On screen, Olivia Benson has been pulling double duty all season long on Law & Order: SVU, juggling her duties as a new sergeant and a new mom. Off screen, actress and producer Mariska Hargitay can sympathize. Wednesday's episode (9/8c, NBC) marks Hargitay's second time in the director's chair, this time for an episode introducing the estranged father of Det. Nick Amaro (Danny Pino). "It's an invigorating process for me," the Emmy winner tells TVGuide.com of her time behind the camera. Hargitay also spoke with TVGuide.com about Benson's "challenges," Season 16's new directions and her SVU future:
You already have a packed schedule on SVU, so what made you want to add to that and direct again? Mariska Hargitay: You know, I loved it. I feel like I've been here so long and have found certain rhythms that I find help people stay in the moment. It's a love of telling stories, of telling the story my way and being able to shape the story. But also my love for actors and my appreciation and respect for the process, but I also love helping to create an environment where I can get an actor's best work. Just loving the creative process and finding the unexpected.
This episode is a big one for Danny Pino because we get to meet his character's father [Armand Assante]. What kind of conversations do you have before filming?
Hargitay: It was so beautiful and so great and exciting to work with both Danny and [Assante]. Both of them were so willing to take risks and try different colors. For Danny, it was very exciting because it was this chance to explore a different side of his character. Armand, it was just a great moment-by-moment surprise. Danny and I talked about opposites and trying things differently and finding the humor and the lighter moments, or the unexpected response, or never knowing what was going to happen next. Finding light in dark or dark in light, trying to switch up the moment and how full a moment it can be.
What new sides do you think viewers will see to Danny's character in this episode?
Hargitay: The episode is obviously about fathers and sons and wounds and denial and covering up and our commitment to cover things up to protect those vulnerable areas within us, which we will try at all costs to protect. Amaro's a cop and he's a protector and he's had a lot of rage and anger, and this story line is about finding out what's under that and why? What is he protecting and how far will he go to protect it?
The squad has undergone lots of changes this season: Rollins just took a break and Carisi joined the team, and Nick started out the season as a traffic cop. Why is it important to shake up the team?
Hargitay: A) It's interesting and B) different chemistries bring out different things. But also, that's life, right? People go through their personal journeys and they bring their personalities and journeys to work, and I think it's more compelling to tell the story of someone trying to do their job with all the baggage from their past. I think it just enriches it so much to know, why is Rollins so guarded? Why is she defensive? Now we know and now we feel for her so deeply. ... We all see Amaro's anger, so we try to rally around him. We all saw that Rollins was hiding something. Just getting to know these characters that we love.
This season has seen Benson become a mom while still being in charge of the squad. What have you enjoyed about this latest chapter for her? How do you think being a mom has changed her so far?
Hargitay: That's what's been fun for me to play this season, growing that aspect of her personality. Playing Mama Bear to her squad, Mama Bear to the victims, Mama Bear to Noah, she's in charge of all these people and still figuring out how to do it. Her job is totally new. Part of her job is to keep herself alive now in a new kind of way for Noah. Where before she'd be so singularly focused on getting it done and being fearless and now it's like, wait a minute, I got to get it done, but at the end of the day, my most important job description is caring for this child. It's been fun to evolve the character in that way. Everything is different now. Everything.
Last season was a big one for the show with the "Save Benson" trilogy. How do you think SVU has kept up that momentum and continued to keep things fresh this season?
Hargitay: It feels like these writers are a bottomless well of ideas. Because I have to say that there was concern after last year and the depth that we went to of how they were going to sustain it. But I think the show this year has been so compelling and so interesting and has gone off into such interesting directions. It's fun to see our other characters get fleshed out, like the Rollins episode or the Amaro episode. I want to see a Carisi episode and I think everybody else does too. And that's been really exciting to watch. I have to say every week I'm pleasantly surprised at how these shows come together and how they are still so compelling. We get really amazing guest stars. I think we have a first-rate cast and really strong writing that absolutely keeps me glued to the show. I think that the writing has been pretty darn incredible and I'm still in.
Why do you think the show still has more stories to tell?
Hargitay: I look at the news everyday and see the issues and crimes we deal with continually making headlines and being debated as legal issues pushing new and renewed legislation — such as the Violence Against Women Act — and as social issues affecting women and society as a whole. SVU is able to start conversations and humanize these problems. We are able to show all sides of an issue, as we did with our Domestic Violence episode this fall, in an episode that portrayed of institutionalized racism (and was nominated for an NAACP Award), the episodes where we both educated and explored the rise in rapes on college campuses — and even in the episode that explored the problem of the rape kit backlog. I feel very fortunate that our show is in a position where we can start a conversation on national TV about these issues in a way that people can empathize with and see the human element involved. We tell stories that matter, stories that can change the lives of individual viewers — and stories that can change the tenor of the conversation and viewpoints of our entire audience.
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC.