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Stories from Iraq: 'Night Draws Near'

Anthony Shadid's new book is Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War. Shadid is the Baghdad correspondent for The Washington Post. The book culls stories from Shadid's many visits to Iraq over the past eight years.


Other segments from the episode on September 20, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 20, 2005: Interview with Anthony Shadid; Interview with Mariska Hargitay; Review of the television show "My name is Earl" and "Everybody hates Chris."


DATE September 20, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Anthony Shadid discusses his new book, "Night Draws
Near," and being a journalist in Iraq

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

In less than a month Iraqis are scheduled to vote on a new constitution,
followed by voting for a permanent government in a few months. But the
insurgency has stepped up its attacks, killing 250 people in four days last
week. Four more American soldiers were killed in Iraq today, bringing the
death toll among US troops to 1,904. Conditions are also perilous for
journalists. In the southern city of Basra, an Iraqi journalist who worked
for The New York Times and other media organizations was found murdered

My guest, Anthony Shadid, has been in Iraq for most of the past two and a half
years, covering the war for The Washington Post. An Arab-American of Lebanese
descent, Shadid is fluent in Arabic. His insightful reporting on the war and
the sentiments of ordinary Iraqis won him the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for
international reporting. Shadid's new book is called "Night Draws Near:
Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War."

Anthony Shadid, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Author, "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow
of America's War"): Thank you.

DAVIES: Now one of the things that you describe early in the book is the
Iraq of the 1970s before it was, you know, gripped by Saddam Hussein's
madness, and the power of the memory of that Iraq on many of the people that
you interviewed, what was it that Iraqis told you about that era that was so

Mr. SHADID: I think there's a strong sense of memory, of nostalgia in Iraq,
and especially in Baghdad. I think some of that nostalgia goes back to what
Baghdad was in the Middle Ages when it was probably, you know, the most
glorious city in the world for centuries. And that kind of historic memory of
what Baghdad was plays a big role, I think, in people's lives. And I think
what we saw in the 1970s was a miniature version of that. In the 1970s, you
saw a country that, you know, had a standard of living similar to the poorer
countries in Europe. There was a lot of optimism. There was kind of almost a
brash sense to the place. Oil was fueling development, education,
infrastructure, and for the first time, I think, in decades, maybe even
centuries, I think a lot of Iraqis saw the future as something that was going
to be better, not worse.

This is the very beginning of Saddam's rule in a way, and that was before the
war began with Iran. I think people look back, I think it plays such a big
role today in Iraq because people--there was a certain anticipation, a certain
hope that once Saddam was gone, they were going to see a replay of the 1970s,
a replay of that optimism and that hope that oil revenues would again fuel
this kind of development of the country, and I think that's what made the
disappointment so much stronger, so much starker in a way, was that it didn't
follow. And so, you know, people do refer back to the 1970s, but I think they
refer to it as much--you know, they refer back to it as much as a way of
saying what they don't have now is what they had then.

DAVIES: Yeah. I remember one Iraqi told you of that period back then, `In
five years, Baghdad will look like Chicago,' and so they wanted to get back to
that point after the Americans came in and removed their dictator. It didn't

Mr. SHADID: Yeah, that's right. You know, I think the Americans often--even
in those first months after the war, they would talk about electricity or they
would talk about water or sewage or something, and they would use their
standard as what Iraq had right before the US invasion just, you know, a few
months before. You know, that wasn't Iraqis--I think for a lot of Iraqis,
that wasn't their standard. Their standard was what they had 20 years before,
25 years before. I think in a lot of ways, the Americans and the Iraqis were
working on two different scales of what progress meant.

DAVIES: One of the things I think your book does is illuminate the roots of
the insurgency, which has so mystified many Americans. And a couple of
stories seems so revealing, and one of them involved a US military operation
in the summer of 2003, not so long after Saddam fell, called Operation
Peninsula Strike. It involved an incursion into Sunni villages. Describe
this experience from the perspective of the villagers who were there.

Mr. SHADID: You know, this is a town called Deloria(ph), and it was a town
that wasn't unsympathetic to Saddam. I think it was--in a lot of ways, it was
a window on why Saddam had a certain level of support in Sunni regions. It
was a village that wasn't necessarily impoverished, but it wasn't all
that--you know, wasn't well-to-do. Saddam had come in there, had given jobs.
A lot of people worked for intelligence. They worked in the military. They
worked in the ministries. There was a certain kind of prosperity that had
come with its incorporation within the Iraqi government under Saddam.

So the village wasn't too bad off. There were suspicions there that either
the Baath Party was still organizing or that some--you know, that even some
attacks might have been organizing out of this village, and the Americans went
in. At the time, the American military went in with what was a--it was a
pretty big display of force. They went in after nightfall, and they stormed
these houses. I think--God, if I remember right, there was about a half dozen
houses that they had been tipped off to by informers. And now informers is
kind of a--especially at that time, was a very sketchy thing. I mean, it was
often people settling scores, people interested in maybe making a little bit
of money on the side by, you know, pointing out people that might not have
been doing anything, but that, you know, could be suspicious or people that
were actually doing something and they had heard about it.

You know, that military operation struck me in so many ways, because I saw so
much captured in those couple of days. I mean, there was one moment that I
was being told about by villagers, when the soldiers started yelling at them,
and they had no idea what the soldiers were saying. The soldiers were
speaking English. They only spoke Arabic, and there were these two sides
shouting at each other, having, you know, no idea what the other side was
saying. And then what followed were these arrests, thousands of people
actually picked up over time. Often, they were--you know, sometimes they were
picked up because they had done bad things. Often, they were picked up and
they hadn't done anything, but they were still kept for months and months.

