SUITS: Sarah Rafferty Interview (2013)

Sarah Rafferty (photo credit: Nigel Parry)
Sarah Rafferty (photo credit: Nigel Parry)

Behind every great man is an even greater woman and this has never been more true than in the case of Donna Paulsen (Sarah Rafferty), who is the secretary extraordinaire for Harvey Spector (Gabriel Macht) in the USA Network series SUITS. Donna even willingly sacrificed her own career when she thought her boss had hidden critical evidence in a case. Donna’s loyalty and friendship is the strength which Harvey leans on in times of crisis. As has been seen time and time again, he would literally be lost without her. So in a recent press conference call, Sarah Rafferty candidly shared what it is like portraying such a rich and multi-layered character as Donna and teased a little about what is next in the turbulent work of Pearson Hardman.

So what’s in store for Donna for the rest of this season?
SARAH: Well, the firm is going to be busy picking up the pieces in the back six after the power struggle that we went through in the beginning of the season. So Donna is going to be busy helping out with Harvey and having her usual fun.

Even though Donna returned to the firm, can we expect her to be more guarded than she was before, not just with Harvey but in general with everything that is happening?
SARAH: Yes and probably more protective of the firm too. Yes I think that’s kind of a natural consequence of what she has been through. So, yes, I think that’s a pretty good guess.

How do you think Donna has been affected by the Coastal Murders case and being fired?
SARAH: Well one thing is I can imagine that Donna is going to desire to have some one-on-one time with Daniel Hardman as a result of what he did to her. So that’s something that she’s going to need to have an opportunity for some closure in that way.

What do you think Dona needs to protect herself from the most when the show returns? After everything that has gone on like with the case, Harvey, now that Louis is kind of a loose cannon. She seems vulnerable in a lot of ways so I’m wondering what does she have to protect herself from?
SARAH: Well, I think you bring up a really good point about Louis. I think everybody has got to be a little guarded about Louis because they feel really betrayed by him. So it’s going to be a process, their relationship is going to be a process and Louis is going to have to work at that going forward. So that will lead to some interesting situations with Donna and Louis. Because Donna did have I think you witnessed an affinity for Louis in a unique way. And that was really challenged.

With Donna being absolved with the missing document fiasco, how – and now that she’s back at the firm and Hardman has been kind of defeated at least for now, how is Donna going to get – relate with the other employees? Will there still be ramifications from what happened with Harvey or any of the others at the firm?
SARAH: No, I think Donna’s ready to move on and put it behind her. Yes, that sounds short and sweet but I think it’s true. I think that’s Donna’s style. She’s looking ahead.

So Donna getting fired was one of the biggest moments of the first part of season two, it was jaw-dropping. What was that like for you to play it out especially with Gabriel Macht?
SARAH: It was really exciting. Gosh it was really exciting because like I said before taking that kind of turn into the relationship getting very messy was fun to play as an actor. So just how much it complicated their relationship in the episodes that followed was great. And also what was really fun was that the flashback episode came after that so we got to flash back to a time when things were – when they were younger and more energized and more lighthearted. We got to flash back to that too which I felt was kind of perfectly timed considering all the heaviness that was going on in their situation. And also as I mentioned Gabriel and I are old friends so some of it was – sometimes when the scenes are very serious it can be – we need to take a minute to pull it together because it’s just – it can be funny to us as people when it’s 4:00 in the morning and we’re really tired and challenged.

Because she’s always so good at her job, do you think there is anything else that would shake the core of her – of your character that would cause her to lose her cool? Because she is always so perfect.
SARAH: Well yes/no, it would be things like that, like I think she was so shocked that she could have possibly made a mistake. I mean, even Harvey says Donna never makes a mistake. She is cocky and confident and she has kind of earned that confidence. So I think that really sent her reeling. So yes, I don’t know what might lie ahead if that’s what you’re asking in terms of what could shake her. I think messing up that bad shook her though.

Is there anything you brought to Donna that wasn’t originally scripted for her?
SARAH: Oh my gosh, all her brains. That’s all me. [Laughs] No, I do not share that quality with Donna actually. I think we’re lucky on this show. We do have some fun ad libbing every now and again. We do what’s written on the page and then sometimes we improv a little bit. So I think there is a little bit of that happening. And in my real life Gabriel and I have been friends for almost 20 years now so I think we naturally brought that kind of comfortable relationship to Harvey and Donna. I think that just kind of naturally bled into it because of the circumstances of our own life.

What do you think it is about SUITS that continues to make it such a fan favorite program?
SARAH: Oh gosh, we are so lucky to have such great fans, such devoted fans. I think our writing is awesome. We really are so lucky that the stories are incredible but the writers have also just done such an amazing job of creating these characters and the stories enhance our connection to these people. And I think I know when I read the pilot I was really struck in just that one script at how much of a hit I got from each character. I knew who these people were and I was intrigued by them. And I think the writers have done an amazing job with that, our creator did that, and it’s probably what hooked the fans in I would imagine.

