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3 YEARS

'Law & Order: SVU's' Mariska Hargitay: Chris Meloni's Exit Opened the Door for Romance

The actress tells reporters that without Elliot Stabler's departure, that was the only way she would have a relationship: "There was no room for a man in her life because of their connection."

Law & Order SVU Occupy - H 2012
"Law & Order: SVU's" Mariska Hargitay and Danny Pino

Mariska Hargitay touted the new and different vibe on NBC's Law & Order: SVU, noting that the departure of her longtime partner, Chris Meloni's Detective Elliot Stabler, opened up a new world for Olivia Benson.

"With Elliot Stabler's departure, that was the only way she could have a relationship," the actress told reporters Wednesday during NBC's Summer Press Day in Pasadena. "There was no room for a man in her life because of their connection."

Meloni departed the veteran procedural after its 12th season, following prolonged contract talks with the network. In his absence, the Dick Wolf drama added a plethora of new characters, including love interests for Hargitay's Benson played Harry Connick Jr. and Andre Braugher.

STORY: 'Law & Order: SVU': Harry Connick Jr. Joins in Multiepisode Arc

"It's a new show to me, it's very different," she says. "I was very nervous going into the season; Chris and I started and were extremely close and had amazing chemistry which was a gift."

The actress says the new dynamic created with the additions ofDanny Pino andKelli Giddish to join the cast along with returning stars Stephanie March andDiane Neal also returned to the show this season.

"This new cast came on and I had no idea what to expect -- and we had a new showrunner," she told reporters. "The show this year is awesome and different and has gone into different areas and I get to play different things; my own story of having a boyfriend after 13 years … my character has gone on this unbelievable personal journey that is both reflected in her persona life and the story lines. [New showrunner] Warren Leight has done wonderful job of marrying, carving out and excavating a different part of somebody after 13 years and that's impressive."

STORY: 'Law & Order: SVU' Showrunner Warren Leight on the Cast Shake-Up and His Approach to the Series

Part of that journey, Hargitay said, was that Olivia has approached things from a different point of view, looking more internally than outwardly to find solutions to issues both personal and professional.

"Olivia, 13 years ago, was a different person; she was a rookie cop with a lot of passion and a need for justice and need to fix her past," she said. "She's developed and grown into a lioness who didn't just want justice but needed it. … The show has made me a very strong woman."

Law & Order: SVUairs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit