Mariska Hargitay Wants to Stay With 'SVU' Beyond Its Milestone 21st Season

Dick Wolf Mariska Hargitay Bob Greenblatt - Publicity - H 2018
Brian To/Paley Center for Media

When Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returns to NBC in the fall for its 20th season, the procedural will reach an important milestone: tying Gunsmoke and the mothership Law & Order as TV's longest-running primetime drama.

Going for the record season 21 (during the 2019-20 broadcast season) is an understandable priority for the team. But if longtime series star Mariska Hargitay has her way, the Dick Wolf drama could continue long beyond that.

"The joke with [then-showrunner] Warren Leight and I was season 16 was good, and we said season 17, we’re going to phone it in," Hargitay said Monday at a Paley Center panel honoring SVU. "That was our schtick on set, because we were so exhausted. And then season 17, we killed it. And then season 18 … we had a wobbly year. But season 19, I was like, 'I'm sorry, did anyone see the show?' [New showrunner Michael] Chernuchin, every single episode, he outdoes himself."

"I'm in it for the long haul," she continued. "I said, 'You keep writing like this, I'll stay for 25 years.' Why would I leave? I’m so grateful." The network, for its part, seems equally committed. NBC Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt — who moderated the conversation between Hargitay and L&O mastermind Wolf — said they are looking to continue the show as long as Hargitay, who has been with the series since the pilot, stays on.

Hargitay credits Chernuchin’s desire to collaborate as one of the things that has her excited for the future. "This fucking guy is such a genius, and he listened to everything I said," she said. "Our writers are so brilliant, and they usually have their own ideas. But he said, 'This is my idea, but what do you want to do?' I said, 'I want to go into what it is like for a woman, like myself, who has three children, and that [difficult work-life balance].' I have three children. Let me tell you something: It costs me every day. Do I quit the show, do I take my kid to school? What do I do? Either way I lose. And only working women understand that."

SVU also took big swings in season 19 — from the two-part season finale that followed a rape victim’s confrontation with her abuser and the subsequent aftermath to "Something Happened," as Hargitay’s Benson opened up to a possible victim in order get information about a crime. "Every show is different," she said. "And ['Something Happened'] was like I did a play! I’m on a show for 20 years and now I’m doing theater. And I get to change my cast and work with the best actors. I’m so happy I can’t see straight."

The series' creative resurgence also comes as sexual assault and harassment has become a more widely discussed problem. "I think Dick is a pioneer at bringing these issues to the forefront," an emotional Hargitay said. "The issue had been swept under the carpet, and the fact is from every angle, it is a show that respects its audience. We created a show that makes these issues palatable and these characters we can trust that can usher you through the most sensitive, tender, delicate places in our souls. And i am so honored to be that person who does that for people."

"When I started to play this part, I said, 'I don’t want to be a female in a man’s world,'" she continued. "I said, 'I'm going to do it the way I would do it, with all of myself. With all of my badassness and empathy and vulnerability and power and really standing in it.' This has been a beautiful journey for me personally, professionally. I always say compassion and vulnerability are Olivia Benson’s superpower. That's the message I personally want to give to the world, because that's what we need more of.”

How long do you hope SVU continues for?