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Mariska Hargitay: The Real Deal

As the star of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay may be television’s hardest working woman—onscreen and off. Star, wife, mother, and activist are just some of the roles she undertakes. But, how does she define herself? In an exclusive interview, Hargitay shows us how being talented in the entertainment industry is only part of what is takes to create a well-rounded, successful life.

It’s been a long day for Mariska Hargitay. Her 3-year-old son August woke up early and she had a hectic location-filled shooting day that also included meetings for her Joyful Heart Foundation. Busy working mom? That’s just a fraction of what defines Hargitay. She’s a role model for not only fans of her award-winning, hit NBC television series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but also for the many people whose lives she has touched. For the 45-year-old New York-based actress, it’s just another day in paradise.

Hargitay is an anomaly and many consider her to be the thinking man’s sex symbol. Yet, she’s a very funny person who makes her living immersed in heavy drama. She plays a tough woman when her real persona couldn’t be any more loving and gentle. Having grown up in Los Angeles, with much time spent in Texas, she now seems like a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. She is a woman of depth who is genuinely grateful for all she has been handed and all she has created.

When Hargitay was in Texas recently for the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards to accept the posthumous award for her 1950s-era movie star mother, Jayne Mansfield, she returned to a state that welcomed her with open arms. This writer has known Hargitay since decades ago in Los Angeles where she was a struggling actress, and as pals through mutual friends, even considered living in her guesthouse high above Sunset Boulevard near the border of Beverly Hills.

With her auditions for myriad pilots and guest roles, there was no foreseeable long lasting fame and fortune on the horizon to many beyond Harigitay’s close circle of family and friends. In Hollywood, where planes, buses and cars drop off ambitious would-be talents every day, Hargitay might have become yet another acting statistic—talented, but lacking the luck needed to make it happen. But, Hollywood didn’t yet comprehend the intensity of Hargitay’s commitment and fortitude, which runs in her blood. "If you tell yourself you're strong, you're strong. If you tell yourself you're weak, you're weak,” suggests Hargitay. “It's life lesson Number One. If I told myself I couldn't be an actor in the most competitive industry in the world, I couldn't, but I told myself I could do it."

Being the child of pop icons can work for or against anyone born into it. In the 1950s, Jayne Mansfield, often compared to her contemporary, Marilyn Monroe, was a platinum blonde bombshell with a traffic-stopping figure that revved engines of male audiences of the era. Her husband, Hungarian-born Mickey Hargitay, came to public prominence in the post war era as Mr. Universe 1955, then as the husband and manager of Mansfield. As far as “perfect” Hollywood couples go, physically, Mansfield and Hargitay made for a striking pair in a town that specializes in beautiful pairs. They were also a couple who understood the value of publicity and staying in the public eye.

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“I’ll always remember the time in the late 1950s when Jayne, Mickey and I were in their Cadillac going to a radio station for a publicity interview one afternoon,” recalls Gretchen Fine, a long-time Hollywood publicist who represented Mansfield. “It was on the way to a personal appearance I had booked, promoting a new film Jayne had coming out. Mickey was coaching her in the back seat and Jayne kept quieting him, telling him that she knew exactly what she was going to say. And, she really did. Jayne always knew her stuff. She was funny and very sweet. She was also incredibly smart.”

Dallas-born and considered to be Mensa-genius with an IQ of 163, Jayne Mansfield also spoke five languages. This, along with Mickey Hargitay’s business acumen would not be wasted on their offspring. Mariska, the third child of the pair, also speaks five languages. But, as fate intervened, Mariska Hargitay did not get to know her mother as long or as well as any daughter should.

In1967, during a late night on a narrow, winding road outside Biloxi, Mississippi, where Mansfield had just performed at Gus Stevens Supper Club, the family’s Buick Electra convertible collided with an insecticide truck, killing Mansfield and leaving the children as survivors. Hargitay still bears a small scar on her head and her siblings, Mickey Jr. and Zoltan suffered broken limbs and bruises. Three-and-a-half years old at the time, Hargetay’s scar would represent a lifetime of loss and longing for her mother.

At the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards, Hargitay, seated next to me, whispers, “I wish my mother could have been here. She would have enjoyed this honor so much.” On stage, Hargitay, teary after the film clip tribute to her mother, tells the audience, “My mother always considered Texas her home and to be here to accept this on her behalf, in the state that loved her so much, is something she would have loved.” Nary a dry eye in the house, Hargitay recounts her own roots in Texas. “I loved coming to visit my grandparents in Dallas every summer. It meant so much to me, and I know my mom would have loved seeing me have those Texas ties.”

Hargitay also recalls her life in the 1970s when she traveled from Los Angeles to the Highland Park neighborhood in Dallas during summers and holidays. She loved the wholesomeness of picking pecans, then making pecan pie from the array of trees in her grandparents��� backyard; along with the plethora of Azalea bushes; and friends she made and kept at summer camp whom she still considers her closest pals. “It is always a homecoming of sorts,” Hargitay reveals. “My heart is so Texan in that way and it represents profound moments of my life. It’s a sacred place because of the connection to my mother.”

