On next week’s new episode of Law & Order: SVU, on NBC at 9/8c, Jennifer Love Hewitt (Ghost Whisperer) guest stars as a rape victim, Vicki, who is brought into the hospital initially claiming she has been attacked multiple times by the same man. Detectives Benson and Stabler are determined to help her, but she lives in such terror that she then denies she has been raped at all and refuses to submit to a rape kit. As Benson looks for a way to help, she is horrified to learn that there are police precincts and evidence labs across the country that never test their rape kits at all. The investigation soon leads her to Los Angeles where she meets Detective Rex Winters (guest star Skeet Ulrich, Jericho), who has information that could finally help Vicki get justice. This episode is the introduction of the new NBC drama, Law & Order: Los Angeles.
This is a special episode, focused on Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation. To read more about the foundation, as well as the questions and answers with Jennifer Love Hewitt, Law & Order: SVU Executive Producer Neal Baer, and Sarah Tofte from the Joyful Heart Foundation, jump with us!
Regarding MH’s Joyful Heart Foundation and how it came about:
When Mariska Hargitay began playing Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit over a decade ago, the content of the scripts opened her eyes to the epidemic of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. What she learned was staggering. But what really opened her eyes—and subsequently her heart—were the letters she received. The letters didn’t say, “I love your show. Can you send me an autographed picture?” They said, “I was abused by my uncle from when I was eight to fifteen. I’m forty now and I’ve never told anyone.” Victims were disclosing their stories to her, many for the first time.
Mariska founded Joyful Heart in 2004 with the intention of helping survivors heal and reclaim their lives. Their 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. Through their retreat and wellness programs, they have served over 5,000 individuals.
Regarding the rape kit backlog in the US:
When a woman, man or child is raped, they will be asked to submit to the collection of DNA evidence from their bodies, which is then stored in a small package called a rape kit. The process is invasive and sometimes traumatic and takes four to six hours to complete. But the potential benefits are enormous: testing the DNA evidence in a rape kit can identify an unknown perpetrator; confirm the presence of a known assailant; corroborate the victim’s account of the rape; and exonerate innocent suspects. Not testing a rape kit often represents lost justice for rape victims, and allows perpetrators to get away with the crime.
Yet, in the United States, experts, including the Department of Justice, law enforcement officials, academics, and members of Congress have estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested in police and crime lab storage facilities. These untested kits are referred to as the rape kit backlog. While no state or federal government agency tracks rape kit data, recent investigations by media and human rights groups have revealed that the problem exists in cities and states across the country. In the past two years alone, the cities of Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, San Diego, Birmingham, and Albuquerque and the states of Illinois and Massachusetts have discovered tens of thousands of untested kits in their police stations and crime labs.
Starting September 29th, go to endthebacklog.org for more information.
On what made Jennifer want to play this challenging role, and what made Neal think of her for the role:
Jennifer Love Hewitt: Well I think, you know you kind of said it, “It’s (unintelligible) and challenging for me, and for anything that I’ve been able to do in my career so far. And I think it started really with everyone at Law & Order’s belief that I could pull it off. I was really just – I was so happy and I felt really honored that they thought I could tackle a subject matter like this and a character like this. And so I just, I went from there; they sent it, I loved it and I just decided to jump in, you know, sort of heart first. And we took it from there.
Neal Baer: The depth of her feeling. We needed an actor who could really go deep. And I’ve been watching her since she was a kid. And I know that she has this well of emotion and depth that would make her perfect for the part. And we never really considered anybody else. So we went right to her when we had it. And I have to say, one of our producers was looking at it and he said, “This is one of the top five shows we’ve ever done,” in 12 years.
On how important as an actress doing this role was for her, Jennifer answered:
Jennifer: I think extremely important. You know I will say, initially when I read the script and I heard about the episode and I heard about the show and everything, it was very exciting as an actress. When I got there, and I met Mariska, and I met the women from her Foundation, and I was a part of this cast and crew who work so incredibly hard but who also after 12 years, care so much about the quality and the value of the things that they’re saying and they’re doing and everything, it really transcended acting for me. And it became a soulful journey through something that I had never – I could not have never imagined.
Helen Shaver who directed it, Mariska and the women from the Joyful Heart Foundation, really created like this sisterhood of like, just heart for me to be surrounded by in playing this part and to sort of stand with. And I remember like after the first or second day I went, “Wow, I – this is not even acting. Like this is just – it’s – I don’t even know – I – there are no words for it.” It was just a journey. It was just this deep, painful, beautiful, extraordinary journey that I got lucky enough to be blessed with from the universe and the kind people at SVU. And it was just – it was extraordinary. And I told Neal just a few minutes ago that, you know I’ve been acting 22 years. And at my age — I’m only 31 — that’s a really long time to be doing something. And that doing this made me fall in love with my job all over again.
And I don’t think I will ever act the same way. It was like something in my heart and my soul just connected on a different level. And I feel very thankful for the opportunity that I was given. And it was just – it was really – it was extraordinary. It really was so fun and just eye opening for me.
On connecting this episode to the new Law & Order: Los Angeles (or LOLA):
Neal: Well, LA was an afterthought because (Lola) wasn’t really like written and fully conceived of. I mean, they were going to do a Law & Order LA.
