To millions of "Law and Order: SVU" fans who watch her every week, she's NYPD Detective Olivia Benson. But when Mariska Hargitay steps off the set, she is the real-life wife of writer-actor Peter Hermann, mother of newborn son, August, social activist and fashion icon. All of these qualities add up to Mariska Hargitay being the newest Karastan "Statement Maker," featured in our 2007 national advertising campaign. Her charisma, innate sense of glamour, authenticity and humanitarianism parallel many of the same traits and characteristics of Karastan consumers. In an exclusive interview with Karastan, the Emmy and Golden Globe winning actress exhibits the inner strength and integrity of her TV alter ego, but also reveals a sunny and sophisticated domestic side. Mariska Hargitay knows how to make a statement. Her own.
Interviewer: In 1999, when you started "Law and Order: SVU," you moved from Los Angeles to New York. Was that a tough decision to make?
Mariska Hargitay: Very. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and I'd never lived anywhere else. My father had built the house that I lived in for ten years, a beautiful Spanish-inspired hillside house with Spanish tiles and arches, and the most beautiful views of Los Angeles. There was no way I could afford to live there initially-I was starting out as an actress and making mortgage payments on my credit cards-so I usually had at least five house mates, sort of like an episode of "Friends." But there was also a great sense of togetherness, a great sense of community. Being extremely close to my family and having all these friends gave me the most amazing support system, so I was terrified to leave. It was a big step.
Interviewer: How did you know you were ready to take that step?
Mariska Hargitay: Well, It all happened in a span of two weeks, so fortunately there wasn't all that much time to agonize over it or second guess myself. In Los Angeles I had done a lot of TV, comedies mostly, and I had so much fun making people laugh, it made my heart sing. But I had just come back from this insane week in New York, where I had seen every play and all these grand dames of the theater, Stockard Channing, Chita Rivera, Elizabeth Franz, Kathleen Chalfant, and Zoë Caldwell. I was so inspired that I called my manager and said, very definitively, "I'm moving to New York. I'm going to take a shot at Broadway." I'll never forget, he said, "Hold on, Mariska, let's take a beat." The day after my big decision, I had an audition for "Law & Order: SVU." It was my third callback for the role. Now, as an actor you go on so many auditions that you get used to hearing things like, "You're too short or you're not blonde enough." You have to learn to let all that go. But I really really liked this script. I felt that Olivia Benson was a role that was worth moving for, and, in retrospect, leaving my comfort zone changed my life.
Interviewer: What did you do with your house when you left?
Mariska Hargitay: Well, I couldn't leave it completely, but I also couldn't afford two places-in LA and New York-so I rented it. I had tenants, I was a landlord, the whole bit.
Interviewer: Was it difficult closing your front door for the last time?
Mariska Hargitay: Yes and no. One thing was ending, which was sad, of course, but there was also this exciting new beginning waiting for me in New York. I've always believed when one door closes, another one opens and that was so exciting. I had to pack up and move in two weeks, a process that I remember to this day. I had all this... stuff! It was a big house, and when you have room, you tend to fill it up. I had my entire life there - everything from high school on! I remember going through everything with my best friend. I think the only words we said for days were "Keep it? Get rid of it?" That and "Oh my God, remember this?"
Interviewer: So where did you land in New York?
Mariska Hargitay: I rented this great apartment in the West Village-the coolest neighborhood in New York-from my friend, Katie Brown. It was a fifth floor walk-up. I didn't know what that meant when I rented it sight-unseen. Talk about a reality check-I had no idea that New Yorkers walked so much. But after three months of chasing perps all over NYC then coming home and hauling myself up five flights of stairs, I had to find an elevator building. Soon after, I bought a place at 39th and Park, which was a great starter apartment.
Interviewer: And did a decorator work with you on it?
Mariska Hargitay: Are you kidding? I just started a new job on a show that I loved but there was no guarantee that it was going to be a hit. And I was working all the time, so I just tried to make the apartment feel like home by playing around. It was fun because I had ultimate freedom there, even though I was staying true to my California roots.
Interviewer: How did you do that?
Mariska Hargitay: I hung a Spanish chandelier and tons of mirrors and candles and then I went crazy at the paint store. I ended up doing the dining room in the most beautiful deep red and the kitchen in an orangey-yellow. I painted my living room purple and put in this great green, velvety couch and this big wonderful carpet. It was like a Moroccan den, very decadent and lush. Every room evoked a completely different feeling. It was all very exotic, but soothing-although you wouldn't think so when you hear about it. But even though I liked what I had done, I wasn't in love with the neighborhood, and even more important, the apartment didn't get the kind of light I was used to and it made me a little depressed.
Interviewer: What about the light?
