Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Second Act

Psychics told the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star that the second half of her life would be much better than the first. Today, with a supercharged career and a rapidly expanding family, she's on a whole new journey. At the end of this article, be sure to read our exclusive chat with Mariska about her newly adopted son!

By Amanda Robb
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Photograph: Matt Jones

When I arriveat Mariska Hargitay’s apartment in New York City, I am afraid I have the wrong address. Next to the door is a beat-up Spider-Man scooter, and as soon as I ring the bell, feet pound and a woman screams, “Just a minute!” When the door finally opens, I am greeted by a baby’s butt.

“Come in, come in,” Hargitay calls out in her husky-lusty voice. She swings the infant, a coffee-colored dumpling in a pink gingham sundress, to her hip and offers me her free hand to shake. I take it but step back. Unlike any other famous person I’ve ever met, Hargitay is bigger than I ­expected—basketball player tall, with swimmer’s shoulders and Michelle Obama biceps. And unlike the emotionally damaged detective she plays on TV, Hargitay is smiley. Super smiley. Or maybe the baby has cast some sort of spell on her, because when I introduce myself, the Emmy winner responds by introducing not herself but her six-month-old daughter, whose name is Amaya.

Of course, Hargitay is within her rights to be a little dazed right now. A new baby is only one of the changes she’s adjusting to. The other is the near-total revamp of the TV series she has starred in for 12 years, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Last spring her costar and close friend Chris Meloni left the show; his absence was filled by not one but two actors, Danny Pino and Kelli Giddish, each at least a decade younger than Hargitay. Andre Braugher, whose most recent credit is TNT’s Men of a Certain Age, also joined SVU as a defense attorney. And with the exit of executive producer Neal Baer, Warren Leight took over as an executive producer andshow runner.

With all the transitions, there were even rumors that Hargitay’s own role in the series might change. But as she settles onto a sleigh sofa in a sitting room painted the red-orange of a Hawaiian sunset, Hargitay really wants to talk about what is literally pressing on her heart: her daughter.

The long road to this baby begins with Hargitay’s love life. Despite some serious relationships, she was still single at 38. (“They were great guys,” she says, “but it wasn’t right.”)Then the multilingual, Yale-educated,green-eyed, block-jawed, six-foot-five Peter Hermann ambled onto the Law & Order: SVU set to take on a recurring role as defense attorney Trevor Langan. “I just knew,” ­Hargitaysays. “He was so my opposite. A thinker rather than a let’s-do-­everything-now person. A gentle giant who reminded me of my grandpa”—an association that made Hermann pause when he was hoping to get her to go out with him.

They married the year Hargitay turned 40. Though the couple wanted children, they decided to spend a year simply enjoying being together. “We were both very OK with making a family through biology or adoption,” she says. “Or both. I don’t know where it comes from in Peter, but for me it probably comes from being raised by my stepmother. She didn’t carry me in her tummy, but she was the one who was there. And she’s the one who is still here.”

In 2005, Hargitay became pregnant, and the next year she gave birth to the couple’s son, August. She says she and her husband “would be perfectly happy to have another biological child,” but another pregnancy hasn’t followed.

In early 2010, the couple met with an attorney and began the process of adopting. The lawyer warned them it would be arduous, and he was right. “People give up their babies for various reasons,” she says. “And like anything in life, you’re dealing with a whole spectrum.” One woman sent them regular updates on a pregnancy that they later learned had never existed. Another sent them results of prenatal tests that had never been taken. Still another couple changed their minds after the baby was born. “But the conversations we had with those parents were profound and beautiful,” she says. “Really, I felt lucky to be part of their story. It was a really happy ending.”

What kept Hargitay so sanguine throughout the emotional tumble? “I’m not going to pretend it was all a joyful journey,” she says. But she and Hermann had faith that they were destined to be parents. “We were very clear about wanting our baby,”she says. “We would wait for our baby. I knew that the baby meant for our family would come.”

Forbearance through tough times is a skill in which the actress is well practiced. Though she was crowned Miss Beverly Hills at age 18 and began landing acting jobs soon after, the roles were small and infrequent. (They could also be humiliating: Hargitay was cast as Dulcea in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie only to be fired, and costarred with a jive-talking French mastiff in Tequila and Bonetti.) With paychecks so scarce through her twenties, she took every kind of day job she could get: home health care aide for elderly people, playground aide for juvenile people. She sold books. She waited on tables. She rented every extra bedroom in her house, which she owned only because her father, Mickey, Mr. Universe 1955 turned Los Angeles contractor, had built it. She was still often in debt—tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

When the big 3-0 approached and passed, most actresses still waiting to be discovered would have gone to Plan B. Hargitay went to psychics. “And they always told me, ‘The second half of your life is going to be so much better than your first,’ ” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I want it now!’ And those times were hard for me. But now I’m grateful. Because the truth is, I felt a little off-kilter for my first 25 years. My life began at 30 and took off at 40. I feel like my life in a way was preparing me for SVU.”

