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Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt is guest starring on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, airing on September 29th, in which she plays a rape victim named Vicki, who is brought into the hospital claiming that she has been attacked multiple times by the same man. Detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) are determined to help her stand up to her attacker, but she is in such terror that she denies she has been raped at all and refuses to submit to a rape kit. The investigation soon leads to Los Angeles, where Benson meets Detective Rex Winters (Skeet Ulrich), which will launch the latest installment of the franchise, Law & Order: Los Angeles.
In an interview to promote her guest starring role in the long-running series, and to bring the issue of the backlog of rape kits that still need testing to light, Jennifer Love Hewitt spoke about her desire to take on this highly emotional role, preparing for a character like this and the challenges of the physical transformation she went through for it.
Question: What was it about this particular episode that made you want to do this show now, at this point in your career?
Jennifer: This episode was so dear to Mariska’s heart because the Joyful Heart Foundation is her foundation, and I was really able to learn a lot from her about the rape backlog issue. I think I will speak for a lot of people when I say that the assumption is that rape is the crime. What I learned from doing the episode is that there’s actually a bigger crime that takes place afterwards, which is when these women are put through these horrible rape kit examinations. After having been raped and violated so horribly in their lives, they’re put through these tests, and then nothing ever becomes of them. The rape kit test is then put on a shelf, and they live in fear for years of their lives, having no idea if this person has been caught, if he’s out there and if he’s watching them.
It’s the deterioration of life, and lack thereof, that happens for these women that truly is the crime that happens after the initial rape. That is what this episode is about and what the episode is supposed to teach people. So, I would say to women who unfortunately find themselves in these circumstances that, if you are going to get a rape kit examination, because we are in a society of people who do not seem to be able to understand the importance of testing those kits, that right now, it is up to those women to check in and see if their kit has been tested and to stay on top of it, even though it brings up awful memories and it’s not something that they want to deal with.
As an actress, how important this role for you?
Jennifer: I think it was extremely important. Initially, when I read the script and I heard about the episode, it was very exciting, as an actress. When I got there and I met Mariska, and I met the women from her Foundation, and I was a part of this cast and crew who work so incredibly hard, but who, after 12 years, care so much about the quality and the value of the things that they’re saying and doing, it really transcended acting for me.
It became a soulful journey through something that I could never have imagined. Helen Shaver, who directed the episode, Mariska and the women from the Joyful Heart Foundation, really created like this sisterhood of heart for me to be surrounded by, in playing this part. After the first or second day, I thought, “Wow, this is not even acting. There are no words for it.” It was just this deep, painful, beautiful, extraordinary journey that I got lucky enough to be blessed with from the universe and the kind people at SVU. It was extraordinary. I’ve been acting 22 years, and I’m only 31, but that’s a really long time to be doing something. And, doing this made me fall in love with my job, all over again. I don’t think I will ever act the same way. It was like something in my heart and my soul just connected on a different level. I feel very thankful for the opportunity that I was given. It really was so fun and just eye-opening for me.
How difficult was it to overcome the challenges of this role?
Jennifer: Well, I think it really started with everyone’s belief that I could pull it off. I was so happy and I felt really honored that they thought I could tackle a subject matter and a character like this. It just went from there. They sent the script, I loved it and I just decided to jump in, heart first.
How did you prepare? What did you draw upon to get into this character?
Jennifer: There really was no preparation. I was afraid to wrap my head around it, to be bluntly honest with you. It was a scary place to go. I’m not usually an actor that does that. I usually play characters who are nice, sweet, fun women. I had to do different things on Ghost Whisperer, with talking to the dead and stuff like that, but this was different. I don’t think I ever could have been prepared for this. It was definitely scary. Before I got there, I thought that I was going to be able to have a lot more control over my emotions while doing it than I did. I credit the cast and the crew, and Mariska and Helen specifically, because they really pushed me. They said, “Great, so everything that people know you for, and everything that you usually give is awesome, but it’s not going to work here. You’re going to have to go deeper.”
I think I learned a really important lesson, as an actress, that hair and make-up is great, but the lack of it is better. It really does something for you, when you have to look at yourself covered in blood. I caught glimpses of myself and I was like, “Gosh, I don’t know who that actress is at all. I don’t know who this person is. Being able to have the gift that (executive producer) Neal Baer and everyone gave me of being able to not just strip down emotionally, but strip completely down – look-wise, wardrobe-wise, hair-wise, make-up-wise and all of that stuff – and be something that I’ve never been before, really allowed me, emotionally, physically and mentally, to go to a different place. So, there was no preparation. I wouldn’t have known how to do that. It just happened. We just got there the first day and I went, “Okay, I have one job to do and that is to give everything I’ve got. And, out of that, hopefully people will know how important the issue is, and they will feel the depth of what I think this girl feels and goes through, and hopefully it’ll work.” Ultimately, I think it did.
What was the physical transformation for this like to go through?
Jennifer: It was shocking. When we were in our third day some of those photos came out and everybody was like, “It’s a startling transformation,” and I was like, “Oh gosh, now I really feel bad about myself.” I’ve learned a lot of things about acting, about this job and about just women in the world, from doing this one episode with these great people. But, personally, I learned such a vanity lesson, which was really important for me.