And there was a sense of indignity about it, a sense of injustice on the part
of, I think, those villagers, and you especially saw this in this town,
Deloria; people feeling that they were innocent and they were, you know--they
had been treated wrongly, that the soldiers had come into their houses, that
they had stolen things, that they had torn the place up, that they--I mean,
it's a very traditional, a very conservative place, so men would enter into
rooms where only the women were allowed. Even--I mean--and it even got to the
point where you would see these very concrete instances where you could see
where the misunderstandings would occur, but then you create an atmosphere and
an environment in which everything is perceived through this lens of offense,
where everything is perceived through this lens of an occupier and occupied, a
more powerful and a less powerful, and I think that became very quickly the
sense of paranoia, the sense of deep distrust and suspicion about the
American presence, about what the Americans were doing in these places.

DAVIES: And what was the impact of these events on the villagers and
ultimately upon the insurgency?

Mr. SHADID: Well, you know, I think it's a good question. And if you look at
Deloria today, it's basically a no-go zone. I mean, no reporter--I haven't
been back there in a year now, and I think if you went there, you would be
taking unbelievable risks. It's one of these villages that we see in certain
parts of the Sunni triangle that has pretty much turned over to insurgents or
opposition or resistance or however you want to describe it, but it's pretty
much turned over to those people fighting the Americans. I mean, I always
asked myself this question: Was that inevitable? And I don't know the answer
to that. I mean, if things like Operation Peninsula Strike hadn't happened in
the beginning, would this village somehow be different today? You know,
perhaps or, you know, the other--you know, I guess I also think that maybe it
was inevitable that you would have these resentments, that as long as there
was an American military presence in that area, you would have these slights
and these frustrations and these resentments and anger that would eventually
build over time. But Deloria--it's a rough town right now.

DAVIES: And there was a remarkable follow-up story here where a controversy
arose after this US military operation, about the young man who was suspected
of having been an informer to the US military forces. What happened to him?

Mr. SHADID: You know, it all grew out of that same operation, this Operation
Peninsula Strike. I had mentioned earlier that there were informers that were
tipping the Americans off to suspects or, you know, sometimes they were
suspects; sometimes, you know, people were just settling scores. But there
was one person in particular that had tipped the US military off to several
houses, a guy named Sabah. And people recognized him pretty quickly, that it
was Sabah. He was wearing a mask at the time, but even within a few days, it
had made the rounds of the village that there was a person among them who had
been tipping the Americans off. They knew his name. They knew his family.
And I remember asking a person, kind of an acquaintance I had in that village,
what's going to happen to him. And he was pretty blunt to me. He said, you
know, `They're going to kill him.'

And at the time, I thought it was bluster. I didn't think much of it. But I
would go back to Deloria in those months and just check back, and I remember I
think it was the second or third trip after that, and I'd asked what happened
to them, and they told me that not only had he been killed, but villagers had
forced his family--actually, his father, to kill him. And, you know, over the
next couple of days, I reported the story, and it was probably--you know, to
this day, I think when I think back on that story, it's hard to describe. You
know, it's one of the most painful stories I've ever reported in the sense
that the villagers gave a choice that I don't know how most people would
answer to this father. They said, `Either you kill your son for working as an
informer for the Americans or we kill your family.' And so the father was
faced with a choice of actually killing a son or losing the rest of his family
to villagers who were very serious about meting out their own justice.

You know, he chose the former and he and his other son, once the informer,
Sabah, had returned to the village, I think it was three or four weeks later,
they woke him up one night and took him behind the house and basically
executed him.

DAVIES: And this father, who was confronted with the choice of killing his
own son or facing the retribution of his fellow villagers, was there any
thought that he could have turned to a coalition government, which, you know,
ostensibly was there to impose, you know, some sort of law and due process?
Was there any thought that he could have had any--you know, any redress, any
due process from the authorities in Baghdad?

Mr. SHADID: You know, it's difficult to say, and I think especially in those
first few months. Sometimes it's difficult to convey how arbitrary everything
felt in those days. I mean, it was basically a government had collapsed, a
government that had been in power for, you know, in some form, 30--for 35
years. This government collapsed, and the military was charged with creating
an authority almost immediately. And basically, what you saw in those days
was not much of authority. And so Sabah, this informer, had been taken with
the Americans. They actually took him up to Tikrit and, you know, my
understanding--I didn't get a lot of cooperation from the military on this
story, but my understanding was they just let him go because they didn't know
what to do with him. And he made his way back to relatives and then all the
way back down to Deloria.

You know, I had asked the military in Deloria, I think, a couple of months
later if they had had heard about the case, and they had not heard about it,
and then once I asked them about it, I think they did look into it and
they--it was one of those really--you know, one of those really strange
circumstances in Iraq. They found out that it was true and they actually went
after the father, and the father, knowing that the Americans were after him,
turned to the same villagers who had forced him to kill his son for
protection, and those villagers hid him or, you know, kept him from the
Americans. And my understanding was he was never arrested.

DAVIES: My guest is Anthony Shadid. His new book is called "Night Draws
Near." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is Anthony Shadid. He is a
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post. He speaks fluent
Arabic, and his reporting in Iraq was the basis of his new book. It's called
"Night Draws Near."

One of the things the US says is that it--the United States says is that it
can't leave Iraq until Iraqis are able to handle their own security, and this
is often described as a matter of recruiting and training Iraqi police and
security forces and military forces. You spent some time talking to Iraqi
policemen and people who work with them and interact with them. What did you
hear from Iraqi police about their motivation and how that's going?

