For nearly 20 years, Mariska HargitaysLaw & Order: Special Victims Unit character Olivia Benson has been a steadfast crusader for womens rights—taking on foreign and domestic terrorists, human traffickers, abusive boyfriends, and the U.S. Coast Guard in pursuit of getting women the respect, rights, and justice they deserve. The characters resolve has been so unwavering that thousands of S.V.U. viewers—some of whom have lost faith in the real-life criminal justice system—started writing Hargitay heartbreaking letters detailing their own struggles. Though she merely played a detective on television when these letters began arriving, Hargitay knew that she had to step up and help these women in ways that society had not.
“Normal fan mail is, Can I get an autographed picture? But the letters I started receiving was a very different kind of fan mail,” Hargitay tells Vanity Fair. “I started getting letters in which women actually disclosed their stories of abuse . . . the fact that they were writing to this actor on TV, this fictional character, showed me how alone they felt. The themes in the letters were all the same—they talked about shame and isolation.”
Hargitay educated herself, launched her Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, and, as she explains, “tried to revolutionize the way we respond to these issues and transform societys response.” In 2010, her crusade brought her to Capitol Hill to testify on behalf of rape survivors in front of a bipartisan task force. Hargitays appearance moved Kym Worthy—a Wayne County, Michigan, prosecutor who had, the year before, discovered more than 11,000 untested rape kits in an off-site warehouse in Detroit. Worthy had vowed to come up with the money—which Detroit did not have—to test each and every single rape kit, and knew that Hargitay could help her.
“I knew one thing after I heard her testify,” Worthy tells Vanity Fair. “That I wanted to work with her—to get her to Detroit to help us with our issues. And she came, and it really jumpstarted what we were able to do in the legislature, in the court room, helping me bid for money, getting more money for my funding source, it came together.”
Hargitay says that when she learned about the staggering number of untested rape kits—undeniable proof that womens voices were being ignored—she was “mad, shocked, devastated, and simply outraged. I thought my head was going to explode. I couldnt believe that people werent talking about it, that people didnt know. . . . The fact that these kits werent tested means, to me, that [these authorities] are saying that women are not of value.”
Hargitay joined forces with Worthy to make the rape-kit backlog Joyful Hearts number one advocacy priority.
“It felt like a quantitative way to measure the problem—to see how sexual-assault victims are regarded in this country,” Hargitay says, describing how the two returned to Detroit and pored over case files together. “Wed open the files and see that [authorities literally describe] the victims that were knocking on their door for help, bitches, whores, prostitutes, and they just didnt care. . . . 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.”
Believing that their meeting was “divinely led,” Worthy and Hargitay got HBO on board to make a documentary and bring awareness to their mission. The result, I Am Evidence, premiering Monday evening, features heart-wrenching testimonials from overlooked victims and enraging data about the extent to which these womens stories were discounted. Because of snowballing resources, due in part to Hargitays support, Worthy succeeds in getting Detroits kits tested, rapists identified, and victims vindicated—a journey chronicled in I Am Evidence.
“We interviewed 12 incredibly courageous, brave survivors,” says Hargitay. “Obviously, in a 90-minute documentary, we didnt have time to tell all those stories, yet each one of them could have been their own movie. The movies been such a journey for them and a journey for any survivor who has the courage and the faith to go through this system—an unjust system that were trying to change. There cant be enough movies or magazine covers dedicated to these women, really.”
Speaking about the eight-year journey, Worthy recalls just one of her many obstacles: “Detroit was broke—Wayne County, which houses Detroit, was broke. We had leadership that didnt care at first, we had people that threw obstacles our way, and we had a county executive—thats the person in charge of the money in Wayne County—who told me that I had no business [revisiting] these cases unless I could get money from other sources. I told him, The last time I checked, sexual assault was a crime,” but I got nowhere. It took almost two or three years to really get going . . . I met [Mariska] by accident. After I met her and discovered the work that her foundation was doing, we started gaining momentum. This [journey] has been an awakening. And Im really hoping this film can—and I know it will, it already has—open the door and shed some light.”
Worthy says that, since starting her own crusade, she is heartened to see some progress in the justice system.
“It was very difficult to get convictions in sexual-assault cases, very hard, and now, because of the education [and what people are finally] hearing, its becoming easier. People are believing victims, judges are beginning to give steeper sentences . . . so its kind of transferred from the screen into reality and its helped us in the real world prosecute these cases and get these people put behind bars.”
The timing of the documentarys release—in the midst of the #MeToo and Times Up movements—only increases the hope for Hargitay that the film will have an impact.
“So many people like Kym have been working alone in a vacuum, trying to get justice, and now I feel like the worlds eyes are opening a little. . . . Our goal is to pass comprehensive legislation [about rape-kit testing] in all 50 states and I think we can. Hopefully people are starting to pay attention.”
Worthy is just as optimistic.
“Like I said in the film, almost 850 serial rapists that have been identified just from these [previously untested] kits in Detroit. We have now about 135 convictions. We have kits of defendants that have raped 15 to 20 times just within our project. So, if that is just one city in America—can you imagine the true magnitude of this issue? There are many other cities which either dont know they have the issue or dont care they have the issue—and I hope this film is going to change that.”
Adds Hargitay, “One thing that this film is going to do is restore faith in the criminal justice system because people will realize that there are people out here who are willing to right the wrongs, even if we have to go back 40 and 45 years to do it.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fairs website.