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.
“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.”
Feeling compelled to respond, Hargitay took a 40-hour rape-crisis counselor training course and launched Joyful Heart in 2004. The group offers nontraditional healing retreats, such as swimming with dolphins, along with therapy programs in New York, Los Angeles and Hawaii and recently has started collaborating with organizations including the U.S. Department of Justice. Linda Fairstein, the former sex crimes prosecutor turned best-selling author, joined the group’s board because she was impressed by Hargitay’s willingness to speak out on the topic. “This cause has never had star power,” Fairstein says. “She’s brought clout and resources and her voice. She’s helped people.”
“Doing something about it takes away some of my sadness,” Hargitay says. “We can get closer to cures by shining a light on [the abuse]. I liken it to what happened with AA 15 years ago, where there’s not a stigma to it. We’d love to see that happen to sexual assault.”
At the party, Hargitay’s husband takes the microphone. A handsome, Yale-educated actor who has had a recurring role on SVU (where he met Hargitay), Hermann jokes about his reaction when, during their courtship, Hargitay broached her vague idea for a founda-tion, involving dolphins: “I was just hoping she wasn’t crazy, because I wanted to marry her.” The crowd laughs. But this has become very much a joint project for the couple. “Peter dove into these issues,” says Maile Zambuto, the executive director of Joyful Heart. “He’s an exquisite writer and has helped us find language to express what we are trying to do.” As Hermann finishes his brief speech, his wife rushes over to give him a from-here-to-eternity kiss for the cameras, then mischievously reaches down to grab his ass. The girl can’t help it.
Growing up in Los Angeles and attending the all-girls Catholic Marymount High School, Hargitay resisted going into her mother’s profession until her teachers suggested that the irrepressible teenager (“I was always the one getting into trouble”) try out for a play. She studied theater at UCLA, won bit parts in B movies and landed prominent roles on Falcon Crest and the short-lived series Downtown. But then her career stalled. “The second half of my twenties, I don’t think I got another job. It was so rough that I wanted to quit,” she says, recalling renting out bedrooms in her house to make ends meet (“It was like a Friends episode”) and working as a waitress and an aide to the elderly. “My father would say, ‘No, we don’t quit in this family.’ The only reason I have the career I have is that I didn’t quit.”
It was daunting for her to come up against her mother’s screen image. Tapped by the studios to be the next Marilyn Monroe, Mansfield was marketed as sex personified. Her daughter’s reaction: “I can never compete, so I don’t try. It’s mega über, it’s legendary, it’s iconic. Being a sex symbol is not my thing; it’s not where I shine.”
Hargitay’s exotic brunette beauty was initially viewed as a mixed blessing by casting agents. “They’re going in another direction,” she recalls her longtime agent, Erwin More, saying after auditions. “A guy at ABC told me to change my name and get a nose job. I said, ‘You get a nose job.’ ”
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.”
The photos decorating the hallway are a family gallery: toddler Mariska with her mother; the serious, big-eyed five-year-old at her father’s wedding; happy moments from her own nuptials and shots of her baby. Hargitay considers this kaleidoscope of memories. “Children, when they lose their mother, have a different antenna: ‘When will I be safe? When will I be home?’ I lost my home too early,” she says. “I’m getting it back through Peter and August, and, strangely, through the foundation. It’s about following the signs, listening to your inner voice. I’m living my life, and I know that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Meryl Gordon profiled Mary-Louise Parker in the June 2009 issue of More.