Mariska Hargitay: I'm a Southern California girl, and I just wasn't prepared for the gray days. I'd visited New York, obviously, but I had always gone back to the sunshine. Living here was very different. I needed windows and light, light, and more light! So I found this loft apartment downtown. I walked in, pressed my face up against the banks of windows, and I knew I'd found my new home. The apartment also has this big open kitchen that I love, because whenever you entertain, everyone just ends up in the kitchen anyway.
Interviewer: Do you love to cook and entertain?
Mariska Hargitay: Yes, and thankfully, so does my husband.
Interviewer: So you moved in, and then you met Peter?
Mariska Hargitay: Our first date was the day before I moved into my apartment, which is the penthouse so the elevator button said PH, Peter's initials. The rest is history.
Interviewer: I read in a Town & Country article that you and Peter debated about having a designer do the apartment.
Mariska Hargitay: At first Peter really wanted to do it ourselves. But after seeing a very dear friend's house in Nantucket that was designed by Jeffrey Bilhuber, we were sold. It was fun merging everything, especially all of our books. Our library is so wonderful. You go in there and never want to come out. There are three walls of books, a huge gallery of my favorite photos, a big bright painting that I love, a pony skin carpet, and the coziest L-shaped couch you've ever sat on. It's also our movie room. Needless to say, it's our favorite room in the house.
Interviewer: You have so many books. Do you know how many houses I scout, and no one has any books! I always get very suspect. I think, "Where do they live? What do they do if they don't have books?" So, you saw this house that Jeffrey did and you were enamored?
Mariska Hargitay: Yes, we decided to go for it. Jeffrey suggested we go away while it was being done, so we took off for the summer. We came home and couldn't speak. Can you imagine coming home to a dream come true?
Interviewer: What kind of directions did you give him?
Mariska Hargitay: We talked a lot. Told him we wanted something sophisticated yet bohemian, that we love the ocean, our favorite colors, etc. And he listened. Really listened. I knew I was asking a lot: an apartment that was going to speak to all parts of me. And that's what I think he accomplished. One of my favorite moments with Jeffrey was when he picked three different swatches for a couch. He said, "This is what we narrowed it down to. Which one do you want?" And I said, "All three," and I thought, "He's never going to go for this, right?" But then I saw this sparkle in his eye.
Interviewer: Well, the photographs in Town and Country show a very elegant and very pulled-together house, but not foregoing sensuality, coziness, comfort. . .
Mariska Hargitay: And fun! As much as we want it to be grown up and elegant, we also don't want it to seem too precious. Even before I became a mom I needed my home to feel comfortable. I need every couch to be so cozy you want to take a running jump and dive into it and sink for 20 minutes. I think nothing's worse than when you go over to someone's house and the sofa is so stiff and uncomfortable, you don't even know how to sit. In my opinion, couches are for curling up on, with a good book and a loved one.
Interviewer: Your floors are sensual and the carpets are so beautiful. Is that important to you?
Mariska Hargitay: We had gorgeous hardwood floors, which I love but there are certain rooms where, because I'm a barefoot California girl, I need that cozy feeling on the floor. The other thing I miss about California is the beach. So in the living room in front of my fireplace, Jeffrey put in a sand box!
Interviewer: What's the secret of working so successfully with a decorator?
Mariska Hargitay: COMMUNICATION. You need to communicate and keep your mind open. One of the most important things that Jeffrey did was really take into consideration that I love the beach. He found this beautiful soft blue carpet that reminded me of the ocean. I've never been scared of color, so when he asked me what I liked with blue, I said purple. I never actually thought that I was going to have a blue and purple living room but he made it much brighter and more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. Jeffrey knows how it all pulls together. Certain things of mine, like an amethyst bowl I had someplace else, he put on this mirrored table and the way it catches and reflects the light is so gorgeous.
Interviewer: Your home should really be the place that nurtures and you have really figured out how to live in the most wonderfully expressive way. For you what makes a house a home?
Hargitay:A home is an extension of you. It's like a big essay about yourself, where you've been, what soothes you, what makes you feel safe. You want somebody to be able to walk into your home and go, "I know who you are. I get you. I see you." I go home every day and I still, to this day, walk in the door and say, "I get to live here!" In terms of the concrete, candles and proper lighting do so much to set the mood and that puts me in a good mood. In my hallway, for instance, there are these big canisters of gorgeous candles, so when I walk in, there's actually a passageway of light. My favorite thing is when I come home late from work and the house is aglow with candles, especially because I shoot so much on location in the rain, sleet and snow. And every home needs photos. In ours, there are our wedding photos, Peter's family, my family and of course pictures of our son, August, and more August and then a few more of August. It tells such a story.
Interviewer: So you've found your equivalent of the ocean in New York?