Mr. SHADID: It was such a stark--you know, I think it was--when journalism
can be good is when you can see that there's one--you know, we talk about one
thing, which is training the Iraqi army, and then we actually understand
what's going on on the ground, and I think we saw what was going on on the
ground in this instance, and not that it was represented by the entire
country. I don't want to, you know, claim that. But it was a very bleak
picture on the ground. I remember seeing--you know, I had spent time with
them in their barracks and--you know, they were sleeping on the concrete or
the ground. Their tents were--you know, it was a hundred and twenty, a
hundred thirty degree heat. Water came out of a--kind of a tanker that they
used for both drinking and showering.

DAVIES: Now this is the Iraqi forces, right, who see American soldiers in
very different conditions, right?

Mr. SHADID: That's right. In fact, they were very aware of the Americans,
you know, living in air-conditioned kind of barracks with good food. I mean,
you know, I think the Americans said, `Well, you know, this is an Iraqi army
that we're just trying to get off the ground. Of course, their conditions are
going to be worse for them.' The Iraqis saw--they looked over--you know, they
looked across the fence and they thought, `Well, we should have everything
they have.' And so it, you know, created a certain resentment at a certain

I think what was more--what was bleaker in some ways was--you know, was
spending time with them as they actually went on patrol. And, you know, what
struck me time and again in these interviews was that you would ask the
question, you know, what they were fighting for, and they couldn't answer it.
I don't think they really had a clear sense of what they were fighting for.
In fact, one guy--I think he was 18--told me they were fighting for what they
had before the invasion, and he wasn't speaking in political terms or
ideological terms. He was just, you know, what was before the invasion was
security, it was stability, it was a steady income, and they wanted that back.

Now this is a--now Beiji is a village that's north of Tikrit. It's Sunni
Muslim. It's Arab. And it is--you know, it's representative, in some ways,
of areas where the insurgency is happening. You wouldn't hear that same
answer if you were in the south or in predominantly Shiite Muslim areas, but I
don't think that sentiment that he was expressing to me was all that rare and
in these areas, in these Sunni areas around Baghir(ph) or, you know, out west.
In fact, we were going on patrol with them. I remember it was at 4 or 5 in
the morning, and the Americans were in front and I was in back with the
Iraqis, and, you know, they started singing a song about, you know, longing
for Saddam, and it was one of those--again, those really strange moments
where, you know, you're riding on--you're going toward a raid, a joint
American-Iraqi raid, you know, ostensively to fight, you know, insurgents that
might be Baathist, that might be religious, and these guys are singing a song
for Saddam, and, you know, again, it's one of those moments that are kind of
hard to get out of your mind.

DAVIES: Now these guys, I assume, were in the army primarily for the
paycheck. What did they do when they actually had to encounter insurgents

Mr. SHADID: Well...

DAVIES: ...did they hang around?

Mr. SHADID: No, they didn't. In fact, they--you know, there was a couple of
instances where they did--you know, they did encounter a fight, and they
basically ran and they fled and, you know, I don't--I think right off, it
sounds like cowardice, and I think, you know, part of it is, you know, they
didn't have the stomach for a fight, but, you know, they--part of it was
again, what--comes back to that question that I asked them in the first place,
and it's what are they fighting for, and they really couldn't answer that.
You know, in a lot of respects, I think they were fighting for their--a
paycheck of $300 a month, which is pretty good, and why risk your life, you
know, for that?

DAVIES: You also spoke to Iraqi police recruits, places--I guess small towns
where there was a police station, and I was struck by one of the Iraqi
policemen saying that by being a policeman for the provisional government, he
was a bad Muslim. What did that mean?

Mr. SHADID: You know, that was in the same village actually, in Beiji, and it
was a completely different group of people, but, you know, I had spent a day
with them, this small--probably a dozen soldiers in all. They were protecting
the train station in Beiji. And I was asking these questions. I've always
been struck by this question in Iraq, and it's legitimacy, and, you know,
legitimacy is something that's, you know, far easier to deny than it is to
bestow. You know, how do you create a legitimate government? How do you
create a government that has legitimacy in the eyes of the people it's
supposed to represent? And I think that's been one of the key questions,
you know, for the Americans in Iraq, is how do we bring about legitimacy? And
legitimacy is usually endangered when there's too great of an American hand.

It was around that kind of issue that I was speaking to these guys in Beiji,
and, you know, I was asking them, `How do you justify working with the
Americans? How do you see working with the Americans? How do you think
that--what kind of image of you does that create in your village?' And it was
very tough. I mean, they were accused of being collaborators. They had been
attacked in their houses, people throwing fruit at them in the streets. And
then this one guy I was talking to--they had mentioned also that the clerics
in the mosques had ridiculed them, had said that they--you know, they could no
longer fast during Ramadan, which is a Muslim holy month where you fast from
dawn to dusk; that they could no longer fast during Ramadan because they were
not--they were bad Muslims. They were not Muslims because they were working
with the Americans. And they had become collaborators, and I asked him what
he thought about that, and he said, `Well, it's true. We are bad Muslims. We
shouldn't be doing this. It does go against our religion.'

And it was, again, one of those questions that maybe there isn't an answer to,
a question that, you know, faced by the father, you know, either he kills his
son or his family is killed--you know, this young 18- or 19-year-old recruit
who is either--you know, he's either a good Muslim and doesn't work with the
Amer--or in his eyes, is a good Muslim and doesn't work with the Americans and
sees his family have no money, no livelihood or, you know, he provides a
livelihood for his family and is a bad Muslim. And, in fact, one of his
friends sitting next to him said, you know, `If the cleric in the mosque, you
know, wants to pay us $300 a month, we're happy to quit.' You know, they
faced a situation in which there were two bad choices.

