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Mariska Hargitay says 'Law & Order: SVU' character Olivia Benson is now part of her and 'has taught me so much'

Mariska Hargitay has played Olivia Benson on
Mariska Hargitay has played Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit since 1999. (Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

Mariska Hargitay is truly grateful to Olivia Benson — no, not Taylor Swift's rich cat — but the badass character that she's portrayed for the better part of 24 seasons of NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

"I've been doing this for so long, and the character is me — it's part of me. I couldn't play it if it wasn’t," Hargitay told The Cut this week. "I did so much work at the beginning when I learned about these issues — law enforcement, sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, trauma — that I've spent these last 24 years studying that. That studying continues, but I've also spent these last 24 years excavating myself and trying to understand my own inner landscape and which parts I give to that character and which parts that character unlocked in me."

For all the gritty parts of playing Benson, there's an upside.

"This character has taught me so much," said Hargitay, who won an Emmy for the role in 2006. "I've become a more whole person, a more self-aware person. I want to inspire people to have the strength to look in the mirror, go deep, and know that they can tolerate the pain and get to the other side so they can achieve what they want, especially the peace that they crave."

As a result of what she'd learned, Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, whose mission is to stop sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and to support its victims, in 2004.

Hargitay said that it's her family, including her actor husband, Peter Hermann, and their three kids, that enable her to leave the upsetting subjects she often focuses on at work behind... usually. Sometimes the lines between the two blur, such as when Richard Belzer, a co-worker and a real-life friend died Feb. 19.

Immediately, Hargitay issued a statement:

More than a week after Belzer died, Hargitay is obviously every bit as heartbroken.

"He was more like family — when you work with somebody and know somebody that intimately," Hargitay said. "When you're together every day all day, when you're tired, when you're all the different parts of yourself with someone, you really get to know somebody so intimately. So it's brutal."

Friends Mariska Hargitay and Richard Belzer pose for a photo on Jan. 28, 2007 during the Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ron Wolfson/WireImage)
Friends Mariska Hargitay and Richard Belzer pose for a photo on Jan. 28, 2007 during the Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ron Wolfson/WireImage)

So the two were more than "friends" — a term that Hargitay does not use lightly.

"Friendship is everything to me. I value my friendships the way I value family. Real friends — long-termers, the lifers — become apparent pretty quickly. Friendship is about showing up. It matters to show up for people and say, 'You matter. Our relationship matters. Your artistry matters. Your work matters.'"

Hargitay directed the first SVU episode to air after Belzer's death, and she dedicated it to him, with a card just before the closing credits.

The Dick Wolf drama is currently on a break and returns with new episodes March 23.