Friday, April 13, 2018

Mariska Hargitay's Rape Kit Documentary Came To Life Because Of Olivia Benson — Yes, Really


As the last remaining original cast member of Law & Order: SVU, Mariska Hargitay has long used her celebrity status to help make actual change in the world with her foundation, Joyful Heart, which supports survivors of sexual assault and abuse. And now, Hargitay is the producer of HBO's new documentary I Am Evidence, which details the backlog of the over 200,000 (!) untested rape kits sitting in police department storage facilities all over America. The actor's involvement in the film, and her devotion to justice for victims of sex crimes, has made her a true-to-life version of Olivia Benson, but 20 years ago, Hargitay never would have imagined an acting role would affect her in such an intense way.

"Frankly between you and me, I thought I was gonna be in comedy," Hargitay says when we chat over the phone in April. Early in her career, she explains, she did bit parts in sitcoms like Seinfeld, but soon, she started to notice a curious trend. "I kept getting cast as cops, even on a sitcom!" she explains, laughing. "I was like, god is trying to tell me something. And then I played undercover cops and regular cops — I played so many cops."

When Hargitay was finally cast as Detective Olivia Benson on SVU in 1999, she decided to go along with where destiny was pointing her. "I got this role and thought, wow, this is not where I thought I was going with this, but here I am," she explains. This led to her asking herself, "Well, why am I here?" Hargitay adds. "I tried to find the meaning and I realized I had this incredible gift and this opportunity that I had been given to use my platform for good in the world."

That opportunity came soon. Not long after SVU began airing, fans began writing Hargitay with their stories of rape, assault, childhood trauma, and more. Olivia Benson, these fans wrote, gave them hope, inspired them, and convinced them that Hargitay would be willing to lend a sympathetic ear — which, of course, she was.

"So many brave, courageous survivors honored me and have given me the privilege of sharing their stories with me," Hargitay says. "It was like being anointed, in a way." It was after the bags and bags full of letters kept coming that the actor knew she had to take action. "The fact of the matter is, when somebody trusts you like that, what can I do?" she recalls asking herself. "How can I turn up the volume on this issue? How can we make a change here?"

In 2004, she founded Joyful Heart. "The fact is, I didn’t really have a choice," Hargitay explains. "With the statistics that I saw and the platform that I was given and the pain that I witnessed and the injustice that I saw, it was just too much. I didn’t know what to do with it. I wanted to respond to it. It felt like a calling. It felt like not an accident. It felt like I’m supposed to do something."

In 2010, Hargitay went before the U.S. House of Representatives to speak on the issue. "I went to testify and hope and pray that my voice would matter, and I just wanted to add it to the chorus," she recalls. "The word fearless has played such a big part of my life — it’s something that I aspire to be."

It was in D.C. where she met Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy, who also appears in I Am Evidence. Worthy was the one who originally discovered that Detroit's Wayne County had a backlog of over 11,000 rape kits that had gone untested, and Hargitay teamed up with her on the spot. While Worthy says she was somewhat familiar with SVU, she didn't know many details about the show or its star, she explains to Bustle. She also didn't know that she had a destined ally in Hargitay until their fateful meeting.

"I didn’t know about any of the things that she talked about in her powerful testimony," says Worthy. "I didn’t that people were writing to her, I didn’t know about Joyful Heart. I didn’t know why she was doing the work that she was doing. It was life changing for me."

As the doc depicts, Worthy and Hargitay are working together to try to change laws so that victims can be heard, prove that survivors matter, and bring humanity and justice into the sexual assault landscape. They want to educate law enforcement to deal with the neurobiology of trauma, get more SANE nurses (sexual assault nurse examiners) into hospitals so they can meet with survivors, and stop the victim-blaming attitudes that are so pervasive in our culture.

"How do we educate people to say that sexual assault is not the guy jumping out of the bushes?" Hargitay rhetorically asks. "That’s a very small percentage. There's disrespect and a lack of humanity. How can our justice system change to say that survivors matter and how can we give people like Kim who are out there fighting the fight get the proper resources?"

