Most people would be wary to begin a series in its 13th season. Most people would be nervous to join a cast after the exit of a high-profile star. Kelli Giddish is not most people.
"I couldn't feel better about it. ... There's no intimidation," Giddish tells TVGuide.com of jumping onboard Law & Order: SVU. "What attracted me was the prospect of re-invigorating a franchise that's been so well-known and so well-liked, and then to be the shaker and mover."
Giddish is one of two fresh faces in the 16th District's SVU team this season, which also sees the departure of longtime showrunner Neal Baer and the exit of star Christopher Meloni. "They've lost a close family member and that's very, very obvious. The writers are not making light of it. They're not ignoring it. They're addressing it and it's nice to see TV do that," she says. "I know, and the writers know, that the fans love Chris Meloni very much."
Enter detectives Amanda Rollins and Nick Amaro (fellow new cast member Danny Pino). Amanda joins the team after having become a fan of Olivia's (Mariska Hargitay) work. "My character is in complete awe of Olivia," Giddish says. "Amanda's really eager to get in there because she knows her stuff and really eager to learn. She has come from Atlanta and there was a ceiling there, so she's come up to New York."
The new guys won't be welcomed into the squad room with open arms, but each will be paired with familiar faces. This means Giddish and Pino will share screen time with returning cast members Ice-T, Richard Belzer and Hargitay, who will be back full-time despite early reports that she planned to scale back her workload this season while her character would be promoted. "Just like a real squad room, they're trading partners at the beginning because nobody knows who's with who yet. They're testing the chemistry, but they're putting newbies with the veterans right now," Giddish says, noting that she's worked with Ice-T quite a bit. "Danny and I haven't been sent out on our own yet because the audience isn't ready for that and we're not ready for that. That torch is not ready to be passed yet."
Just like her character will have to earn the respect and trust of her co-workers, Giddish knows she and Pino have an uphill battle ahead of them to win over SVU's loyal fans. "It's not like Olivia is greeting us with smiles. I think that's a great tribute to the writers in the fact that they don't expect the fans to greet us with, 'Hey, you're one of the family,'" she says. "No, the fans challenge us and we come back with doing good work. If you are dedicated to your job then that shows up in your work. And that's what's showing up in the scripts, in terms of character. They're showing us really trying to dig in deep and figure out stuff for ourselves."
This move to a more ensemble feel is not only a breath of fresh air for the series, but also for Giddish. After starring in back-to-back new network shows during the last two TV seasons (2010's Past Life and last season's Chase), Giddish says she's enjoying not having to bear the bulk of the responsibility on her own. "I've been saying, 'Oh my god, this is so nice being on SVU where it's not all on my shoulders.' With this show, I'm becoming a part of a team that's established and that's certainly a great feeling," she says. "I would be envious of me if I was anybody else. Just in terms of absorbing what these people have to give and having been on the show for 12 years — it's a really cool thing."
Although fans have not always been receptive to new additions (Adam Beach and Michaela McManus are prime examples), Giddish is confident that viewers will warm up to Rollins and Amaro with time. "They're going to love us because it's not being forced in their faces," she says. "The more you know about us and the more you see us in your living room, the more you're hopefully going to love us."
The new season of Law & Order: SVU premieres on Wednesday at 10/9c on NBC.
Go behind the scenes of Giddish's first SVU scene in the video below: