When Mariska Hargitay tweeted back in May, “Happy weekend. It’s official. Season 15 – I’LL BE BACK!” she gave her loyal “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” fans a treat, breaking the news that she’d re-upped before anyone else.
“She has a lot of power on the show,” says showrunner Warren Leight, who joined the series in 2011, roughly 12 years after original cast member Hargitay fi rst signed on. “Luckily, she uses her power for good and not evil.”
He has a point: Coming from nearly any other actress of Hargitay’s stature, the tweet might have smacked of power play, a way to assert who’s really in charge over there.
If she’d wanted, she could get away with it.
Hargitay is the only lead to have won an Emmy for any show in the once-mighty “Law & Order” franchise; she’s the anchor of TV’s longest-running drama, an ensemble series that chugs away despite tough slot competition from shows like “Modern Family” and “American Idol” (it averaged 2.1 ratings with adults 18-49 last season); and she’s one of TV’s top earners (Forbes puts her yearly earnings at $10 million). And, as almost anyone from the network on down will say, she and her tough but empathetic character Det. Olivia Benson are the heart of the show.
But that wasn’t what was behind the tweet. Hargitay just wanted to keep her fans — who last saw Benson in the season 14 finale in dire straits — from stressing out. It’s a typical stance from the actress, who says her job has transformed into “my life’s work.”
“The first time I read the show’s script, I thought, ‘I love this woman, I understand the trauma she survived,’ ” says Hargitay (Benson is the product of her mother’s rape). “And it’s evolved beyond a television show; I feel it truly is an agent of change.”
Over the years, Hargitay may not have become Benson, but she’s channeled the dark energy the show can put out into advocacy and charity work. In addition to launching her Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 to help victims of sexual abuse and trauma (they’ve raised nearly $15 million to date, she reports), she’s brought in teams of experts through the foundation to go on retreats with the show’s writers, and regularly fields unusual letters from viewers, many of whom are opening up about their own abuse for the first time when they write her.
“I sometimes get confused myself; I spend so much time as an actor and advocate, and they are interwoven,” she says. “These girls are looking for someone to look up to. Olivia is empowered, and they aspire to be like that. They say, ‘I wish Olivia was my mother. Then she could have protected me.’”
Tough, emotional stuff — yet that bond is an unintended boon for the network. In the years since “SVU” premiered, the audience for broadcast has shifted and become much more female-friendly. For NBC, having a series that portrays not just a powerful female lead who helps victims, but one whose real-life portrayer does the same, has helped brand the show in ways that couldn’t have been planned.
Another plus: Benson and Hargitay’s appeal spans generations. “SVU” is a particularly sticky show thanks to its Twitter presence, and Leight says that it’s not just the expected over-35 audience that likes watching an over-40 actress (Hargitay is 49), it’s also the Twitter generation. “Kids watch it with their moms,” he says. “There’s a college audience. And every week we have an extremely vibrant social media response to the show that doesn’t always reflect ratings.”
Says Vernon Sanders, current programming exec VP at NBC, “It’s hard to say how much of our audience is coming exclusively for Mariska, but women are our primary audience. Mariska is one of those performers who transcends. The fact that she’s got appeal to not just one demographic … is a unique thing on the television landscape.”
Naturally, there’s a hitch: Even Hargitay, who has invested so many years and a good chunk of her personal time into the show and its social issues says it may be time for a break.
“I shoot 14½ hours each day, and I have two babies at home, and there are a lot of things I haven’t done acting-wise,” she says. While she’ll be directing episodes for the first time this year and says she’s still challenged by the material, it appears she’s considering ending her run with the series.
“It is a place of darkness that I’ve been immersed in, and there are times it does get to me,” she says. “I need more light and joy. A lot of that I can exorcise by working with Joyful Heart and being an agent of change. It’s a great role, and it has been great to me, but it’s like running a marathon. I’ve been doing it a long time.”
So what happens when, inevitably, the heart of the show opts out? “I’m glad we haven’t had to face that,” says Sanders, who says NBC would have to talk with creator Dick Wolf and Leight about whether the series should even continue if Hargitay leaves. “We’d have to give it a lot of thought, and it would be a collaborative decision.”
Leight says if, and when, she does go he’s sure they’ll find a way to ease her away, rather than abruptly see her disappear. “We’d have a way to arc her out; she might not leave all at once. There would be a chance for closure, and then you hope you can reinvent the show.”
“SVU” started shooting its first episodes of season 15 in July, and Hargitay — as promised in her tweet — was back and cracking up the crew and her fellow actors (“She has a wild sense of humor, people don’t always know that,” says Sanders). But she still speaks — to continue her metaphor — like a runner who has glimpsed the light at the end of a very long tunnel.
“Sometimes when you see the finish line you can run faster and you have more energy,” she says. “So that’s how I’m sort of approaching it. I’m going to give it my all and sprint as hard as I can.”