It’s true that everything that is important to Hargitay has roots in her role as Detective Olivia Benson. That means her husband, her children and her charity. The Joyful Heart Foundation, which Hargitay started in 2004, provides services for victims of sexual assault or abuse and advocates on their behalf.

Before working on SVU, Hargitay says, her only goal was to be “an artistically fulfilled actor.” But the series quickly educated her about the crimes that affect one in four women. More profoundly, fans began reaching out to Hargitay as if she were her character—and that character is not only a sex-crimes detective but a woman who is a product of rape and winds up assaulted and traumatized as well.

“‘Olivia! Olivia!’ people scream at her,” Hargitay’s friend Nancy Jarecki, founder and CEO of Betty Beauty, says. “Seriously, we were at a play recently, and this woman runs up to her and says, ‘I don’t feel alone anymore. You don’t know how much you’ve helped me.’ I wasn’t sure if she meant Olivia or Mariska.”

Hargitay doesn’t think victims reach out just because they confuse her with her character. She believes they either know or sense that she has suffered trauma herself.

When Hargitay was three years old, she was in a car accident. It occurred in Louisiana when the vehicle she was riding in crashed into a commercial truck. The three adults in the front seat—including her mother, the actress and sex symbol Jayne ­Mansfield—died instantly. Hargitay and her two brothers survived; she still has a scar on her forehead from the injuries she suffered. But even before the accident, Hargitay’s earliest years were no doubt tumultuous: She was born while her parents were in the process of divorcing.

“Trauma is trauma,” Hargitay says. “And trauma doesn’t really go away unless you work at it. What I kept hearing in letters from victims, from people disclosing their pain, was not dissimilar to my own feelings. A violent crime was perpetrated on them, and something was stolen from them, and they have a piece of themselves missing. I could relate to that.”

Hargitay has tried all sorts of approaches to healing her inner wounds and finding her life’s path. Her friend Maria Bello, now starring in NBC’s Prime Suspect, remembers participating in a “vision walk” with Hargitay when the two had small roles on ER. “In a vision walk, you take a snapshot in your head and see yourself in complete joy: what you are wearing, what you are doing,” Bello says. “Then you tell your friend what you saw. Then you expand on what you see in your snapshot, and your friend expands on what you describe. One of the things that came out of that walk was that Mariska saw herself moving to New York and becoming a big TV star.”

As helpful as Hargitay found that exercise and other soul-probing pursuits such as journaling, meditation and yoga, her most significant spiritual experience took place when she was surrounded by a pod of dolphins.

In 2002 she went swimming off the coast of Kona, Hawaii, and to this day she stumbles when trying to describe what happened. “All I can say is that I was dive-bombed by about 15 dolphins, and they surrounded me, kept coming toward me, missing me by an inch.” The friendly assault left her understandably shaken: “I thought I was having a heart attack. It felt like a baptism. Whatever it was or wasn’t, the point is, when I came out, I felt a serious heart opening. Something was released. A new passageway opened, and a lot of my fear seemed to dissipate. I had a big channel in me. A fearlessness, an openness, an active hope: I can have anything. I can have it all. I can have peace and happiness and joy. And something in me healed that day. After that, I met my husband; I started Joyful Heart. I wanted to share it. It has been profound.”

The accomplishments of Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation have been significant. It has lobbied state and local governments to test the medical evidence in more than 200,000 rape kits currently backlogged in the United States. And it has paid for more than 5,000 sexual assault and abuse survivors to participate in healing retreats, including ocean experiences in Hawaii.

After nearly a year of false starts and false hopes, Hargitay and Hermann met Amaya’s birth mother. Instantly, Hargitay had a good feeling: “Something was just different, and we knew it was right.” But the woman said she was carrying a boy, which Hargitay found disappointing. “Of course I was open to any child,” she says. “It’s not like you ever get to pick. But ever since my mother died, I’d dreamed of having a girl. Still, I knew something was right, so we called the birth mother and said, ‘Yes!’ ”

The birth mother thought it was a good match, too, but said she had to tell them one thing: The doctor had made a mistake. The baby was a girl.

Adopting provoked in Hargitay the same intense, overwhelming love that giving birth did. But for the first few days with Amaya, she says, that feeling was tinged with disbelief: “Is this really true? Do I really get to keep her? Is someone going to take her away?” There was also the fact that neitherof her parents was there to meet their granddaughter. But Hargitay is philosophical about those losses. Her father, who died in 2006 from complications of multiple myeloma and colon cancer, lived to meet her son and enjoy his daughter’s enormous success. “I think it’s sad when people don’t get the proper good-bye,” she says. “I got to tell him everything, and he got to tell me everything. He saw me living the life that he wanted for me. I think he was really proud. I feel like it was a lock and seal.”