That connection fueled her inspiration to become an actress and to make a mark in the world. After college at UCLA in Los Angeles, Hargitay admits the ride was bumpy. “I am so full of gratitude now because I was a struggling actor for so long,” she shares. As a student at UCLA, she acted in low budget movies until she got cast in a Television show. When she hit a dry spell in her 20s, she got a dose of that Tinsletown reality, living on credit cards and borrowing money—a typical story for aspiring actors. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Hargitay asserts. “So, I learned how to compete and persevere. I just never quit. My father would say ‘You are not a quitter.’” When Hargitay won an Emmy in 2006 in addition to her 2005 Golden Globe win for her trademark role on SVU, she dedicated the award to her father. Landing the role in 1999, and with the series in its 10thseason, Hargitay admits, “As a working actor, I am humbled because there are fewer roles available for someone who is over 40-years-old.” She goes on to say, “I’m just so grateful to have a job I love and that it sometimes makes a difference.”

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Making the move from Los Angeles to New York initially proved tough on Hargitay. “When I first moved here, I was homesick and overwhelmed,” she confesses. “I was challenged by city, the 15-hour work days and I missed my family and my neighborhood in Los Angeles because I was friends with all my neighbors. The weather and light are so different here than in L.A. There every day is happy, sunny and beautiful. Here, it was so different. It makes you very aware.” Of course, sometimes the most difficult moves reap the greatest rewards. “I got this odd feeling; I thought, ‘I know I’m going to move to New York and will meet my husband there,” she divulges. “And, I did met my husband here, who is from Connecticut.”

Hargitay fell for her husband, actor Peter Hermann, in 2002 when he appeared on the series and they married in 2004. Two years later, they became the parents of their son, August. For anyone quick to think that Hargitay has it all, think again. In fact, in our conversations, Hargitay has stressed how difficult it is for anyone to have it all, especially herself. “Can a woman have it all?” she ponders. “I seem to, but my husband has taught me so much. He is very protective of our family and helps me balance to keep priorities straight. I picked the right mate and I was first in line when God was passing out babies with my son. I don’t know if it if gets any better because life started out rough.”

Part of Hargitay’s persistent gratitude contributed to the preparation of her role when she originally landed her career making part on SVU, eventually making her the highest paid actress on television. To prepare for the show, following her success in ER and myriad television shows in the 80s and 90s, Hargitay got real with the demand of the role for her new character, Olivia Benson, a New York police investigator of sexually deviant crimes. Hargitay became a certified rape counselor as homework for the series and it moved her as it did the millions of weekly viewers. “I never thought I’d be playing a cop, and the show has been an incredible ride,” Hargitay states. “The statistics and the research of domestic violence—the things that people don’t talk about—make me feel lucky enough to play a character that deals with these issues. People started writing to me about their issues and it overwhelmed me. There are people too ashamed to deal with these issues.”

Her sense of compassion for those in need led Hargitay to create the Joyful Heart Foundation ( “God put me in this position to help people,” she declares. “I kept asking myself, ‘How do I thank humanity for all the blessings I have? I’m ready to do something and for lightness to shine on the darkness.’” Because her role on the series opened her eyes to epidemic of sexual assault in the US, Hargitay was moved to start Joyful Heart in 2002 to help survivors. The unique program uses human and dolphin interaction as a way to simulate a survivor's journey toward healing. Free of charge to sexual assault survivors, it has helped thousands. In fact, the foundation teamed up with Christina Carlino of Philosophy to create the Joyful Heart Shower Gel, available at $18 retail, with proceeds going to Hargitay’s foundation. She confides, “I knew nothing about non profits or how to start a foundation. I was the little engine that could. At our first gala in May, we raised $1.2 million. That was so satisfying.”

The foundation adds to Hargitay’s growing satisfaction of where her life stands, but her self-assurance and moral fiber has everything to do with her experience in Texas. “I went to Texas last year when one of my best friends of childhood passed away of breast cancer, leaving four little girls,” she recounts her recent trip. “After the funeral I had two hours before my flight and asked the driver to take me to Amherst Drive—my grandparents’ house that meant so much to me. There it was—our house. I sat in the car for 25 minutes just looking at it. So I got the courage and knocked on the door. The woman who lived there, a young mom coming out with Rice Crispy treats, about to jump into her SUV for son’s game, invites me in to take a tour of the house. Looking around, I remembered that my grandparents had a bar and on the door frame near it was penciled growth chart of marks up it. It meant the world to me.”

Of course, her nostalgia for her childhood home and the Lone Star State stems from a lingering connection to her late mother. “[When] I came back for the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards, I was emotional, but it was monumental,” she confides. “Losing my mother at such young age left a hole in my heart that was so painful, but I’ll never forget the supportive vibe in the room where I accepted the award on her behalf, where I felt really safe and taken care of. It’s the ride of humanity that connects us all.”