DAVIES: You talked to a lot of Iraqis in villages in Sunni areas in the south
and Shiite areas and middle-class folks in Baghdad, and I'm wondering--this is
a broad question, but how much of a constituency, if any, is there for, you
know, the kind of transition the US envisioned, you know, the defeat of Saddam
and then temporary occupation leading to a pluralistic Western-style
democracy? I mean, is there a constituency, a voice for that role?

Mr. SHADID: Yeah. I think there definitely was a constituency for that. You
know, it's difficult to say, and I don't know the answers and I don't know
what should have happened or could have happened. We did see, you know, to a
certain degree what did happen and I guess my sense was that, you know, in a
lot of ways, the American experience in Iraq was decided in those first few
weeks after the US invasion, after the fall of Saddam. I remember waking up
the next morning and driving through Baghdad and, you know, Baghdad was a city
that wasn't that destroyed during the war. In a lot of ways, especially at
the beginning of the invasion, the American military strikes were very
precise. And civilian casualties weren't that great. It got a little bit--it
got a little less precise as the invasion went on. But basically, on the day
that Saddam fell, Baghdad was not a destroyed city. And in the weeks that
followed, it was destroyed. I think, you know, it wasn't an exaggeration to
say that Baghdad was burning at a--you know, in some ways after

DAVIES: By the looting and lawlessness, right, yeah.

Mr. SHADID: That's right, the looting and lawlessness that wrecked the city.
And I think Bagh--you know, so you had this sense of optimism after Saddam's
fall that, you know, OK, finally, we're going to reclaim, like we were talking
about earlier, this kind of--you know, a shade of the 1970s and instead what
they saw was their city being dismantled. And I think that began this
really--this sentiment that you hear often, and that's how--you know, and
that's hard to provide an answer to, and that's like how could the American
military have been so precise, so effective, so flawless in its execution of
the war and so feeble in its aftermath? And you still hear that point made.
I mean, in fact, when I was sitting with a family that I spent a lot of time
with, they asked me that same thing two years down the road, and, you know, at
this point, you just shake your head, because I--you know, I'm not--what is
the answer that you give them about that?

DAVIES: Well, Anthony Shadid, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SHADID: Thank you.

DAVIES: Journalist Anthony Shadid. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage
of the war in Iraq. His new book is "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the
Shadow of America's War."

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


DAVIES: Coming up, actress Mariska Hargitay. Her mother was the sex symbol
Jayne Mansfield. Her father was Mr. Universe. Now she stars as a detective
in "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." We'll talk with her about avoiding
roles that stereotyped her. Also, TV critic David Bianculli tells us about
two new comedies worth watching.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Mariska Hargitay discusses her acting career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

My guest, Mariska Hargitay, has one of the most recognizable faces on
television. She plays Detective Olivia Benson on the hit series "Law & Order:
SVU." SVU stands for Special Victims Unit. In the series Hargitay and her
partners investigate sex crimes, many involving child abuse. Hargitay won a
Golden Globe Award this year for best dramatic actress for the role and was
nominated for an Emmy. The new season of "Law & Order: SVU" begins tonight
on NBC.

Let's listen to a scene from last season's "Law & Order: SVU." In this
episode, Hargitay's character, Detective Olivia Benson, is on a statutory rape
case stemming from a mother's discovery of her teen-age daughter in bed with
her 21-year-old boyfriend. Olivia empathizes with the teen-age girl. In this
scene, she's called into the office of her commander, Captain Cragen, played
by Dann Florek.

(Soundbite of "Law & Order: SVU")

Mr. DANN FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) Why is Denise Eldridge screaming to
1PP(ph) that you talked her daughter out of a rape case?

Ms. MARISKA HARGITAY: (As Olivia Benson) Carrie didn't want it.

Mr. FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) Oh, that's exactly what Simone Bryce told
Carrie's mother. It's funny how a children's rights attorney just happened to
show up at the ER.

Ms. HARGITAY: (As Olivia Benson) She was there because I called her.

Mr. FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) You've got enough on your plate without taking
on this kid as a cause.

Ms. HARGITAY: (As Olivia Benson) Well, somebody's got to protect her from
that lunatic mother of hers.

Mr. FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) Well, why are you calling her that?

Ms. HARGITAY: (As Olivia Benson) You saw how she humiliated Carrie in front
of the entire squad. I don't like her.

Mr. FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) Well, she has a right to be upset.

Ms. HARGITAY: (As Olivia Benson) She's upset because she thinks Carrie's
going to end up just like her, pregnant without a man.

Mr. FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) Denise Eldridge believes a crime was committed
against her daughter.

Ms. HARGITAY: (As Olivia Benson) Denise Eldridge is a fruitcake.

DAVIES: Well, Mariska Hargitay, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Ms. HARGITAY: Thank you.

DAVIES: You play Detective Olivia Benson on "Law & Order: Special Victims
Unit," where you investigate sex crimes, some of the most brutal stuff that
cops ever have to encounter. How did you prepare for and research this role?

Ms. HARGITAY: Well, you never can be completely prepared, I have learned.
But when I was cast, I immediately flew to New York and basically tried to
make friends with every NYPD officer that I could. I also went to the special
victims unit in Manhattan and, also, the Bronx and spent a lot of time with
the detectives there and then made a bunch of buddies in the cold case squad
and sort of all over. So I had field trips every day for about two weeks
before we actually started shooting. And then, you know, through my
relationships, I made a couple of friends that I could call and ask questions.
And, you know, you continually study. I mean, I feel like it's seven years
later and I'm still studying and still learning and still going to the, you
know, shooting range and still trying to figure things out as we go along.

DAVIES: Your character, Detective Olivia Benson, is herself a child of rape.
Is that in your head in some ways as you create that character?

