“I was doing stunts when I was pregnant,” she says. (She and her husband, actor Peter Hermann, have a son, August, now three.) “I’d fall, jump on guys. Now there are scenes when I have to run, and I’ll only take a few steps. Everyone is super-careful of me.”
In fact, Hargitay could teach a grad-level psych course on resilience. There is a steely core of self-confidence beneath her madcap manner. “Mariska doesn’t bury things. She owns her sadness, but she tries to turn it into something positive and move on,” says Ashley McDermott, a friend since their sandbox days. Says Hargitay, “There’s so much that you can get mad about. Out of self-preservation, I focus on being grateful.”
Every day when Hargitay looks in the mirror, she sees a tangible reminder of the tragedies that can occur in life. As we talk, a makeup artist dabs concealer on a small red scar on the right side of her forehead, close to her hairline—the legacy of a car accident that occurred in June 1967, when she was only three years old. Her mother, Jayne Mansfield, the bombshell star of films such as Too Hot to Handle and The Girl Can’t Help It, was killed; Mariska and her two older brothers, riding in the backseat, escaped without serious injury. The children were raised by their father, who was divorced from Mansfield, and his second wife, Ellen, a former flight attendant, to whom Hargitay grew close.
The mother she scarcely knew—but who is featured in photos and movie posters prominently displayed in Hargitay’s New York apartment and SVU dressing room—looms large for her. “She’s definitely always with me,” Hargitay says, acknowledging that she’s spent endless amounts of time wondering “why, why, why?” and talking through the loss in therapy. But now, she adds, she can take pleasure in hearing stories about Mansfield: “I love it when people say, ‘She had such a great laugh, and so do you.’ When I find similarities, it gives me so much peace.”
Julianna Margulies, who worked with Hargitay on ER, recalls that Hargitay hid her scar behind bangs for many years before letting it be visible. “It’s a fantastic reminder of love, in a weird way,” Margulies says. “Even though it came from a trauma, it reminds her of her mom. Mariska’s gone through the wringer and back again. She wants to mother people the way she wasn’t mothered.”
Those who know Hargitay well say that she’s the first to call when anything goes wrong. Hilary Swank, a close pal, recalls that when her marriage to Chad Lowe broke up, “Our friendship became deeper. I leaned on her and she took my weight—and I am very grateful.” Hargitay has been known to pay her friends’ medical bills and underwrite educational costs for their children. “She is generous to a fault,” says actress Kelly Miller.
On a rainy fall evening, many of Hargitay’s friends have gathered at a New York party space to honor her and the work done by her Joyful Heart Foundation, which has raised nearly $5 million to help victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Hargitay and her husband pose for the cameras, then during the cocktail hour she does the girlfriend thing, pulling Katie Couric aside to wipe off migrating mascara, searching for Mary-Louise Parker’s reading glasses, snagging sips from photographer Nancy Ellison’s cosmopolitan.
Joyful Heart grew directly from the horrific story lines that SVU has showcased for 10 years. “When you’re as sensitive as Mariska and care as much as she does, it weighs on you,” Swank says. Fan letters are usually fun for stars, but not in Hargitay’s case; her inbox has been filled with agonized outpourings from rape victims. Strangers react as if she actually is Detective Benson, come to right their wrongs. “I was at the theater with Mariska, and this woman came up and burst into tears,” McDermott recalls. “Mariska threw her arms around her.” As Hargitay says, “There’s a lot of projection.”