Q&A with Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order actress, and creator of Joyful Heart Foundation

Photo Credit: Riccardo Savi Mariska2

Melissa Seymour: Hi, Mariska! Thanks so much for speaking with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Mariska Hargitay: I’m an actress an activist, and a mom of three.  I’ve played Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for the past 16 years. I’ve also taken my turn behind the camera, directing the groundbreaking NO MORE PSAs and a number of episodes of Law & Order: SVU.  I am also the Founder and President of the Joyful Heart Foundation.


MS: Has your role as Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit changed your perspective? How so?

MH: When I first did research for my role on SVU, I couldn’t believe the statistics I was learning. Then people starting sending me letters and e-mails disclosing their stories of abuse—stories they had never told anyone before. I was holding in my hands the stories behind the statistics I had learned. And they made a very deep impression on me. 
The fact that these people were revealing something so personal to me—someone they only knew as a character on a television— showed me how much they wanted to be heard, believed, supported, and healed.


What was the most difficult scene you ever had to shoot? How did you prepare for it?

MH: There were two, and both involved me facing off with my kidnapper, William Lewis. In “Surrender Benson” summoning the fear and rage to attack Lewis with a pipe after escaping my handcuffs was draining and challenging, but in the end, very rewarding.  And before the “Beasts Obsession” scene where I was forced to play Russian Roulette with Lewis, I didn’t sleep for days.  It was a true exercise in the “what if” game of acting: believing what you are experiencing.  There was really no way to prepare for that.  They were both harrowing experiences.


MS: Why did you create the Joyful Heart Foundation?


I was proud to be on a show that was going into territory that no one was talking about, but I knew I wanted to do more to help survivors heal and reclaim their lives. The Joyful Heart Foundation, which I started in 2004, was my answer.

Over the past 11 years, Joyful Heart has evolved into a national organization that is paving the way for innovative approaches to treating trauma, igniting shifts in the way the public responds to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and advancing policies and legislation to ensure justice for survivors.

We’ve raised more than $17 million in private funds from some visionary and very generous people – and leveraged $74 million in-kind contributions – directly served more than 14,000 survivors and the professionals who care for them; connected over 2.5 million visitors to our website and social media to resources and life-saving help; garnered more than 2 billion media impressions about these issues and our work; and effected policy changes in jurisdictions across the country.

I am proud of all the work Joyful Heart is doing and especially proud that we are at the forefront of the movement to test the hundreds of thousands of untested sexual assault evidence collection kits – known as rape kits – sitting in police storage and crime lab facilities across the country. For more information on the rape kit backlog, you can go to: www.endthebacklog.org.


MS: Why is the “NO MORE” campaign so important?

NO MORE unifies the movement to end domestic violence and sexual assault for the first time.  The campaign seeks to break social stigma, normalize the conversation around domestic violence and sexual assault, and increase resources to address these urgent issues. Hundreds of organizations working at the local, state and national levels have aligned around NO MORE and the commitment to bringing this violence to an end.

I am deeply proud that the Joyful Heart Foundation is a part of this transformative initiative.  I was honored to direct the NO MORE PSA campaign, which involves more than 75 celebrities, athletes, and public figures stepping up join this cause. The campaign challenges bystanders to engage in addressing domestic violence and sexual assault.

Much of the reason survivors stay silent about domestic violence and sexual assault is that as a society, we simply don’t talk enough about these issues. It’s so much easier to join a conversation than to be burdened with starting one. On top of that, victim-blaming is woven deeply into the way we think, talk and behave around these issues. The NO MORE PSAs highlight the myths and excuses that create misplaced blame on survivors and allow perpetrators to evade accountability for their crimes. NO MORE calls on bystanders to end the excuses and inaction on these issues.

Since its launch in September 2013, an audience of more than 1.6 billion has seen the PSAs.


MS: What needs to happen in order for our society to truly tackle and defeat domestic abuse? 

MH: We must all foster—envision, pursue, create, not settle for anything less than—a society that simply does not tolerate these crimes.

At Joyful Heart, we talk about a society that says, “We hear you. We believe you. And your healing is our priority.” Unfortunately, society tends to question, doubt and assign blame. And perpetrators of this violence rely on that response.  We need to talk – to bring these issues out of the darkness and into the light – that is part of our mission at Joyful Heart.

