Mariska Hargitay Is Looking Forward to Season 21 of' Law & Order: SVU' : 'I Feel So Newly Challenged'

"I feel so newly challenged and inspired and excited, which just surprises me," says Mariska Hargitay

When Law & Order: SVU returns for a 21st season next fall, it will officially become the longest-running drama in TV history. But for Mariska Hargitay, who has starred as Lieutenant Olivia Benson since season 1, the real breakthrough dates back several years.

After her longtime costar Christopher Meloni left in season 12, Hargitay says she grappled with whether she still felt truly committed to continuing with the show.

“I did a lot of soul-searching of whether I wanted to go on,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I was on my way to being at peace to be done.”

But a revitalized season 17 and continued opportunities to direct and produce episodes led her to a recharged sense of purpose.

“I feel so newly challenged and inspired and excited, which just surprises me,” says Hargitay, 55, of season 21. “I can’t believe how much I care now.”

  • For more on Mariska Hargitay and Peter Hermann, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
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Although she’s starred on the series for two decades, Hargitay admits that she is “still learning on the show.”

“It is so challenging to me. People think, Okay, you’ve done it. And yes, there are scenes where I’m like, ‘I’ve done this scene. I’ve done this scene 5,000 times and I can do it in my sleep and in Chinese.’ And then there’s something else, or another moment where I go, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ And I get so happy of how nervous I am,” says Hargitay.

She adds: “But with all the new things that I’ve learned, I go, ‘I can’t leave the show.’ I’m learning how to direct, I’m learning how to executive produce, I’m learning how to produce-produce. I’m learning about the puzzle of putting things together and weather and actor availability.”

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Cliff Watts

Says Hargitay, “All of a sudden, in a time when you think we’ve done it all, I should be like, ‘Bring her back to the barn, baby.’ I am so invigorated by the unknown. I’m as invested as [SVU creator] Dick Wolf in the milestone. But newly, for some reason.”

Of course, the star has long shown her deep-rooted dedication, as demonstrated through her Joyful Heart Foundation for abuse survivors and in her much-lauded documentary, I Am Evidence, about the rape-kit backlog.

With a few months before SVU resumes filming, Hargitay is keeping busy with another passion project: the documentary Emanuel about the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The film will be available in limited release on June 17 and 19.

Mariska Hartigay and Peter Hermann
Cliff Watts

With a work ethic that her husband Peter Hermann marvels at (“Every day you go in and swing for the fences,” he says), Hargitay has no intention of slowing down.

“We all face walls that can stop us. But it’s empowering to say, Nah. No wall,” she says. “Whether I have to climb over it or smash it down, I’m going to keep going.”

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