Having been in and out of the hospital due to a partially collapsed lung earlier this year, actress Mariska Hargitay, 45, tells Health magazine that she’s feeling “better and better every day.” The Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star reflects on her 2 1/2-year-old son August, her Joyful Heart Foundation and why laughter truly is the best medicine.
On her health today: “I’m doing better and better every day. I feel stronger. And, most of all, I’m so grateful, because, the truth is, it was a really scary thing. But this has been a great lesson for me to get back in touch with that inner voice that teaches us how to take care of ourselves.”
On Joyful Heart, her foundation that aims to “empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse”: “I’ve always had an affinity for children, and when I started preparing for the role of Detective Benson on Law & Order, the statistics just floored me. Every two minutes in the United States a woman is sexually assaulted. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women. And nearly four children die in this country every day as a result of abuse and neglect.”
On why she was inspired to start the foundation: “When you do a show, the normal fan letter is, ‘Hey, I really like you on the show,’ or ‘I like your hair, you’re pretty.’ [Laughs] But the kind of mail I was getting was women saying, ‘I was raped when I was 15—I’m 45 and never told anyone.’ I didn’t know what to do. I was like, Wait a minute, everyone, I’m an actor on TV! And Joyful Heart was my answer and my way of giving back. I wanted to shine light on this darkness because sexual assault, in particular, is something people don’t talk about. I’ll tell you, I have three passions in life: work, motherhood—I’ve wanted to be a mother since I was 2 feet tall—and Joyful Heart. People say, ‘Oh, it’s so great, you’re helping all these people.’ And I say, ‘You know what? I’m starting to think Joyful Heart is the most self-serving thing I’ve ever done.’”
On being in her 40s: “I love it. You have clarity, you know who you are—decisions are easier.”
On being a mom: “My perfect analogy for being a parent is before you have kids, and you’re on a plane, and there’s a screaming kid, you’re like, shut that kid up, give me earplugs, get me a blanket to put over my head! And, as soon as I became a mom, if there’s a crying kid on an airplane, there’s this compassion because you get it. You’re like, ‘What can I do? Do you want me to hold him?’ Because you think about the time your kid was screaming, and you know everyone hates you, and there was the one parent who looks at you and smiles, and that compassion is everything.”
On having more kids… maybe: “You know, I have no idea. Do I want more? Sometimes. Am I scared of it? Yeah! I have a lot on my plate, so I can’t say I want more of anything right now.”
On the power of a good “gut-busting” laugh: “I always try to laugh. Between August—and the things that come out of that kid’s mouth—my friends, my husband … even my co-star Chris [Meloni], who’s hilarious, I laugh a lot. That, to me, is one of the most life-sustaining things you can do. I don’t take it lightly. The other night I had a friend sleep over, and we had a laugh on the couch until we couldn’t breathe, where you could literally feel the endorphins in your body. I really think something healing happens when you have a gut-busting laugh.”