Through Joyful Heart and I Am Evidence, Hargitay is helping to change the landscape of sexual assault, and she knows she wouldn't be in such a powerful position without Olivia Benson. "I’m so grateful to SVU," the actor says. "I’m so grateful to Dick Wolf for having the vision and the creativity to write this show and these characters and letting me play this character the way that I wanted to play her, with humanity and femininity and empathy and not to be a cop in a man’s world."
Hargitay may not have meant to build a career in the TV landscape of drama and crime, but the real world is lucky to have both the SVU character and the activist behind her.

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Mariska Hargitay takes her advocacy for sex assault victims to HBO


Portraying a heroic sex crimes detective on television has provided Mariska Hargitay with a platform to help sexual assault victims in real life.

Hargitay, who stars as Detective Olivia Benson in the police procedural “Law and Order: SVU,” has turned her clout as an advocate for victims into the upcoming HBO documentary, “I Am Evidence,” where she also serves as producer.

“I feel like I was given a gift with this role. I was given a platform. It was a way for me to respond. I’ve had the privilege of having had so many survivors share their stories with me, and I feel a responsibility to that,” Hargitay said.

She admits backing the documentary was driven by her “own outrage” of the way victims of sexual assault are treated by the system. “People say, ‘why did you make this movie?’ I said because I was really mad,” Hargitay said.

The film, which premieres Monday on HBO, focuses on four survivors whose rape kits went untested for years. Part of the problem is that many states have no legislation that demands testing within a reasonable period. As a result, hundreds of thousands of kits are backlogged, with many never tested.

“I just couldn’t comprehend that in this country this was going on. That they were stockpiling rape kits,” Hargitay said.

The documentary also examines the victim blaming that some rape survivors encounter from law enforcement officers who aren’t properly trained.

Hargitay started the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 as a means to help victims of sexual assault heal from their emotional trauma.

She said sexual assault survivors have reached out to her through letters and emails. Over time, she realized that Benson serves as a role model for their unheard voices, and want to make sure they are heard.

While the film deals with how rape victims are treated, Hargitay envisions a world where sexual assault never happens again. Hargitay feels fixing these problems are more basic than we realize.

“Compassion and empathy would heal so much, and it’s so simple. Women have carried this burden for so long, and it’s men that need to engage,” Hargitay said. “Everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten.”

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Mariska Hargitay (‘Law & Order: SVU’) opens up about ‘culture of shame and isolation’ for abuse survivors in new interview


“I think that for so long survivors have been living in a culture of shame and isolation,” reveals “Law & Order: SVU” cast member Mariska Hargitay in a new interview. After playing sex crimes investigator Olivia Benson for so many years, Hargitay tells “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah that fans now feel comfortable sharing their own stories of sexual abuse with her. “I think that this fictionalized character maybe was the first person that showed empathy and compassion, and they knew that Olivia was always for the victim first and felt safe there. Hopefully now that is indeed changing.”

Hargitay continues on, “When I started the show, I’d come off ‘E.R.’ and so when you’re getting normal fan mail you get, ‘Hi, I love your show, can I get an autographed photo?’ All of a sudden [with] ‘SVU’ I started getting a very different kind of fan letter, with victims actually disclosing their stories of abuse, and many for the first time.”

Since Hargitay has been portraying Olivia on the NBC drama for 19 seasons now, she readily admits that she sometimes “gets confused about what my real job is.” She laughs, “There have been times in my life where I’ve seen something on the street and I jump in like, ‘Hey! Put that down!’ I’ve done it so many times I’m like, ‘Mariska, you need to calm down.'”

Her current passion project is “I Am Evidence,” an HBO documentary chronicling the struggle of abuse victims whose attackers often go unpunished because of untested rape kits. Last year the actress directed the 400th episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Showing no signs of slowing down, the drama’s recent April 11 installment was episode number 428.

