Christopher Meloni is reprising his role as Elliot Stabler for his new spinoff, Law & Order: Organized Crime

Nearly 8 million fans tuned into Christopher Meloni's return to the Law & Order franchise last week — a turnout the actor said he was "not prepared" for. 

Meloni, 60, has recently reprised his role as Elliot Stabler for his new spinoff, Organized Crime. He previously played Stabler on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit alongside Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson for 12 seasons until his departure in 2011. 

During a Wednesday press conference promoting the new show, Meloni recalled checking in with Hargitay, 57, after he made his return during the SVU and Organized Crime crossover event last Thursday.

"Mariska and I have talked, and the conversation went something basically like this: 'Wow.' 'Congratulations.' 'Congratulations to you,'" he told PEOPLE of his former costar, who has continued playing Benson for all 22 seasons of SVU. 

Christopher Meloni
Christopher Meloni as Elliot Stabler

"It was pretty overwhelming," Meloni added of the positive fan reaction. "I think [Hargitay] was expecting it more than I was, because I think she's been in the Law and Order stew, she's been in that world continuously for the 20 years. I was not prepared. It's overwhelming and it's wonderful and it's very appreciated." 

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The star went on to say that after a decade away, he feels "less pressure" playing Stabler than he did when he was cast by Law & Order creator Dick Wolf. 

"This time around, I think the pressure's off," he said. "I feel less pressure than I did when Dick first tasked me with being Elliot Stabler. So I'm a little freer to appreciate everything. It's a nice journey." 

Christopher Meloni
Mariska Hargitay and Christoper Meloni in Law & Order: SVU
| Credit: NBCU Photo Bank

Meloni also told reporters that when he left SVU, he didn't look back — and he rarely tuned into the show during his 10-year Law & Order hiatus.

"My thinking was, 'Time to go,'" he said of his departure. "So I went and I don't tend to look back, so I didn't. And, you know, my journey has been fantastic and very fulfilling." 

"I must admit I have maybe watched 10 minutes," he added of the show. "I'm not much of a TV watcher, so it wasn't anything personal!" 

Law & Order: Organized Crime airs Thursdays (10 p.m. ET) on NBC.