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She recently was voted America’s favorite female television character. She’s been playing the same character for over fifteen years. To put that into context, her character has lived longer than teens entering high school this year.
Olivia Benson is why people watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. That, and the phenomenal writing, great cast, amazing directing, show-stopping plot, and more. Mariska Hargitay plays Olivia Benson. Read our interview with Hargitay and SVU producer Warren Leight about Oliva and the show.
How’d you become a director?
Mariska Hargitay: I’ve been luckily paying attention for years and I have the A-team that writes to my strength as a director and it’s been an incredible inspiration and a joy. I obviously have a pretty strong view about things, so for years you see someone going, “Oh, no those are this way.” But it’s been an incredibly fun challenge and trip and education. I really love it, I find it very challenging, and because it truly is a different set of skills and you need the different tools. And sometimes I’m up for the challenge and sometimes I’m so exhausted I can’t see straight. My confidants, my consiglieres, we all talk about when I should do it and when I shouldn’t. But I’ve enjoyed it and I was blessed with these incredible actors and the last one with Danny Pino and Armand Assante surpassed my wildest dreams. It was an incredible experience and again, it was perfect. But it was an education though because actors can be sort of myopic in what they see and how they experience things. You know, it’s “How would I feel? What would I do? Me, me, me, I, I, I.” And you have to be as an actor, but as a director, no one cares about you at all. And you have to be everyone, and see every side and you have to rally a group of people and be a true leader so there are all these great things. You know, some things I’m great at, some things, I’m like “Ok, I need to work on.” But it was a thrill. It was a thrill.
Benson is America’s favorite TV character. What is it that America is responding to?
MH: You know, it’s so encouraging and exciting to me, this character, this beautifully conceived and written character. I think it really speaks to compassion and strength, and what women are – in so many ways, it’s the best part of who we are. She is fearless, she is a lioness, she is a protector, she is compassionate and empathetic, so we feel safe with her and all of those feminine things that we are. And yet, we’re not pigeon-holed because she’s a bad ass, she’ll kick your ass, she’ll get it down, she’ll protect you. And even though she has fear because she is human, she’ll fucking do it anyway. You know what I mean? And I think that’s what it is, and the writers have written this character again because she’s noble and flawed like we are, but she keeps her eye on the goal and keeps her eye on the truth. You know, it’s funny, my friend gave me the Wonder Woman book today—my niece and nephew gave it to me. It was so meaningful because what is she? She is the defender of truth, and I think a woman from Harvard conceived this character—you know, she’s the best in all of us. And I think that’s what Olivia strives to be and recently does it too. She does it all- it’s not easy but she doesn’t quit trying. Takes the hit, gets up again.
Warren Leight: She’s evolved a lot, these past five years.
MH: Yeah, she’s evolved and keep evolving. Being a mother and saying I can’t do this and she’s this, the boss, and she has a kid—she’s boss and in charge of a kid. But I think this idea of evolving and stretching and growing and showing up and being there is really helpful- I just love that that’s what people are responding to.
WL: Well what I love in that poll is that men found her their favorite woman as well and that was significant to me, because you think they’re going to go for something dumber. There’s this fear if there’s a strong female central character in your show, that’s off putting to men, but it isn’t. They actually responded very very strongly to Olivia and that’s the surprise for network executives- that she can run the squad and no one’s put off by it or throwing around the bitch word or anything.
MH: Well one of the important things that occurred to me while I was playing this character, again, was the compassion piece. That was when I went through the forty hour training to become a counselor and what we learned there is the idea of this bad ass cop who almost serves as a rape crisis counselor. [She] married into one but also maintained her own femininity and heart while she evolves and grows up and that was so important to me because humanity is right there. And she always comes to me from a broken place. She didn’t come into this world like “I’ve got everything going for me.” No she’s the broken product of a rape victim and then said, “How can I take this hole, this deficit, this pain that I am, that keeps me related and understand people and then make it my strength?” That’s also what we’re looking for: nobility of people. If somebody takes their setback, whatever cards we’ve been given, and then overcomes it, so I think that.
On September 9, The Knockturnal was on the set of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, set to premiere its seventeenth season on September 23 at 9pm on NBC. The second episode of the season, “Transgender Bridge” plays a big role around Peter Scanavino’s and Raul Esparza’s characters. Read on to see what Raul Esparza has to say about LGBT topics relating to people of different ages today as opposed to years before. Read on to see what they have to say about the show and even semi-address Taylor Swift’s guest star rumor.
Raul Esparza: I wanna talk about Taylor Swift coming on the show.
Well you guys make sure that she comes on the show.
RE: Oh I told Taylor, “Oh, you have to come on the show.” And she said, “The fuck you mean?”
