Mariska Hargitay stresses relevance of 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' at 20: 'Survivors are believed ... period'

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Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Mariska Hargitay as Lt. Olivia Benson in the Season 20 premiere of <em>Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.</em> (Photo: Barbara Nitke/NBC)
Mariska Hargitay as Lt. Olivia Benson in the Season 20 premiere of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (Photo: Barbara Nitke/NBC)

The mission statement of NBC’s long-running Law & Order franchise is to use “ripped from the headlines” stories as the basis for its addictive procedural formula. According to Mariska Hargitay, though, our real-world headlines are increasingly ripped from episodes of Law & Order.

Appearing at a Tribeca TV Festival panel celebrating two decades of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit — making it officially the franchise’s longest-running series, as well as the only live-action dramatic series since Gunsmoke to hit the 20-season mark — the actress spoke passionately about how the show has stood up for the victims of violent sex crimes and domestic abuse since its 1999 premiere.

“One of the major things I’ve heard [from survivors] over 20 years is, ‘I wish you were the detective on my case,'” Hargitay said, to cheers from the audience. “I think our show is, in many ways, an ideal unit of how we wish sexual assault and domestic violence was met by the world: Survivors are believed … period.”

Hargitay — whose alter ego, Lt. Olivia Benson, is beloved among the Law & Order faithful for being, as the actress describes her, a “fierce, badass lioness” — connected SVU with the #MeToo headlines that are dominating the news cycle every day. In a humorous aside, SVU creator Dick Wolf described his leading lady as the “grandmother of the #MeToo movement,” to which Hargitay reacted in mock horror. “No grandmother would wear these shoes,” she joked, raising her feet to show off her on-trend footwear.

Those #MeToo headlines include the recent sexual assault allegations that Christine Blasey Ford has brought against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, potentially upending his path toward confirmation. “One of the issues right now that we’re reading about in the press is, ‘Why didn’t she come forward?'” she remarked, a reference to the case that is consuming the American political scene. “Sexual assault or any kind of trauma is deeply disorganizing; it scrambles the brain and fragments memories. People don’t understand that there’s a lot of layers to trauma, which I think [the show] has educated them about. We’ve tried to explain things from a survivor’s point of view, which is a voice that traditionally has not been loud enough and has been deeply compromised.”

Hargitay also said that if the news headlines are only now catching up to SVU, that says more about society’s evolving attitudes toward harassment and abuse than it does about how the show has changed over time. “The fact of the matter is, these stories were always there. Sexual assault hasn’t increased; when we started the show in 1999, the stats were the same, it was just swept under the carpet. Dick started the show because people weren’t talking about it, and that’s the brilliance of it — the fact that it’s more relevant now than ever.”

Read on for other highlights from the SVU 20th anniversary panel — which included series creator Wolf, and Hargitay’s co-stars Ice-T, Kelli Giddish, Peter Scanavino, and Philip Winchester — including a sneak peek at what’s in store for the show’s newest season, which airs its two-hour premiere on Sept. 27 at 9 p.m.

The original title was more R-rated

When Wolf first pitched an L&O spinoff to NBC nine years into the run of the flagship series, they were cool to the idea — not only because they didn’t think another series was necessary, but also due the creator’s choice of title.

“The show was initially called Sex Crimes, but [the network] didn’t want ‘sex’ in the title. So we went with the actual unit, which was an area that was underexplored, even on Law & Order.”

Hargitay recalled the reaction from her agents to the pilot script: “They said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to like this — it’s very dark.’ I thought the show was so progressive when I read it. It’s so incredibly brave, and very early into the shooting of the series, I learned how powerful talking about these issues would be to society.”

Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T in the <em>Law & Order: Special Victims Unit</em> Season 20 premiere. (Photo: David Giesbrecht/NBC)
Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T in the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Season 20 premiere. (Photo: David Giesbrecht/NBC)

Fifth time was the charm for Ice-T and Dick Wolf

After New Jack City catapulted him from rapper to actor, Ice-T entered Wolf’s orbit with a recurring role on the acclaimed early ’90s series New York Undercover. That led to a one-shot appearance on another Wolf show, Swift Justice, followed by a star turn on the short-lived Players, which Ice-T co-created.

In 1998, he made his Law & Order debut in the TV movie Exiled, playing a pimp who didn’t live to see the closing credits. That seemed to be the end of the road for Ice-T and Wolf, until they had a chance meeting in a Los Angeles chicken-and-waffles restaurant before SVU‘s second season, and the producer got the bright idea to cast him as fan-favorite Fin.

“Dick said later that a light went off,” Ice-T recalled. “Next thing I know, I got a call saying, ‘Would you do the show?’ I said, ‘I’m in L.A., I’ve got a record label.’ He said to do four episodes; I do the four episodes, and it’s been 20 years!”

What she really wanted to do was direct

Being the sole founding star of SVU left on the show after 20 years has its privileges. In 2014, Hargitay was named a producer and directed her first episode that same year. (She has since been elevated to executive producer and has helmed four additional installments.)

“It’s been such a beautiful evolution,” she said. “I spent the first 15 years really learning.” Ice-T remembered how nervous she was before her first directing gig. “I went to her and said, ‘I’ll be your least problem.’ Now she’s done five, so it’s nothing — now we can give her problems!” She’s also set a benchmark for other actors on the show who harbor directorial dreams. As Wolf said: “I say, ‘You can absolutely direct … after you’ve done 15 seasons.'”

Dylan Walsh is a major presence in the Season 20 premiere of <em>Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.</em> (Photo: David Giesbrecht/NBC)
Dylan Walsh is a major presence in the Season 20 premiere of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (Photo: David Giesbrecht/NBC)

The #Memo will be a factor in Season 20

Season 19 planted a ticking time bomb that may go off this year: an as-yet unexplained memo that Fin shows to SVU’s deputy chief, William Dodds (Peter Gallagher), to keep him from replacing Benson. “People want to know about the memo,” Hargitay said. “We’re going to deal with the memo — I just talked to the writers.” The memo won’t be addressed in the season premiere, though, which focuses on a case involving a teenage boy who may have been sexually violated by his father (played by Nip/Tuck star Dylan Walsh). NBC screened the first hour of the two-hour episode for the audience, and the midpoint cliffhanger inspired gasps of surprise. “The premiere is amazing,” Hargitay said. No need to put that in a memo.

The 20th season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit premieres Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on NBC

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