Kelli Giddish Is 'Overwhelmed' by 'SVU' Fans' Support After Her Exit, Says Her Tears on Screen Were Real

After 12 seasons on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the actress opens up to PEOPLE about her off-screen bond with star Mariska Hargitay and says "the door is never closed" for a return

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- "If I Knew Then What I Know Now" Episode 23013 -- Pictured: (l-r) Peter Scanavino as Assistant District Attorney Sonny Carisi, Kelli Giddish as Detective Amanda Rollins
Photo: Zach Dilgard/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Kelli Giddish is finding the good in her big goodbye.

After the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit turned in her badge as Detective Amanda Rollins on Thursday night, she's reflecting on the positive memories from her 12 seasons on the NBC hit.

"It's funny because, after last night's show, it does feel more final now. I didn't expect today to feel that way," Giddish, 42, tells PEOPLE. "Now it's over and everyone's seen it. Everyone's gotten to experience it and feel all the feels that I felt, filming that last scene with Mariska."

The final moment of the midseason finale, "And a Trauma in a Pear Tree," saw Rollins and Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) embracing in Benson's office after she came to terms with Rollins' departure from the squad.

"You're not losing me. We're friends. That's not gonna change. I'm not gonna disappear," Rollins reassured Benson.

"I wouldn't let you if you tried," replied Benson.

"Don't postpone joy," Benson added, before saying, "I love you, Amanda."

Life, it seems, does imitate art, as Giddish reveals the on-screen tears between her and Hargitay, 58, weren't just for show.

"Of course [they were real]," she says. "Of course."

When audiences first met Rollins in season 13 of SVU, she was a Georgia-transplant to New York City, trying desperately to learn from Benson — who was still grieving the loss of her partner, Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni).

Fast forward more than a decade, and Rollins ultimately became Benson's best friend. Those 12 years have meant a lot to the two women off screen too.

"That relationship really developed organically over time into such a strong female relationship. And it wasn't like I came on the show 12 years ago and we were like, 'Hey, I'm going to be your best buddy,'" Giddish recalls. "It wasn't that. Every step of the way was earned, every hardship and every step back, Rollins had to fight her way back into being trusted again. So it was really fun to play and it kind of mirrors mine and Mariska's relationship in real life."

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- "And A Trauma In A Pear Tree" Episode 24009 -- Pictured: (l-r) Mariska Hargitay as Captain Olivia Benson, Jesse Lehman as Ray Sprague, Kelli Giddish as Detective Amanda Rollins -- (Photo by: Scott Gries/NBC)
Scott Gries/NBC

"On the show we're single mothers, but in real life, we're mothers to a few kids between us, and living in New York and raising them as working moms. The TV schedule is not glamorous," she adds. "We work pretty hard, so every moment that we get with the kids is full-blown and full-tilt."

Rollins' final episode also saw her wed former partner–turned–Assistant District Attorney Dominick "Sonny" Carisi (Peter Scanavino) in a courthouse ceremony attended by witnesses Benson, Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) and Joe Velasco (Octavio Pisano).

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- "And A Trauma In A Pear Tree" Episode 24009 -- Pictured: (l-r) Peter Scanavino as A.D.A Sonny Carisi, Octavio Pisano as Det. Joe Velasco, Kelli Giddish as Detective Amanda Rollins, Mariska Hargitay as Captain Olivia Benson, Ice T as Sgt. Odafin "Fin" Tutuola
Scott Gries/NBC

"I thought it was so simple and so beautiful and so fitting for, not only Rollins and Carisi, but also for me and Peter Scanavino," says Giddish. "We're very simple and very toned-down, so to have three people at the wedding, four people including the judge, seemed just absolutely right."

She adds, "And I think I tried on three wedding dresses, and the one that I wore was the first one I tried on. That's very me."

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- "And A Trauma In A Pear Tree" Episode 24009 -- Pictured: Kelli Giddish as Det. Amanda Rollins
Scott Gries/NBC

The wide-ranging reaction to Giddish's departure from the show included various concerns about her character's future from fans, all of which Giddish validated.

"I was so surprised by the reaction. I was overwhelmed and I was like, 'Wow.' She means a lot to so many people, and their reasons were pretty right on," she says. "They were going to miss, not only the Carisi-Rollins thing, but also Benson and Rollins. I think the fans were right in saying, 'Wait, what's going to happen there too? What about Benson?'"

Hargitay paid tribute to Giddish on Instagram shortly after the episode aired Thursday night, writing, "Kelli, I've loved acting, learning, growing, talking, laughing and crying with you. I've loved watching your achingly beautiful performances. I've loved watching our friendship deepen and grow and blossom. I've loved every single minute of it, and I will miss you so much. You have my respect, my gratitude and my love forever. xo M".

In 12 years, Giddish cites the daily "camaraderie" that she shared with her costars as part of what she loved most about her job, noting that even when on summer hiatus, she found herself yearning for the joy her colleagues brought her.

"I miss laughing like that," Giddish reflects. "So now, those memories are super solidified in my heart, and I cherish them so much."

Of her particular relationship with Hargitay, Giddish speaks fondly of "just the day in and day out, the, 'Here's what's going on with my kid. What did you do when this happened with your kid?' Or, 'Have you seen that play? How do we get out of work so we can go see that play?'"

And, while her sons Ludo, 7, and Charlie, 4, were busy getting dressed in costume on Halloween (when this week's episode filmed), Giddish found herself amid her final day on set, noting she, "didn't want a party or fanfare, 'cause I would just lose it and it would be a mess."

So, when the directors yelled "Cut!" Giddish thanked the crew, and she headed home.

"I am very good at living in the present," she explains. "So I left and raced home so that I could trick or treat with my kids."

As for what's next, Giddish is enjoying her not-so-down time: "I am busier now than when I was shooting, I swear!"

And, one perk of no longer having to potentially rough-house with perps as part of her job: "I get to paint my nails now, so I've gotten to go to the nail salon a couple of times."

She also recently celebrated her one-year anniversary with husband Beau.

"We went and got a 3 lb. steak and ate it together!" she says. "It was really, really beautiful. We got married in New Orleans, so at some point, we want to go back there and actually celebrate an anniversary there. But this first one was like, 'Wow. What a year.'"

Giddish also hopes to one day return to theater acting (which she thought she would do when she first moved to New York at 22) though, she notes the Law & Order fans have encouraged her to keep an open mind when it comes to possibly returning to the franchise.

"The fans' reaction has spurred me on to making maybe that even more of an open possibility. So the fans really do have a say in how you feel about things. The door is never closed, it feels like, in the Dick Wolf world," she says.

In the meantime, as Rollins moves on to teaching and wedded bliss (when Carisi isn't busy in the ADA's office), Giddish has one final message for her fans.

"I would love to say thank you. And all the things last night that I read, I tried to post something on Twitter that encapsulated my feelings about it, but it was all these mashups. I was like, 'God, you guys are making me weepy.'"

"It was like seeing the last 12 years of your life all put together in such a nice way. These fans can do much more with pictures than I ever dreamed of, so thank you, very much."

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Giddish's final episode can be streamed now on the Peacock app ahead of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit's return on Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.

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