In 1999, when Mariska Hargitay‘s agents first sent her the script for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, “I remember them saying, ‘I don’t think you’re going to like it. It’s very dark,'” the actress recently revealed at Tribeca TV Festival’s Law & Order: SVU 20th Anniversary Celebration. 

But the role of sex crimes detective Olivia Benson, “went straight to my heart and soul,” said Mariska, who has won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the tough-but-sensitive cop. “To tell these stories has been nothing but a privilege and a gift.”

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As it begins its 20th season on NBC, the show remains as compelling — and relevant — as ever. “You couldn’t make up what’s in the news today,” series creator Dick Wolf said. “And it’s a terrific group of actors.” Now a producer on the show, Mariska shared, “I feel so grateful that we brought something that has been traditionally swept under the carpet to the watercooler.” Keep reading to uncover more SVU show secrets!

The Guest Stars

Martin Short as a psychic perp? Brad Garrett as a crooked corrections officer? Carol Burnett as a… serial killer?! Throughout its run, SVU has booked a wide range of A-list guest stars, and many of them nabbed Emmy nods for their roles. So who are some of the cast’s favorites? 

“For me it was Jerry Lewis, because I grew up watching his movies,” said Ice T (Detective Fin Tutuola). “And Carrie Ann Moss from The Matrix. Me and Philip [Winchester, aka A.D.A. Peter Stone] were like, ‘Yes!'” There’s still one actor on Ice’s wish list, though. “Brad Pitt,” he exclusively told Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “And that’s greedy because I just want to meet him. He’s my favorite actor!” 

jerry on the set of 'law and order: special victims unit.' (photo credit: getty images)

Jerry on the set of ‘Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.’ (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

As for Mariska, “my favorite guest star right now is Dylan Walsh,” she said about the actor who’ll have a recurring role in the new season. “He’s so amazing.” Peter Scanavino (Detective Dominick Carisi) seconded that thought: “I love Dylan. He’s one of those guys who when you’re acting with him it seems so simple — you’re not picking up on how good it actually is.”

The Laughs

Despite the show’s dark subject matter, everyone keeps things light on the set. “People would be shocked by how much laughing there is between takes,” said Peter. “There’s a lot of joking around and making fun of each other. Ice always says when we have guests on, ‘You know this is a comedy, right?'” And when it comes to behind-the-scenes hijinks, Peter is Philip’s go-to buddy. “We have the same sense of humor,” Philip told Closer. “We can be really goofy.”

There are some episodes “where I laughed halfway through making it,” said Ice. “You gotta understand, we’re interviewing these little girls and they’re crying and then the director calls ‘cut’ and they get on their phone and start texting. So what the audience sees, with the music and everything, is scary as hell. But it’s different for us actors.”

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The Perks

Mariska, 54, met her husband, Peter Hermann, 51, on the SVU set in 2001 (he has a recurring role as defense attorney Trevor Langan) — and she gets plenty of offscreen love from New York’s Finest, too. 

“My nephew was playing in the US Open juniors and Peter and I were running so late,” she recalled. “It was really bad traffic and all of a sudden this white [police] van comes pulling up. They said, ‘Get in, Olivia!’ and they took us right to the front door. I couldn’t believe it!” 

Peter Scanavino discovered the perks of playing a detective early on when a starstruck cop let him out of a speeding ticket — on the condition he sign an autograph. “I turned to my wife and was like, ‘This is amazing!'” he recalled. Added Ice T, “When I’m out in the streets people love me because I’m on the show.”

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For more on ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,’ pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter!