"The fans never moved on — and I think that is just so incredibly beautiful and so incredibly powerful," Mariska Hargitay tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story

By Kate Coyne and Ally Mauch
February 24, 2021 03:30 PM
Advertisement

For the first 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni were the face of the popular crime drama as detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler.

So when Meloni, 59, abruptly left the show in 2011 after contract negotiations fell apart, Hargitay, 57, says she was "devastated."

"I was just so sad, because we started this thing and built it together," she tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story. "And we went through so many milestones and spent so much time together and understood so many things that nobody else could understand."

For more on Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni's cover story, listen below to the episode of PEOPLE Every Day!

"I had to do so many mental gymnastics and sort of do a reinvention in my own mind, which of course turned out to be a gift, as any sort of growth is. But I was scared; I was sad," adds the actress, who has continued playing Benson on SVU — now the longest-running drama series in TV history.

For more on Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni's friendship, pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

3/8/21 cover
Credit: Ruven Afanador

Meloni says he saw things differently, though. "She was left in the familiarity of what we were. And I'm sure there were echoes, constant reminders, everywhere," he says. "But for me, it was about how things fell out—and the word I'll use is that it was inelegant."

"At the end of the day, how it was handled was, 'Okay, see you later.' So I went, 'That's fine. We're all big boys and girls here. See you later.' And I was off on new adventures and doing what I wanted to do. Telling the stories I wanted to tell," adds Meloni, who went on to appear in numerous TV series, including True Blood and The Handmaid's Tale, as well as several films, like Man of Steel and Snatched.

"I couldn't have been happier. But she and I," he insists, "we stayed connected."

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

Though both actors moved forward and remained close as ever, Hargitay notes that fans of SVU "never moved on" after Stabler left — leaving the door open for the character's upcoming new spinoff, Law & Order: Organized Crime.

"In television, when somebody leaves, obviously there's a grieving period, but the fans never moved on," Hargitay says. "And I think that is just so incredibly beautiful and so incredibly powerful."

The two will first reunite onscreen for an episode of SVU, airing right before the premiere of Organized Crime on April 1. And according to Hargitay, the moment was "so emotional."

"It was this thing that I had really dreamed about," she adds.

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni on PeopleTV.com or on the PeopleTV app.

mariska hargitay and chris meloni
Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay
| Credit: Ruven Afanador
mariska hargitay and chris meloni
Credit: Ruven Afanador

Their onscreen connection came right back, too, Meloni says: "It was Pavlovian: Ring that bell, and you get right into Stabler and Benson."

"There was so much shorthand between us, which all goes back to the trust we have," Hargitay says. "He's always made me feel like I could just jump off the ledge, the cliff, the bridge, and he would catch me, in so many ways, whether it was comedy or acting or friendship."