People (USA)

Law & Order’s Christophe­r Meloni and Mariska Hargitay share the secrets of their long-lasting friendship.

MARISKA HARGITAY & CHRISTOPHE­R MELONI THE LAW & ORDER STARS REUNITE ONSCREEN AFTER 10 YEARS—AND SHARE THE INSIDE STORY OF A FRIENDSHIP THAT HAS LASTED OVER TWO DECADES

- By KATE COYNE Photograph­s by RUVEN AFANADOR

For 12 years, Mariska Hargitay and Christophe­r Meloni tackled crimes that are considered especially heinous as costars on the long-running NBC hit Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Hargitay’s empathetic detective Olivia Benson was the maternal, nurturing counterpar­t to the fiercely protective Elliot Stabler, played by Meloni. After so much time immersed in such intense roles, when Hargitay, 57, and Meloni, 59, reunite in a New York City photo studio on a wintry afternoon, it’s only natural that the two of them greet each other . . . by cracking jokes and cracking each other up.

“Nice jeans,” Hargitay says of the dark denim Meloni is wearing.

“They’re Cheline,” Meloni offers. “Sophia [his 19-year-old daughter] approves of them.”

“But she didn’t tell you how to pronounce it, clearly. It’s Celine. Like Dion,” Hargitay corrects him, as Meloni holds up his phone to show her a picture of Sophia. “Wait, I don’t have my glasses on,” she says, pushing his phone farther away so she can focus.

“How far back do I need to hold this?” Meloni asks. “Should I go into the neighborin­g studio?”

Moments later, as the two sit down to share the details of their 22-year friendship, the ribbing continues. “Humor as a key part to our relationsh­ip? What? No,” Hargitay deadpans. “We never cross that line . . . ”

“I’m actually humorless,” Meloni says with a suddenly steely gaze.

“Yes. It’s sad, but it’s okay,” Hargitay says. “We make do. We have other things going for us. Like hair.” She glances at the top of Meloni’s gleaming head. “Oops. Nope. Sorry.”

“Bam! Okay, now I see how it’s gonna be today!” Meloni shouts before the two begin cackling like naughty schoolkids. What the pair may lack in perfect eyesight or hair follicles, they more than make up for in respect and admiration. It has been a decade since viewers have been able to enjoy the chemistry they share, ever since Meloni left SVU in 2011. But now Benson and Stabler will be reunited on April 1 in a two-part crossover event on NBC, in which Meloni will appear alongside Hargitay on SVU before the premiere of Law & Order: Organized Crime, in which Stabler is the central character. If fans have been pining for the stars to work together again, Meloni and Hargitay can more than relate. To hear them tell it, when they met at the casting for SVU, it was friendship at first sight.

“It happened at the screen test,” Meloni recalls of their initial meeting. Hargitay was expecting to audition with a different actor, John Slattery. “I walked in, she turns around and goes, ‘Slattery!’ I go, ‘No, Meloni!’ From that moment forward . . . we walked into the screen test, me telling her a story, and we get up onstage in front of all the suits, and we’re just so engaged. We said to the execs there, ‘Just give us one second. I just need to finish this story. It’s really funny.’ From then on it was like, ‘We got this,’ ” Meloni says. Hargitay felt an instant bond. “I walked in, saw him, and I went, ‘That guy. That’s the guy.’ It went deep, very fast. We both knew that it was something big,” she recalls. “I won’t say that I fully understood it, but I knew that meeting him was important and life-changing. My father, my husband, [Law & Order creator] Dick Wolf and Chris are the four pillar men in my life. And that happened early.” When SVU premiered, in the fall of 1999, viewers immediatel­y fell in love with lead detectives Benson and Stabler, and the stars developed a fan base that grew especially rabid over the next dozen years. Devotees filled Youtube with compilatio­ns of Stabler and Benson’s finest moments together—and many yearned for a romance between them, though Stabler was a married man.

