Mariska Hargitay is rehearsing a scene in which her detective character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit saves the life of an unconscious girl who has attempted suicide. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation will be involved, says director Peter Leto. “My first make-out scene on SVU!” Hargitay cracks; then, in an effort to put the young actress at ease before they lock lips, Hargitay tells her, “Honey, you’re hot, but this is not that kind of show.” A crew member on the New Jersey soundstage yells, “Not this week!”
Hargitay crouches on the ground to perform CPR and realizes that her cleavage is busting out of her low-cut shirt. “I need a new bra,” she calls out, “or America will be very happy.” Leto, who has worked with Hargitay since just after the show debuted in 1999, teases her about her weak and strong points, saying, “I’d rather shoot down your shirt than up your neck.” Hargitay roars with laughter and replies, “Life after 40—it’s beautiful, people!”
Law & Order: SVU, for which Hargitay has won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe award playing the brooding sex crimes investigator Olivia Benson, is a dark show, and the psyche of the heroine, who was herself born of a rape, is even darker. So Hargitay’s nonstop wisecracks are startling at first, but they’re clearly a necessary mood-lightener. “She can fit very well into an eighth-grade-boys’ locker room mentality,” quips Hargitay’s SVU co-star Christopher Meloni. “We bust each other’s chops.”
The past year, however, has brought frustrations that have tested even Hargitay’s ebullient personality. NBC’s decision to program The Jay Leno Show at 10 pm weeknights meant moving scripted dramas like SVU to nine pm, and that led at first to an exodus of viewers. “It’s tough; I don’t know that it’s a show you want to put your kids to bed to,” says Neal Baer, an SVU executive producer.
Kicking back in her office during a break, Hargitay agrees. “It ruined our numbers,” she says. “The first four episodes, we were considerably down because nobody knew when the show was on. Finally, we’re starting to find our audience again.” Given Leno’s disappointing ratings, she wishes the network brass would reconsider. “I hope we go back to where we belong,” she says. “It was doing so well. Why mess with it?”
After a protracted renegotiation last year, Hargitay signed a contract that takes her through the 2010 to 2011 season, but she’s already thinking beyond that. “I constantly worry about money,” she says, a surprising comment given that Forbes recently estimated her annual earnings at $8.5 million. “I make a lot now,” she explains, “but I don’t feel that way, because I was poor and had no money for a lot longer than I’ve had it. As an actor, if this show ends next year, then what? As an aging woman, then what? I’m saving money to live on, for the future. There are not that many roles for women, and I’ve been blessed with one of the great ones.”
Her financial anxiety may also be the lingering aftereffect of a serious accident she had on the set. The necklace she’s wearing—a regular accessory for Detective Benson—reads fearless, but that word has now taken on an ironic note. While performing a stunt in October 2008, Hargitay landed awkwardly and didn’t realize until months later that she had suffered a collapsed lung. “I thought it was a pulled rib. I’m pretty tough,” she says. “When I couldn’t breathe anymore, I got an X-ray, and they couldn’t believe I was walking.” The result: three surgeries and a long recovery. An athlete since childhood (cheered on by her late father, Hungarian-born bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, who won fame as Mr. Universe), she has long reveled in her physical prowess, but now she must take it easy. Learning to hold back has been a major adjustment.