When “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” returns for its 15th season this fall, we pick up in Olivia Benson’s (Mariska Hargitay) apartment just a few hours after we left her in the cliffhanger finale — with a gun to her head, courtesy of Lewis (Pablo Schreiber), a rapist so horrible he is called the Beast.
In the season premiere, airing Wednesday, Sept. 25 on NBC, Hargitay is asked to do something she has never done before … and she dove right in! So says, executive producer/showrunner Warren Leight, who adds, “What Pablo and Mariska did in that first episode, everyone on the crew felt it was the most harrowing episode we have ever done. Even the most case-hardened crew members were, ‘Oh, my God.’ I know there is a lot of anticipation, but it will prove to have been worth the wait. They really went there as actors.”
For more exclusive scoop from Leight on Season 15 of “SVU,” including reveals on some of the ripped-from-the-headline cases to come, such as sexting politicians and sex slaves kept prisoner for years, check out the rest of his interview with xfinityTV:
So will we find out if Olivia was raped, or if she somehow manages to turn the tables on Lewis in the first episode? You won’t make us wait past that, will you?
The season premiere is actually two episodes back-to-back, one at 9 p.m. and one at 10 p.m. We find out a lot in the first episode and a little more in the second. The two episodes are more connected than they were originally going to be before we found out we had two episodes on the same night.
This isn’t the first time Olivia has been threatened with rape. There was that time in prison. So, since you don’t want to reveal what happens, how about what her attitude will be?
That is one of the things I am very interested in tracking this season is: When you go through the trauma that many of the victims have that she has counseled, or tried to protect over the years, she now goes through something on a par with what many people have gone through that have come to her as a detective.
There is really a different arc for Olivia this season in terms of: What’s the survivor’s journey? She has counseled a lot of people about that journey, but nothing is ever the same after something like that happens. A large part of the season will be watching her process what happened.
Up to now, she has talked the talk to the survivors, but now, she has to walk the walk, so it is a little different.
Not only that, but the people around her… How do they handle it? Is it something they can ask her about? Does she put up her guard? Is there any place she can go where she feels safe to discuss what happened? Fifteen years in, it will be a different Olivia coming out of her encounter with this guy.
She also has a boyfriend now — Detective Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters), so how does he handle it?
How does someone you are involved with react to that? Does he step up, or does he shrink? And can you accept it if he steps up? All of this will be played out in a way that is a little different. “Law & Order” is usually 22, one-off episodes with very little continuity. This case will arc at least through the first half of the season, I think. Each episode will still have its own case, but the cases will be viewed by Olivia with the prism of what she has just gone through.
What kinds of cases will we see this season? Are you still ripping from the headlines? Is there a special arc you want to do other than Olivia?
It is hard to arc the individual cases. We had a theme of secrets one year, but this year, for better or worse, there are a lot of headlines to rip from.
In our second week back, so it is our third episode (on Oct. 2), there is a rapist preying on the Upper West Side and a celebrity chef coming home one night thinks she is being followed by the rapist and ends up shooting him. It is a hooded teenage kid. Right now, there is a lot of racial profiling and stop and frisk. We wanted to take a look at it. I think we found a pretty interesting way of doing that.
Right, the New York City stop-and-frisk program is all over the news now.
The courts have just ordered New York to shape up the way they stop and frisk. In New York, over the past, I think, six years, 4.2 million Hispanic and black kids have been stopped and frisked. It is a massive stop-and-frisk campaign and there is a lot of discussion about it in New York. Crime has dropped, so you get a lot of the questions that surrounded the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, that surrounded other questions of self-defense and profiling. Can anyone shoot anyone and claim self-defense? Do your own fears play into your perception of whether you are being attacked? So, we have a racist woman chef, a teenage kid, who may or may not be on his way home from a basketball game, and their paths cross. That has a lot of headlines in it.
And sexting politicians?
Oh, we have to do that. We are hoping to get an episode out before the election that deals with various candidates running in New York elections. We have [Eliot] Spitzer and [Anthony] Weiner running. It is hard not to talk about it in New York at the moment. We will be visiting the pathology of New York politicians.
Is Captain Cragen okay, or is there more blowback from his earlier problems?
Cragen [Dann Florek] is in a tricky position. Both Cragen and Munch [Richard Beltzer] are beginning to look at: Is there life after NYPD? Aside from the politics of NYPD, there is a mandatory retirement age, so these guys are looking at, if not their own mortality, how much longer they can stay on the job? At a time when Olivia needs support from the people who have been there, they are feeling a little fragile themselves.
Is Amaro [Danny Pino] going to find romance this season? He reconnected with someone inappropriate last year.
It is a complicated story. He had a son that he didn’t know about. The son surfaced several years later. His marriage is in shambles and he is a part-time dad to two kids from two separate women. I think he is happy to get to work and focus on his work.
His wife was played by Laura Benanti and we are hoping she will come back for an episode we are doing on military rape fairly early in the season. She works for the pentagon now in public relations, so she will be coming back for that episode.
Amaro is grappling with life — in some of the same ways that Olivia is trying to deal with life after the trauma — Amaro is trying to figure out what his life is going to be after that picture he had of a perfect marriage is gone.
Will Rollins (Kelli Giddish) encounter more problems because of her gambling addiction? Will that play into her storyline at all this season?
There might be a romantic interest for Rollins this season, but her judgment isn’t always the best. Where does somebody who is going to 12 Step meetings for a gambling addiction meet guys? We may see her looking for men in all the wrong places.
Upcoming guest stars?
Bill Irwin will be coming in and playing someone who is going to try counseling Olivia, so that is an interesting recurring part for us. We have Jeffrey Tambor in the third episode, the celebrity chef shooting episode. He is the attorney for the woman he believes has been wrongly accused. Tambor is a great defense attorney for us because he is willing to play loathsome. Obviously, Pablo Schreiber and Lauren Ambrose came back for the first episode.
The second episode centers around a guy who has held women hostage for a number of years. There are lots and lots of cases of kids having been held as slaves for 10 years or so. It is a weird pathology unto itself.
With Munch and Cragen thinking about retiring, might you be introducing some new characters?
We will see where the season goes, but a lot of that is still in discussion as to how the characters manage. At this point, Olivia is clearly the most seasoned detective in that squad room, so there will be some pressure on her to step up. We will have to see which of these guys opt for retirement when. They are grappling with, when have you stayed too long? They both certainly paid their dues at SVU.
“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” premieres with two back-to-back episodes on Wednesday, Sept. 25 beginning at 9/8c on NBC.