Twenty seasons. Mariska Hargitay has played Olivia Benson for 20 seasons of Law & Order: SVU. The NBC drama is now tied with the original Law & Order and Gunsmoke as the longest-running scripted live-action series, and Hargitay has been there since the start. It's a momentous accomplishment, one the Emmy-winning actress is reflecting on.
"It's just been amazing and a gift," Hargitay told E! News. "And for me, especially, so fresh. We've talked about this a little bit before, that I've been on the same show for 20 years and yet I feel like with all the cast changes, I keep getting to be on a new show with new energies and all these new, all these amazing actors. It has been an unspeakable gift and really hard to describe, and I'm just proudly grateful. It's been nothing but a privilege."
Those cast changed Hargitay referenced recently included the addition of Philip Winchester to the series as ADA Peter Stone. Winchester played the character originally on Chicago Justice and was brought in, replacing Raúl Esparza's ADA Rafael Barba. "I was terrified to come in," Winchester told us. "Because the show is 20 years old, because the legacy it had." But series stars Ice-T, Kelli Giddish, Peter Scanavino and Hargitay welcomed him and encouraged him to be himself and take risks. It's something that's done with new guest stars too, he said, including those with parts on TV for the first time.
"You see it on camera and you see it in the stories," he said.
Season 20 of the series will feature Stone and Benson finally getting to know and trust one another. "People always say, ‘How do you keep the show fresh?' You keep the show fresh with these different energies," Hargitay said about SVU's new ADA. "With these different things to play, they're different keys on the keyboard that you get to hit that you haven't had to hit before, and that has been so fun. That's the beauty and the brilliance of the writing…"
This year will also see Hargitay's Benson tackle her physical limitations. She's been on the job for 20 years, she's not fresh out of the police academy.
"[SVU showrunner Michael Chernuchin] is such an incredible collaborator, so when he came on we talked about where the show should go. And after 20 years, you sort of have to figure out, ‘What haven't we done,' right? One of the things I wanted to do as we I've moved up into this leadership and commanding officer, I sort of wanted to look at my physical limitations and really go into that because Olivia Benson does think and model herself after Wonder Woman," she said. "She does think that she doesn't have limitations and she's superlative in every way because her ferocity and need and appetite for justice is so profound that she will—and has—stopped at nothing. That mama bear ferocity, whether it's her kid or survivor, she will get it done. I thought it would be interesting as we age to sort of acknowledge and honor the fact that there are physical limitations."
Law & Order: SVU season 20 premieres Thursday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on NBC. Be sure to come back to E! News for more SVU scoop.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)