Hargitay won Best Drama Actress at the 2006 Emmys against competitors Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”), Geena Davis (“Commander in Chief”), Allison Janney (“The West Wing”) and Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”). In all, Hargitay earned eight bids in this category between 2004 and 2011, putting her behind only Angela Lansbury (“Murder, She Wrote”) who holds the record of 12 nominations as Best Drama Actress.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Mariska Hargitay Takes on the Police’s Rape Kit Backlog: ‘They Don’t Understand Trauma’


The ‘Law & Order: SVU’ star discusses her powerful new doc, ‘I Am Evidence,’ which explores the untested rape kit epidemic and how it disproportionately affects women of color.

In a somewhat surprising but incredibly uplifting turn of events, TV’s premiere sex crimes detective has dedicated her off-screen life to pursuing justice for sexual-assault survivors.
Mariska Hargitay, the beloved Law & Order: SVU actress, is also the founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation. I Am Evidence, a new documentary premiering on HBO April 16th, focuses on Joyful Heart’s years-long cause: the elimination of America’s rape kit backlog.
On Monday night, Hargitay told a rapt audience of friends, foundation board members, film subjects and staff about how the documentary came to be—the “genesis” being “learning about the backlog from Humans Rights Watch in 2009.”

Hargitay continued, “We were so grateful to figure out where to put our stake in the ground…Joyful Heart has been working for so many years on a plan: the six pillars of legislation. We do have a plan, I don’t know how many years its gonna take, but it’s doable, and that’s the good news. It’s exciting to have a roadmap to get there. New York has fortunately really cleaned up, and has been able to clean up the backlog, Texas and Detroit, each state is working towards it, and we are pushing with all of our might to do that.”

I Am Evidence opens on Hargitay, who quickly catches the audience up on how her SVU role educated and galvanized her. Hargitay recalls daily letters from fans opening up about their own sexual assaults; many of the people reaching out were disclosing their stories for the very first time. In what must be the best-case scenario for casting an actress in a crime procedural, Hargitay pushed herself to learn more about these issues, eventually founding Joyful Heart. While I Am Evidence clearly owes a great deal to Hargitay, the film wastes little time pivoting from its benefactress to the hero at the heart of the documentary: Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor who made it her mission to give Detroit’s 11,341 untested rape kits the consideration that they deserve.
Joining Hargitay at Monday night’s screening, Worthy proudly announced that her team had just sent off the last 617 kits to be tested, but emphasized that the effort to redress over four decades worth of ineptitude and apathy was a “struggle.”
“Detroit declared bankruptcy a few years after [the storage space of backlogged rape kits] was discovered,” Worthy recalled. “And at the time it would cost anywhere from $1,200 to $1,500 a kit to be tested, that’s $12 to $15 million and beyond, and that’s just for the testing. That’s not for the investigation, that’s not for the prosecutorial costs. We didn’t have any money, and I couldn’t find anyone to give us the money to begin with. And later on, once it became popular to talk about, four years later the state gave us money. But really it was Mariska and the Joyful Heart Foundation, and some very prominent business men and women that really poured some money into it…when Mariska came in 2010, it seemed like all the red sea opened, and they listened to her, and it got a lot easier.”

While I Am Evidence is preoccupied with the backlog of over 225,000 untested rape kits across the country, the film starts with Worthy in Detroit—and for good reason. In addition to highlighting Worthy’s leadership and dedication, the documentary delves deep into the causes of the backlog, exploring issues that go far beyond a lack of resources. With help from various experts, I Am Evidence paints a damning portrait of police officers who routinely disbelieved and dismissed women, particularly women of color.

Survivors were told, often explicitly, that law enforcement would not be devoting time or effort to their cases—sending a larger message that, as little as women mattered, as under-prioritized as these crimes were, assaults against women of color matter even less. Officers’ case notes, unearthed, contained dismissive and offensive language, particularly when the alleged sexual assault victims were black women. Poring through these notes, a pattern emerges of women not being believed, with assumptions that they were not really raped made on the basis of victim-blaming tropes or racial biases.