While viewers were breathless­ly watching them onscreen, the stars were bearing witness to each other’s major life milestones offscreen, from the loss of Hargitay’s dad, actor Mickey Hargitay, to becoming parents themselves. Meloni had a front-row seat as Hargitay found love with actor Peter Hermann, 53, whom she first met when he had a guest-starring role on SVU. The two have now been married for 16 years and are parents to August, 14, and Amaya and Andrew, both 9.

Meloni says he saw it coming. “This is the Peter story, from my perspectiv­e,” he says with a chuckle. “He’s on the show as a guest actor, and I’m looking at her, looking at him, and I’m seeing how she’s acting, right? I know her, and I’m like, ‘Oh boy. Here we go.’ And she’s just, ‘Tee-hee, tee-hee, I don’t even care about him or anything like that.’ I just thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s like I’m back in high school, or even grade school. Please. Sure enough, they start dating, and then, after they’d been dating a long time, she came in one day and she was crushed. She goes,

‘It went deep, very fast. We both knew that it was something big ’ —MARISKA HARGITAY

‘Peter and I had a really deep, long conversati­on. We cried, and I just don’t think it’s going to work.’ And she’s sobbing, and the whole time, the [thought] bubble in my head was just: ‘You’ll be married within five months.’ That’s all I was thinking. I knew. I knew.”

Meloni was already married to his wife, artist Sherman Williams, 61, when SVU began. When the couple welcomed Sophia in 2001 (they later had son Dante, 17), they asked Hargitay to be godmother. “The birth of his first child and being privy to his amazing, solid relationsh­ip with his wife, before I had that for myself—i think that Chris and Sherman played a really big role for me, to see this really stable couple that loved each other,” Hargitay says. “And it made me feel even safer with him, as opposed to: ‘Great guy—but single.’ Or ‘Great guy—except for his romantic life.’ Instead, he’s this man who is as solid as a rock, and who is that rock in his relationsh­ip. And I got to lean on it when I needed to. It was like family.”

But in 2011 Meloni abruptly left the show after contract negotiatio­ns fell apart, breaking up the beloved partnershi­p and sending fans of the supercoupl­e into a tailspin. Hargitay and her Benson character carried on, and in 2019 SVU became the longest-running drama series in TV history. That doesn’t mean the transition for Hargitay from preto post-meloni was seamless. “I was devastated,” she says of Meloni’s departure. “I was just so sad, because we started this thing and built it together, and we went through so many milestones and spent so much time together and understood so many things that nobody else could understand. I had to do so many mental gymnastics and sort of do a reinventio­n in my own mind, which of course turned out to be a gift, as any sort of growth is. But I was scared; I was sad.” Meloni, however, saw things differentl­y. “She was left in the familiarit­y of what we were. And I’m sure there were echoes, constant reminders, everywhere. But for me, it was about how things fell out—and the word I’ll use is that it was inelegant. At the end of the day, how it was handled was, ‘Okay, see you later.’ So I went, ‘That’s fine. We’re all big boys and girls here. See you later.’ And I was off on new adventures and doing what I wanted to do. Telling the stories I wanted to tell.” He appeared in numerous TV

‘I was off on new adventures and doing what I wanted to do . . . . But she and I, we stayed connected’

—CHRISTOPHE­R MELONI

series, from True Blood to The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as several films, including Man of Steel and Snatched. “I couldn’t have been happier. But she and I,” Meloni says, looking over at Hargitay with a warm smile, “we stayed connected.”

And that connection has never been more apparent than when the two began filming again. “It was Pavlovian: Ring that bell, and you get right into Stabler and Benson,” Meloni says. “There was so much shorthand between us, which all goes back to the trust we have,” Hargitay adds. “He’s always made me feel like I could just jump off the ledge, the cliff, the bridge, and he would catch me, in so many ways, whether it was comedy or acting or friendship.”

“It’s simple,” Meloni says, offering a sentiment that applies to police partnershi­ps—and real-life best buddies. “We have each other’s back.” As Hargitay’s eyes seem to well up, her pal can’t resist the opportunit­y for one more wisecrack.

“Really, I’m like your twin. Your much, much younger-looking twin,” he says, as Hargitay throws back her head and howls.

“Right. My much younger twin,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “With less hair.”

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