Peter Scanavino: The two shows I’ve been on, it was Mariska [Hargitay] with Taylor Swift and Mads Mikkelsen with Rihanna. The day we were shooting something, they were like, “Mads isn’t here right now, he’s shooting a video with Rihanna.” And we’re like “What the f—!”
So you’re circling it all but are you at all—
PS: It’s ok, I don’t need to be in a music video to make my own.
Well sorry that the show is over but I can imagine that the show is easier on your face.
PS: This one? Yes, it is much easier on my face, but that one fed my heart and soul so deeply. It’s a masterpiece and I’m crazy proud to have been part of it. There has been some critical talented writing about that show that has made me insanely proud and I think about the ways that we’re writing about television to approach a show like that kind of firmness and intellectual curiosity that isn’t there for film writing. And to see that in television is so exciting and exciting for us as actors.
And just to take that, this is a very different kind of show. Is it hard to switch gears?
PS: Yeah, it is. Not so much this show, this is actually much harder to do, that was more fun. This show, because you have to stay as human as possible, and as possible as in reality, I find that it exhausts me. It wears away at you at such a matter that you’re talking about—you have to really internalize so that you are as believable as possible and you’re relating as simply as you can to the most painful issues. So it’s this completely different kind of acting.
And your thoughts on this?
RE: Going from when I was on Hannibal to this show?
PS: Haha, that was a fun time.
Yeah, which was more exhausting?
RE: There are challenges of this show. I think being a police officer that trying to be very real, but also having that empathy in every case that you want to tell the story so being a cop in this show, you always have to take it a bit more personally than let’s say, a veteran in the forces of fifteen years. Because I think at that point, there might be a bit of this gets into a job. Not a job, but just to protect yourself and what you’re dealing with in the real world every day. So I think that might be the challenge—trying to find the balance between “this is my job, I’m a detective but also a human being.” I try not to get too emotionally taken with the case so I can carry on with my career. So I think that might be the challenge.
Coming into the show, you guys are dealing with people who have this long history. Is there a boot camp?
PS: Well my first episode, they gave me a gun and they said, “Ok, you’re storming this thing.” And I swear to God, if you look in one of the takes, in the back, you see me try to holster my weapon and I had no idea so they went, “Hey, hey, calm down.” And I’m like “What do I do!? This thing!” So yeah.
RE: Slowly but surely you learn on your own. I’m fine with props. As many props as I can possibly handle. And those insane words. Warren [Leight] would write those lines just to see if I can say them. Like, “I put “prognasis” in that sentence just to see that Neanderthal mention that.” He’s just writing these words—I can tell you in the script what he’s trying to do.
To you specifically or to the others?
RE: Oh I don’t know what he does to the others but I’ll just speak for what he does to me.
RE: Yeah, he loves to toss in electroprobajack. Rectal proba-lectro.
PS: Yeah, rectal proba-lectro- ejaculation.
RE: That’s what it was.
PS: It’s a thing.
So those words have made their mark.
RE: That one stays there.
PS: Well most of my career has been in the theater so I don’t watch myself obviously on stage. That’s been the hardest transition for me—when I first started here, I started watching a little bit of what I was doing, but now I don’t go through the SVU camp stories because I can’t connect to the past of the show or how the show was shot or even how it looks like because—you have to try to keep making it your own. You’re so aware of the history of what it represents. Just try to live up to the best that you can do.
Were either of you guys a fan? Had you watched the show before you came on? What was your awareness of it in terms of quality?
RE: Well I was a fan—I would do the whole binge thing. I’ve been on Criminal Intent, been on SVU, been on the original Law & Order, so I’ve done most of them and I knew the show. But I won’t say I remember being with Chris Maloney going like this or anything. So I don’t think I was taking anything from what I’ve seen or anything.
PS: I did one episode of Criminal Intent, and one episode of what they called the “mother ship” of Law & Order. Actually, the Criminal Intent episode was really hard to film. And it ended up being a very good episode. The Law & Order episode was some of the most fun I’ve had on these very stages. Over the course of two weeks, the episode’s not probably as good. But we had a great time doing it. You know, I’ve been doing so much theater work that there was no way to make curtain and also have the time to film an episode as a guest star so I hadn’t done it for most of the time that I’ve been in New York. But I wouldn’t be surprised that most main New York actors haven’t—
RE: Well a lot of them just do “LL CI” or “LL—“ Right? But you haven’t done Law & Order.
PS: It’s like my friend who I’ve known over the years and he went to a screening at Sundance of all his Law & Order episodes—
Alright who is it?
PS: I won’t tell but it was a very funny joke. Because he’s right, it’s like, “Oh, you did that too? Wait a minute!”