Mariska Hargitay: I have. I've never felt so good in a home. I've never lived in a place where I would rather stay in than go out. In New York City, the land of restaurants, the land of entertainment, the land of opportunity, Peter and I would rather have people over for dinner than go out.
Interviewer: Now I have to be a fan for a second and tell you something. Aside from being a star and a celebrity, you are a rarity: a true heroine. You inspire people to do better in their lives because they identify you so strongly with the character you play. So where does Olivia begin and end with you? How does she affect you?
Mariska Hargitay: I have always called her the mama lion, the protector, and she has shown me how strong and nurturing every woman, myself included, can be. I just feel so grateful that God put this role and this show in my life and has educated me about something I knew nothing about. I think it's very courageous of SVU to address topics that are usually swept under the carpet. One out of six women in this country will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That is just unthinkable. People stop me on the street and say, "Your show changed my life. Your show gave me a voice. Your show made me realize that it was okay to talk about what happened to me." I started getting these e-mails from young women disclosing their stories of sexual assault and domestic violence and I thought, "If women and girls are writing me, an actor, because they know this character and they feel safe and can trust her then what can I do to help them?"
Interviewer: Was that why you started The Joyful Heart Foundation, your charitable organization for women who have been sexual assaulted?
Mariska Hargitay: When these women wrote to me I realized that their identification with Olivia Benson was so powerful that I had to honor their bravery for sharing their stories. I felt that it was a privilege to do whatever I could to help them heal. I educated myself and trained to become a rape counselor and hired different rape crisis counselors to help me respond to these letters and e-mails. Once I came to understand what an epidemic it is, the statistics haunted me. I realized I had to do it on a bigger scale, so I founded The Joyful Heart Foundation, to help survivors of sexual assault heal mind, body and spirit. (Please visit The Joyful Heart Foundation Web site at joyfulheartfoundation.org.) I created a Web site that is a safe place where people can go and realize that they're not alone, and I devised programs including healing retreats and wellness festivals. I'm all about prevention, teaching young women to focus on our greatest attribute as women: our intuition. In my opinion, it's about empowering girls, giving them confidence to take their power back. Not just in a feminist way, but also in a Nelson Mandela, be everything that God intended you to be kind of way.
Interviewer: It's clear that you are representing the very, very best a celebrity can be and can do. You understand the power you have to change people's lives. Do you feel that that is your responsibility?
Mariska Hargitay: First of all, thank you for saying that. I think the best way to describe it is that it's a privilege and a responsibility. As actors, we have this opportunity to touch people's lives, to invite people to feel all sorts of things as they experience the stories we tell. The role of Olivia is a huge gift, and yes, I do think that God looks at me and says, "Okay, here it is. Enjoy it. And now do something with it." You know, in that God voice, but nice. I'm just really grateful that everything has fallen into place so this role could blossom into something that could help other people. Linda Fairstein, who is one of the pioneers in using DNA to prosecute rape cases, is a good friend of mine, and she was telling me that rape counselors and sexual assault advocates, is a whole new thing. Years ago, assault victims had nobody on their side. I have seen firsthand through my work on the show and in Joyful Heart that horrible things happen to people, but they don't have to be defined by those events. They can heal.
Interviewer: Have you always been so inspired?
Mariska Hargitay: My dad has a lot to do with that. He came to America from Hungary, then started body building when everyone said it was too late for him to start. He ended up walking away with the Mr. Universe title. And, of course, he married my mom, Jayne Mansfield. I always remember him saying: "Never, ever give up. If you want to be the President of the United States, you can." He was so annoying. (laughs) But when somebody tells you things like that, you have to step up. My dad said, "You're not a quitter" so often that it just sunk in.
Interviewer: So you're naturally confident?
Mariska Hargitay: Depends on the day. (Laughs.) I was talking to this group of Girl Scouts recently, and I told them that I never thought I would ever have the confidence to go after what I wanted. I thought everything was so far away from me and so elusive, that everyone else was more talented, more educated, more attractive, you name it. I thought everyone was better than I was. But I also knew that what my Dad had told me over and over again was true. And that God had a plan for me. God's really good with the planning. You just have to be still enough and trusting enough to recognize it. I'm still learning that. It was like when I met Peter. I knew from the minute I laid eyes on him that he was the man I was going to marry. All the greatest decisions I've ever made are those kinds, when I take the time to listen, and then I just know it's right.
Interviewer: I have to admit seeing you here in person, you look about 18, and you seem like a kid. How do you stay so upbeat?
Mariska Hargitay: It's been such a great ride so far, what right do I have to complain? Becoming a wife and a mother has opened up my heart and let me feel love I have never felt before. My son has completely changed my life and taken me on an entirely new road. He's made me see the world completely differently, through his eyes, and it's pretty exciting to be my age and realize there's a whole new world-just when you think you've got it all figured out.