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.