It's 19 years later and Mariska Hargitay is still wearing the gun and badge, championing survivors as Lt. Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU. And she wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's deeply in me. I was just saying the other day, I don't know any more where Mariska ends and Olivia starts. They're just becoming so enmeshed and entwined, and I think that's a good thing," Hargitay told E! News on set of SVU. "You know what? Nineteen years later and I'm finding myself deeply inspired and committed and finding new places to go and challenged. I want to be challenged. As long as that's happening, I'm very happy and very fulfilled."
Law & Order: SVU, currently the longest running drama on TV, returns for its 19th season on Wednesday, Sept. 27 and shows no signs of slowing down. There's a dedicated and passionate fan base for the elite squad of detectives known as the Special Victims Unit. The show clearly means a lot to fans—and the stars.
"It truly gets more fulfilling for me every year because I get to be a part of more of it," Hargitay said, referring to her director and executive producer duties. "All these years I spent watching and learning—it feels pretty exciting to give back and have a bigger say on things."
Ice-T, who joined the show at the end of season one, said he's proud of the show's run. "TV is very fickle. You can be on the show and it will go away. It could supposedly be the greatest show, but it just doesn't last. There's a reason—and the only reason the show stays on is numbers. People are watching it…To have a fan base that kept us on for 19 years, you've got to be proud," he said.
Still, 19 years is a long time to come into living rooms as one character. For some actors it's a struggle to come to terms with the fact they will be forever tied to one character in audience's eyes. That was never the case with Hargitay.
"That sort of happened by choice," she told us. "Look, the character has taught me so much and obviously changed my life and…was the impetus for The Joyful Heart Foundation and has completely taken my life in a different direction, an extremely fulfilling one…No, it's been nothing but a privilege to play her."
Click play on the video above to hear more from Hargitay, Ice, Brooke Shields, Raul Esparza, Kelli Giddish and Peter Scanavino.
Law & Order: SVU season 19 premieres Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on NBC.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)