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Kelli Giddish on Her ‘Law & Order: SVU’ Exit: ‘I Was Really Bawling’

The actress started her stint in the Dick Wolf universe in Season 13, appearing as rookie cop Amanda Rollins alongside Ice-T and Mariska Hargitay. Giddish exited the series in Season 24, Episode 9: "And a Trauma in a Pear Tree."

Kelli Giddish and Mariska Hargitay, Amanda Rollins Leaves SVU

(Left to right): Kelli Giddish and Mariska Hargitay in “Law and Order: SVU” Season 24, Episode 9 “And a Trauma in a Pear Tree”

Courtesy NBC

When “Law and Order: SVU” fans learned Kelli Giddish would exit the series just halfway through Season 24, rumors flew.

The actress played Amanda Rollins — an overhasty rookie turned senior detective and fan favorite — for more than eleven years on the legendary crime show: part of Dick Wolf’s sprawling (if intensely controversial) Law and Order universe at NBC. The character’s sudden departure was reportedly ordered from the top down, per Variety. The decision was attributed to salary negotiations, but also broader directives about the future of the TV franchise. Star Mariska Hargitay, who has portrayed pop culture icon Olivia Benson since the show premiered in 1999, was said to have opposed the move.

Asked about the decision in the wake of Rollins’ “SVU” goodbye, titled “And a Trauma in a Pear Tree,” Giddish told IndieWire: “I’m just so happy with last night and with the way this season especially has gone.” As she looks to the future, the former stage and “All My Children” actress says she’s excited “to be let out into the wild again.”

“Netflix was dealing in DVDs when I first got on ‘SVU,'” Giddish laughs. “The landscape is so exciting right now. There are so many platforms and so many great artists, from every walk of life doing all kinds of different stories.”

The top creative brass for “Law and Order: SVU” have only sparingly commented on the decision to write her off.

In response to an Instagram post from Giddish, showrunner David Graziano wrote: “You might take a moment to entertain the idea that things are more complex than they appear in a world of emojis and tweets. All I’ll say is Kelli has handled this with the most incredibly classy comportment. She is, without a doubt, one of the finest industry professionals I’ve come across in my 24 years of writing television. I’m saddened by her looming exit. It’ll be my lucky day if I ever get to write for her again.” Graziano has since been accused of creating a toxic workplace environment: an allegation Giddish described as “alarming” to Variety.

Speaking with IndieWire, Giddish discussed her first “Law and Order” performances, her emotional Season 24 goodbye with Hargitay, the parallels between “SVU” and her personal life, and plans for both her — and yes, Rollins’ — futures.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: Before we dive into your more than 11 years as Amanda Rollins, let’s pull back to your first day on a “Law and Order” set. You appeared on “SVU” in 2007 and had a small role in “Criminal Intent” before that, right?

Giddish: Was I on “Criminal Intent” or “SVU” first? I can’t remember. I did two Law and Orders in the same year. I remember moving into a sixth floor walkup in Brooklyn on a Sunday, and then I had to report on set to Staten Island for “Criminal Intent” in a bikini to like strut around this boat. And oh my god, I was so tired. [Laughs.] 

Then, on “Law and Order: SVU,” it was a bunch of scenes with Ice-T. I was a theater actor. I hadn’t done a lot of TV before I got the gig. I was on a soap opera, but it wasn’t like in my wheelhouse and in my body to know how to do it. 

And I remember them saying, “Cut, cut, cut.” You know, they were doing my coverage. They were like, “Yeah, so be on your mark.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m pretty on it.” And they were like, “No, no. You have to be on your mark. Like on it.” And Ice goes, “Kelli, whenever I’m on my mark, I just hear the money going into my pocket. And when I’m off my mark, I hear it going outta my pocket.” [Laughs.] So that was a quick crash course in acting by Ice-T. 

Playing a cop on TV is different from a lot of other acting jobs. What challenges stood out to you at the start of your run and, and how have those evolved? 

In terms of the nuts and bolts of the actual acting, diving into a script when I first got there, they gave me all of the exposition. So I would be at the whiteboard explaining the whole case and everyone’s names and the times and the dates and this and that. And I was like, “OK, I got this” because I’ve got Richard Belzer and everybody looking at me: the new girl. So I was like, “No problem, no problem… What was my line? I have no idea.” [Laughs.] Suddenly, it all goes out the window. That became a cool challenge just personally for me. I loved making the exposition meaty, you know? And to actually imbue meaning in it. I ended up really enjoying that part of this job.

Amanda’s character has evolved over the seasons in many ways, but I’d be curious to know what you think her departure to become an educator says about the direction of the show and the direction of her as a character. Obviously that’s in keeping with that whiteboard expertise, but in a completely different area of criminal justice.

Absolutely. It really puts a spotlight on her curiosity and her intellectual capacity. That was always a really big part of Amanda, that she really was wanting to focus on why people do what they do. In the midst of all these horrible storylines, she was really asking, “Why do people do such bad things to each other?” And for her to go into an academic setting and actually be able to explore that I think is really cool. Just to get to go and actually imagine her playing that part of herself out and satisfying that itch in her brain, to really delve into the psychology. 

And where that says the show is headed, I think it puts again the intellectual curiosity at the highest level. It doesn’t have to be bang, bang, bang and, you know, “Shoot ’em up!” and “She got killed!” and “Oh my god, she had to leave because she got shot in the stomach.” You know, it wasn’t that. It was an actual developed storyline, where it’s asking what would she want to do. What is she now that she’s at this point in her life where she’s really happy with Carisi [Peter Scanavino] and she’s really dang good at her job? Where does she go now? To have her choose, that was a really interesting choice for the show. 