Engage your loved ones and friends in the conversation about sexual assault and domestic violence.  And engage in a conversation with yourself. Examine your own attitudes that might be contributing to—or tacitly sanctioning—the perpetuation of violence. As the collective of people willing to take a stand grows, the weight of these heavy issues, the weight of having these difficult conversations, the weight of bringing enormous social and cultural change, will begin to be more evenly distributed. With more people doing what they can, advocates and survivors will no longer have to shoulder so much of the burden of bringing attention to this cause.  Visibility will change the landscape for sexual assault and domestic violence. Don’t underestimate the power you have to help can shed light on these issues.


 MS: Who is your hero/heroine? 

MH: Overcomers. People who overcome their fears every day, without fanfare, without recognition. Quiet, everyday courage, that’s what I admire most.


MS: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to provide community for a person who has experienced sexual assault or domestic violence. The amount of blame our societal attitudes place on survivors is staggering, and you can be a real light in someone’s life if you’re willing to be the exception and really be there for that person.

Simply asking a neighbor or friend if they’re okay can be a powerful question in the life of someone who may feel very much alone in an abusive relationship. If an inquiry like that—”Are you okay?” or “I noticed you missed a couple of days of work. Is everything alright?” or “I totally don’t mean to pry, but can I ask you about those sunglasses you’ve been wearing the last couple of days?”—comes from enough people, that person might actually get the message that she has a community of support around her. And that can alter the trajectory of her life and her eventual healing.

And when a survivor shares his or her story with you, listen.  Simply listen, without judgment.

Joyful Heart Foundation: http://www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/

“Like” Fempower Q&A’s on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fempower-QAs/231118800406295?fref=ts





Q&A with Kody Keplinger, author of THE DUFF

 the-duff-final-movie-posterKody Keplinger 2014
Melissa Seymour: Hi, Kody! Thanks so much for chatting with us. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Kody Keplinger: Thanks for having me! I’m Kody Keplinger, and I am the author of five books for kids and teens, including The DUFF, which was just turned into a major motion picture!

MS: Can you describe the moment you discovered your book THE DUFF was going to be turned into a film? What was running through your mind? What did you do?

KK: So, I don’t really know if there was a “moment.”  The film option actually sold before the book was published, and while I was of course very excited, but I was also really trying not to get my hopes up, because an option isn’t a guarantee.  For a couple years after that, there were little steps.  CBS signed on, for instance, and I would start to hope a little more with each turn.  Then, at the end of 2013, and all of a sudden it was real. I got the call that we were going into production, and I don’t even remember how I reacted. It was this thing that I knew COULD happen for years, and all of a sudden, it was! I think I was in shock, honestly. I really didn’t believe it was real until I visited the set last year.

MS: Why do you think high school is such a difficult time? Why is it so important to write from an honest perspective when tackling a story set in high school?

KK: I mean, I had a hard time in both high school and middle school. I think it’s just to be expected when you’re forcing a lot of people – going through the most awkward years of their lives – into a building together. And, as a kid, I always had this fear that it was just me. That I was the only awkward one. I found comfort in books by authors like Judy Blume, which were just so honest and real. I remember reading her novels and thinking she had read my mind.  It was so honest and made me feel like I wasn’t alone. As an author, that’s been my goal from day one.  To write honestly. To show the good the bad and the ugly in my work. Because if it makes even one other person feel like they aren’t alone, it’s worth it.

MS: How do you get into the minds of your characters? Do you do anything specific to immerse yourself in that world? Is there anything strange or unique about your process?

KK: For me, the best way to really bring myself back to my high school years is to put on the music I listened to at the time. I have a huge playlist on my computer that has all the songs I loved throughout high school. I listen to just a few, and all those awkward, angsty feelings come right back.

MS: Now that THE DUFF film is out, the word has become much more well known. Are you worried about any negative effects that might stem from this? What about high school students using this word to bully others?

I want to be clear on one thing first – which is that I didn’t actually create this word. It was a word that was being used in my high school. It’s been out there for a long time. It actually got popular when a guy on a reality dating show in the early 2000s used it.  My intention in writing the book was to reclaim it. Because if it was being used in my high school, it was being used it others, and I wanted to turn it into something that was positive, not a weapon. I know some are concerned about the word becoming popular now. But I think if the movie or the book is how teens are being introduced to the word (if it hasn’t already been used in their school before now) then my hope is that the point of the movie and book will help counteract that. Because everyone is somebody’s DUFF. I mean, if Kylie Jenner can wear a shirt proclaiming she’s felt like a DUFF, then we all have.  And if we are all DUFFs, how is it an insult?

