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/ Source: TODAY
By Gina Vivinetto

Mariska Hargitay is opening up about how "privileged" she's felt to play Olivia Benson on "Law & Order: SVU" for the past 20 years.

"I am so grateful and in love with this character that I am so blessed to play," Hargitay told E! News at the Paley Center premiere event for the NBC drama's season 21.

Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson and Ice T as Sergeant Odafin "Fin" Tutuola in a scene from the season 21 premiere of "Law & Order: SVU."NBC

Benson is the longest-running character on any "Law & Order" series. The tough cop with the heart of gold got her start as a scrappy junior detective when the show premiered. Over the years, viewers watched as she was promoted to the rank of sergeant and later lieutenant.

During last month's season premiere, fans cheered as Benson became Captain Benson.

Hargitay, 55, likely cheered, too.

"This character is to me heroic and something that our culture needed, somebody who fought for women and who elevated women's voices and who bears witness to such pain and there is great healing in that," the Emmy winner told E! News.

"I feel very privileged and blessed to have grown in this character and get to affect as many people as I have been privileged to affect in my life," she added.

Last month, Hargitay reunited with former "SVU" star Christopher Meloni, who played Benson's earliest partner, Detective Elliot Stabler.

“Sunday night dinner....” she captioned a series of photos of the pair.

The longtime pals appeared together on show for 12 years until Meloni left the series in 2011.