Paget Brewster

Paget Brewster knows her guest-starring gig on Law & Order: SVU might be met with a few raised eyebrows from Criminal Minds fans.

She just doesn't care.

"Yeah, people do think it's similar and that's OK. I'm 43 now. I've reached the point where I really can't care what anyone thinks," Brewster tells TVGuide.com. "Of course, I do. I'm an actress. I'm totally insecure, but I'm trying to stick to my guns about what is important to me and it doesn't matter what anyone thinks I should or shouldn't do."

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After logging six seasons as Agent Emily Prentiss on the CBS series — and just one season after returning to the show full-time (more on that later) — Brewster announced in February that she would exit the series at the end of Season 7 when her contract was up. "I told my agent and manager, 'Listen, tell me everything that you hear about, but basically I want to do comedy." So when she expressed interest in the offer from SVU, "They called me and they said, 'Are you sure you want to do a law enforcement show?' I asked, 'Do I have scenes with Mariska [Hargitay]?' They said, 'Most of your scenes are with Mariska.' I said, 'I want it. I totally want it.'"

In the two-hour season premiere (Wednesday at 9/8c on NBC), Brewster plays Paula Foster, the head of the District Attorney's public integrity unit, who is tasked with figuring out how that dead hooker ended up in the bed of Benson's beloved boss, Capt. Cragen (Dann Florek).  Although the relationship between Benson and Foster is initially hostile, their bond becomes much more complex. "They're sharing information and then, of course, you find out later what becomes of that," Brewster says. "I did very much like the idea of these two strong women in this arena having a meeting of the minds and coming together to facilitate the paths they are each on. Instead of being antagonistic or woman against woman, it's the opposite."

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Although this wasn't Brewster's first time around the SVU block — she first played a suspect's estranged daughter back in 2007 — she calls this role an "overwhelming" experience. "It was intimidating and challenging and I was afraid that I would do a bad job and it was a character I've never played before. That was exactly the terrifying, exciting learning experience that I wanted when I left Criminal Minds," she says. "I'm not saying anything to denigrate Criminal Minds; that's a great show. I just didn't appreciate it anymore. I appreciate those people, but I realized my heart wasn't in and I needed to go because plenty of people would rip their arm off to be on that show, so they should be."

Brewster's desire to leave can be traced back to June 2010, when it was announced that she would appear in a reduced number of episodes in Season 6 — a move that outraged Criminal Minds fans. Brewster then shot the NBC comedy pilot My Life as an Experiment in 2011. After that pilot was not picked up to series, Brewster was informed that she had one more year on her Criminal Minds contract and that she would return full-time for Season 7. "I wasn't going to dig in my heels and say, 'Go ahead, sue me. I'm not going back. It's a horrible place,' but it did sort of sour the experience for me," she says. "I don't know if I would have left if that hadn't happened, but it was heartbreaking."

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Her albeit-brief time away from the drama, however, left a lasting impression. "When they let me go, I thought 'OK, I'm going back out into the world. I'm going to audition and hopefully do comedy,'" she says. "I got excited again and I wanted that again when my contract was finally up."

So why comedy? After turns on comedies like Friends and Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Brewster has spent most of the last decade on dramas like Minds and before that, Showtime's Huff. "Honestly, I think I'm better at it," Brewster says with a laugh. "I know so many people who are so much better at it than I am and I think I'm a goofier person rather than a serious, dramatic actress so I probably belong in comedy."

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Brewster says it also appealed to her precisely because she hasn't done it in so long. "I knew when I left Criminal Minds that I would have to take a year, maybe two years, to guest-star in things and relearn how to do that and hopefully impress upon people that I belong in that arena," she says. "I'm not a super-actorly actor, my-body-is-an-instrument type of person, but I do want to do fun, exciting, interesting things. I have a 2001 PT Cruiser. I saved my money so I can take my time and choose something that I think is great and that's what I'm waiting for."

In the meantime, she says she's enjoying a break from the 13-to-14-hour workdays on Criminal Minds. "I love work, but it's nice to be able to catch up with all my friends and fix up the house. I'm going to finish this herb garden I'm trying to plant," she says. "I'm hoping that I will end up on a show where I'm working those hours again and so I'm enjoying this now."

The one thing she does miss? Her former co-stars. "It's hard. I'm not going to lie. I'm jealous of Jeanne Tripplehorn, which is ludicrous because I decided to leave," she says. "You hear, 'Oh we're doing this this week and these are our guest stars, and there's a little tinge of regret. But I don't ultimately regret it."

The two-hour season premiere of Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesday at 9/8c on NBC.