Hargitay has even carved out a certain peace about losing her mother when she was just a toddler. “I used to say, ‘I wish I knew her more. I was only three.’ And a friend said, ‘All you have to do is look in the mirror.’ It sounds so weird, but there’s a truth in it. And it gave me peace and understanding that we’re half of our parents. It sort of quelled some of my angst, or unrest, or need. So much of who I am is my parents—all three of them. I am grateful for all three. My son always goes, ‘Mama has two mamas.’He calls [her stepmother] Ellen ‘Grandma.’ He calls Jayne ‘Mama’s mama.’ He’s so sweet. He’ll say, ‘You don’t have your mom and dad, but you have me and Daddy.’ And I say, ‘Yes, I know, that’s all I need.’ ”

That’s not exactly true. Like most working mothers, Hargitay craves more of one thing: time with her family. For 12 years, she has pulled 15-hour days on SVU. And right now her husband is performing eight shows a week as a sympathetic German officer in the Broadway hit War Horse.

By the time she had Amaya in her arms, Hargitay knew that as a mom she wanted to do things differently her second time around. “August came to work with me every day for the first eight months,” she explains. “But with Amaya, I just didn’t want to bring her. It’s so gross on set. I love the show. I really do. But I had no life.

“When we began negotiations for this season,” she continues, “I asked for a four-day workweek.” She got the deal. And even though Hargitay describes Meloni’s departure from SVU as “like losing a limb,” she says she loves the new team. Danny Pino says he’ll be forever grateful to her for easing his jangly SVU screen-test nerves by greeting him with a hug instead of a handshake, and watching former Cold Case star Pino and Hargitay “interview” a “suspect” together onSVU—well, you’d think they really are detectives and have been partners forever.

Hargitay says she is delighted that she and her new costars have onscreen chemistry, and she is thrilled to be working a bit less. “It’s still hard,” says actress Debra Messing, a friend of Hargitay’s who recently moved into her apartment building. “The other day Mariska called and said, ‘August has a fever, and I’m stuck on set. Will you check on him?’ ” It wasn’t that Hargitay didn’t trust her babysitter; she just wanted a sort of ­“auntie” to look in on him. “So I ran up to her apartment and took his ­temperature and gave him [children’s] Advil and snuggled with him,” adds Messing. “Then I took pictures of us and sent them to her so she could see he was OK.”

While Hargitay and I are talking in her sitting room (and taking frequent breaks to admire Amaya—“She smiled!” “She frowned!” “Ooh, ooh, did you see that face?”), the front door opens, and a babysitter leads in two children. The clearly besotted Hargitay cries out, “August!”

It’s her son and his cousin Lexi (Hermann’s sister and her family are visiting from Germany). Hargitay kisses both kids and proceeds to quiz them about the merits of the movie Winnie the Pooh, which they’ve just seen. August, a boy with impossibly large and expressive eyes, reports on a scary part. Then, as if communicating by telepathy, the children simultaneously disappear, then reappear with umbrellas, which they open over our respective heads, announcing that they, the umbrella holders, are invisible.

“Ahhhh,” Hargitay sighs. “This is the stuff I live for.”

It’s true, Messing says. Despite Hargitay’s professional success—the best-actress Emmy and Golden Globe; the record-setting salary (at reportedly $395,000 an episode in 2010, she was the highest-paid actress on primetime television); the groundbreaking, woman-championing role—intimacy is the real stuff of the actress’s life.

When Messing lived in California and Hargitay and her family visited there, they bypassed fancy hotels in favor of sleepovers at Messing’s house. And when Messing recently moved back to New York to star in the NBC series Smash and chose Hargitay’s apartment building as her new home, Hargitay ordered 200 red balloons and one of the Statue of Liberty. They were aloft in Messing’s son Roman’s room when the family arrived, along with a note, “Welcome home, Roman.”

“You should have seen Mariska when we took the kids to Disneyland,” Messing says. “She was so happy about having everyone together and having a little time—well, I thought we’d go to bed at seven, but after dinner, Mariska was like, ‘Anyone want to go on more rides?’ Of course they did. And we did. And we watched the fireworks. We were up until 11:45 pm and had the time of our lives.”

After what seems a rather long time trying to conduct an interview under umbrellas held by giggly children who insist they can’t be seen, I am delivered when August and Lexi finally grow bored and scamper off. Hargitay returns her gaze to Amaya, looking at her with the hungry love of Raphael’s Tempi Madonna. I have the feeling the actress’s attention has been diverted, and my questions sound to her as if they are coming from far, far away.

Amaya gurgles and smiles and suddenly furrows her brow.

Hargitay furrows hers right back. Then she spins the infant around and sniffs her bottom. “Wow!” she says. “Excuse us.”

Amanda Robb wrote “To Hell with Inner Beauty” in the October issue of More

EXCLUSIVE! Read our interview with Mariska about her newly-adopted son, Andrew.

Check out our slideshow of Mariska through the years.

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First Published Tue, 2011-10-25 10:58

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