Over the course of 17 years, we've seen Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson go through many changes on Law and Order: SVU—and we're not just talking about her hairstyles. The character at the center of TV's longest-running drama currently on the air has gone from young detective to new mom and sergeant to…well, that might be spoiling a bit too much. But Benson has been changed—and changed for good. There's Badass Benson now and Mama Bear Benson, and Hargitay is just fine with playing both ends of the spectrum that often meet and mix in the middle.
"All these changes have infused the character in such great ways. There's such specificity here in new ways. Going into season 17, that's where you want to be," Hargitay told press on set of SVU's newly renovated squad room.
Benson is now in charge of the Special Victims Unit and a single mom to baby Noah. The pull of work and home life isn't something new to Hargitay, a mom of three, but it is for her character.
"We understand, the pull is always a legitimate pull. They don't write—I'm not at the office for no good reason," Hargitay said, citing the stresses of Benson's job where she's understaffed, is missing a second in command and has members of her squad she doesn't completely trust. "I'm a little bit alone right now. I feel Benson's got a little bit the weight of the world ‘cause it's coming down from above—she's the only one and I've got to whip them into shape and I'm alone and pulling my hair out. I've got a kid, and I'm all he's got."
Executive producers Warren Leight and Julie Martin said they like to play with the realities of the situation too. "I think there's some expectation that, especially for female characters, to be the superwoman and you have to be able to handle everything and everybody…and not be perceived as a bitch," Martin said. "We're trying to keep her real and grounded and experiencing frustration and getting angry—"
"And [Benson is] going to screw up," Leight added.
"I love those notes between Rollins and I in the first [episode]," Hargitay said. "All this little weird friction—she's being punished and she feels like a victim and I'm trying to protect her. It's all this nuanced real stuff. It's hard being the boss…She's also Mama Bear Benson at the bottom of her heart, that's why she's meant to be a mother and that's why this was a good idea, having baby Noah! [Laughs.]"
Hargitay said she thinks the show portrays women in power in a positive light.
"Listen, I'll tell you that was one of the biggest growing pains for me personally and on the show. It's hard being the boss. I have tremendous respect for people that can walk that fine line. But listen, you got to be the boss. You have to lay down the law. If this is the way it is, it has to be. If people call you a bitch at some point, you have to say, 'Sorry you feel that way'—if your integrity is in the right place you get a pass," she said.
Martin noted there's an expectation for women to be more empathetic and compassionate than men and Hargitay agreed. "I felt it when I first started playing her. Olivia is such a caretaker, so gentle and kind. When you're dealing with victims, that's one thing. When you're dealing with survivors, you want to just be open, listen and compassionate. That's a different skill than going, 'Get out there and get out—get out there now and let's get it done,'" she said.
The big transition for Hargitay's character was one that made people "very nervous" on the "corporate level," Leight said. "There was a lot of anxiety about that," he said.
"But here's what's exciting about that and this is why it's such a good question, because now you learn so much from Twitter and from the Internet: People love Badass Benson! People love power, they love women in charge and people are ready for it. So to see somebody grow from compassion, 'What happened? I'm here, love you,' to [growls], to that ferocious protector, is really great and what a great thing to teach young girls. What a great thing that that's their model. What a great thing that this powerhouse badass, take no prisoners, take no bulls--t get it done—That's who we want our girls to be, right? Get it done," Hargitay said.
Law and Order: SVU returns Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. with a two-hour episode on NBC.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)