MS: There were some major differences between THE DUFF book and film. If you could change one thing about the movie, what would it be? Why?

Yes, the book and the film are different, but I really love the film and I think it gets the spirit of the book right.  The one thing I’d change? I’d add in more of Jess and Casey.  I liked the film’s take on those characters (I loved writing those characters in the book, too) and I’d love to see more of them.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

Tina. Effing. Fey.  I have loved Tina Fey since I was a little girl and she was on SNL. But as I got older, I really started to see her as the amazing role model she is. Not only is she funny, but she’s such a smart, talented writer. And she’s such a great representative of a woman in charge. And she’s unapologetic about being seen as “bossy.” I love her.  I want to grow up and be as badass as she is one day.

MS: Thanks so much for chatting with us, Kody! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

KK: Well, for those who have read The DUFF, I want to let you know that there is a companion novel coming out called LYING OUT LOUD. It releases April 28, and Bianca and Wesley play a role in the story! So I hope y’all will enjoy that!


“Like” Fempower Q&A’s on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fempower-QAs/231118800406295

Visit Kody’s author site here: http://kodykeplinger.com/

Twitter: @Kody_Keplinger

Q&A with Jennifer Siebel Newsom: Director of Miss Representation


Melissa Seymour: Hi, Jennifer! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom: I’m the writer, director and producer of Miss Representation, a 2011 documentary that challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman or girl to feel powerful herself. In conjunction with the release of Miss Representation the film, I launched MissRepresentation.org, an organization being renamed this fall to The Representation Project. I continue to write, direct and produce documentaries while also running The Representation Project.

MS: What is the long-term goal for Miss Representation?

JSN: Our mission is to transform culture so that everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, age or circumstance can fulfill his or her potential.

MS: Do you think it’s important for women to reach out to one another and mentor each other?  Did you ever have a mentor in your field?

JSN: Miss Representation actually wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many female friends mentors and a few good men. The eventual film was the result of a lot of hard work, passion, and collaboration. I hope that it stands as a testament to what a small group of committed individuals can accomplish together – a testament to the power of the collective.

Early on I approached my friend Regina Kulik Scully with the concept for the film and she really encouraged me to move forward with production. She came on as an early executive producer and trusted me completely. I am so grateful for her friendship as I am to my film team’s hard work, support, and belief in me. The film is filled with the stories of inspiring females who prove, over and over again, that our potential is really unlimited – especially when we support each other and work together. Many of our interviews from Miss Representation remain friends, supporters, and role models to me and the org.

MS: How does having experience as an actress affect how you view the media?

JSN: As an actress I witnessed the injustice towards women in the media first-hand. It’s not just in front of the camera that we see these demeaning images and stereotypes, but the treatment of women behind the scene is just as limiting.

There are so few opportunities for women to excel as writers, directors, and producers in Hollywood – the influencers of which stories get made. Wanting to change this culture was a big motivation for Miss Representation and remains a goal of the organization.

MS: You’ve mentioned that when you were acting, people treated you differently due to your degrees from Stanford University and Stanford Business School. Could you expand on this?

JSN: My first agent didn’t take me seriously and went so far as to request that I take my Stanford MBA of my resume – he didn’t want me to seem too threatening. Ironic that he had no problems diminishing me however.

MS: What are you planning to work on in the future?

JSN: I’m currently writing, directing, and producing The Mask You Live In (MASK) and The Great American Lie, documentaries that explore American masculinity and the social, political, and economic consequences of a society that values dominance, power, control, and aggression over empathy, care and collaboration. MASK itself explores “the boy crisis” in America that results from extremes of masculinity imposed on our boys and men.  Both films examine the intersection of gender, race, class, and circumstance, and how kids are further influenced by our education system, sports culture, and mass media– especially violent video games and pornography.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

JSN: Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary Clinton, and my husband, Gavin Newsom.

MS: Do you have any advice for young women that are hoping to become actresses, directors, producers, or writers?

JSN: The most important thing is to be passionate about whatever you do and be true to your authentic self.  Find that thing that you love that you also happen to be good at and don’t look for outside affirmation. Most importantly, don’t leave your values and morals at the door.