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Mariska Hargitay on Her Emotional Journey as Benson Faces Her Attacker on Law & Order: SVU: "Never Doubt Olivia"

Mariska Hargitay, Olivia Benson, Law & Order Michael Parmelee/NBC

Old wounds reopen on Law & Order: SVU when Detective Benson (Mariska Hargitay) faces her attacker, William Lewis (Pablo Schreiber) in court.

During the harrowing season 15 premiere of SVU, Lewis put Benson through the wringer—and that's putting it lightly. Benson escaped her captor and handed out a savage beating, after Lewis brutally attacked her for days. The two characters face off once again in "Psycho/Therapist," the Wednesday, Jan. 8, episode of Law and Order: SVU, billed as the final chapter in the "Save Benson" saga. And this time they're in a court of law.

Hargitay told E! News it was important to show Benson facing her attacker in court.

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"[A] lot of time people sort of put Benson up on a pedestal, right? Because they think she's so strong, 'I wish I could be like that.' A lot of this is sort of Joyful Heart-induced and I always say, 'She's not so strong.' We can't define ourselves by an event. That's something that happened to you," Hargitay said backstage at NBC's Today.

This season, Benson became a survivor; she's just like the women she's spent 15 years helping.

"I think it was important for her to face him again because she can, and victims, I feel, need to sometimes be reminded of their own inner strength. That's what I wanted to do," she said. "Yes, it's a struggle. I couldn't take any of the advice I've been giving people all these years because it's different once you're in it and it just shows how hard it is and how courageous she is. But that's what I love about her, it's not that it's not hard, it's that we feel the fear and we do it anyway and we fight through. And she is a fighter, even at all odds. He was in her head; she didn't know that she could do it. Plus, she's battling a moral issue, which is she's under oath, that's her badge. It's her honor. For me, I found the story so compelling, I thought it was even better than the season premiere."

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Hargitay said in some ways, the courtroom scenes were harder to shoot than the torture scenes from the premiere episode.

"I couldn't sleep before the night we shot the courtroom scene. I was so scared. Scared as an actor, just hoping it was going to be good, and then scared because I knew where I had to go," she said. "It was like double, you're scared because you want it to be good because the premiere was so good and I wanted to make it as raw and truthful and frightening and nuanced on different levels as it was."

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Mariska Hargitay, Pablo Schreiber, Olivia Benson, Law & Order Michael Parmelee/NBC

After going to such difficult places, Hargitay said it's hard to decompress after filming such intense scenes. "You know, sometimes you decompress from doing it so many times. You saw what happened. He was crying and I did takes where I was hysterically crying. You get so exhausted. You just have nothing left. But in that way it's like wringing out the washcloth. 'I gave it my all.' You can walk away with pride because it's a mountain," Hargitay said. She called her experience during season 15 of SVU a defining moment of her career. "[Y]ou go, 'I love acting. I'm thriving right now in this place, with these people, with Warren [Leight] and Julie [Martin] and these writers—and Peter Blauner—and this acting team, and these directors—I just feel so grateful. Is it exhausting? Yes. Is it soul and gut wrenching and devastating? Sure, and the other side is thrilling and I could not be happier."

Hargitay has been a journey with Detective Olivia Benson, this year perhaps more than others. She's started the Joyful Heart Foundation with a mission to stop sexual assault and domestic violence and educate people. You can say she's learned a lot during her time on SVU.

"A lot of times I think about what Olivia faces, and as an actor you play the 'What if?' game. You say 'What if? What if this happened to me?' I always think—the first thing I think is, 'I could never survive,' but I think that we have that thing in us, I think that's the goal to survive," she said. "Olivia does what she needs to do in this episode and it is so hard. You feel like you're getting your fingernails ripped off, that's how I felt during the scene."

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Mariska Hargitay, Pablo Schreiber, Olivia Benson, Law & Order Michael Parmelee/NBC

The Emmy-winning actress said she was "extremely" pleased with how the episode turned out. "It was one of the best shows," she said. "I've always wanted to do a play, and I want to do a play with Warren and I felt like he wrote me a play. A lot of scenes were two-handers. It was Pablo and me, and me and Raul [Esparza]...There were all these great scenes. You know, sometimes with all the squad room scenes, they're hard to sink your teeth into. You've got six people and everyone has a line or two, but it's not like acting. It's not like having a human experience, but this was like living a double life. I think the writing was exhilarating for me...As an actor you just come to life, like a horse coming out of a gate. You think this is what god made me to do. This is what I'm supposed to do."

She has a message for fans before they sink their teeth into the latest part of the "Save Benson" saga.

"I want them to know what they already feel, never doubt Olivia and never doubt yourself."

Be sure to check E! Online later tonight for more from Hargitay including what's next for Benson.

Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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