|New York — MARISKA HARGITAY was striding down a deserted Greenwich Village street on a drizzly spring afternoon, looking every inch the part of Det. Olivia Benson in her no-nonsense peacoat and black trousers.|
It could have been a scene out of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," except for the 10-month-old she cuddled in her arms.
"Where's the paparazzi when you need them?" Hargitay joked gaily as she lugged her son, August, back to her trailer during a break from shooting.
The 43-year-old actress has now started filming her ninth season as the empathetic SVU detective on the most popular of the "Law & Order" triad. But in many ways, Hargitay and her character seem reborn.
After becoming a mother in June, Hargitay contemplated quitting the program at the end of this season. But she returned from maternity leave to find that Benson was embarking on a new, intensely personal journey: the discovery of a brother she never knew she had.
The story line — which followed the detective's decision to test her DNA to learn more about her father, who raped her mother — forced Hargitay to delve deeper into her part than ever before.
"It was a wonderful welcome-back-to-work gift," she said between bites of celery and cream cheese in her trailer, littered with children's books and stuffed animals. "After eight years, you've done a lot of stories. I came back and they hit me up with all these incredibly new, fresh emotions I hadn't played. It got my juices going, and I thought that was going to be very difficult to do after the year I had had."
The story arc, which culminates tonight with an episode in which Benson confronts whether her newfound brother is a rapist, allowed Hargitay to draw from the deep well of feelings she has accumulated since losing her father in September, just three months after the birth of her son with her husband, actor Peter Hermann.
"It was a very full year," she said softly in her husky voice. "If there was an emotion in there, I experienced it. I think it just changes you, and changes your instrument, what you draw from."
ON the set, Hargitay is still an ebullient jokester, kidding with the crew between takes. Still, Christopher Meloni, who plays her partner Elliot Stabler, said the last year left her noticeably altered.
"I definitely think she has calmed, gone to a much more focused place," Meloni said. "She's such a smart and sensitive person that maybe it just centered her."
The twin experiences left their mark on Hargitay at a time when "SVU" had demanded more of her than ever. As the top-rated of the "Law & Order" franchise, it is the only one of the three shows with a place guaranteed on NBC's fall schedule. (The network has not yet decided whether to renew the original "Law & Order" drama or its "Criminal Intent" spin-off, whose audiences this season have dropped 19% and 17%, respectively.)
While "SVU" remains true to its soul as a procedural drama, in which a crime gets solved by the end of every episode, executive producer Neal Baer has pushed the program into more personal terrain this season — a move he believes accounts for its success.
"This is a really big thing for 'SVU,' " Baer said. "We're not just solving a crime here."
Offering back stories about the main characters "gets you into them, because if you're not into them, I believe, it's really tough to keep it going," he added. "It's a very different show from the other 'Law & Orders' in that Mariska and Chris are the yin and yang of our feelings about these crimes. Mariska is the empathy we feel toward the victims. And Chris is our outrage.
"I want them to be happy and not feel they're just carrying procedure pipe. I want them to feel that they're giving a performance and revealing a character."
But injecting a more personal tone into the show took some negotiating with Dick Wolf, the creator of the "Law & Order" franchise and a staunch believer in the value of closed-ended procedurals.
"It's not a fight; it's a wonderful series of quasi-intellectual discussions," Wolf said of his talks with Baer about "SVU."
"I think it's very crucial to serve this information out in irregular, intermittent, small doses, because if you keep adding it on, it becomes overwhelming," the veteran producer added. "Look, actors love character. And I'm the Grinch that eats the characters. We're still doing a cop show, and when the cop show and character meet and intersect, it can be terrific. But if you do it every week, it's like eating foie gras for lunch every day."
Baer said a turning point came last season, when the series explored the implications of Benson and Stabler's intense relationship and offered both actors meaty story lines about their personal demons. Hargitay won an Emmy for her work, and Meloni garnered an Emmy nomination, helping bolster Baer's case for taking the show into a more personal dimension.
"The taste of Emmy is very potent," he said with a laugh. "But we still talked a lot about not wanting to give up too much, not making it too emotional or too soapy."
Hargitay said she was thrilled to be able to explore more of Benson's interior life this season.
"I'd come home so empty and spent, but completely invigorated," she said. "I hadn't been challenged that way in a very, very, very long time, and certainly not in this character. It was exciting to excavate and explore new territory and places in Olivia's heart."
The story arc dovetailed with Hargitay's new role as a mother, a part that makes her unabashedly giddy. During an hourlong conversation, she repeatedly paused to coo over August as he sat contentedly on the floor of the trailer, playing with a stack of colored rings.
"I feel like my life began on June 28," she said dreamily of the day he was born. "First you think, 'I just can't be away from him. I have to quit acting.' And then, at three months, your hormones balance out and things come more in perspective and you realize, we can sort of do it all."
SHORTLY after returning from maternity leave, Hargitay signed on for two more seasons on "SVU" — a stint she said will likely be her last on the program. Next, she'd like to try a sitcom or a play, a role with less of a time commitment.
"I started in comedy and I really want to go back to that," she said. "All my friends say, 'How you ended up on a drama, we'll never know!' "
The daughter of screen siren Jayne Mansfield and Hungarian-born bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, she decided to pursue acting while at UCLA. But it would be 15 years before she would land a lead role.
"I got everything," Hargitay recalled of the stream of rejections. "It was like, 'Not funny. Not delicate. Not smart. Take a class. Get your teeth fixed. She's not special.' "
Throughout it all, her father "was my rock," said Hargitay, whose mother was killed in a car accident when she was 3. "When I tried to quit a bunch of times, he said, 'You're not a quitter.' "
After a string of guest roles and failed pilots, Hargitay was finally cast on "SVU." It was a dream job, but she initially struggled with the show's dark fare.
"It was really difficult for me, to the point of questioning, 'Is this what I want to do?' " she said.
Hargitay was soon flooded with letters and e-mails from victims of sexual abuse, which prompted her to start the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors through therapy and a retreat in Hawaii, where they swim with dolphins.
The actress said she's been gratified by the show's tone since Baer's arrival in 2000, noting that "his exploration of social issues has really taken us out of that lurid, cheap sex-crime thing."
All she wants now is some resolution for Benson — preferably through a family.
This season "was an awakening of her as a human being, and I feel that in a lot of ways her life is beginning," Hargitay said. "This is somebody who has been insanely lonely, who has made work her life. So I'd like to see her as a woman who balances out."