It warns viewers upfront, before the credits: The crimes on this show are considered especially heinous. Yet, in telling these sensitive stories — mostly of women falling prey to sexual violence — Law & Order: Special Victims Unit manages to educate as it entertains, to be emotionally gripping even as it deals with the gruesome. That balance has led this daring series to unmatched success: In this, its 21st season, SVU becomes TV’s longest-running prime-time drama (displacing Gunsmoke, which had held the record since 1975).
In honor of the milestone, PEOPLE is publishing a special edition, Law & Order: SVU, featuring new interviews with Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, Kelli Giddish, Christopher Meloni, show creator Dick Wolf, and more.
Here, in an exclusive excerpt, Hargitay reflects on her 21-year journey with Olivia Benson, who has risen from detective to sergeant to lieutenant and, now, boss of the Precinct 16 squad room.
PEOPLE: Is it fair to say you identify with your character?
MARISKA HARGITAY: I felt so deeply connected to Olivia Benson from the second I read [the script]. And yet as actors, we’ve seen so many projects come and go and not move forward. I think that the best way to describe it is: Even if I had been wildly, recklessly optimistic about the future, I couldn’t have ever dreamed that we’d be here in this moment in television history.
Do you remember your audition?
Like it was yesterday. I had just finished a 13-episode arc on ER. I remember actually saying, “Oh God, I’ve been on the best show on television, where am I going to go? There’s always one place for me, and that’s Law & Order.” I said that. Maybe I am a little psychic. Then this audition came, and it was like lightning in a bottle. I met Chris Meloni. I just knew that he was Stabler.
Christopher Meloni played Det. Elliot Stabler for 12 years before leaving in 2011 — and the two of you are friends. Does reuniting your characters ever come up in conversation?
I can’t tell you that; I’m taking the Fifth! There have been conversations, many a conversation.
You’ve achieved a lot of what you set out to do on SVU. Do you foresee a day when there are no more stories to tell?
I hope it doesn’t go on forever. I hope that one day we’ll go, “Wait, what? This doesn’t happen.” That this kind of sexual violence goes away, physical and sexual violence. But right now I am still staggered by how many people come up to me and say, “Your show changed my life. Your show is the reason that I reported. Your show is the reason I didn’t wash off the DNA.” That is the most gratifying part of my job.
PEOPLE’s new special edition Law & Order: SVU, featuring the cast favorites and the most shocking of all 470 episodes, is available now on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.