If you’re a Law & Order: SVU fan like us, you’re probably counting the minutes until the 17th season premieres tonight on NBC. Hopefully, this interview with Mariska Hargitay, who plays Olivia Benson on the show, will hold you over until 9/8c tonight. I sat down with the talented actress and generous humanitarian to discuss her favorite part about playing Olivia, her inspirational work with The Joyful Heart Foundation and her thoughts on female body image.
Name three things you like about the way you look.
Wow, what a question. I like how I look when I look at my kids, my hair on summer vacation after a lot of time in the ocean… and I’m coming to terms with my very long toes.
Name three things you like about yourself that have nothing to do with looks.
I like the range of emotions that I get to feel. I feel like I’m starting to understand some things that have puzzled me for a long time, like little mysteries unlocking. And, I like that I’m able to laugh a lot.
We all struggle with insecurities. What do you struggle with most in regards to your appearance?
Oh my. It depends on the day, I think. And my mood. Sometimes it’s this, sometimes it’s that. And then I’ll get sick, or one of the kids gets sick, and everything gets snapped back into perspective, and I get reminded how lucky I am to have my health, and everything else takes a back seat.
In your opinion, what makes a woman beautiful?
A combination of appetite for life, joy, honesty, curiosity and kindness. Courage is very important too. Maybe the most important. And humor. Really generous humor.
When do you feel most proud of who you are?
When I do things that I’m afraid of doing. Or when I notice that something I’ve been working on for a long time is starting to crack open – those things where I say “This’ll never change, this’ll never change, this’ll never—oh, look, it’s changing.”
In our experience, self love is the driving force behind happiness. How do you show yourself love?
I listen to what I have to say, to what the different parts of me have to say. And they can get pretty chatty sometimes.
What do you appreciate more as you age?
Health, time, having perspective, a different kind of organization within myself.
What is more important to you today than it was 10 or 20 years ago?
Downtime, definitely. I don’t think I really understood it, how very delicious a thing it is.
What do you do for exercise?
I chase perps. Burns calories like you wouldn’t believe.
What is your favorite piece from the Beyond Yoga 2015 Collection?
The maternity wear! I love those bumps.
Who or what inspires you?
I’m always so moved by people who do brave things. It can be my kids on the edge of pool, diving in for the first time. That’s a huge thing, going headfirst for the first time! Or it can be something on a much, much larger scale, global scale, people standing up to an oppressive regime, people courageous enough to change their lives, people brave enough to speak the truth. It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small (and it’s sort of never small) it all just leaves me in tears.
What is the best part about playing Olivia Benson on TV’s Law & Order: SVU?
I feel extremely fortunate that I get to do something that has the power to shed light. I’ve had people come up to me over the years and tell me that a particular episode helped them with something they were going through or had experienced or that the character of Olivia has played a significant role in their lives. That feels like a real privilege, to have been a source of good in people’s lives and been a source of some light. That’s, of course, also intimately wrapped up with Joyful Heart and the work that I do beyond the show.
What is the most challenging part?
I think probably the hardest part of playing Olivia is the exposure to that extremely dark subject matter on a daily basis. Yes, it’s a TV show, and yes, all the actors go home every day, but part of playing this role is to let the stories be deeply real to me. And many of the stories are in fact real. Over time, that can get heavy.
It was really a process and a number of things coming together that made me want to start the foundation. When I first did research for my role on SVU, I couldn’t believe the stats I was finding. Then, the letters started coming to me from viewers. First a few, then more, then hundreds – and thousands since then. The women and men writing the letters didn’t ask for an autograph or a headshot. They disclosed their stories of abuse. I held in my hands the stories behind the statistics that I had learned. And they just made a very deep impression on me. So, I educated myself about these issues. I trained to become a rape crisis advocate, joined boards and got involved. I was proud to be on a show that was brave enough to go into territory that no one was talking about, but I also knew I wanted to do more and play a larger role to help survivors heal and reclaim their lives. Joyful Heart was my answer.
What is the most rewarding part about your involvement in The Joyful Heart Foundation?
There’s such a wide scope to our work now, which also means that there’s a wide range in what’s rewarding about the work. We experience everything from the deep satisfaction of a simple “Thank you, you’ve helped me so much” from an individual survivor to watching national awareness and outrage grow about the backlog of untested rape kits across the country. Probably the most rewarding part is seeing change, whether that’s personal, societal or national.
What is the most challenging part?
One of the very challenging parts of Joyful Heart is that there’s just so much work to do. The issues that we address (sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse) are still the most underfunded, under-regarded, under-researched issues of our day. There is certainly an unprecedented level of attention on these topics now, but there are times when the road ahead seems daunting. At the same time, we are in a place with Joyful Heart (and as a country, really, if you’d told me five years ago, even two years ago, that we’d be here, I would have said you were out of your mind. But here we are, and I am filled with so much hope.
What is your motto or mantra?
Complete this sentence: i am BEYOND. . .
…grateful for my life.