Ms. HARGITAY: Always. Always. And I think that's my, you know, sort of
supervigilant, protective, you know, lioness aspect that I have to my
character. I think I'm--you know, certainly at the beginning, in the first
few years, I was, you know, sort of overzealously needing to protect and, you
know--like a one-woman show to end crime in the world. You know, I think that
all of us are called to our professions for different reasons and oftentimes
emotional reasons, and clearly this is why Olivia Benson became a detective.
And there's been shows over the years sort of dealing with why--you know, the
positives and the negative; you know, the light side and the dark side.

DAVIES: This is, of course, very tough material and, as you say, drawn from
real cases. Is it emotionally hard on you?

Ms. HARGITAY: Absolutely. I've learned more about sexual assault than I ever
wanted to. It is very heavy to know that the stories that we are dealing with
are true stories, and that's why I created this Web site,, because
I started to get fan mail, and it was a very different kind of fan mail. It
was, you know, `Hi. You're my favorite actress.' But it was a lot of women
actually disclosing their story and sharing with me things that they'd never
told anyone.

DAVIES: Do you respond directly to these letters from any of them?

Ms. HARGITAY: I did. I did at the beginning. Unfortunately, I can no longer
respond due to the volume of the e-mail that I get. I can't. However, I've
teamed up with my various partners, with Safe Horizons. And I became a rape
crisis counselor. I work with the Rape Treatment Center in LA. I work with a
lot of different programs. And I actually just started my own non-profit
organization. So I have these amazing partners, and so now I have support in
answering these e-mails and trying to find people the help that they need.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Mariska Hargitay. She plays Detective Olivia
Benson on the hit TV series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

A lot of our listeners probably don't know that your mother was the actress
Jayne Mansfield, who was killed tragically in a car accident in 1967 when you
were three. Your dad, Mickey Hargitay, was also an actor and a bodybuilder.
Despite having two parents who were celebrities, I gather you really didn't
grow up in a show business world. Is that right?

Ms. HARGITAY: That's right. We--my dad sort of kept us away from all of
that. I mean, I did--I grew up in Los Angeles, California, so, you know, as
far away as you can get in Los Angeles. It's sort of a showbiz town. But...


Ms. HARGITAY: ...I have to say we lived a fairly normal existence, and we
spent a lot of time in the summers traveling. And, yeah, I had no idea that I
wanted to go into this business till I was about 18.

DAVIES: I mean, I'm sure as you got older, you came to know of your mom
through family memories. And it must have been strange because this was an
era before there were VCRs, and you probably didn't see a lot of her screen
work. But as you got older, you must have encountered a lot of other people
who had these, you know, strong images and impressions about this person that
you kind of should have known best and had a very different feeling for.

Ms. HARGITAY: Yeah, that's still going on actually. It's such a gift
because--especially now with the popularity of the show. I get lots of mail
from people that knew who or--actually today I just received some gorgeous,
gorgeous photos of her that I'd never seen before. And it's such a, you know,
gift. I don't think these people really realize what a gift that they're
giving me--you know, a piece of her life--especially when they're photos I
haven't seen or they'll write a memory, you know, just some--one, two, three
little sentences about how she touched their lives or how she was kind or
funny or, you know, smart. It's a gift. So I'm still getting to know her all
these years later.

And I--you're right, though, I didn't really see her movies as a kid, and,
quite frankly, I wasn't interested in her screen work. I wanted to know her
as a person and how she touched people and what she thought was funny. You
know, I had sort of different goals with getting to know her.

DAVIES: You know, I'm a little older than you are, and I remember your mother
as an actress. And in preparing for this interview, I saw the movie "Will
Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" in which she...

Ms. HARGITAY: So great.

DAVIES: It's a wonderful. If anybody hasn't...

Ms. HARGITAY: That's a great one.

DAVIES: It's worth getting because it has your mom in a lead role, and then
your dad is also in it. Mickey Hargitay...


DAVIES: in it. And...

Ms. HARGITAY: And I love "The Girl Can't Help It." That's the other one.
It's great.

DAVIES: Right.


DAVIES: The interesting thing about it was that I sort of--my memory of Jayne
Mansfield was, you know, ditsy, buxom blonde. But when I saw this and saw the
thing that she does, this sort of oohing and cooing with her voice, I was--you
know, that really is hard to do.

Ms. HARGITAY: (Laughs) Exactly.

DAVIES: I mean, it's not--it didn't look easy. It looked like a real acting
achievement. And I gather you've come to regard her as something of, I don't
know, a pre-feminist in a way, somebody who achieved an awful lot.

Ms. HARGITAY: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, you know, she was a violinist, and
she had a 160 IQ. She was an extremely, extremely intelligent woman. I have
a Life magazine hanging in my house, where it says, you know, `Hollywood's
Smartest Dumb Blonde.' You know, she found this niche, and she went for it
all the way. I think that was her sort of, you know, business plans. When
you talk about pre-feminist: five kids, was a movie star, had animals,
husband--I mean, she did it all. She lived, you know, a very full life.
Unfortunately, she didn't get to finish it. But I think that she was
definitely a woman who lived before her time. She's my hero.

DAVIES: My guest is actress Mariska Hargitay. Here's a scene of her mom,
Jayne Mansfield, in that 1957 film "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" Tony
Randall plays Rockwell Hunter, an advertising man trying to save his career by
getting a sex symbol to endorse a brand of lipstick. Mansfield plays the
movie star Rita Marlowe, who agrees to do the ads provided Hunter pretends to
be her new lover. In this scene, the two are in a car discussing their

(Soundbite of "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?")

Mr. TONY RANDALL: (As Rockwell Hunter) We certainly appreciate what you're
doing for the agency, Ms. Marlowe.

Ms. JAYNE MANSFIELD: (As Rita Marlowe) Oh, forget it. Now all we have to is
to make you into a great lover.