As Hargitay noted during a discussion after the film, the attitudes of law enforcement officers—their inability or unwillingness to properly deal with a sexual-assault survivor or pursue their case—is a major impediment to justice. “One of the things that we hope so much that comes through in the film is the fact that many people, unfortunately law enforcement as well, don’t understand the neurobiology of trauma,” Hargitay said. “We deal with it on SVU, tonic immobility, fight or flight, freezing, you hear so many survivors say, ‘I froze’—that’s hardwired into us…that idea of law enforcement literally not understanding. They get confused—I’m not even blaming—they just go, ‘Well she didn’t say anything, she didn’t scream, she didn’t fight back, she didn’t do this or that,’ and it’s because they don’t understand trauma.”

Co-director Geeta Gandbhir noted during the discussion that, “This is obviously a fight that’s been going on for a really long time for women and for people of color, and people who are economically disenfranchised—it’s not that our voices haven’t been out there, it’s just that we haven’t necessarily been heard. To have a medium and platform to be heard is incredibly important, and for me it was a huge honor.”

While listing a couple of the things that she found most “pivotal” about the film, Worthy added, “The other thing that no film has ever done, as far as I’m aware, is show the plight of women of color when they’re victims of sexual assault. It’s something I’ve been saying for years, and no one really wants to listen, and I think that they’ll have to listen now. [I Am Evidence] also shows the juxtaposition between cities and counties that have money, and those that don’t. And I’m very pleased that we’re on the right side now, and things are going a lot better for us, partly as a result of us being involved with this film.”

Given the myths and biases that surround sexual-assault cases, it’s possible to understand why so many rape kits—potential evidence against rapists, potential tools in assuring that serial offenders don’t assault again—have been allowed to languish in forgotten storage spaces untested. But explanations don’t make the backlog any easier to stomach, especially after I Am Evidence puts faces, names, and stories to those untouched kits.

One of the survivors featured in the film is Helena, a vocal advocate who cites her horrific experience as evidence that women, particularly women of color, are not listened to. After she was abducted and assaulted by a stranger, Helena immediately went to the police. She recalled going through a re-traumatizing evidence-collection process, and being subjected to the questioning of “indifferent” and seemingly disbelieving detectives. In an online testimony, Helena said that, “No further contact was initiated by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and they did not return my calls for over 13 years.” In one of the film’s most painful moments, a crying Helena wonders what it was about her that was so unimportant—why her violent assault didn’t seem to matter.

In 2009, after learning about the rape kit backlog, Helena got in touch with advocates who were able to get through to law enforcement; within a week, Helena learned that her kit had been processed, and that there was a match. While Helena’s rapist was already in jail, she learned that he was serving time for “a nearly identical assault that could have been prevented if my rape kit had been processed.” I Am Evidence speaks with the victim of that assault, as well as Michelle Brettin, the Ohio police officer who arrested the serial rapist. In the film, Brettin expresses her shock and disbelief that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department failed to adequately pursue Helena’s case.

On Monday, Brettin gave a teary apology to the group of assembled survivors: “I’m embarrassed that I was a part of law enforcement that’s turned a blind eye to this. And if one person hears what I have to say now, I’ll be happy. These women here, no one should have to go through this, and no one should have to be rejected by the keepers of the people, the keepers of the peace. Law enforcement has failed them.”

Another featured survivor, Ericka, who is also the Executive Director of the Detroit nonprofit Supreme Transitions, shared her experience watching the film. “I had a lot of anxiety leading up to this day,” she confessed to the audience. “But seeing the film again tonight, and getting my reminder from Mariska—this bracelet, she gave me, says strong—and I’ve realized how strong I am. I realize how strong our voices are. And as I watched the credits, and I looked at the names, I know those people. This was not for show; this was not done for publicity for Mariska at all. I know every single person on those credits, they have held my hand and told me that they care, and told me how much they care about this project and about me and about the survivors. I don’t know how other people feel when they’re in films, but I know those names…This was made with love.”

