Law & Order: SVU

More than 20 years after TV viewers first met Capt. Donald Cragen (Dann Florek) on Law & Order, the actor — not to mention fans — still doesn't quite have his character figured out. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I always like when the writers throw a curve ball or when I discover something new because playing a character like this, to me, is like hanging out with a really good friend," Florek tells TVGuide.com. "I would never presume that I know everything about him."

Exclusive sneak peek: SVU's Captain Cragen is ready to go undercover

Florek will learn a lot more about his "friend" on Wednesday's episode of Law & Order: SVU (airing at 10/9c on NBC) when Cragen volunteers to go undercover as a man seeking a mail-order Russian bride. Although ADA Cabot (Stephanie March) is quick to warn the captain not to get emotionally involved with his fake date, that proves much easier said than done. "When you go undercover, one of the key things you have to do is play a character as close to yourself as possible so you don't get caught up in lies," Florek says. "He winds up speaking about being married, losing his wife, difficulty having children and he becomes flooded with these emotions that he thought he had put away neatly in boxes in his psyche somewhere."

These closely guarded secrets from Cragen's personal life may be new information to some viewers, but for die-hard franchise fans — and Florek himself — the episode was a blast from the past. "It's really revisiting old things that actually even go back to the original Law & Order. When I read the script, 21 years of stuff started coming back," he says. "I loved the episode because it goes to emotional places that we don't normally go and Cragen doesn't normally go."

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It's all part of the new direction Law & Order: SVU has taken following a major reshuffling in front of and behind the camera — most notably the departure of longtime series star Christopher Meloni. The Law & Order franchise became famous for dealing with its revolving door of cast members in a swift manner (even Cragen's departure from the flagship series in 1993 was explained curtly as a transfer to the Anti-Corruption Task Force). The absence of Meloni's Det. Elliot Stabler has been addressed heavily in comparison. "He had been there for 12 years and that was the longest-running cop partnership in television history so you can't just say, 'Well, Elliot's not coming back,'" Florek says. "I think in fairness to the audience, in fairness to Mariska Hargitay's character, it had to be addressed and it also had to be let go."

Less than a year ago, Florek wasn't sure whether Cragen would report to duty at all for Season 13. Prior to Meloni's sudden exit, reports said that Hargitay's Det. Benson would be promoted to a supervisor position midseason — leaving the fate of the current boss unknown. "I was definitely apprehensive and uncertain because when I heard everything that was going on initially, I didn't even know if I was going to be back," Florek says. "I didn't know anything about that. I saw it in a magazine or something and so that's when everything was hush-hush and I was waiting to hear what was happening."

VIDEO: SVU's Mariska Hargitay says she's scared but excited about Benson's promotion

But instead of losing a captain, the series gained two new detectives (Kelli Giddish and Danny Pino). "It's a fresh take on everything. There are many new directors, all new writers, many new producers. Warren Leight, the new showrunner, is very, very interested in story and not just plot," he says. "It's still procedural, but we're just getting away from that a little bit and I think it's a nice touch. We kind of blew it up and put it back together."

Although Florek has no idea what the future holds for Cragen, he appreciates the character-driven detour. "I think it's serendipitous. I don't think anyone saw it coming to a certain extent, but I think that it has made the show reborn. It really is a different animal," he says. "If these changes hadn't occurred, I don't think we would be talking about Russian brides and Cragen going undercover. And as close as I was to other people involved — and still am in many ways — I'm grateful for these changes."

Go behind-the-scenes of Wednesday's episode with Florek: