For years, Law & Order: SVU has been plagued by rumors that Mariska Hargitay was planning to leave the long-running procedural. Last spring, that speculation reached its apex when Hargitay's character Olivia Benson was ordered to pack up her desk and step down from her position at the Special Victims Unit. Benson eventually got her job back after an internal investigation (and a few suspenseful episodes), but that didn't stop viewers from chafing at the possibility of a future without Hargitay, one of the dramas's last remaining original cast members, alongside Ice-T.

But fans can rest easy. Going into the 18th season, Hargitay is as dedicated to SVU as ever.

"I'm still here because it's still challenging and interesting to me. I feel like we keep going deeper and mining out these new places. After 12 years [of doing SVU], I thought, 'What are we going to do after 12 years?' It was such an education for me because I had no idea,'" Hargitay tells reporters on the show's New York set.

Hargitay credits former showrunner Warren Leight for re-igniting her passion for SVU when he came onboard for Season 13, the first season SVU would do without star Chris Meloni. Now, SVU is undergoing another regime change, with former Law & Order producer Rick Eid replacing Leight at the helm. But rather than mourn the loss of Leight, who revamped SVU by putting a greater emphasis on character development and serialized storylines, Hargitay is simply excited to discover how Eid will further evolve the NBC staple.

"I'm newly invigorated and newly excited to have a new vision on the show, and the consistence and excellence of someone who understands it so deeply, and someone who loves us enough to want to join 18 years later," Hargitay says. "It's very exciting to me ... and it still feels utterly fresh."

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This season, Benson will be struggling with the fallout from the death of Dodds (Andy Karl), who was murdered on the job after Benson briefly left him alone with a suspect. Further complicating matters is the fact that Dodds' father is Benson's boss, and Chief Dodds (Peter Gallagher) blames her for the death of his son - a burden Benson has already put upon herself. "This is so human and painful and complicated," Hargitay says. "It informs everything [and is] a very different note. We haven't seen this. We haven't done this."

The death of Dodds also means that Benson is once again lacking a No. 2, so it will be up to Fin (Ice-T) to reluctantly step into the role and take the sergeant's exam. "I think Fin's character likes the police work side of it," Ice-T explains. "He takes the sergeant's exam; he ends up behind a desk. So he's that guy.

"I think they're trying to move me and Mariska into more leadership roles, so you just roll with it," Ice-T adds. "The show has to continue to morph in order to stay new, so that's going to happen."

But while Ice might miss his character being out on the streets, he recognizes how lucky he is to have a job like SVU. "To be honest, I just like the security of working on television," he says. "You can have more of a normal life. And this show, especially, is such an institution. You're not just on a TV show that nobody sees. You're on a TV show that everybody sees. ... This thing is pumped in. Law & Order is on right now - probably on four channels. So it's a very cool gig. I had to get the groove of it, but I like it. I mean, after 18 years, I guess I do."

But for Hargitay, SVU is far more than just an acting job. Since she began working on the show in 1999, Hargitay started the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.

"I would have never even thought about it or would never have been a philanthropist in any way had I not been on this show," Hargitay says. "The only reason I started Joyful Heart is because on this show I learned about the issues and statistics and epidemic of sexual assault and domestic violence. I knew nothing about it before I came on this show. So this has been the greatest gift."

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Hargitay's work as an advocate for survivors in real life means the line between herself and her character are continually broken down. In the second episode of this season (airing Sept. 28), Hargitay's long-time friend and fellow advocate Vice President Joe Biden will guest-star as himself to discuss the backlog of untested rape kits -- a moment that was utterly surreal for Hargitay, who has worked alongside Biden on this issue for years.

"In a lot of ways I am like my character. It's even blurry for me sometimes with my roles outside -- what I do with my foundation -- and my character. In a lot of ways they're really blended," she says.

The ability SVU has to open viewers' eyes to real-world problems -- such as the rape kit backlog, the stigma male survivors of sexual assault face and the ways the legal system often fails survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse -- is one reason why Hargitay remains so dedicated to playing Benson after nearly 20 years. And by making viewers think about these issues, Hargitay explains, SVU is helping start conversations about them, which in turn help change the culture around them.

"I think the biggest thing you can do for these issues is start a conversation about them," declares Hargitay. "Start talking about it. Talk to your kids. Talk to your friends. Because the people who are victims of these issues suffer from isolation, and just the fact that its part of the conversation is changing that."

Law & Order: SVU returns Wednesday at 10/9c on NBC.