But what happened is, there was always an LA character because Sarah’s in LA and Mariska is from LA and Jennifer lives in LA. And so I really wanted to highlight LA, and it was a different character, actually, honestly, it was a different character at first because Mariska does go to Detroit, Chicago and literally to LA because we talk about cities across the United States. So the intent was always to highlight that this was not an issue just about one part of the U.S. but across the U.S. And let me say that there are some cities doing a great job, like New York City, which they – which have opened the backlog of kits.
But once we had this character written in LA, it just seemed natural that I would make that character into Skeet Ulrich’s character because there was a wonderful way to introduce LOLA into the show. So that’s how it all kind of came together.
On how she prepared for this role:
Jennifer: You know, I really – I couldn’t imagine what it would take to play this character either. I really – there was no preparation. I mean I really couldn’t – I think I was afraid to wrap my head around it to be bluntly honest with you — it’s a scary place to go. I’m not usually an actor that does that. I usually, you know, play characters who are nice, sweet, fun girls, you know whatever, women.
On Ghost Whisperer, I had to do different things — obviously talking to the dead and stuff like that. But this is different; this, I don’t think I have ever been prepared for, I don’t think I was prepared for. And I – it was scary. I mean it was definitely scary. I was like – and I think I saw before I got there that I was going to be able to have a lot more control over my emotions while doing it than I did ultimately when I got there.
And the reason that I credit the cast and the crew and Mariska specifically and Helen is because you know, they really pushed me. I mean they really said, “Great, so everything the people know you for and everything that you usually give is awesome. But it’s not going to work here. And you’re going to have to go deeper.” And you know, I think I learned a really important lesson as an actress; that hair and makeup is great. But the lack of it is better. And it really does something for you when you have to look at yourself covered in blood, or you have to look at yourself the way that you do. I mean I definitely you know, caught glimpses of myself and I was like, “Gosh, I don’t know who that actress is at all.” Like, “I don’t know who this person is.”
And so being able to have the gift, you know, that Neal and everyone gave me of being able to really, not just strip down emotionally but strip completely down — look-wise, wardrobe-wise, hair-wise, makeup-wise, all of that stuff — take everything off and be something that I’ve never been before, really allowed me I think emotionally and physically and mentally to go to a different place.
And so there was no preparation. I wouldn’t have known how to do that. It just happened. We just got there the first day and I went, “Okay, I have one job to do and that is to give everything I’ve got.”
And out of that, hopefully people will know how important the issue is. People will feel the depth of what I think this girl feels and goes through and hopefully it’ll work. And I think ultimately it did. And you know, it was just – it was really, really fun — different but fun.
When asked about the last effects from playing this role, and whether she would like to continue working with Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation:
Jennifer: I mean I think it’s a – you know as a woman it was – it’s very difficult. It’s hard to know that there are – I mean I imagine how I felt. You know, quite honestly, when we shot the rape kit scene that was a 15 hour day. And it was that scene all day.
I started the morning in that emotional place and I ended the day in that emotional place. And by the time it was done, I really felt like I had been a victim of this crime and I had been put through just a roller coaster that you can’t imagine. I mean I really had to stand there, they really were taking pictures of me all day. There really was people on me and in my face. And I really was telling this horrible story. And I thought to myself, “Gosh, like I am in the glorified version of what these women have to go through who are so incredibly violated and taken advantage of in these sheer, horrific moments of life that should not happen to anyone. And I couldn’t imagine having to feel it for real. Like it was unbearable.
And so I think it just as a person it just taught me so much. So this cause is beyond important. It’s so important and it’s so real and scary that it’s happening. And these people’s lives, like I said earlier, “You know, the rape is the initial crime.” But the real crime that continues is these rape kits that are not tested and these women who have to live the rest of their life in fear — which is not a quality of life at all. So it’s very important.
On an actress level, I learned that I have been having a lot of fun and doing really good things in my career. But I hope that the world and the universe will give me more of these moments to play with and to revel in. Because it’s – when you get to do something like this it’s really – it’s where it all starts. I feel like I started acting my eight days on the show. Now I would like to continue so.
On what the Joyful Heart Foundation is doing in terms of the issue from this episode, the rape kit backlog, etc:
Sarah Tufte: That’s a great question. So the – so Mariska’s been very involved on the rape kit backlog issue for several years. And what we wanted to do with this episode, because we know it’s going to raise the awareness of this issue, we think it’ll excite a lot of people to go seek out information about, you know what a rape kit is, what a backlog is. We think survivors may be in touch with us about, you know, trying to find out some information about their case.
So on September 29, the morning of September 29, we’re launching a new Web site called endthebacklog.org. And there really isn’t currently sort of a comprehensive Web site out there that would give people all the information they might need to go and be good effective advocates to change policies — both at the federal level and the state level.
So that’s our big initiative tied to this episode. It’ll give folks a platform to talk about this issue and what can be done. We’re working with law enforcement and victim’s advocates and celebrities and survivors and anyone who cares about this issue, to sort of put some great original content up there.
There’s going to be some videos, there’s going to be survivor stories about how the backlog affected them. There’s going to be data on all the different cities that currently have backlogs and what we need Congress to do and states to do, to fix the problem. And giving people advocacy tools to write to their public officials, giving survivors tools to get information about the status of their kits.
So that’s our big primary initiative around this issue. And Mariska’s going to continue to talk about this. I think she talks about this in just about any interview she does and any speech she’s giving. She’s been doing a lot of work speaking across the country about this, testifying before Congress.
But our new Web site is going to be our first big initiative and we thought that the airing of this episode would be the perfect time to launch it.