Kelli Giddish Interview: "SVU" Star Talks Engagement and 23rd Season
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Actors
Image attributed to Virginia Sherwood
Born on April 13, 1980, in Cumming, Georgia, Kelli Giddish can currently be seen on the NBC (Wolf Entertainment) crime drama TV series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) as Detective 2nd Grade Amanda Rollins. She has portrayed that character since the 13th season, which premiered September 21, 2011. In addition to Giddish, the current main cast members are Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T and Peter Scanavino. SVU is in its 23rd season (which premiered September 23, 2021).
Giddish has also appeared on the ABC daytime drama All My Children (2005-2007), in the Fox crime drama series Past Life (2010) and in the NBC crime drama series Chase (2010-2011). She has two sons, Ludo (October, 2015) and Charlie (November, 2018).
"I did the screen test with Mariska with Dick Wolf watching. Now, 11 seasons later, I can’t believe I’ve been on the show for 11 years!"
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Hi Kelly, are you filming today?
Kelli Giddish: No. I have the day off. All I had to do was my COVID test. Where are you from?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’m in Birmingham, Alabama.
Kelli Giddish: It sounds like music to my ears. It’s like molasses and honey and sweet tea all rolled up in one in your voice. I love it. You sound like my grandmamas, my aunts, my sisters and all the people I grew up with
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) You haven’t lost your southern accent. Was that a help or a hindrance when you first started out in the business?
Kelli Giddish: Well, you know, it wasn’t a hindrance. I don’t know whether it was a help or not. But I think I can turn it a little bit off. I think the sensibility of being a southern woman has definitely helped. So it’s not the accent. It’s the sensibility, I think, that carries through more than anything else.
I know that I couldn’t talk to my grandmama, Theodosia, before any auditions in my 20s because after talking to her, all of a sudden, “Hey” had nine syllables in it (laughs). So I couldn’t talk to her on the days I had auditions because it just keeps going. I can’t turn it off (laughs). I think my character on SVU is originally from Pittsburgh or something. But when I got the role, they were like, “No. Just make her from Georgia.” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You were living in Georgia as a child and wanted to be an actor when you grew up?
Kelli Giddish: Yeah. My mom was a teacher, and at her school, there was a lady named Yatesy Harvey, and she ran a community theater. My mom was like, “Kelli, my friend is bothering me about having you audition for a play, if that’s something you want to do.” I’m like, “Sure.” So I would do a play with her every year at her community theater, and I just fell in love with it. When I was 12, there were really, really cute 16-year-old boys (laughs). I always loved to sing and that kind of thing, and I was really involved in it at my high school because of Mrs. Harvey.
I actually wanted to study physics or astronomy or something like that, but my parents sat me down in high school in my senior year and said, “Are you sure you don’t want to do theater?” I said, “You guys are not supposed to be saying that!” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That is unusual.
Kelli Giddish: Very unusual. So I was very supported. Every college performance I was in, my parents would come up to Indiana to see it. It’s just been a huge supportive family. Of course, without that, I couldn’t have moved to New York and made the $40 a night I did working at some restaurant without the moral and emotional support they offered like, “You can do this. You have to just believe in it.” I had the family backing me up to make sure I did believe in it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That’s really great. I'm old enough to remember you in All My Children. Was that your first break?
Kelli Giddish: Well, not even a year in New York, and I was in a Broadway play with Farrah Fawcett. I think that was my first really huge break working with a really big director. Then the next thing was All My Children. I was like, “Oh, God. I get to eat steak now!” I was so happy. Really, it’s a very fertile training ground for what I have come to do now. Working on a network TV show is just a grueling schedule, and I learned how to navigate that on the soap when I’m doing 90 pages a day of dialogue and all the stuff you have to memorize and really get it right on one take. It’s really a great training ground for what I’m doing now.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely. Did you audition for Dick Wolf for the role of Amanda Rollins in SVU?
Kelli Giddish: Yes, I did. I had a meeting with someone in the Dick Wolf Productions arena, and then they pulled me out to come screen test. I was living in Los Angeles at the time. I had just finished a show called Chase. It was on for a season, and I was the lead on that. It was such a great time, and I was figuring out what I wanted to do next. I got a call that Chris Meloni was leaving the show, and they were looking for maybe a male and a female to step in his shoes at Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I said, “Oh, that sounds pretty interesting.” I’d lived in New York, and I loved New York, so I came out here to screen test. I did the screen test with Mariska with Dick Wolf watching. Now, 11 seasons later, I can’t believe I’ve been on the show for 11 years!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Amanda is an interesting character with a few flaws, but I believe she has gotten stronger over the years.
Kelli Giddish: I think so.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: She has had her share of troubles with a gambling addiction and has had her hands full with her family, and oh, that sister (laughs). But in the South, we have the reputation of having that sister, right?
Kelli Giddish: (laughs) Exactly! I know people come up to me like, “Oh, your crazy sister!” I’m like, “Eh, that stuff is normal, isn’t it?” We all have one sister like that (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Then it came out that Amanda had been sexually assaulted. I imagine all of that is an actor’s dream character to play.
Kelli Giddish: That’s something I enjoy playing. It would be pretty boring if everything was easy-breezy. I’ve always told the head writers, “If you need to throw anybody under the bus, it better be me.” I like going from a place where you have to crawl your way back up, you know? Being on top is not the fun part. To play a character as an actor, you want to get into going, “Aw, shit!” Going from that place to going, “You know what? We’re good now.”
All of the relationships that have been cultivated on the show, whether it be with Fin or Carisi now or with Benson, I think they’re super, super earned, and it’s not like Amanda just came in and started being best friends with Benson. It’s been a rocky road. Now, to see two strong females like that really trust each other and really rely on each other has been a pleasure and really an honor to cultivate that relationship. Those scenes are what I look forward to most in doing the show now because there’s some magic that happens between me and Mariska, two strong women. It’s what makes the show exciting to work on.
Now, I’ve got this other thing with a great friend of mine, Peter. It’s just so strange for us to be romantic on the show. But I think we both realize how much it means to the fans and how much it means to our characters. It seems so organic and so right that we’re willing to go for it even though we’re very good friends in real life. I think it’s something that the fans really wanted to see, and to be able to actually show that in an organic way, especially with Rollins having been assaulted in her past, to see her with such a good guy and someone that cares about her so much is really an important thing to show our audience. Like, here’s a survivor of assault, and look at her now. There’s trust, there’s hope, there’s a deep, deep relationship if you can just keep going and believe it, believe in other people, believe in yourself and just keep going. I think it’s a very important thing to be showing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That kiss in the courthouse between Rollins and Carisi was quite steamy. Did it take a few takes?
Kelli Giddish: No. It didn’t take a lot of takes. I think we both have such a strong feeling about what it should be between them. I think it’s easy for us to know what it should be. It’s still awkward though. It’s almost like kissing your brother. It’s like, “Oh, jeez.” But it’s so important for us to honor that relationship. I think we’re willing to go past that and say, “Okay. This is such a great thing for these characters, for our audience and for the fans of the show.”
All the conversation around it is really exciting. The head writers are really excited about letting that be a facet of their relationship. We are treating it with respect and caution as to what it should be and what it shouldn’t be. It means a lot to us as people and also, it is so earned and so organic, we want to keep portraying that level of friendship and trust to the audience and let them see a great relationship.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I doubt it will stay a secret for long.
Kelli Giddish: I know (laughs). We’ll see.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: From all of the videos that Mariska posts on social media, it appears you guys just have a blast on the set together.
Kelli Giddish: We do. We do. We have a lot of fun. I was thinking that this morning when I was brushing my teeth. I was just thinking about the show, and we’re doing the 500th episode right now. I kept thinking to myself how much we laugh on set. Not that the end is in sight, but I just laugh a lot at work. We crack each other up. We challenge each other, and that’s something I really enjoy about our show.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Who’s the loudest and the funniest?
Kelli Giddish: Oh, Mariska, by far! Oh, God. She’s a ball of energy, and no one could understand how funny that lady is with what is actually portrayed on their TV because Benson's an empathetic, deeply concerned character. That’s who she is in real life, but the other facet to her personality is that she’s laughing all day every day.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Last season, there was a rumor on social media that you were leaving SVU. Did you hear about that?
Kelli Giddish: No. I didn’t. But I hope not! I’ve got house payments (laughs). That’s not an option right now. No. We’re having too much fun.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I must ask how Frannie Mae (the dog) is doing.
Kelli Giddish: Oh, she’s great. Thank you. She’s asleep on the couch right now. It’s been hard with COVID. She used to come with me every day to work. So she was kind of a set dog in the catering department (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How does she behave on set?
Kelli Giddish: They say she’s the most well-behaved actor that they’ve ever worked with. She’s so good. She’s much better than we are (laughs). She’ll speak when you tell her to speak. She’s amazing and much more well-trained and manageable than we are. But she’s great. Thank you for asking.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So you didn’t marry someone from the entertainment industry?
Kelli Giddish: No. I didn’t.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was that on purpose?
Kelli Giddish: Yeah, it is. I’ve actually recently been divorced, and I’m engaged again. So, I’m very excited.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Anyone I know?
Kelli Giddish: (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, congratulations, Kelli! Much happiness to you and yours.
Kelli Giddish: Thank you very much.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do your sons know what mommy does for a living?
Kelli Giddish: My sons know that people in the grocery store really like me (laughs). They’re like, “Okay. They want your picture.” My oldest son has his favorite TV shows, so I’m like, “Well, just imagine meeting the Red Ranger in the grocery store and how excited you would be.” He says, “Okay. Cool.” So the older one knows I play a cop on TV, and that’s about as much as he knows. But then he’s been to work and seen mommy’s work family.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you go back and visit family in Georgia often?
Kelli Giddish: My parents have a place in Florida now, too. They’re the best grandparents anybody could ask for. I really love spending time with them and my boys. Whenever we can all get some time off, we’ll spend a month together in the summer at the beach house. So they’re very important. I’m going back for a baby shower.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It appears that romance is in the air this season of SVU with Rollins and Carisi and Benson and Stabler.
Kelli Giddish: It seems that way.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How would you describe this season without getting fired by Dick Wolf?
Kelli Giddish: (laughs) Yeah. Well, you know, it’s awesome because with the sibling show, Law & Order: Organized Crime, Dick Wolf is really interested in opening up the world and intertwining both shows. That’s really exciting just to have all these possibilities that present themselves. We have Chris Meloni heading another show and see the storyline bounce back and forth. That’s a new thing they’re trying, and we’ll see how it goes this year. I’m really excited for Chris Meloni and his whole crew over there. I hope their show keeps gaining traction like it has been. People seem to love it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why do you think SVU, in particular, resonates so much with people and has amassed so many fans?
Kelli Giddish: Honestly, I think it all goes back to the fact that we all know someone that has been assaulted. It’s crazy how prevalent this kind of crime is. To see us put a show on every week where something happens, and we go from the beginning and a middle to the end where a lot of times we get the bad guy, that just gives the audience a satisfaction and a chance for hope and renewal. I really don’t feel like it’s just a standard procedural show because of the subject matter.
From the top down, I think that they really are invested. Our head writers, Julie Martin and Warren Leight, are very invested in getting the stories from the headlines and saying, “This is happening. Let’s shine a light on it.” Also, what would happen if the DNA came back in 20 seconds instead of two weeks? (laughs) Being able to play it out on an hour-long TV show and actually get the bad guy is satisfying. But there are gray areas.
I think we’re such a successful show because we deal with the gray areas where this side is right, and that side is right, and that’s a totally different case sometimes. But it’s not like a crime has been committed, and we know who the bad guy is, and let’s go get him kind of thing. A lot of times it’s gray like, “I don’t know who’s right here.” That’s another characteristic of our show. When that happens, it leaves you wondering like, “Huh.” It stays with you, and you kind of have to turn the subject matter over and over in your head, and it sticks with you.
I just know that the fans who come up to me, survivors or not and just say, “Thank you,” they mean it from the bottom of their hearts. That feels so good to be able to be on a show that they can watch with their grandmamas, their moms, their dads and their brothers. There are fans within families now, and it’s something they do together. They watch it together, or they catch a couple of shows on a Sunday marathon, and it’s a mainstay in people’s households now.
They know our characters. They’ve known Mariska and Ice for almost a quarter of a century. Even though they know that Ice is going to say his awesome one-liners, they still cry when Mariska shows another facet of her personality. It’s still effective. I think the characters are so beloved by people. We’re in people’s living rooms every week. They root for us, and that’s no small thing.
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