t have one. When [executive producer] Neal Baer brought “Loophole” [the episode where children are exposed to pesticides] to me and told me about it you go, “There is no way that they can do that.” But the fact is that they are doing it and they get away with it. There are so many people who don’t know about it and don’t know what to do. So I love that the show is so fair in giving people their voice and their point of view and educating people about what is really going on.
HW: What is the state of the relationship between Benson and Stabler, and where do you want it to go?
MH: It’s been such an exciting ride. I think that what makes Benson and Stabler so close is their passion and their love for the same job. They say that the average lifespan of an SVU detective is four years. People can’t do it longer than that because it’s so difficult and here are two cops that have been doing it for so long and are very isolated in a way. I think that no one else understands them. You get such a deep closeness, but they have so much sexual chemistry. Sometimes they get so close, and that’s frustrating. Then they disagree, and it’s so difficult and scary because it feels like a betrayal. It’s just so loaded and layered. Now we’re back together and stronger than ever. A lot of people ask me if they’ll ever get together. I know that people want that, and I think that sometimes even Olivia wants that because he’s the man in her life, but I don’t think that’ll ever happen.
HW: Seeing as SVU detectives have a lifespan of about four years, how has it been for you to film such an emotional series for more than eight years now?
MH: It’s been really hard, and I have to say that it’s toughened me. I always say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that’s so true because I’m definitely a different human being than I was when I started the show. I was a pansy when I started shooting SVU. This has made me go so deep and search inside myself and it has made me so strong. For a couple of years it was really hard and I thought that maybe I was done because I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. It was just too dark. Then you think, “You can sit in it and you can wallow in it” and then you’re like, “Wait, I have to do something.” I think that pain and frustration, or me feeling like I can’t do anything, I finally got up and said, “Well, I can do something and I’m going to do what I can.” So for that I feel so grateful. I feel grateful that it made me take a move into action.
HW: How did you take action?
MH: I started [The Joyful Heart] foundation when I learned the statistics about sexual assault and realized how swept up under the carpet it was. I’m just so honored to be able to give a voice to some people that didn’t know how to come forward or didn’t know how to have a voice. So it’s been a really exciting journey for me that has gone in a lot of different directions. I never thought that I would be someone who would start a foundation or that I would do the work that I do now. I’m absolutely thrilled.
HW: Has being a mother made it harder to be part of the show?
MH: Oh, yeah. I mean, I knew that a lot of my mom friends couldn’t watch the show because they thought that it was too difficult and I could never understand that, but now that I’m a mom I find it more difficult to act the scenes because you go to those places in your head in a different way and you imagine, “What if that was my son?” I think that it makes you a different kind of human being and it certainly makes you a different kind of actor because everything just penetrates you so much deeper. I remind myself that this really happened to someone. That’s quite a responsibility and we’re telling that story accurately. So that’s what’s hard about the show. It’s hard to go those places. It’s hard to act them. It’s hard to talk about them. It’s hard to think about them. But the truth is that I know it makes a difference because of the emails that I get. So it’s worth it.
HW: Of all the episodes you’ve done, is there one that sticks out in your mind as the most memorable?
MH: Oh, my God, I have like five of them. One of my favorite episodes was an episode called “Fault” where Chris is taken hostage by Lou Diamond Phillips and he has a gun to his head. Chris and I are faced with the truth of our relationship and the closeness and the cost of it. It’s just a hard scene where we both have to admit what we mean to each other, and it was a really scary and painful scene to shoot. That was one of them.
Then there was another episode called “Wrath” which I loved. It was a show about a rapist who was a son of a rapist, and Olivia being the son of a rapist compared herself so much [to him]. So there were a lot of comparisons between this character and myself in terms of violence, questioning about why I was a cop and why I was drawn to the job, and was I violent and was I bad like my father who was a rapist–so that one, I thought, was a really great and complicated episode.
HW: What is it about Olivia that you love?
MH: I love that she’s a lioness. I love that she is committed and so passionate. It’s not that she’s fearless, but she does things anyway. I think that she gets really scared, but I love that she loves her job and the victims so much that she’s like this mother. She’s this tireless and loving mother. She’s a bottomless well of justice for these people. I want her to be my best friend. I want her to take care of me. [Laughs]. She’s utterly pure and focused in her passion and relentless in caring for those who she feels don’t have a voice.
HW: What aspects do you still hope to explore?
MH: I think that Olivia has had to shut down a lot of her own feelings. She doesn’t have family. She doesn’t have a man. She’s not in a relationship. She doesn’t have children. I think that there is three fourths of the pie that she’s been in denial about and I think that she’s ready to look inward instead of always looking outward. She’s always taking care of everyone else and not taking care of herself. I think that we’re going to see inside of her this year and what she wants and see what not having a family and a relationship and children, what that costs her.
HW: You’ve had a very big year, both good and bad. Has motherhood and the death of your father changed you?
MH: Completely. Completely. It changes a human being. I think that I love harder and love deeper and feel things more deeply and understand things so much more. I mean, I’ve had the complete circle of life within two months happen to me and they are two events in your life, which will be forever changed. I am changed and I take all of it, accept all of it, love all of it, am grateful for all of it and I just understand the world a lot better.
HW: It’s been said that women have a sixth sense. Do you think that women make better investigators than men, honestly?
MH: I don’t know if it’s better. I think that there are many ways to skin the beast. I do think that women have a sixth sense and I think that they can intuit things and feel things and sort of sense things. It’s like you get a vibe off of someone a little bit. Just like Chris and I, we do things differently, but we have different strengths and weaknesses. So I think that’s the strength of a woman. Yes.