While Hargitay, directors Gandbhir and Trish Adlesic, and the assembled subjects of the film covered a lot of ground, from the need to further educate medical professionals to pressuring legislators, their discussion ended on their hopes for I Am Evidence’s immediate impact. Worthy explained, “Every time someone sees this film, that’s a potential juror, and I hope that they can be better informed…Because you’re wearing nice clothes doesn’t make you a robbery victim, and because you act a certain way or do certain things shouldn’t make you a sexual-assault victim either.”

Hargitay had the last word, beginning, “I’m gonna be super honest right now.”
“The problem is the victim-blaming attitudes,” Hargitay continued. “I’m going to tell you right now, as the founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, I was one of those people who had some of those biases. I was! And I got checked, and I got educated. I’d love to sit here and tell you how evolved and wise I was from the beginning…but it wasn’t like that for me.”
She concluded that the issue of the backlog was ultimately one of “humanity,” insisting, “Testing the rape kits is humane, because it treats a person like a person. And so I just want to say that, because we can all sit here and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, those people with the victim-blaming attitudes…’ I was one. And I’m so grateful that I’m not one anymore. And for all those people who have those attitudes, I hold hope out for them. I hold hope that they’ll see the movie and go, ‘Holy shit. Oh my god, I’m so sorry.’ That’s what I hope.”


Monday, April 9, 2018

Mariska Hargitay tells Cleveland audience: "The good news is we can change this"

CLEVELAND, Ohio - In "I Am Evidence," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy summed up the frustrations of those confronting the backlog of untested rape kits in the United States.
"Nobody gives a damn about women in this country," she said.
But producer Mariska Hargitay and director Trish Adlesic are out to change that - and they're using their movie to do it.
They joined Cleveland survivors, county and state investigators and Plain Dealer reporter Rachel Dissell - all of whom appear in the searing documentary - for a Q&A after a Sunday afternoon screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

There are hundreds of thousands of rape kits - containing DNA and other forensic evidence collected from the bodies of mostly women - that remain stockpiled and unexamined in cities across America.
What can average people do to help, a woman in the audience asked?

"Let's talk about it!" said Hargitay, who has played sex crimes detective Olivia Benson for nearly two decades on "Law& Order: Special Victims Unit." "People just don't know about it."

The actress and activist learned about the backlog she calls "a travesty" in 2009. Like so many people, she "assumed that if a woman went through a 4-to-6-hour re-traumatizing examination, obviously, [the rape kits] were tested . . ." And then, investigated.

That they weren't was a wake up call that has turned into a movement, said Hargitay. She hopes it will push all 50 states to do what Ohio has done, which is make the testing of old and new rape kits mandatory, while pushing for other reforms about how sexual assault investigations are handled.
"The good news," she said, "is we can change this."

Dissell and colleague Leila Atassi uncovered some 4,000 rape kits had been untested in Cleveland. Today, 13,931 rape kits from all around the state have been tested. "And those are generating leads for potential suspects," said Dissell.

Those leads meant justice for Danielle Erbs and Allyssa Allison, two survivors from Cleveland who are seen in the film. So is Cuyahoga County investigator Nicole DiSanto, who tracked Erbs' attacker to North Carolina and brought him back to Cleveland, where he was convicted of her rape and kidnapping.
"It was very freeing," Erbs told the audience. "Knowing that he can't hurt anyone else."

Rape kit testing also identified Allison's rapist after she'd spent decades waiting, but he died before he could go to trial. Though she'd never get her day in court, "I'm not looking over my shoulder anymore," she said.
Also on the panel was retired Fairfield, Ohio, police officer Michelle Brettin. In "I Am Evidence," she is shown using DNA to collar a long-haul truck driver who had been raping and terrorizing women from California to Ohio for years.

