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Law & Order SVU has excited viewers with its intense episodes over the course of the series. But for Hargitay, there was one Law & Order episode that changed both her and the character dramatically.

The ‘Law & Order’ episode that changed Olivia Benson’s DNA

Mariska Hargitay on the set of 'Law & Order organized Crime' as her character Olivia Benson.
Mariska Hargitay | Will Hart/Getty Images

Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson was used to being caught in harrowing scenarios over the course of the show. But there were a few that struck the same chord that the season 15 premiere did. The episode in question, “Surrender Benson,” saw Hargitay’s Benson at the mercy of a violent sexual offender. SVU showrunner at the time, Warren Leight, asserted the sequence was his way of recharging the show.

“The show has dealt with stories like this for a long time, but I felt like with season 15, I’ve got to do something to jolt the audience,” Leight once said according to HuffPost. “I felt like this show could not get taken for granted and I need to start the year off with a jolt. And also I thought, for Mariska, let me write the most challenging scenes I could write.”

Leight, however, sympathized with the Golden Globe winner during the episode.

“It’s one thing to write these scenes, but I think the harder job obviously was acting them,” he said.

The episode also served as a turning point for both Hargitay and Benson.

“In my mind, after this, her character can never be the same,” Leight added. “Studies show this, it changes your DNA. Watching her act it, it doesn’t look like her, it doesn’t sound like her at times. It changed [Mariska] just performing.”

Mariska Hargitay couldn’t tell if she was acting during her character’s horrific situation

Speaking with Today, Hargitay once delved deeper into what she felt shooting the intense episode. To illustrate how powerful it was, Hargitay ranked it as the hardest thing she had to do in her career.

“It was, without a doubt, the most difficult episode I ever shot in 15 years, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever done,” she said. “I have to tell you, after 15 years, to be nervous and scared and excited to go to work — it’s a pretty great thing.”

What made the episode even more personal was that there came a point where reality and fiction became blurred.

“When you’re acting, your body doesn’t know the difference [between] acting or being in reality,” she said. “I think you pretty much play the what-if game. It’s just about believing it. I think that’s why you study your whole life to be focused and be present.”

Her connection to the organization the Joyful Heart Foundation gave Hargitay further incentive to nail the scene. Joyful Heart allowed Hargitay to work with real-life victims of domestic violence and sexual assault personally.

“And for me, with the work that I do with Joyful Heart, I’ve had the opportunity and the pleasure to work side-by-side with so many real-life survivors that I know their stories. … The bar is set high to keep it real and have integrity about how scary that would be,” she said.

Mariska Hargitay was grateful that ‘Law & Order SVU’ changed her


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Hargitaty has asserted that her time on Law & Order has been an eye-opening experience as a whole. She felt grateful to the series for giving her a platform where she could reach victims of domestic violence, and the victims could reach her. She believed it gave her a calling higher than just being an actor.

“This show has changed me. I started and I was an actor happy to have a job, and now I feel like I’m so grateful I’ve found something that moves me so deeply,” Hargitay said. “I’m honored to be part of a movement that’s changing the way people think, ending ignorance and changing the way people deal with these issues.”