"Mariska's just a sweetheart. And I'm very, very lucky to have her as a castmate," Ice-T tells PEOPLE for this week's cover story on his costar
Ice-T and Mariska Hargitay may have a friendship that spans nearly 25 years, but that doesn’t mean the rapper-turned-actor had any idea what he was in for when the two first met on the set of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2000.
“It wasn't like some holy meeting. She was just another actress to me at that time,” Ice-T, 65, tells PEOPLE with a laugh for this week's cover story. “When I met [Mariska], I had done more work than her. So, I was kind of like the boss when I walked on the set. But then I found out how wonderful she is and how gracious she is, and now I can't think of working with somebody else.”
Ice-T joined SVU as Detective Fin Tutuola in the show's second season, and his performance has since earned him the distinction of being the longest-running male actor on television. The irony is that he originally only signed on to do the series for a few episodes.
Fast forward two decades, says Ice-T, and “SVU was a four-episode stint that ended up 25 years."
Hargitay, who was cast on SVU when she was 35 years old, had previously appeared on TV shows like ER and Tequila and Bonetti, as well as in movies like The Advocate’s Devil (1997), prior to landing her breakout role as Olivia Benson in 1999.
Looking back, Ice-T says he couldn’t have ended up with a better costar by his side for nearly a quarter of a century.
“She's so great. What started with her and Chris [Meloni] and Dann Florek, it was a great place. But when I walked in there? I'm Ice-T, movie star, like, ‘What's happening?’ No, I didn't say that to them. That was just my feeling,” he says, chuckling. “And 25 years — it's very rare that you can work daily with somebody and not get on each other's nerves. But Mariska's just a sweetheart. And I'm very, very lucky to have her as a castmate.”
He continues of Hargitay, who turns 60 on Jan. 23: “She's a wonderful person. Forget Olivia Benson. [But] I think what happened is when she started to do the show, she morphed into Olivia Benson with Joyful Heart and all that kind of stuff. But that's truly who she is."
After being inspired by the many survivors who told her the show is the reason they reported their assault or abuse, Hargitay trained to become a rape crisis counselor and later created the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 to focus on healing, education and advocacy.
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So, while he and Hargitay are often focused and serious where their work is concerned, Ice-T says there's one thing he really loves about her.
“She’s funny, too,” he says. “We don't get to show funniness on our show. Our show is very dark. But Mariska? I'm trying to get her on SNL.”
And, if Hargitay hosts, Ice-T knows the perfect accompaniment: “I could be musical guest!"
For more on Mariska Hargitay, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now, or subscribe here.
Law & Order: SVU returns to NBC for its 25th season on Thursday, Jan. 18 at 9 p.m. ET.
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