Why Law & Order: SVU Tackled Harvey Weinstein Head-On in Its Season 21 Premiere
"I thought, go big," SVU writer Warren Leight tells PEOPLE of dramatizing the #MeToo movement
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returned for its 21st season on Thursday night with ones of its most powerful and relevant episodes yet.
In the premiere titled “I’m Going to Make You a Star,” Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her team attempted to lock up big-time Hollywood exec Sir Tobias Moore (Ian McShane), who assaulted aspiring actresses. The episode — which aired almost two years to date from when The New York Times published its first story exposing multiple allegations against Harvey Weinstein — name-checks the disgraced producer (who has denied the claims) as the parallels between his real-life downfall after more than 90 women accused him of assault heavily influence the plot.
When one of the young actresses, Pilar Reyes (Carmen Berkeley), comes to Benson and Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) to accuse the British media mogul of raping her when she went to his office for an audition, they immediately deem her detailed account legitimate and want to begin investigating. But new Bureau Chief Vanessa Hadid (Zuleikha Robinson) doesn’t feel as strongly about the case and wants Benson to further vet Pilar.
Sir Toby surprisingly contacts Pilar again after their first encounter, and Benson and Fin Tutuola (Ice T) use the opportunity to stage a controlled meeting. But she calls him out on his past behavior, so Sir Toby’s team attempts to discredit Pilar and provides edited footage of his past audition tapes. When Benson and Tutuola try to find other women with similar experiences to Pilar, they learn that many of those women have signed nondisclosure agreements.
Tobias eventually gets arrested after one woman has proof of being raped by him. He calls the investigation a “#MeToo witch hunt,” but thanks to his money and influence, Sir Toby and his female lawyer convince that woman to state that she was actually having a “secret but consensual affair” with him that lasted over four years. When Carisi (Peter Scanavino) notices that the “casting couch” where he met Pilar for an “audition” appears different in some of the other audition videos, Benson, Tutuola and Rollins look back on surveillance tapes that show Sir Toby’s assistant switching out the couch that could serve as evidence. The video also shows Hadid and her colleagues at the DA’s office showing up at Sir Toby’s place to help defend him.
The assistant confesses everything she knows upon being investigated by Tutuola, and that along with a sting operation in which a Vice detective (Jamie Gray Hyder) gets Toby to assault her on tape, gives Benson another opportunity to arrest him. From there, Sir Toby goes to trial and Hadid declares that “sexual assault will not be tolerated in New York City.”
Speaking to PEOPLE, episode writer Warren Leight breaks down what went into creating Thursday night’s Weinstein-inspired premiere, how the stars felt about tackling such a topical issue and what’s going to happen to Benson with Dodds (Peter Gallagher) moving to Coventry and Carisi serving as ADA.
How long ago did you know that you wanted to do an episode inspired by Weinstein and the #MeToo movement that followed the accusations against him?
I left [SVU] three years ago, and I was occasionally frustrated not to be here as the whole #MeToo movement broke. One by one these guys in the entertainment industry were outed, and some of them I’d heard stories about and known. I knew the world that this takes place in pretty well. We’re at an interesting point where the stories have broken, the guys have lost their jobs, but legally, there’s still something of a gray area for these guys. Their ability to avoid prosecution and their ability to not be held accountable is pretty interesting to me. It’s been hard to bring them to justice, I guess with the exception of Cosby.
How did you start with writing this episode?
One of the tricky things for us when we were writing this episode was if we made it a network guy, everybody would think it was one person. If we made it a movie producer, everybody would think it was another person. There was almost no place we could go in the entertainment industry where somebody at the top of the food chain hadn’t been brought down. But we wanted something like an amalgam of these different powerful serial predators. their ability to avoid prosecution and their ability to not be held accountable is pretty interesting to me.
Was there anything that you definitely wanted to include and anything you definitely wanted to stay away from when hitting on this topic?
