Her breakthrough was a role on the fourth season of ER, as Dr. Mark Greene’s unappreciated girlfriend, but she won the job only through sheer chutzpah. “She didn’t get it at first,” says SVU executive producer Neal Baer, who was a writer-producer on ER at the time. “They wanted a blonde.” What a surprise. So he was taken aback when Hargitay showed up the next day, demanded to see ER executive John Wells and talked him into hiring her. “She’s very convincing,” Baer says with an admiring chuckle. When she auditioned for Olivia Benson on SVU, she took a similar tack upon seeing her competitors in the waiting room. “You had better send those girls home,” Hargitay recalls telling series creator Dick Wolf. “This is my part.”
By the time she landed the role, she was deeply in debt ($60,000 to one friend, $30,000 to another—she has paid it all back) and had a rocky romantic history. “I’ve attended various engagement parties for Mariska,” McDermott says with a laugh.
But then along came Hermann, who befriended the actress in 2001 during long breaks on the set. “We would talk about God,” says Hargitay, who was raised Catholic and retained strong spiritual beliefs even as she drifted away from her own religion. For their first date, Hermann invited her to his Presbyterian church. “She floated over to my house afterwards with a big smile on her face,” McDermott recalls. “He’s very soulful, he’s very grounded, he’s the protector of her privacy.” Says Hargitay, “I don’t know if it was because I was older, but I thought, that’s my husband. I knew it.”
The couple married in 2004; August was born two years later. “The baby transformed her,” Meloni says. “He gave her a sense of calm, of peace, of satisfaction, of family life being solidified.” Hargitay talks longingly of her desire for another child, but at 46, she is a realist. “It’s in God’s hands,” she says. “But we’re always open to it.”
The Hargitay-Hermann residence on New York’s Upper West Side has a spectacular view of Central Park and an entryway filled with August’s bike and toys. The ample living room is decorated with Art Deco–style velvet furniture, but Hargitay likes to hang out in the comfortable TV room next door. On this sunny afternoon, her chef has put out dishes of cheese and cold cuts, but she ignores them in favor of the chocolates (“I can’t just eat one; I eat five”). The conversation turns to the constant pressure for actresses to be beautiful. “I think I’m a very attractive person, but I don’t put myself in the realm of the beauty,” she says. “That’s not where I get my esteem. I’m a size 8, and I feel proud of that, because it’s healthy. I’ve never felt compelled to be a skinny actress.”
Her husband wanders in and sits down so close to her that their legs touch. Asked how five years of marriage have changed their relationship, she looks at him, curious to hear his response. Hermann takes the question seriously, noting that in the Bible marriage is referred to as a “great mystery.” “It’s important to continually approach it with awe and reverence,” he says, then adds with a smile, “When you’re trying to get out the door, ‘Why haven’t you called the elevator; why did you forget your wallet again,’ you’re not really in awe.” They laugh. “If people are reading this article to see whether we’ve got it figured out,” he says, “the biggest gift you can give them is to say, ‘We so don’t!’ ”
After Hermann leaves, Hargitay adds, “We balance each other out. I’m much more extroverted; he’s more introverted. I get inspirations and I have big plans; he’s the navigator.”