Jennifer Love Hewitt

On Wednesday's episode of Law & Order: SVU, Jennifer Love Hewitt guest-stars as Vicki, a woman who has been repeatedly raped by the same man for more than a decade.

Hewitt says the role is like nothing she has done before: raw and stripped-down. "Looks-wise, wardrobe-wise, hair-wise, makeup-wise ... [I had to] take everything off and be something that I've never been before. [It] really allowed me emotionally and physically and mentally to go to a different place," she says.

SVU's Neal Baer says premiere was inspired by Vertigo

Over the course of the hour, which is titled "Behave," Detective Benson (Mariska Hargitay) learns that because of an administrative backlog, thousands of rape kits each year never see the inside of a lab.

While many episodes of Law & Order: SVU touch on real stories, "Behave" hits close to home for Hargitay. In 2004, the actress founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, which aims to help rape survivors heal and reclaim their lives. She recently testified in front of Congress about the rape-kit backlog.

SVU executive producer Neal Baer says he was inspired to do the episode after hearing the testimony of victims at a Joyful Heart fundraiser. "One of the stories was about how they weren't opening the kits. This guy was out there and he would have been stopped years before. I leaned over and whispered to one of our writers and said, 'This is it,'" he recalls.

SVU's Mariska Hargitay helps trauma survivors on-screen and off

Hewitt hopes that her portrayal bolsters the message by putting a face to it. "It's showing you what this issue can do to someone," the 31-year-old says. "And it's hopefully making [people] feel it... it's a gift that we get to be able to tell those stories. And it's a duty to tell them."

Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesday at 9/8c on NBC.