But you have that serialized Law & Order background—has that changed your approach to this, especially within the narrative? There’s sort of a continuity element.
RE: I find that exciting. I love that long form idea of what a character can be. It’s one of the best things television has for us—telling us a story over 22 hours instead of two. And these characters kind of become part of your bloodstream, they start to play you after a while. I put on different clothes, I start to feel a little uptight, and the development here is a lot more subtle because it’s not a show that lives and dies entirely on some psychological character study. There are these little little shifts which we talked about how we relate to each other as characters is what makes the show so lively. Our relationship to each other while we’re explaining the latest case is what makes it interesting in ways that these characters shift over time. Barba is one kind of guy who turns out to be someone else. He came in as one kind of character but he turned out to be someone different. I find that really wonderful. It’s quite subtle on this show. That’s not the point of this show.
PS: It’s interesting because I think once you’re in this business and I mean the justice business—police, law enforcement, the law—you have these kind of lives. You have your own personal lives and then you have your work life and to a lot of people, those two are one thing but like, how do you solve a murder case and then go to your kid’s birthday party? You have to have some kind of division and I think there’s some kind of set up on this show—we can have the millionaire of each episode and be a grander narrative of the character.
RE: I think there’s something else that Warren [Leight] is very in tune with and starting to talk about Hannibal, network television’s changed. And we’re looking at bigger stories being told using television as a medium. A very intelligent person knows that for a television show will stay an important, powerful series, it has got to change the way it tells stories. I think that’s a conscious decision of our arc. Very conscious.
Peter, your character in the “Transgender Bridge” episode, you’re character is trying to understand what it means to be transgendered and I think that’s a thing a lot of Americans are trying to work through. What was it like to shoot that?
PS: I think it could of gone—the wrong way, which is if Carisi was like, “What is this? What is this?” You know what I mean? But I think it was coming from a real sense of wanting to understand it because he wasn’t exposed to it. I think he grew up in Staten Island, and if there were kids who felt that way, they weren’t in anyway comfortable to do it. So this kid is from a different place and he sees him as a good kid so I was glad that I could kind of be that heavy man watching the show. And I’m not talking about the person who’s saying “A man’s a man, a woman’s a woman,” because those people, you’re not going to reach out. I’m talking about those people like “Man, I really don’t understand. I don’t have any experience with this.” You know what I mean? So that’s the person I want to speak for and I want to speak to. I think it’s one of those things that you speak about in twenty years so it’s just gonna be look—happiness is the greatest thing for an individual.
RE: I noticed that transition happening in the gay community—older gay men that I knew when I was growing up who sensed that there was something wrong with them and there was a sense that they were in the closet but it was going to be a lonely, sad life. And then this sense, “Oh wait, there can be more than that. It was accepted and it’s tolerated.” And then I look at younger gay men now and it was never an issue. “Yeah, ok, this is part of who I am.” There’s a coolness of topics about sexuality and sexual identity that people in their twenties are so much cooler than I am and people in their forties are so much cooler than my parents are in their sixties. And it’s great to be part of that conversation somehow, no matter how we are involved.
Do you find that when you run into cops and you talk to them, did they change your perspectives or did you change theirs? Because I think it’s very educational in how it works in some ways.
RE: I mean I don’t know. I’ve definitely had a guy come up to me and say “Hey, I was twenty years on the job. I like you.” Or like, I’m just walking through my neighborhood and I see a cop and he would nod and I’m not sure whether he recognized me or just saying hello. You know what I mean?
PS: I don’t want to say “It’s me,” and have him say “Who are you?” And I’ll say, “Never mind.”
RE: I have a lot of fans in the TSA sort of agency.
PS: Oh yeah?
RE: All over the country they’re like “Hey!” This is my fan following.
PS: They just want to wait with you on line, say “I met you” and talk to you all the way through.
RE: That’s the power of celebrity. The funny thing is that I think people have learned about the process of American criminal justice through watching Law & Order. So we make assumptions of how important this is, from Sam Waterston, and you find that that conversation happens a lot. And one that I always love, it’s when an attorney comes up to me and says, “You feel right, you feel like a right thing. You’re a dick. That’s exactly what you should be.” There was a lawyer who talked to me about telling someone to bring a toothbrush because they were going to be held in contempt or bringing a tooth brush themselves and I said, “Well we gotta write it in.” The more sort of extreme and contemptuous and arrogant the behavior is, please let’s use it. And that’s from people coming to talk to me because there’s something they recognize. I’ve also seen the opposite, like people saying, “Barba is the worst attorney on television.” Probably half the things he does aren’t exactly legal but we don’t know because we learned it through Law & Order.