Mr. RANDALL: (As Rockwell Hunter) Great what?

Ms. MANSFIELD: (As Rita Marlowe) Well, at least you're going to have to look
like a great lover, so I'll look good. Would I take on someone who wasn't the
greatest? Ooh!

Mr. RANDALL: (As Rockwell Hunter) Oh, I wouldn't think so, not with those
measurements. But you did.

Ms. MANSFIELD: (As Rita Marlowe) Don't sell yourself short, darling. You
know your way around a kiss.

Mr. RANDALL: (As Rockwell Hunter) I'm sorry about that. I don't know why it
happened. But everything was happening so fast, I--something snapped.

Ms. MANSFIELD: (As Rita Marlowe) Something snapped? You snapped, and you're
not a bad snapper, darling.

Mr. RANDALL: (As Rockwell Hunter) (Chuckles)

Ms. MANSFIELD: (As Rita Marlowe) I know. I've probably been snapped at more
than any girl in history, except that Communist queen. You know.

Mr. RANDALL: (As Rockwell Hunter) Catherine the Great?

Ms. MANSFIELD: (As Rita Marlowe) Yes. Yes, her.

Mr. RANDALL: (As Rockwell Hunter) Well, she wasn't a Communist. She was a

Ms. MANSFIELD: (As Rita Marlowe) I don't care what was wrong with her.

DAVIES: That's Jayne Mansfield and Tony Randall in the 1957 film "Will
Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"

We'll be back with Mariska Hargitay after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: My guest is Mariska Hargitay. She plays Detective Olivia Benson in
"Law & Order: SVU." The new season premieres tonight.

When we left off, we were talking about her parents: bodybuilder Mickey
Hargitay and actress and sex symbol Jayne Mansfield. Mansfield was killed in
a car crash in 1967.

You got into acting, I gather, in high school and began to make a career for
yourself, did a lot of television. I'm wondering, having--you know, being a
child of a sex symbol, did that affect the roles that you chose? Did you
decide you didn't want to--you wanted to take a different course?

Ms. HARGITAY: I did in the beginning a little bit. I--you know, that was a
little over--I think that was the one part that was a little overwhelming,
being the daughter of a sex symbol and having people constantly compare you.
And I was not a fan of that at the beginning. And so I definitely, I think,
sort of gravitated toward, you know, more tomboy roles. One of the first
parts that I ever played was a girl named Jesse, who was an ex-con on a series
called "Downtown." And I think I--you know, I grew up with two brothers, so I
think part of it was that, too, you know, and I was sort of an athlete and
jock. And I loved sports, and, you know, my dad was also was like an Olympic
speed skater, and he was--my dad is an amazing athlete, and so were my
brothers. And so I think that I sort of followed in those footsteps as
opposed to using my feminine wiles, if you will.

DAVIES: Right. Well, your dad was Mr. Universe, wasn't he?

Ms. HARGITAY: Mr. Universe, Mr. America and Mr. Olympia in 1955. He held
three titles.


Ms. HARGITAY: My dad's a bit of a superhero, I have to say.

DAVIES: Right, right. And yet I read--Do I have this right?--that you were
actually named Miss Beverly Hills in 1982?

Ms. HARGITAY: You read it right.

DAVIES: Was...

Ms. HARGITAY: It's not something I talk about, but, yup, you read it right.

DAVIES: Was that a beauty pageant?

Ms. HARGITAY: It was.

DAVIES: And so you weren't so much a tomboy that it did--I mean, did you
enter that as sort of a lark...

Ms. HARGITAY: A goof?

DAVIES: ...or, yeah, a goof, yeah?

Ms. HARGITAY: (Laughs) Yeah. I thought it was funny, and somebody said,
`Come on, do it. It'll be fun.' And then I did it, and I realized that
wasn't the road for me.

DAVIES: All right. So you wanted to survive on your acting wiles...


DAVIES: ...and not be a babe. I read that you once lost a part because you
refused to dye your hair blonde. Is that right?

Ms. HARGITAY: Yes, I did--a couple actually, you know, which, by the way, now
I think that I would probably do things differently now because it was a great
part. But at--you know, when I was so young, I mean, there was a lot of
comparing to my mother. You know, everything was about her, which I
understand 'cause they didn't know me, nor had I proved myself. But I really
just wanted to do it my way. And so what if it took me 20 years? I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, you've done well. I mean, you were in a lot of different TV
series, you know, in the '80s and '90s, including like "Can't Hurry Love."
That was in the '90s, right?


DAVIES: And did well but was canceled.


DAVIES: And kind of a breakthrough was getting on "ER." You
were--What?--Cynthia Hooper who was Dr. Greene's girlfriend, right?


DAVIES: Very different role from...

Ms. HARGITAY: Antithesis.

DAVIES: ...who you are and from--I mean, you were sort of needy and kind of
weak and mousy.

Ms. HARGITAY: Yeah. Well, it was absolutely, like, my favorite role. I
mean, when I got that part, I just felt it into my bones, like I had so much
fun. I went, `Oh, this is what acting is. You get to, you know, put on this
other hat.' And I had worked on it so hard, and, oh, obviously the cast was
stellar and amazing. And Anthony Edwards was so good. So I--we really got to
play. And I had so much fun on that that when I was done, I thought, `Where
do I go from here? Where am I going to go?' I mean, it was so great because
they also--"ER's" obviously a drama, but they'd let me sort of go into some
crazy territory. I mean, I got a little bit psycho, and there were some
comedy moments. I mean, they really let me do whatever I wanted.

DAVIES: And gave you confidence, I guess. And then...

