It's a gray, listless day on the New Jersey set of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but Mariska Hargitay blazes into her dressing room with so much energy she nearly leaves a comet trail. “How are you?” she says, striding over and smiling warmly. “Hows the baby?” (In 2009, I interviewed her for Health and mentioned I was pregnant. A full year later, she remembered.)
Clad in slim black trousers and a black shirt (with a fake gun strapped to her hip for an upcoming scene), the 46-year-old star is absolutely radiant. Her body is curvyno surprise given shes the daughter of movie star Jayne Mansfieldbut shes slim and toned. Her skin has the dewy glow that comes from a heavy-on-the-produce diet and brisk exercise (treadmill in winter, swimming in summer).
Its a good thing she has a surplus of natural vigor. This year marks her 11th season playing tough but empathetic detective Olivia Benson (which won her an Emmy in 2006) . She and her husband, actor Peter Hermann, have a 3 1/2-year-old son named August. She is also intimately involved in the Joyful Heart Foundation, the organization she created in 2004 to give strength and support to survivors of sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence. “Its like having three full-time jobs,” she says.
To spend a day with her on the set is to watch her do all of them at once. Each show takes eight to ten fourteen-hour days to complete. When Mariska isnt needed, she dashes into her homey dressing room. Photos of August adorn the light-blue walls, and his toys are piled in a corner for visits.
Mariska pours us some lemon water from a big pitcher. No sooner does she sit than her phone rings. “Sorry, its my son,” she whispers. Calls from him are taken immediately. “Hi, Augu-dini! Did you make it? I cant wait to see it! Oh, I cant right now, because Im in the middle of work,” she says, sounding like every guilt-ridden working mother in the world. She hangs up and explains that he made her a card. “Hes just starting to learn that Im an actress,” she says, “because he thinks Im a police officer sometimes.”
Her passion for empowering women
Plenty of others are under the same mistaken impression. “Look at this,” she says, leading me over to her computer to show me one of the hundreds of e-mails of the type that inspired her to start Joyful Heart. Many are steeped in pain: I was sexually assaulted by my neighbor … As a girl, I was abused ….
Mariska directs these victims to Joyful Hearts website, where they can find life-saving resources. And at least once a week, the foundations executive director, Maile Zambuto, comes to the set and spends a long day conducting Joyful Heart business with Mariska in between takes.
“I have to tell you: she reads every single letter she gets from survivors,” Zambuto says. “She is the real deal.” Along with advocacy, the foundation has helped thousands of survivors through their healing and wellness retreats, which offer everything from dance to meditation. “All these things are about reconnecting the person to their body,” Mariska explains. “They dont see their bodies as a safe place, so to experience physicality in a positive way can be so healing.”
Mariska believes that all women could benefit from taking more time for themselves. But she knows the struggle crazy-busy women feel to prioritize their own R & R. “Ive got so much on my plate, so when I have downtime, theres always something else to do,” she says.
A knock. Shes needed for a close-up.
Five minutes later, she darts back in, takes another call from August, then picks up where she left off. She tells me that she and the other staffers at the foundation try to practice the same self-care they encourage professionals in the field to do. To avoid getting depleted, they make time for wellness.
One key way: getting enough sleep. “Theres nothing more important,” she says. “I know I wasnt a good mom when I was sleep-deprived, and Im not a good friend or wife. Im really cranky and no one wants to be around me.” She laughs. “When I get a good sleep, all of a sudden, everything is manageable!”
A knock. Shes needed in rehearsal.
Where she gets her amazing energy
When Mariska returns, I ask her how she does it. Its nearly dusk and shes as lively as ever. One reason, of course, is that shes passionate about the different areas of her life. But she also has another little trick: a book called Clean, written by detoxing expert Alejandro Junger, MD. Mariska recently embarked on a three-week cleanse.
As it happens, after week two she was invited to dinner by her neighbor, none other than Barefoot Contessa chef Ina Garten. “My assistant Jacob says, ‘You cant go, you cant ruin your cleanse,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Jacob, which part of Ina Garten invited me for dinner do you not understand? Oh, yes, I can!” So she went to dinner and had a fabulous time.
Another crew member knocks. More rehearsal. But first, Mariska shares the best advice shes gotten on managing stressfrom her goddaughter, Serena, who was all of 4 at the time. One day Mariska jokingly said, “Serena, how do you do it?” Her reply? “I just do it, and I get through it.” Mariska laughs. “And now, in all seriousness, when Im like ‘I cant do it, I listen to those words and find their wisdom.”
Crew members are hovering, so Mariska sends me off with a hug and my own copy of Clean. (“If you do this, youre going to love me forever!”) Then she returns to her jam-packed, hectic, wonderful day.
Mariskas New Crusade
Every year, more than 200,000 people report their rape to the police. Almost all are asked to have a rape kit collected, during which physical evidence is gathered. Its crucial because it can corroborate a victims account and identify the assailant. Shockingly, theres a backlog of more than 180,000 untested rape kits in police storage facilities nationwide.
“Every kit holds the potential to solve a heinous crime,” says Linda Fairstein, one of the foremost experts on crimes against women and a vice chair at Joyful Heart. Joyful Heart is partnering with other organizations to bring funding and federal legislation to reduce this backlog. Its critical because rape has the lowest arrest and prosecution rates of all violent crimes. To learn more, go to JoyfulHeartFoundation.org.
A Day at Joyful Heart
We spent the afternoon at Joyful Hearts New York City headquarters, a bright, airy space done in tranquil sea colors. Maile Zambuto, the foundations executive director, showed us around and filled us in on the foundations tireless efforts.
Health: How do Joyful Heart retreats help women who have been victimized heal?
Maile: We know now from research that trauma is held in the body, and that the spiritual aspect of being violated is really significant. Everyone heals differently. For some people, its a deep connection to being in nature. For others, its creative expression because somehow their victimization diminished their creativity. Its truly meant to be an experience where you can tap into whats healing for you, and take those tools in the safety of a community of other survivors and use them well beyond your retreat experience.
Health: You have a new program called Heal the Healers for professionals who do this work and experience whats known as ‘vicarious or secondary trauma from witnessing suffering on a daily basis.
Maile: They can become exhausted, numb, overwhelmed, cynical, or feel like theyre never doing enough. So we bring groups together from law enforcement, prosecutors, medical personnel, social workers, and therapists, and do conferences and retreats.
The idea started a couple years ago when Mariska and I went to Queens, New York, to talk to detectives about their work with child sex abuse. And Mariska was talking to these cops, and they were telling her horrific stories. And she turned to this detective and said, ‘How do you unload this? And he said, ‘If anyone knew how I really felt inside, I think I could be fired. So we educate professionals in the field on how to identify the signs of vicarious or secondary traumameaning they can become traumatized from witnessing suffering on a daily basisand learn really effective self-care tools.