|Now in her sixth season of playing Detective Olivia Benson in NBC's hit Tuesday crime drama "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," actress Mariska Hargitay is discovering that some of the best acting accolades don't come with a statuette or a plaque.|
The 40-year-old actress has been nominated for an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild award and many other honors, yet she says her biggest reward comes from fans who say they have been touched by her TV character.
"I'm immensely gratified by the feedback I get on the show," Hargitay says. "I have a Web site (www.mariska.com), and I get hundreds of e-mails from people, mainly women, who say our show has changed their lives. That means more to me than I can say."
She's proud to be part of a show that chronicles not only how a dedicated team of New York police detectives solves appalling crimes of a sexual nature, but also how those dire crimes take a harsh toll on their personal lives.
"I think Neal [Baer, one of the show's executive producers] has been very smart about how he has subtly woven this in," Hargitay says. "We're not 'NYPD Blue.' The show isn't about our personal lives, but it does include how these crimes affect those personal lives and our relationships. It's not something I've felt the need to fight for.
"It's been kind of interesting in that our show sort of has found its own voice in that it actually is a little more personal than the other shows in our franchise. And I think that's a natural outgrowth of the crimes we have to deal with. It has to be. There's no way that our show can avoid dealing with the personal because of what these characters, these human beings, are confronted with every day. There's no way these crimes wouldn't take their toll on these detectives."
In fact, just acting out such dark stories on a weekly basis takes its own toll, she adds, even after all this time.
"Yeah, it does, and you never know when it's going to pop up. There are times when I think, 'The longer I do this, the easier I can shake it off at the end of the day,' but it just becomes hard to turn it off," Hargitay says.
"I got married in August, and my husband and I were in Hawaii, in a car being driven to the top of a mountain or something, and I turned to the guide or whoever and said, 'So, what's the crime rate here?' and my husband stared at me and went, 'God, Mariska, stop for five minutes. We're on our honeymoon. You always ask that, wherever we go.' And I realized, jeez, this is how deep it is."
Of course, it's even harder on the real detectives who actually investigate the real, and often gruesome, cases. Hargitay says she is very proud to be playing a character as gallant as Olivia has proven herself over the years, most recently in a chilling episode called "Charisma," in which she faced down a cult leader responsible for the deaths of many children under his care.
"We showed the strength of a woman's characteristics as opposed to a man's," Hargitay says. "[That episode] showed us something that was so horrendous and so painful that Olivia is the only one who can handle it -- and she deals with it by expressing her emotion instead of trying to supress it and trying to keep it inside, like many cops do. The fact that Olivia is so connected to the pain she feels is what allows her to rise up and handle the case. In other words, her 'weakness' turns out to be her strength, and that's a very feminine quality."
The daughter of movie bombshell Jayne Mansfield and Hungarian bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, 3-year-old Mariska was in the back seat during the 1967 car crash that killed her mother. She credits her father with instilling inside her a determination to succeed at anything she attempted.
"My father has been the most influential person in my life, because he overcame so much adversity being this little guy from Hungary who didn't know anything when he came to this country wanting to be a weight lifter," she says. "They told him he was too old, too this, too that, and what he achieved by his commitment to excellence is an inspiration. He has been an unwavering support to me, and it always comes back to him in terms of who has guided my life most profoundly.
"From the time I was about 3 feet tall, my father would say to me, 'I don't care what you do, but whatever you do, do it well and be the best and be proud of it,' " Hargitay recalls. "I was into athletics, swimming, in high school, but somebody asked me to audition for a play and I got the lead.
"Ironically, the play I did was 'Women's Work,' about a 26-year-old nurse who decides to get an abortion. This was at an all-girl Catholic private high school, I'll have you know, and I feel like that was almost a foreshadowing of the show I'm on now, because it was about these ethical dilemmas. I'm just so glad that God has blessed and guided my career in this direction."