Ms. HARGITAY: Yeah, absolutely. And when I finished that show, I was working
with DreamWorks in developing a--my own show, and then "SVU" came along. It
was actually called "Sex Crimes" at the time. This script came in and--again,
I had that same feeling I did when I read the "ER" part, where I thought,
`This is mine. I know it. I feel it. I love this. I want to do this. This
is huge.'

DAVIES: Well, I read that you were really aggressive in pursuing that role
with Dick Wolf to send the other actresses away, something like that?

Ms. HARGITAY: Well (laughs), what happened was I went in, and I had a few
readings before I actually met with him. And I went in and I met with him,
and we had a great, great meeting. And I read it, and then he gave me a note.
I remember I said, `Do you want to tweak it?' And he goes, `No, you're fine.'
And I said--I live on the other side of the hill, and I said, `I didn't drive
myself all the way out to the valley not to get tweaked.' And he goes, `OK.'
So he gave me this note, and then we read the scene again. And it was so
funny because he gave me a great note, but normally, you know, I--instead of
him saying, like, `That was good,' I said to him, `That was good. That was a
good note.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARGITAY: So he was like, `Wow, this girl's got chutzpa.' So I left, and
then they called me to come back before I went to the network. Usually
sometimes they just want to read it with you before you have your test at the
network. So I went in, and I was thinking it was just a formality. Well,
there was another girl there, and I didn't understand. And so I walked in,
and I go, `What's going on?' I said, `This is my part. Tell her to go home.'
Now it turns out that the other girl, who was wonderful and she was gorgeous
and extremely talented--turned out she was in the pilot as well. She was
reading for the other role, but I didn't know that at the time (laughs). So
anyway the rest is history, and it all worked out. But I said to him, `You
know I'm right for this part. Let's not even get crazy.'

DAVIES: Right. Well, I wonder...

Ms. HARGITAY: `Send her home, and let's go.'

DAVIES: Yeah. I wonder if part of it was that you showed the kind of brass
you'd want in a detective maybe.

Ms. HARGITAY: Well, we'll never know, but it was pretty great.

DAVIES: You know, I wanted to ask one other question about your mom, and this
is a little serious. And if it's too personal, you don't have to answer it.
But I know that you were actually in the car in the accident when your mother
was killed and were--you and your brothers were not hurt and that you were so
young that I understand you have no memory of it. But I'm wondering if that
accident, you think, affected you in some way or the loss affected you in some
way that you carry with you?

Ms. HARGITAY: Well, of course it did. Absolutely. I think the most
traumatic thing that can happen to a child is the death of a parent. And I
think that, obviously, being in the car, I have--I don't remember it in my
mind. I can't--thank God. I think that's my body's way of protecting itself
from the horrific incident. But I think that we have, you know, muscle memory
and definitely cellular memory, so, sure, I think it informs who I am as a
person. And I think I will always carry that with me.

DAVIES: And, you know, this character that you play on "SVU," you know, is
the product of a terrible trauma. Now do you think there's some way in which
you draw on that in the character?

Ms. HARGITAY: Without a doubt. I carry that with me. I think it is the
reason that I can play this character, that I understand this character. And
I'm grateful that I can--if I can touch somebody with that, that it's not all
for naught.

DAVIES: Well, Mariska Hargitay, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HARGITAY: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

DAVIES: Actress Mariska Hargitay from the series "Law & Order: SVU." The
new season begins tonight on NBC.

Coming up, two new comedies worth watching. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: TV premieres "My Name Is Earl" and "Everybody Hates Chris"

The new fall TV season for commercial broadcast networks begins this week, and
TV critic David Bianculli is here with his choices for the season's best


Last season the two best shows introduced by the broadcast networks were very
original dramas: ABC's "Lost" and the same network's "Desperate Housewives."
By the way, I don't accept the way "Housewives" was nominated for Emmys in the
comedy category and even won some. It's a very funny series, but when viewers
care that much about solving the central mystery in an hour-long show, that
show is a drama, just like "Twin Peaks." But I digress.

The best thing about "Lost and Desperate Housewives," other than their
excellence in originality, was that they were both scripted. Writers wrote
them, actors acted in them and directors directed them. It reversed the tide
of reality TV shows, and that was a wonderful thing.

This season that good fortune continues. In this season there's no argument
about the category in which to place the year's two new best shows. They're
both comedies, hilarious ones. Both of them are heavy with first-person
narration, showing the central characters looking at their lives from a
somewhat detached perspective. Both comedies are filmed single camera rather
than in front of a studio audience. Neither comedy has a laugh track, and
neither one needs it because you'll be laughing out loud without any

These new comedies are "My Name Is Earl," which premieres on NBC tonight, and
"Everybody Hates Chris," which premieres on UPN Thursday. Both shows are in
tough time slots on very competitive nights, and neither is likely to finish
the season as a hit show, as did "Lost" and "Housewives" a year ago. But seek
them out and embrace them.

"My Name Is Earl" stars Jason Lee, the jealous band member in "Almost Famous,"
as Earl Hickey. Earl is a Southern-fried outlaw, a low-life loser whose low
life consists of stealing from people, getting drunk with his equally aimless
brother and putting up with his unfaithful wife, who tricked him into marriage
one drunken lost weekend. Here's how Jason Lee as Earl recounts that
whirlwind romance. Jaime Pressly plays the woman in question, introduced to
us and to him with the two of them in a passionate lip lock at a seedy bar.

(Soundbite of "My Name Is Earl")

Mr. JASON LEE: (As Earl Hickey) About six years ago I was out drinking when I
met this little firecracker.

You got great boobs, Peggy.

Her name was not Peggy.

Ms. JAIME PRESSLY: (As Joy) My name is Joy.

