The Transformation Of Mariska Hargitay From Childhood To 57 Years Old

Everyone knows Mariska Hargitay as the sexy, straight-laced detective Olivia Benson on "Law & Order: SVU," which per its bio on NBC, is "the longest-running primetime live-action series of all time." But what some people may not know is that Hargitay is actually a descendent of Hollywood royalty. She is the daughter of famed actor and bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay and legendary sex symbol Jayne Mansfield. Per Mickey's obituary in the Los Angeles Times, he won the title of Mr. Universe in 1955, and he later appeared in films alongside his wife, including "The Loves of Hercules," "Promises! Promises!" and "Primitive Love." Mansfield, meanwhile, made a name for herself as an actor and was one of the first Playboy Playmates, according to Biography. She also is said to have originated the wardrobe malfunction when her top fell into a pool at a press event.

Tragically, Mansfield died in a car accident when she was just 34 years old, and Mariska, who was in the back seat, was only 3, reports People. Growing up without her mother, Mariska had to forge her own path to become the woman she is today. Let's take a look at her incredible transformation from childhood to 57.

Mariska Hargitay wasn't forced to be an actor

Unlike the children of many celebrities, Mariska Hargitay (pictured above as a child with "The Partridge Family" star, David Cassidy) was not forced into acting as a child, nor was she even expected to follow her famous parents' footsteps. She did, however, always love to make people laugh. "Being able to make people laugh is like a drug," she told The Washington Post in 2000. 

In high school, she auditioned for a play called "Women's Work." Despite it — a drama about abortion — being far out of Hargitay's comedic comfort zone, she earned the lead role. She told The Washington Post that it was this role that ultimately led to her decision to pursue acting. "I came to that decision all on my own," she said. "None of my five brothers or sisters were interested in the field."

After she finished high school, Hargitay majored in theater at UCLA and stayed in Los Angeles to pursue acting after graduating.

Despite her famous name, Mariska Hargitay didn't have an easy start

According to her IMDb, Mariska Hargitay's first Hollywood role was in the horror movie "Ghoulies" (pictured above) in 1985. If you've never heard of it, that's because it was an ultra-low-budget film that The New York Times called "a cut-rate Gremlins." In the years since, the film has become a cult classic, landing at No. 3 on What Culture's "10 Horror Movies Actors Want Us to Forget." Per What Culture, "The titular [Ghoulies] are petite, sniveling and not frightening in the least." And when the aforementioned ghouls pull Hargitay's character Donna into a fountain and drown her, "one can't help but laugh at her thrashing legs and over the top damsel in distress cries."

Hargitay took a distinctly different approach to landing roles than her mother did. While her mother, Jayne Mansfield, was once the quintessential blonde bombshell, Hargitay kept her hair dark and maintained an athletic, almost Jodie Foster-esque build. According to her bio on IMDb, she turned down nude scenes in the 1986 film "Jocks." 

"I played lots of tomboys, wearing flannel shirts, jean and boots," she told The Washington Post. "On some unconscious level, I was shying away from those sexual roles because of my mother. But as I got older, I changed my mind. I now look forward to doing all kinds of parts, including those that are sexual and sensual."

She appeared on shows like Seinfeld and ER ...

Throughout the '80s and '90s, Mariska Hargitay played several small roles, slowly transitioning from films to television. She appeared on "Downtown," "Falcon Crest," "Thirtysomething," "Baywatch," and even made a guest appearance on "Seinfeld" (pictured above) in 1993. In the episode, she played an actress reading for the role of Elaine, and Jerry was enamored by her looks, according to TV Over Mind.

In 1998, she appeared in 13 episodes of "ER." In them, she played Cynthia Hooper, a woman whom Dr. Mark Green — played by Anthony Edwards — hired as a desk clerk despite her lack of qualifications, which led to a volatile romance between the characters. Hargitay enjoyed working with Edwards and his protective energy, recounting to Entertainment Tonight 2016 about a time when the actors filmed a drunk scene together with actual tequila shots instead of prop ones. "That was very much outside my comfort zone," she said. "I was so nervous and hadn't done something like that ... I remember going, 'I am so grateful for this feeling of safety. I want to provide it [to someone else], if I am ever lucky enough to be in his position.'" She echoed this sentiment to The Washington Post in 2000, saying of her time on "ER," "You learn so much by working with and watching good people."

... Until she got on Law & Order: SVU in 1999

In 1999, Mariska Hargitay landed the role for which we all know her: Detective Olivia Benson on "Law & Order: SVU." Hargitay told The Washington Post that she walked into the audition knowing she was the one for the role — and she had the attitude to back it up. "When I saw other actresses in the room, I walked into Dick Wolf's office and said, 'You gotta be kidding! What's with the other women? This is my part, sweetheart,'" she said. "'Tell them to go home.'"

She continued displaying this unbridled confidence throughout her audition. "I said to him, 'Tweak me.' He said, 'You want to be tweaked?' I said, 'I didn't drive all this way not to be tweaked.' So he gave me a note, which was, of course, genius. I did what he suggested and told him, 'That was good.' He laughed and I left. Two-and-a-half weeks later, he called and said, 'You're flying to New York to test for the role.'"

Hargitay, according to IMDb, is the only cast member to have appeared in all 22 seasons of "SVU," which continues its timely practice of ripping its plots directly from headlines. Season 22 takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic, and its storylines revolve around it. Characters are wearing masks — sometimes randomly — and in the season premiere, the show reenacted the infamous video of the "Central Park Karen."

She helps sexual abuse survivors on TV and in real life

Mariska Hargitay has always had a passion for helping children. In high school, she worked in a shelter with abused children, and she told The Washington Post, "If I weren't an actress, I'd probably be a teacher or psychologist." Playing a role in which she helps find justice for victims of sexual abuse led her to found the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, which helps survivors of sexual violence in real life. She told Vanity Fair her goal with the foundation was "to revolutionize the way we respond to these issues and transform society's response."

In 2010, she testified on behalf of rape survivors in front of a bipartisan congressional task force, and shortly thereafter, she teamed up with Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy to advocate for testing rape kits after Worthy discovered more than 11,000 untested kits in Detroit. "We'd open the files and see that [authorities literally describe] the victims that were knocking on their door for help, 'b*tches, whores, prostitutes,' and they just didn't care," Hargitay told Vanity Fair. "They were making decisions about not believing them and they were calling them names and they were victimizing them even further. I completely understood why [these victims] had no faith in the criminal justice system." The foundation's website still claims the End the Backlog initiative is its top priority, and the initiative is the subject of the 2018 HBO documentary "I Am Evidence," which chronicles their quest to get the 11,000 kits tested.