Discipline, great writers keep characters fresh

After a decade of playing the same character, Mariska Hargitay still wakes up every morning asking how she got so lucky to land on “Law and Order: SVU.”

“When you get a new show, it’s exciting to excavate that character, to discover new things,” Hargitay says. “That can get more difficult when you’re on for a long time, but what keeps this show going is good writing and a co-star who challenges me every day.”

The actress has racked up Emmy noms every year since 2004 for her work as Det. Olivia Benson. She took home the statue in 2006, marking the first time a lead actor in the popular franchise had ever snagged the honor. She’s one of several actresses up for Emmys this year who have been on the TV beat for quite some time. Through the long hauls of living with the same character, actresses such as Hargitay, Vanessa Williams, Christina Applegate and Julia Louis-Dreyfus must constantly work to keep their characters fresh and their acting chops well honed.

Hargitay credits watching performances of guest stars such as Ellen Burstyn, Brenda Blethyn and even Abigail Breslin — someone she calls “a little Meryl Streep” — for fueling her passion.

She points to the fourth act of this year’s season finale as her favorite scene since taking the role.

“Olivia was so beautifully conceived. There’s still so much creative territory to mine,” Hargitay says. “When you are 10 years into a character and your favorite scene is that recent, it’s remarkable.”

Louis-Dreyfus spent eight years on “Seinfeld” and two on her current series, “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”

“I get a kick out of performing in a multicamera show. It’s exhilarating being in front of a live audience — I adore it,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “It adds a thrilling element to it that’s unsurpassed, and you find things in that moment that weren’t there in rehearsal.”

As for how she keeps her character fresh: “You count on fine writers. If the writing isn’t firmly in place, you are a goner. Truthfully, I’d like to say it is my craft and my talent, but it ain’t. It really is the writing.

“Writers get to know you as a performer the longer you do a role, and they stay away from your weaknesses and play to your strengths. It’s like simmering a pot of stew: The longer it’s on the stove, the better it gets.”

Like Hargitay, Applegate knows the realities of playing a character for a decade. As a teen, she began a 10-year stint as dim tart Kelly Bundy on “Married … With Children.”

Nominated this year for the canceled series “Samantha Who?,” Applegate didn’t have to step away from the series to keep her batteries charged.

“Breaking it up with movies and other projects helps, but with Samantha I had a character who was so interesting to me that I didn’t want to do anything else,” says Applegate, who is currently filming “Going the Distance” with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long. “For two years on that show, I could never do things in between (because of the shooting schedule and the strike), yet I never got bored because I was constantly discovering things about my character that made it fresh.”

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