After leaving Law & Order: Special Victims Unit at the end of season 16, Danny Pino is back, reprising his role as Nick Amaro for the series’ 500th episode, which sees the former detective turning to Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and the SVU team for help clearing a convicted man’s name. Speaking to ET, Pino opened up about his return to the franchise, what he thinks about Amaro’s off-screen evolution, and if this will open the door for more episodes or appearances down the road.
“It feels amazing to be welcomed back and for the show to be still so resonant and so needed,” Pino says. “Obviously, I have incredible memories and relationships from when I was on the show. So, it's always great to touch base and to create something new and fresh with this team.”
After transferring to the SVU in season 13, Det. Amaro proved to be dedicated to the cause. But his temperament often got the best of him, with an off-duty assault of a pedophile leading to a temporary demotion. And because of a history of misconduct accusations, his hopes of moving up the ranks proved to be a pipe dream. By the end of season 16, Amaro was last seen injured in a courtroom shootout, marking the end of his time at SVU. In the season 17 premiere, it’s revealed that he retired from the NYPD and moved to Los Angeles.
“His life was rather tumultuous, with his relationship to his career. His time at SVU is certainly dramatic, to say the least,” Pino says, looking back.
Seven years later, after having gone back to grad school for genetics and forensic science, Amaro now solves cold cases by testing DNA samples originally considered too small or too degraded. And it’s his work with the crime writer and podcast host Burton Lowe (Aidan Quinn) that brings him back to SVU with hopes that they’ll reopen a case involving a 15-year-old boy convicted of rape and strangling his prom date.
When it comes to Amaro’s off-screen evolution, Pino says it was interesting to see how he’s changed over the years -- and he’s quite happy to see where his character has ended up. “He certainly has a positive direction to his life where he’s still able to do what he feels is important, which is solving cases and bringing closure to families,” the actor says. “And in addition to that, evolving as a person, getting postgraduate degrees, starting to crack 50-year-old cold cases and bridging that gap between what we know about forensic science, genetics, and genealogy.”
Of course, as the episode plays out, there are the typical twists and turns in both the case and the dynamics of returning faces, which also includes Dann Florek as retired Captain Donald Cragen, Tamara Tunie as medical examiner Dr. Melinda Warner as well as Hargitay’s husband, Peter Hermann, as defense attorney Trevor Langan.
But the story didn’t ruin the fun on-set, especially when it came to Pino reuniting with Hargitay (“I respect her so much, not only for who she is and for her artistry, but what she does for survivors”) as well as with longtime cast member Kelli Giddish, who joined as Amanda Rollins in season 16.
“Kelli and I came onto the show at the same time, when it was heavily in transition. And I think that weathering that storm, the critics and the fans not knowing really what’s going to happen to the show, Kelli and I bonded over that,” Pino says, noting that the chemistry between them flowed into one of his favorite scenes of the episode as Rollins and Amaro catch up. “That connection that Kelli and I have, and then subsequently, Rollins and Amaro share, I think that was a fun moment and something revealing that I’ll always remember.”
While Pino has since gone onto star in FX’s Mayans M.C., filming that series is a very different experience from SVU, which has garnered a reputation for being a well-oiled machine in its 23 seasons. But the actor says returning to the set felt comfortable. Though, he did note how the long-running series “has taken a jump forward.”
“Aesthetically, what the show looks like, that might be the biggest change for me and looking at the monitor and watching what we were shooting and shadowing [the director] when I wasn’t in certain scenes just to see how he was going to shoot it,” Pino says, “tipping my hat to how the show has evolved.”
In fact, stepping back into Amaro’s shoes was a nostalgic experience for Pino. “So much has changed in our world. I mean, just in the last two years so much has already changed, and certainly since I left. So, it’s nice to have a touchstone of something that is consistent, not only in the locations where we shot, being back in New York City and Chelsea Piers, but being surrounded by this cast of friends that is so familiar to me,” the actor says, admitting it’s “flattering and humbling” to be one of the few SVU detectives to make a return appearance after leaving the show.
“I have such respect for the legacy of SVU, and Law & Order in general. So, it meant a lot to me,” Pino says of the series producers and showrunner to reach out to him and create this storyline for Amaro to come back with significance versus a brief cameo. “And for that to happen on the 500th episode, it’s an honor to be a part of.”
Of course, it remains to be seen if this will open the door for Pino to make future appearances in the franchise, especially given Amaro’s involvement in solving cold cases. “I’ve learned in this business never to say never,” Pino says. “I think that the show’s in fantastic shape, it’s been doing incredibly well without me. So, I’m just happy to reconnect and to give the fans something back because there has been so many people reaching out to me over the years, asking if and when Amaro would come back.”
The 500th episode of Law & Order: SVU airs Thursday, Oct. 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. Want to watch more? The entire series is now streaming on Hulu and Peacock. (We may receive an affiliate commission if you subscribe to a service through our links.)