We wanted to talk, Peter Brown and I co-wrote it and we wanted to talk about how corrupt the process has become, how highly esteemed lawyers and politicians intervene on behalf of some of these people, how hard it is, even when word is out, to take these guys down. I wanted to see what it’s like to be alone in the room with one of these guys. We don’t get too many chances at SVU, what’s it like for a young woman who thinks it’s her big break to be alone in the room and have what you think is an audition or a meeting set up by an assistant or by your own agents turn into being trapped. I wanted to depict how these guys can turn on a dime and become incredibly scary. I wanted to see what happens when the mask drops with these guys. Because they’re so good at holding it together.
Why did you choose to bring up Weinstein pretty early on in the episode?
Well, I guess so we’re all clear it’s not him. But also to contextualize it. Unfortunately, there’s a dozen of these guys and they’ve been allowed to stay in these positions even though their corporations knew what was going on. I still want to get to, how do the lawyers who work for these guys sleep at night? I find that disturbing. I know everyone’s entitled to a defense, but if your defense is to destroy the credibility of fifteen different victims — that’s pretty sleazy work.
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In the same vein, you also call out Tobias’ assistant in the episode, which has been of part of the conversation as well. Why was it important for you to include that element?
Because it’s horrible to me that these guys often use and easily find women to enable their betrayal. There are people inside who lead these lambs to the slaughter, and they do it over and over again. I don’t believe they don’t know what goes on when the door shuts, when they lead the girl into the office, they leave the young guy into the office. It takes a village to prop up guys like this. I wanted to personify that.
Why did you make Hadid doubtful of Pilar’s claims at first?
The first thing these guys do is get women attorneys who don’t seem to worry at all about who they’re defending. It turns out, in some specific cases that we looked at, DAs weighed in and prominent female politicians weighed in on behalf of these guys. People sometimes make the mistake of thinking, “I know him very well and he’s never done anything like that with me.” But that doesn’t mean they don’t do it with somebody where the power imbalance is more overt. It’s not just an old boys club propping them up. I wanted to articulate that.
Did you talk to any real-life assault survivors or consult with them for this episode?
Unfortunately, in the last three years as different stories have broken in the paper, I’ve had a number of people disclose things to me that happened to them. Some of the stories I’d heard before. Out of the three dozen prominent men who were outed in the last few years, only a couple came as complete surprises to me. I knew them and I knew people who had difficult times with them. I had a lot of people I knew whose stories informed the episode.
The show has hit on this topic before in the pilot industry, but why go there more directly now, for the season premiere?
One thing that I wanted was a formidable adversary for Benson. I was more interested in the first episode being about power than just the sort of something weird or offbeat. I wanted to talk about how, despite everything, this is still going on. And also that notion of where we end up in the episode where Dodds he says to Benson she’s got a lot more left to do. And that scene which Sir Toby gets off the elevator and you see all of the survivors and victims there, I wanted that as something to land on; to understand 21 years into her run the work Benson is doing is as important as it’s ever been. I thought, go big.
Were Ian or any of the other actors hesitant to jump in on this subject matter?
Ian was great. He and I emailed and talked for about four or five weeks, which on TV is a lifetime, before he agreed to do it. In terms of people who shied away from it, it was a little bit tricky to get actresses willing to play the betraying parts in the episode. Some actors think the bad guys are the good parts and certain people don’t want to go near it.
What does it say about Tobias and they type of men he’s representing that he kept going after women after Pilar initially reported him?
They can’t stop. They’ve gotten away with this for so long, they know they’re invulnerable. I talked to a couple of guys who run sex crimes units, and I go, “What happens when you go up against these guys?” What I kept hearing is they believe they will never be held accountable, so they don’t stop. It’s counterintuitive. If you’re in this much trouble, keep it in your pants. These guys can’t.
At the of the episode, there is a little bit of reshuffling in the department. What does that mean for the leads characters’ futures?
Well, Peter has another series, so I had to kind of clean that up a little for his sake. He’s been exiled to Staten Island. We’ll be meeting a new chief above Benson in episode three. As a condition of his subjugation, he insisted on her being promoted. So she’s got more juice going into the season. For me, it’s also a way of resetting the show. Obviously, the Carisi move and establishing Vanessa Hadid is a way of resetting. I just wanted to get some fresh blood in there, get some air in the room, rejigger the dynamics. As always, at Law & Order, you have to do that while you’re pushing the story forward.
Law & Order: SVU airs Thursdays (10 p.m. ET) on NBC.