The universe sometimes gives you these weird gifts that you’re not expecting, and this was one of them. I definitely hung my hat on having all the hairs in place, and the eyelashes, the lipstick and the clothes. I think that there was a part of me that relied on that more than I would like to admit, and more than I was comfortable with. When I was really forced on this to strip down, I went in the hair and make-up chair and, even though I’m used to two hours of hair and make-up, I was done in 10 minutes and I was panicking. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, how on earth am I going to do this?” But, this part couldn’t have been done without it. They gave me the greatest gift because I learned a personal lesson that I didn’t know I was ready to learn, but I’m really glad that I did. It was so great. It was just awesome.
Did the women of the Joyful Heart Foundation give you insight on how to play this role?
Jennifer: They were on the set to watch after what is closest to their heart. They did act as a huge support system for me, personally. Having them there was tremendous and really reminded everybody to be in the right mind-set of what we were doing and what story we were telling. For me, they were also just angels. They helped with any information that I might need, or that anybody might need, about what this episode was about and how important it was, and all of that.
Were there any lasting effects for you that came from doing this? Do you think that you might want to continue working with this cause in the future, now that you’ve had this experience?
Jennifer: Oh, I would do anything for this cause in the future, absolutely. As a woman, it was very difficult. Quite honestly, when we shot the rape kit scene, that was a 15-hour day, and it was that scene all day. I started the morning in that emotional place, and I ended the day in that emotional place. By the time it was done, I really felt like I had been a victim of this crime and I had been put through a roller coaster that you can’t imagine. They really were taking pictures of me all day, there really were people on me and in my face, and I really was telling this horrible story. I thought to myself, “Gosh, I am in the glorified version of what these women have to go through, who are so incredibly violated and taken advantage of in these sheer, horrific moments of life that should not happen to anyone.”
I couldn’t imagine having to feel it for real. It was unbearable. As a person, that just taught me so much. This cause is beyond important. It’s so important, and it’s so real and scary that it’s happening. On an actress level, I learned that I have been having a lot of fun and doing really good things in my career, but I hope that the world and the universe will give me more of these moments to play with and to revel in. When you get to do something like this, that’s where it all starts. I felt like I started acting, my eight days on the show. Now, I would like to continue so.
With this and your recent TV movie, The Client List, you seem to be doing more work with life lessons attached. Is that something that you’re looking to do more of?
Jennifer: Well, sure. I think I just became a grown-up in life. Sometimes I feel I’m supposed to be older than I am, and then I have these moments where I go, “Oh, but wait a minute, I really am just now supposed to be a grown-up. I’ve just been doing this a really long time.” I think that because I’ve just become a grown-up, inside I have just gone, “Okay, now I’m actually ready to do it.” I really want to do things that not only nurture my craft, but nurture me as a human being. The ultimate dream in life is to be able to do what you love and learn something from it. To be able to do something that you love in the business, and then have it actually affect human life, that’s what I feel like I’m getting to do now, which is extraordinary.
You have always been a role model for a lot of young women. Did you ever expect for that to happen?
Jennifer: You know, I never really thought about being a role model. I started really young, so at 10 years old, I was still very much the person who needed role models. I wasn’t really prepared to be one, but it’s always something that I’ve taken very seriously. It’s something that I really honor and have respect for, and I try to be a good role model now that I am one.
Do you think your character on the show is going to be a role model as well?
Jennifer: I definitely think that my character in this episode is about as admirable as they come, with her strength and her courage. Olivia Benson provides a safety net for my character, Vicki, to face this horrible thing that’s been haunting her for so long in her life. I think it will provide a great role model for women watching, and for young girls who may have experienced this and are afraid to come forward and say that this happened to them, or are afraid to have a rape kit examination, or are afraid to check on their kit afterwards. I think Vicki will be a great role model for that because she’s somebody who has been tortured for a very, very long time, and feels very helpless, hopeless, scared and not strong, in the very beginning of the episode. And then, as it goes on, she finds that she has more inner strength left than she had possibly imagined.
What are your thoughts on why there is not as much education on TV as there should be?
Jennifer: It’s a fine line that you have to walk between entertaining and teaching. I do think that even with entertainment and telling stories, people in the entertainment industry have such a beautiful position in the world to speak about things that they’re passionate about, in a way that can grab people more than just sitting and telling someone about something because you can show it visually. What this episode does is make people aware of something. We are speaking about relevant matters in the world. It visually shows you the effects of what this issue can do to someone, and hopefully it’s not just showing people, but making them feel it.
That’s the brilliant thing about the business that we’re all really lucky to be a part of. It’s a gift that we have that we get to be able to tell these stories, and it’s a duty to tell them. I do think that it is important that, in a business that is about so many other things, to every once in a while make sure that you’re saying something really important, and I think Law & Order did that in this episode. That’s just what this show is. It’s brilliant at making things important in the visual and emotional way that you just don’t get in another business, which I think is really fun and cool.
Jennifer Love Hewitt’s episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit airs on September 29th