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Joyful Heart in the News
'Law & Order: SVU' Star Mariska Hargitay Helps Real-Life Victims
Mariska Hargitay’s Hamptons home couldn’t be further removed from the set of her hit NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, where she’s been playing Detective Olivia Benson for the past 14 years. “This has been an unbelievable, life-changing role,” says Hargitay, who was born in Los Angeles to Hollywood icon Jane Mansfield and bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. “The combination of playing this character and moving to New York really toughened me up. When I was younger, I had dreams, but I didn’t really think that I could accomplish them because I was too fearful and I doubted myself. There are days when I feel proud that I was able to feel the fear and push past it. Perseverance takes you a long way, but being brave enough to not give up is huge.”
The rewards of Hargitay’s efforts have been substantial. Her role on SVU has garnered her a Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy Award (plus seven Emmy, two Golden Globe, and three SAG nominations) as well as made her one of the highest-paid actresses on television. It’s also where she met her husband of almost nine years, Peter Hermann, who has a recurring role as lawyer Trevor Langon on the series. Together, the couple have three children—sons August and Andrew, and daughter Amaya.
“I get up, leave the house at 5:30, and I don’t get home until 10; unless they come visit me, I don’t see them,” she says of balancing motherhood and career. “There are times we shoot on Saturdays. There are times when you want all your friends to come over because it’s summertime, but you don’t get to have those one-on-one talks that you crave. So, there [are some sacrifices involved in playing Olivia], yet the payoff is absolutely huge.”
Her role on SVU also inspired another one of Hargitay’s greatest roles, that of activist. The actress founded the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 to help “heal, educate, and empower” survivors of sexual assault.
“People don’t want to look at sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse that are so pervasive in our society, and I felt like I needed to do something about it,” she says.
Since its inception, Joyful Heart has helped thousands of survivors rebuild their lives through healing and wellness programs, educational efforts, and advocacy work.
The organization also hosts fundraising events in the Hamptons, where Hargitay spends the summer with her family—far, far removed from New York City, where her hit series is filmed. And it looks as if East Hampton will be just as constant as her TV role. “We will never, ever leave or sell this house here,” she tells her friend George Stephanopoulos—a frequent visitor with his wife, actress Ali Wentworth. “We will always be here in this house."
George Stephanopoulos: Here is how I know it’s summer: The first time I see you jump into a swimming pool fully clothed. Where did that come from?
Mariska Hargitay: [Laughs] Oh gosh, that warms my heart. You just made my day! When I was a kid, at the beginning of summer, my dad used to throw the watermelon in the pool, and we would all jump in after it. It was the most fun time, with so much freedom and carpe diem attached to it. Since I work all year long, and I have people telling me what to do and where to be, there is something about jumping in a pool with all my clothes on—and making my friends do it—that gives me such pure joy.
GS: Tell me your perfect Hamptons summer day—what do you do?
MH: Nothing is planned. Get up, Peter makes me a cup of coffee, and we go with the kids outside on the swing set—that’s what we did today. [Then] we go on a run on the beach—we’ve done it twice this week; I’m very proud. We come home, make lunch, play with the kids, and then around 5, when it cools down, we take them to the beach. Then our friends stop by, and we make them jump in the pool. [Laughs]
GS: You do have about the most full life of anyone I know—this incredibly demanding job, three kids, a husband, and about the largest network of friends I have ever seen. Given all that juggling you have to do, be honest, what falls through the cracks?
MH: To be honest, pretty much everything falls through the cracks at one point or another. Diapers, wipes, moving the car so we don’t get a ticket, a friend’s birthday, the list goes on. The other day I went to dinner wearing two different shoes. Fashion sense definitely slips through the cracks.
GS: The most amazing things that you’ve done with your work, the Joyful Heart Foundation, has grown out of your role on SVU. It’s inspiring and made a real difference to people. Talk a little bit about where the idea specifically came from and what you’ve been able to do.
