Mariska Hargitay's character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has devoted her life to helping survivors of assault and abuse, and the actress is doing her part in real life as well. Her Joyful Heart Foundation, inspired by Hargitay's experiences on the show, aims to aid and inspire people who have suffered sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. Hargitay talked to TVGuide.com about the charity's pursuit of a $250,000 grant from Pepsi, what's next for her character, Detective Olivia Benson, and the odds of Benson hooking up with her partner, Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni).
TVGuide.com: Tell me about Joyful Heart and why it's a cause you feel so strongly about.
Mariska Hargitay: Joyful Heart is about the courage and power of the human spirit. It's about helping people find their path to healing, and reclaiming joyful lives after a traumatic or violent experience. Our mission is to heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and to shed light into the darkness that surrounds these issues.
When I started on SVU 11 years ago, I started getting fan mail from survivors who felt a connection to Olivia. In many of these letters, people would disclose their personal stories of abuse — some for the very first time. I remember getting the sense that many were living in isolation with so much shame, but the shame belonged to the perpetrators. I wanted to help find a way to help people reclaim their lives and live them with a renewed sense of possibility and hope. And that's what we work to do every day at Joyful Heart. Is there anything more fulfilling then helping people rebuild their lives?
TVGuide.com: Joyful Heart is one of the charities up for a $250,000 grant from Pepsi. What would it do with the money?
Hargitay: The Pepsi Refresh Project is giving away $1.3 million in grants every month to people and organizations with ideas on how to improve their communities. Joyful Heart has submitted a proposal that will allow us to fund our magazine, Reunion, for a full year. The magazine was born from a desire for connection within our community. It's an incredible publication and it allows us to reach tens of thousands more people than we can through our traditional programs. We're asking everyone to VOTE JOY and support the Foundation by voting once a day, every day at www.refresheverything.com/votejoy. If you're reading this interview, you should go vote right now!
TVGuide.com: SVU has had so many of guest-stars this season. Who was the most fun to work with?
Hargitay: Seriously, how lucky am I that I get to work with such incredibly talented people week after week. It's one of the best parts of my job. It's impossible to single anyone out. Rosie [Perez], John [Laroquette], Kathy [Griffin] and Naveen [Andrews] were all amazing to work with, and I adore each of them for different reasons. Lena Olin, Mischa Barton, Jill Scott, Christine Lahti, and Quinton Aaron (The Blind Side) were all just here as well and were all fantastic. Sarah Paulson kept me in stitches for the entire week. So did Kathy Griffin! And it's not just all the established stars we have on the show; Cruz Santiago, this incredible young actor who portrayed Rosie's son in [the episode entitled] "Hardwire" blew me away. I can go on and on about our guest stars!
TVGuide.com: What's to come when SVU returns after the Olympics?
Hargitay: You're in for another fantastic lineup of guest-stars [and] I can tell you one thing, I'm looking forward to rolling up my sleeves with Sharon Stone when she plays the role of an Assistant District Attorney. If you want more scoop, you'll have to follow executive producer Neal Baer's twitter.
TVGuide.com: Will Olivia's dedication continue to put her at risk personally?
Hargitay: I think that the work Benson, Stabler, Fin and Munch do every day puts them at risk. We've seen over the years the toll it takes on their relationships and personal lives. And in the real world, through my work with the Joyful Heart Foundation, we've seen the impact of vicarious trauma on professionals who work with abuse and suffering. It can be incredibly difficult to deal with.
As for Benson, I hope she finds herself in hot water again. And I hope she keeps pushing the limits — just not too far. A girl's gotta work!
TVGuide.com: Are you happy to settle back into the 10/9 c timeslot?
Hargitay: I'm thrilled we're getting our 10 p.m. timeslot back. I think 10 p.m. is appropriate given the subject matter we deal with every week. I've said before that SVU isn't really a show parents want on in the background while they're putting their kids to bed. With the great scripts the writers have been giving us and the guest stars who'll be joining us, we'll be better than ever on Wednesday at 10 p.m.
Mariska Hargitay says "stunt" led to partially collapsed lung
TVGuide.com: If the series were to come to an end, what would you like to see for Olivia?
Hargitay: Olivia has always struggled with balancing her job and her personal life. We all do to some degree, but she's had a really hard time. I'd love to see her start a family and experience the profound joy and fulfillment that can come from that. It certainly did in my life.
TVGuide.com: And many of the fans want her and Stabler to finally get together.
Hargitay: As far as Olivia getting together with Stabler, I'll leave that up to the viewers' imagination.
TVGuide.com: How do you manage to balance the show with Joyful Heart and your family?
Hargitay: If I've learned anything about juggling a lot of responsibilities, it's that you can't do it alone. I'm surrounded by the most passionate and dedicated people. The Board and staff at Joyful Heart are so committed to the work we're doing. I've also got a great team of people who keep everything at SVU running as smoothly as possible and, of course, my husband Peter is the best partner I could ever hope for. He also shares my passion for Joyful Heart. I may have a lot going on that makes me a very busy person, but I'm a happy person because of it. I spend a good portion of each day counting my many, many blessings.
Law & Order: SVU returns March 3 at 9/8c on NBC and moves to 10/9c on March 10.