Mr. LEE: (As Earl Hickey) You got great boobs, Joy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEE: (As Earl Hickey) She kept buying me drinks, and later that night she
drove us to Vegas. By the time I sobered up, we were married.

(Soundbite of a crashing noise)

Mr. LEE: (As Earl Hickey) Ehh.

The next morning I was recuperating from being a little overserved.

Ms. PRESSLY: (As Joy) Morning, Happy.

Mr. LEE: (As Earl Hickey) Ohh.

Hell, when I was drinking, I just thought she had a bit of a belly. Some
people might think getting so drunk you accidently marry a woman that's six
months pregnant is a good reason to stop drinking. Personally I think it's a
good reason to keep drinking.

BIANCULLI: Earl's life changes when he wins the lottery but not because of
the money. He loses that in about 10 seconds--literally 10 seconds--and ends
up in traction in the hospital. It's there, waking up to the TV show "Last
Call with Carson Daly," that Earl hears a conversation about karma. When he's
released from the hospital, he explains his life's new direction to his
brother, Randy, played by Ethan Suplee, and their new friend, the motel maid
Catalina, played by Nadine Velazquez.

(Soundbite of "My Name Is Earl")

Mr. LEE: (As Earl Hickey) Do good things and good things happen to you. Do
bad things and it'll come back to haunt you.

Mr. ETHAN SUPLEE: (As Randy) That's deep, Earl. So why don't you stop
hogging them Vicodins they gave you? We can all chat about that for a while.'

Mr. LEE: (As Earl) I'm talking about karma.

Mr. SUPLEE: (As Randy) Who's karma?

Mr. LEE: (As Earl Hickey) I don't know, something Carson Daly came up with.
He says he does good things in life, and that's why his life is so great. Got
me thinking my life sucks, and I ain't ever done anything good I can think of.

Ms. NADINE VELAZQUEZ: (As Catalina) Who is this Carson Daly? He some sort of
spiritual leader, a holy man?

Mr. SUPLEE: (As Randy) You never seen "TRL"? You need to start putting on
some of these TVs when you're cleaning the toilets.

Mr. LEE: (As Earl Hickey) If I want a better life, I need to be a better

Mr. SUPLEE: (As Randy) What's this?

Mr. LEE: (As Earl Hickey) I made a list of everything bad I've ever done.

Mr. SUPLEE: (As Randy) Why?

Mr. LEE: (As Earl Hickey) Why? Randy, I just won $100,000 in the lottery and
was immediately hit by a car. I almost died because something good happened
to me that I didn't deserve. That karma stuff is going to kill me unless I
make up for everything on that list.

BIANCULLI: It's a great premise for a sitcom, and creator Greg Garcia makes
the most of it. Jason Lee as Earl is absolutely charming. And Jaime Pressly,
in her over-the-top, trailer-trash way, is too. Put Earl on your list while
he's working through his.

The other sparkling, new sitcom is Thursday's "Everybody Hates Chris." The
title, of course, is a play on the just-departed "Everybody Loves Raymond,"
and this show's secret weapon is that the Chris in question is Chris Rock.
"Everybody Hates Chris" is like Chris Rock's version of "The Wonder Years." He
doesn't appear in the show, but he narrates it, looking back on his own
childhood and describing it from an adult's perspective. The year is 1982.
Chris is 13 and played by the perfectly cast Tyler James Williams. Chris is
bused across town to be the only black kid in an otherwise all-white school,
and it isn't long before he runs into the school bully in the hallway.

(Soundbite of "Everybody Hates Chris")

Mr. CHRIS ROCK: My mother thought going to a white school meant I would get
a better education, and I would be safer. Wrong!

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROCK: That's Joey Caruso, a little thug with a big chip on his shoulder.
You know, I managed to avoid him before I wore these shoes.

(Soundbite of scuffling noises)

Mr. ROCK: Nice shoes, Bojangles.

"JOEY CARUSO": Bojangles? That's not what your mother called me when I was
tap-dancing in the doors last night.

Unidentified Students: (In unison) Ohhhh.

Mr. ROCK: I know you think I'm crazy, but if I let him get away with that,
he'd be doing it all year. Now I couldn't beat him, but I thought maybe I
could out-black him.


"JOEY CARUSO": Did I stutter? You know who I am.

WILLIAMS: (As Chris Rock) You step on my shoe again, and I'm going to tell
you who I am.

Unidentified Students: (In unison) Oooh.

"JOEY CARUSO": I don't play that.

WILLIAMS: (As Chris Rock) I'm from Bed-Stuy, boy. I bring half a Mafia up in

Unidentified Students: (In unison) Oooh.

WILLIAMS: (As Chris Rock) I will beat your butt so bad, you gonna need
crutches in your sleep.

Unidentified Students: (In unison) Oooh.

Mr. ROCK: Hey, this might work.

BIANCULLI: It doesn't work. But the unavoidable after-school fight, like
everything else about "Everybody Hates Chris," is a delight. As the fight
goes on in slow motion--and on and on and on--the show plays Paul McCartney
and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory" on the soundtrack.

Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold play Chris' parents. They're commendable role
models, and they're very funny in their own right. Chris Rock and Ali LaRoi,
who co-created the show, have done something important here. The dad at the
head of this household actually matters. You look for strong, loving
patriarch on black-family sitcoms, and once you get past John Amos on "Good
Times" and Bill Cosby on "The Cosby Show," that list pretty much stops. But
"Everybody Hates Chris" isn't just culturally significant. It's got its own
voice, the voice of Chris Rock, and it's a unique voice. Yet what it shares
with "My Name Is Earl" are a structure and a sensibility that makes both shows
refreshing. They come from opposite sides of the racial spectrum--black sass
and white trash--but they meet where it counts. They're a riot.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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