NEW YORK - I recently visited the set of "Law & Order: SVU" at Chelsea Piers in New York City. I spent the day with actors Mariska Hargitay and Danny Pino. It was such a fun experience!
The cast and crew were shooting Season 13's 21st episode, "Father Dearest," the day I was there. Each episode takes more than a week to shoot. This was Day 1 of eight.
"We generally work 14 hours," said Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson. "I get picked up every day around 6 a.m. and get to work at 6:30 a.m. I go into a half-hour of hair, and we have a rehearsal. We do makeup, and we rehearse again."
After rehearsals come the real takes. I was impressed. No matter how long the scene, the actors seemed to nail their lines every time.
"The idea is to try to do it in as few takes as possible, but we do as many as it takes to get the scene to where it needs to be," said Pino, who plays Detective Nick Amaro, Benson's new primary partner.
Christopher Meloni, who played Benson's former partner, Detective Elliot Stabler, left "Law & Order: SVU" last year.
"It was hard for me. You know, it was a big change. We've been together for 12 years, and we were so unbelievably close. We knew each other so well, and I spent more time with him than I did with my husband. We knew each other's rhythms. We finished each other's sentences. We started this together," said Hargitay.
While she misses Meloni, the Emmy Award winner is really enjoying working with her new co-star.
"Kelli (Giddish) and I came in relatively around the same time. I think we found everyone to be incredibly welcoming, professional and excited that we're here, as we are to be here," said Pino.
It was evident that all of the actors work well together.
While the scenes were shot, directors and writers watched on monitors in another room and made changes when needed. Scripts constantly change.
"Sometimes, you get it right before. Sometimes, you get rewrites the day of. Sometimes, you'll have two or three days, so it really depends on how the script comes in," said Pino.
When "cut" is called, the actors like to have a little fun.
"There's so much fun that goes on here, you would be surprised. We laugh all day. Everyone is a comedian. You know, we have a lot of humor because it's so dark that I think we need to keep ourselves from sinking into the abyss," said Hargitay.
Yes, there are laughs, and the set and props aren't real, but the serious nature of the television drama series tends to personally affect the actors. The show inspired Hargitay to start the Joyful Heart Foundation.
"When I first learned about the statistics of sexual assault, I was so horrified. Not only that, but when the show started airing, survivors started emailing me and disclosing their own stories of abuse," said Hargitay.
When the actors aren't doing charity work or working hard on the set of "Law & Order: SVU," it's all about family.
Pino is married with two sons.
"We play baseball. We talk about the Yankees all of the time. The kids are a little too small to be going to Yankees games. They sit through two innings and they're like, 'We've had all of the popcorn. We've had all of the ice cream. We've had all of the hotdogs. We want to go home.' I'm like, 'Guys, it's only the third inning,'" said Pino.
Hargitay is also married and the mother of three children.
"This year has been a lot of change with the changes on the show and adopting my daughter and then this sort of miracle happened. We weren't expecting to adopt our son that just feels like fell out of the sky. I do believe that miracles happen. You can't tell me they don't," said Hargitay.
"My husband was doing 'War Horse' on the weekends and evenings, and I was doing this show," Hargitay said. "There was so much balancing, but it's what we've always wanted. This Sunday, it was, 'Pass the baby.' My husband and I kept switching the babies, and it was so adorable because one would cry and we kept switching. I sat there going, 'This is the life I wanted. My life is exactly the way I wanted it.'"
I'm sure Hargitay's mother, Jayne Mansfield, would be proud. I asked Hargitay if Mansfield inspired her to start acting.
"I don't know. I've never had a different history. She obviously passed away when I was very young, but I know that I was with her a lot, so she could have. I imagine that the legacy of it at least opened the door to intrigue about acting," said Hargitay.
"Law & Order: SVU" airs Wednesdays on NBC and WPXI-TV.