By Tyler Aquilina
October 03, 2019 at 02:17 PM EDT

Modern Family viewers have spent the past decade watching Ariel Winter grow up in the role of the straitlaced, bookish Alex Dunphy. But this week’s installment of Law & Order: SVU, “The Darkest Journey Home,” takes the actress to utterly new territory. Winter guest stars as Raegan, a hard-partying young woman who is raped and struggles to remember any details of the traumatic event. With help from Captain Benson (Mariska Hargitay), Raegan struggles to piece together her recollections and bring her attackers to justice.

Ahead of the episode’s airing (tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC), EW spoke with Winter about tackling a new type of role, working closely with Hargitay, and what’s next after Modern Family wraps up its currently-airing final season.

Barbara Nitke/NBC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to this role? Are you a big Law & Order fan?
ARIEL WINTER: It’s my favorite show ever. I’ve been saying it’s my favorite show ever for years and maybe hoping that someone would hear it. I started watching the show in high school, because USA would do those marathons, and I would just watch them. Like, Saturdays and Sundays, if I wasn’t doing anything, I’d be watching all day. And then I started watching it on streaming services, so I could start from the beginning, and then watching it every week when it came out. And I’ve seen every episode, probably, multiple times. And then I got an email that I had been offered a role in the show. I’d never imagined getting that email, so it was the best thing ever. Honestly, I don’t think I opened the email before I called them and was like, “Absolutely, any time, will do it. Absolutely.”

So you had no apprehensions about the material?
Yeah. I’ve seen every episode and I know what they create, and everything they create is amazing. So for me, it was just like, I already know the role’s going to be great. And I figured, when I opened the email, it was going to be a challenge for me, and that was a challenge I wanted to take. I would never turn down that opportunity that I honestly was so grateful and surprised to get.

How did your approach and technique with this role differ from something like Modern Family?
It really is completely different. Modern Family, I’ve been doing for 11 years, and comedy is not simple, but I’ve been doing it for so long, it comes easier to me at the moment. But when I started reading the [SVU] script, I was obviously incredibly nervous. I was concerned because I was like, I want to do right by the character and, you know, if there is somebody who has gone through the same thing as Raegan, I want to do them justice. So it was definitely difficult for me because I wanted to do the best job I could.

But when I got there, I was really guided so much by Mariska and the director and everybody there because it was so different for me. I would get there with what I’d laid out, and they would like it, but they would come say something that I could maybe add to it or change to it. And it really was an incredible experience because I had that guidance. Everybody has a hard time letting go of control, and those feelings and all of that. And Mariska really pushed me to let go of that and just feel and grow as an actor and as a person.

The episode features a lot of one-on-one scenes between you and Mariska. Can you talk more about working closely with her? What was that experience like?
It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, to be honest. She is one of my favorite people in the world. I don’t have many heroes or anything like that, but Mariska is probably one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in general. Obviously, an incredible actress, but just as a person, she is just so incredible. It’s hard to find people like that. It’s hard to find actors or anybody in this industry that is like her. She made me feel heard and welcome, and cares. She cares so much about the show, she cares so much about the stories of the characters. She cares so much about people in general.

It’s weird to say, like, doing an episode of something was life-changing, but for me it was mildly life-changing working with her. Her guidance, and how much she cared to help me through working through the script, and also just how much she wanted to know about me as a person, and how receptive and open and caring she was about it. And her advice. She gives incredible advice because it’s honest. She really wants you to grow. I left there and I felt completely different because I had a new outlook on so many different things, that were not all related to acting. I felt incredibly lucky to have spent that time with her and to have connected with her in that way.

How else did this experience impact you as an actor and as a person?
Like I said, I’ve been doing Modern Family for so long that, I think, it comes very easy to me. I can read the script, and I can do it the same day and not really have to be super concerned about it. With this, like I said, letting go, and not having complete control of everything, was hard for me because I wanted to do my best so bad. And one thing [Mariska] said to me is that I needed to let go. I needed to be in the moment there, and I needed to take out the acting and just be human. That’s something that really hit me because, you know, we’re actors. It’s what we’re supposed to do. But when you’re in the middle of a scene like that and you really think about it, and you strip it down, and you go all the way down to what you’re doing in the scene and what you’re feeling and how you are as that person, it’s completely different. And that was something that really stuck with me, and sticks with me now after I left. Letting go just of that fear of doing wrong, fear of not doing the best that you can. That’s something that was really fantastic to be pushed on.

One thing I found really compelling and heartbreaking about the episode is its portrayal of how extraneous factors about victims, like their personal lives, can impact rape cases. How did you feel about dramatizing that aspect?
I do feel honored to be playing a role that is changing the narrative on that. There are so many victims that have backstories, because we all have backstories. We’re all different, we’ve all grown, we’ve all changed. And Raegan is very realistic in that way, because she’s not perfect. She goes out, she drinks, she’s tried drugs, she can embellish the truth sometimes. But she’s not malicious, she’s just a human being. And a lot of times, you know, you can’t judge somebody just based off of one thing they may have done or one thing someone’s said. Situations are not always how they appear. Just because maybe somebody has embellished something completely different in their life, or they were out at a party the same night they were sexually assaulted, it doesn’t mean that they deserved to be sexually assaulted. Nobody deserves to be sexually assaulted, ever, at any time, anywhere. It doesn’t matter what your circumstance is. It is very moving for me, and I think it will be for a lot of people, to see that, because it doesn’t matter what you’ve done previously. None of that means that you deserve to be assaulted in any way.

With Modern Family wrapping up, what’s next for you? Are you interested in tackling more diverse and complex roles like this one?
Yes. That is really what I’m looking to do. I want to do something completely different from what I’ve always done. And I think this was an amazing experience for me to start that. I think I have a lot to grow on, and I feel very lucky that this was one of my first experiences moving into that next chapter. And that is what I want to do next. I want to do drama. I want to do more complex roles. I want to challenge myself. I want to grow. I want to do something different, I want to tell more stories. So I’m definitely looking forward to what I can do once the show’s over.

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