On a crime show, there’s always the threat that a beloved character, if we know they’re departing, might get killed off. Was that ever in consideration for Amanda? 

No! I mean, she gets shot in the very first episode of the season because of the [“Organized Crime” and “Law and Order”] crossover event, which was a three-hour event with so many characters to be invested in so you need a little tragedy in there. [Laughs.] So I said, “I’ll be it.” 

And it sort of gives you that kick to appreciate Amanda before she’s gone.

Totally. And for her to realistically say, “Wait, I’m a mom. Do I really wanna be in the line of fire on a day-to-day basis? I don’t.” In one of the earlier episodes, what she was thinking, when she had the gun held to her, was: “I don’t wanna mess this next part of my life up. I’ve got too many good things going.” That’s the instigating thing for her: to not postpone her joy, to look around and be really thankful about what she has, and to go pursue stability. As exciting as the job is, being a mom and being a wife and being a teacher sounds really, really exciting to her at that point. 

Rollisi Wedding

Obviously, the Carisi/Rollins wedding was a long time coming. What was your preparation process for that like? I really laughed at: “Marriage is like a crime. We’ve got motive and opportunity.”

[Laughs.] I loved how they did the wedding. It’s at a courthouse, which is so Carisi and Rollins to be so dialed down. Preparing, I looked online for about 30 minutes for white dresses that would fit what I thought Rollins would wear. And that was the first dress I tried on. The costume designer nailed it. 

Prior to that, you see them waking up in bed knowing that they’re gonna get married that day and the kids jumping on them. Weddings are awesome, but it’s that kind of intimacy that is cherished. And I think the audience really responded to it: “Oh my god, they’re so intimate and they have this beautiful little family and everyone’s jumping on the bed and it’s Christmastime.” Seeing that is to me even more spectacular than the wedding. 

I loved the detail of the book on her nightstand of like, how easily the actual study of criminology fit into her home life. 

[Laughs.] Yes! I made sure I looked at it because it made sense. 

You’re from Georgia, which played a huge role in introducing and developing Rollins as a character in Season 13. Then both of your pregnancies were incorporated into the show in Seasons 17 and 20, with your two real sons and two onscreen “daughters” growing up at the same time. Does that personal touch make exiting harder? 

You know, I feel like I left it all out on the court. What other show can a woman go and be totally bloated and pregnant as a cop and the showrunners say “we’ll work with it,” you know? That was awesome. 

And speaking with [former showrunner] Warren Leight when I first got the job, he said, “Well, she’s supposed to be from Pennsylvania, but I guess we’ll change that to Georgia, won’t we?” And I go, “Yep, that’d be great.” [Laughs.]

Because being a southerner is not so much about an accent. It’s more about a sensibility: how you treat a situation, how you treat people. It’s a different sensibility than you find in other places. So the conversation was less “What kind of accent was she gonna have?” and more “What kind of woman is she? Moving into New York, where is she really coming from?” 

I went to college in Atlanta, and I think sometimes people have a misunderstanding about that sensibility: confusing it with southern hospitality or charm or naivety. Rollins isn’t like that.

Sure. I mean, she’s tough. And she knows her worth as a detective and an investigator, right? When it was time for her to go, she had no bones about saying, “Alright. I’ve gotten all I can from here. I’m gonna move on.” That’s the way I am. I don’t hang on to stuff very much and I’m not always looking past you into the future. I’m just here right now, which is very much like the women I grew up with. 

Amanda shares a lovely goodbye with Benson, and obviously you and Mariska are such close friends. What was it like shooting that, and did you prepare for it any differently?

We went through the script before we started shooting that particular episode, because we just wanted to make sure it felt right: little nuances in the language and stuff. We went through it with the showrunners and made it our own. Once the day came that it was time for us to shoot that scene, we didn’t talk about it at all. Something happens when me and Mariska get on screen together and we don’t really have to talk about a whole lot. We did a couple of takes, and I would go in my corner, she would go to the back. It was very powerful and very strong, and the feelings were real. I’m such that if I’d talked between takes with something like that — a goodbye like that — I would’ve been a puddle. So I was just like, “Was that a good take? Did we get it? Are we moving on?” [Laughs.] I was really bawling. 

Another scene from your last episode saw Benson and Rollins seducing a guy at a bar for an undercover investigation, which is a totally different dynamic. How was that?

It was a lot of fun. We didn’t get to do that a whole lot day-to-day during my time on the show. So to to be off our stage, out of our studio, in a totally different location and wearing not cop clothes, it felt different and girly and fun and flirty and we embraced that. 

Rollins is already returning in some capacity for an episode of “Organized Crime,” which I assume you can’t tell me anything about?

[Laughs.] No.

You mentioned Benson’s last line to Amanda: “Don’t postpone joy.” What’s next for you?

The timing couldn’t be better because it’s the holidays and I get to be home for the holidays and chill. It’s a season of being at home anyway, you know? It’s just in the air, so I’m enjoying every single second of it being around my boys. My husband and I just celebrated a year in November, and that is everything. Everybody is happy and healthy, and I don’t take that for granted. 

Anything in terms of acting plans?

Yeah, things are coming my way and it’s an exciting time. [Laughs.] When you think about how long I’ve been on this show: Netflix was dealing in DVDs when I first got on “SVU.” The landscape is so exciting right now. There are so many platforms and so many great artists, from every walk of life doing all kinds of different stories. What a great time to be let out into the wild again.

Do you have a wishlist for anyone you want to work with? In the spirit of Christmas?

[Laughs.] Oh my gosh, there’s so many. I can’t even say. Samantha Morton is so awesome, and I got to work with Jordana Spiro from “Ozark.” Mark Ruffalo is my favorite. Lynne Ramsay: I think she’s such a dynamic beautiful director. There’s so many.

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