MH: Sexual assault and domestic violence was something I didn’t know about when I started the show. And through all the research that I did to prepare to play this role, I learned the statistics and was so deeply horrified that I wanted to do something about it. I think the biggest eye-opener was learning that one in four women will be sexually or physically assaulted in her lifetime. Then I started to receive letters from victims, many disclosing their stories of abuse, many for the first time in their lives. Because I was living in this material, I felt that Joyful Heart was something I could actively do to feel like I was part of a change.
GS: With the darkness you deal with on basically every single episode of SVU, how do you keep yourself from getting dragged down by these real issues?
MH: I have dark moments. There is no way you can be immersed in this material and not [be affected]. I definitely don’t see the world the same way I did before I started it. But everything is yin and yang—there is so much joy in the world; everything is in balance. Laughter is my drug of choice. I have friends in my life—one of which you know better than anyone [George’s wife, Ali Wentworth], who can fill my soul with laughter. Just having someone make you laugh so hard that it hurts is so healing to me.
GS: I met you before I saw the show, and it’s a testament to how great an actress you are. But Olivia Benson and Mariska Hargitay are not all that alike. You’re a comedian at heart!
MH: [Laughs] My friends still say, “I don’t know how you snowed this country into thinking that you’re Olivia Benson. Hopefully [a comedic role] will be act two, when SVU is done.
GS: You talk about second acts. Your first act, for an actor, came fairly late. When you look back, was it a blessing?
MH: It completely was a blessing. I’ve always called myself a late bloomer because my late 20s were rough. I meet all these young, self-possessed women, and I was not that girl when I was 20. I just gave the graduation address at Chapin [School]. And I was so moved by these women, these little superstars in the making. They are so determined and focused and educated. They really just impress me so much. I just did not get it when I was that age. I didn’t start working as an actor steadily until I was 30, and so I was grateful for everything. I was also married late, I had kids late—I did everything late. And I look at it as the greatest blessing of my life, because I don’t think I could’ve handled it, and I definitely wouldn’t have appreciated it the way I do now.
GS: Have you ever thought to yourself that maybe 14 seasons on SVU is good enough?
MH: I can’t say “Oh yes, enough.” [My husband] Peter and I have been talking about that for years, and with the babies, all the time I think I can’t be away from them. Then we figure it out—we come up with a schedule, and they come visit me at work. But I am so deeply invested in the show and in Joyful Heart that it inspires me. When I started this show, I wasn’t an activist; I was an actor looking for creative fulfillment. Then I found this role that I deeply connected with, and it opened up this whole other planet to my life.
GS: You mentioned Peter, your partner in life, the world of Joyful Heart, and raising your children. How does it work with the two of you, specifically, with the parenting and balancing your strengths and weaknesses?
MH: Peter and I are the polar opposites, and we are such a great balance. He possesses everything I wish I had, and I know I have things in me that are just not who he is. It’s been such a gift; the second I met Peter, there were so many signs that this was my guy. We bring such different perspectives to our child rearing. The other day, [my son] August said, “Mom, you’re so much more fun than Dad.”
GS: Who is the disciplinarian?
MH: We are disciplinarians in different ways. I’m not going to lie: I like to be the good-time mom, but there are so many things we are obviously in agreement about.
GS: You’ve got to be one of the most powerful women in television right now. And I’m wondering when you believed or felt that you had the power that everyone else saw?
MH: I probably felt that I made it when I went home to Westwood: There was a little corner store called Stan’s Doughnut Shop, and when I was in college, I used to beg Stan to name a doughnut after me. He said, “Not until you make it!” About five or six years ago, I went home, marched myself into the shop, and saw the Mariska doughnut! I felt pretty good about myself. It has sprinkles on it. I wanted it to be a doughnut with chocolate and tons of peanut butter, but he said that was already taken, so obviously I don’t have that much juice, but I think that’s a process.