"These are real-life Olivia Bensons right here!" Hargitay shouted, pulling a blushing Brettin and DiSanto to their feet for some well-earned applause.
"I Am Evidence," premieres on HBO at 8 p.m. on Monday, April 16. For more information, visit Read more about about the Rape-Kit Series by Leila Atassi and Rachel Dissell at

Mariska Hargitay from 'Law and Order' performs with Wickliffe High School's band


Actress Mariska Hargitay was greeted by Wickliffe High School's Swing Band at Burke Lakefront Airport over the weekend before she made her way to the Cleveland International Film Festival.
The "Law and Order: Special Victim's Unit" star became an honorary piece of the band's "Aquarius" pyramid, posing on top of the band's drums with cymbals in hand.
Hargitay was in town on Sunday to attend the Cleveland International Film Festival. She produced the documentary "I AM EVIDENCE," which was featured at the festival. It focuses on the number of untested rape kits in the United States today.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Flash Back - Mariska Hargitay takes on modeling & a ‘Falcon Crest’ role (1988)


Before Mariska Hargitay became known to the world by playing Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU for seventy years (okay, really it’s only been since 1999), she had smaller roles in several different TV shows, including Baywatch, thirtysomething and Seinfeld. Even before that, Mariska appeared in country legend Ronnie Milsap’s 1984 music video for She Loves My Car — a phenomenally cliched ’80s video saved by a pretty young thing.

While the stars were still aligning for her first big part — a recurring role on Falcon Crest that started in 1988 — the 24-year-old took on a job modeling for Rakish, a Southern California clothing store. As you can see here, Mariska, daughter of the legendary beauty Jayne Mansfield, was clearly comfortable in front of the camera. These photos are also fun to see because she was able to do something that doesn’t often fit into her role as commanding officer of the Manhattan Special Victims Unit: smile.

Falcon getting ‘little Angela’ – New character is wild, crazy girl played by Mariska Hargitay
Mariska Hargitay recently joined CBS’ Falcon Crest as Carly Fixx, a role she describes as a “little Angela Channing.”

She plays the half-sister of Dan Fixx. He’s the protege of Angela Channing, and she’s the matriarch of the wine-growing Gioberti family of Tuscany Valley. Carly is the half-sister that Fixx never knew he had.

Younger viewers will likely recognize Hargitay from last year’s Downtown and from Ronnie Milsap’s music video She Loves My Car. She’s also appeared in a few small movies.

Older viewers would recognize the names of her parents. She is the daughter of Jayne Mansfield, the 19503 blond sex symbol, and Mickey Hargitay. a former Mr. Universe. Mansfield died in an automobile accident in 1967.

Hargitay. who was three when her mother died, has her beauty. but her hair is brown and her complexion is dark.

She was studying acting when her agent asked her to audition for Falcon Crest. It was for the role of Shannon. “I read for it and they called me back two days later,” she said. “They said I did good, but Tahnee Welch, the daughter of Raquel. got the role.

“They called me back the next week and said they loved me so much they were writing me a part. I love that.”

A further examination of the lin-cage and family connections of this long-running, prime-time soap opera might require the services of a genealogist.

Since the show made its debut in 1981. there has been much traffic in and out of Tuscany Valley of mysterious strangers with vague relationships. Hargitay’s character is simply another traveler in the tradition.

“I find out I have this rich brother in California, so I come looking for a father figure,” she said. “I’m this wild, crazy girl in a lot of pain looking for a family. She finds Dan, who’s a protege of Angela Channing and is having an affair with Melissa Cumson. He’s a good guy, mysterious, a loner.

“Carly’s a person who’ll do or say anything. I’m not disrespectful, I just don’t know better. I’m like a little Angela Channing. She manipulates me, she uses me to get information on other people. Yet, I treat Angela in a way no one else ever has. I call her a ‘groovy old lady’ or ‘Ange’ or ‘Angie Baby.’
Hargitay said she auditions regularly for parts, which is also how she landed the role of the street kid in Downtown. While a student at UCLA, she kept going to auditions and got roles in small films.

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