Can you talk a little bit about Donna and Rachel’s relationship in these last six episodes? Does Donna get involved at all with Rachel’s father coming in the third episode or anything else going on?
SARAH: You know what, that is so funny that you bring that up. When I – the answer is Donna is not that involved actually with Rachel’s father coming to town but it’s in an amazing – it’s a great episode because we really do get to learn so much more about Rachel. But it’s funny that you bring that up just like on a side note. I am a huge Wire fan, so when I heard that Wendell Pierce was coming to play Robert Zane I wrote a note to our creator and just said can you write in a scene for Donna? I just wanted to have an opportunity to meet him and work with him but that will have to happen the next time. I did not get to work with Wendell Pierce this time but I’m still holding out my hope that maybe he’ll come back.

There are so many strong female characters.
SARAH: Absolutely. I’m very excited about how these three women are all incredibly strong and incredibly good at what they do and they’re not trying to be anybody really that they’re not? Rachel of course has her aspiration but she’s pretty comfortable in her own skin and she’s a strong, smart woman so that’s great. I’m told that there’s no like cattiness going on, there is no room for that at this firm. And I always think it’s amazing, I always enjoy that Donna – Donna is very strong but she’s also very feminine and she’s you think this was a “man’s world” but Pearson Hardman isn’t. I mean Jessica Pearson obviously is a woman and doing a great job in her position. She’s an aspirational character.

So far having filmed the last six episodes of the season, is there like a standout Donna moment?
SARAH: Oh I couldn’t tell you any of that. You’ve got to tune in. I’m trying to think what else there is that I could tell you about. what’s fun is in the back six we get a little bit more into Harvey’s personal life and that’s always fun for Donna.

What is the one character trait that you admire of Donna’s you wish you had?
SARAH: Well she is quick, she is quick witted. It may be because I have two kids that I feel like not quick witted. But she really can think on her feet and yes, I mean, I could go on and on about characteristics about her that I admire. she’s – she seems fearless, she’s so loyal, she’s loyal to a fault. She’s really confident. She’s kind of maybe a little too confident like Harvey, they’re kind of fun. And then she has like her Donna superpower which is that she’s kind of known to everything which is fun. And she’s a people person. she’s – I think that’s why she’s a good complement to Harvey is that she really understands relationships and she really cares about relationships. And we get to see that continue as the season continues with the back six.

What as an actress are the biggest obstacles you have faced on the set of SUITS?
SARAH: Biggest obstacles it sounds sort of lame but sometimes it’s really late and we’re really tired and that can just be hard. It’s just the nature of shooting something. We can be there at 4:00 in the morning trying to shoot something and you can be – it can be hard at times to remember what you were going to say or things like that. Sometimes what’s fun about shooting when you shoot exteriors, when you’re shooting on the street in Toronto, Donna and Harvey had such a great scene on the street when he comes to give her bonus check and get her back, to come back to the firm. And that day it was over 100 degrees and we were shooting on one of the busiest streets, one of the best looking but busiest streets in Toronto that had cable cars. And there’s no cable cars in New York. So we were constantly having to stop so that the cable cars wouldn’t be in the shot. And it was just a lot of picking up the pieces like and hurrying and trying to just get it while we held the traffic, let’s just get a shot in, that kind of thing. So it was kind of – it’s kind of exciting and challenging at the same time to be dealing with those kind of elements.

Is there a favorite episode coming up for Harvey and Donna? If not then perhaps you can see anything in the future for them that fans should really look forward to?
SARAH: Well I loved the flashback episode that we had this year and since we have now all ten of the episodes and also the first season, anybody at any time can go back and watch that episode on demand. And I actually am going to do that soon because that was one of my favorite episodes. I don’t know if the writers have anything, any more flashbacks planned but yes. Donna is going to continue having her fun with Harvey in terms of his personal life and his personal life is going to come up a little bit more in the back six.

Because Donna is in a supporting position in that firm and does she have an aspiration to become a lawyer herself? Or do you ever talk about where you would like to see in the future?
SARAH: Yes that’s a great question. I think that Donna said it sort of straight up to Rachel when they went out for drinks. She says, “I’m a legal secretary but that’s not who I am.” She said, “I’m proud of that fact but it’s not who I am.” And I think one of the things that makes Donna — that I really admire about Donna is that she’s really comfortable with who she is and she’s really proud of who she is. And I don’t – I think she recognizes that she’s indispensable. So I don’t believe that she aspires to be anybody other than herself. Which is a great thing to play. And the second part of your question was the conversations that we might have with the writers about where our characters are going. I think that some of those conversations may come up more in the future but up until now my conversations have been more about – we have fun talking about the back story that we see for the character. I have great conversations about what we think happened in the past for Donna. And so that might evolve into talking about things that will happen in the future but it hasn’t yet. And obviously like I’m just kind of pleasantly surprised and I read the scripts when they come in with kind of an excitement to see where it’s going without trying to control it.

Have you enjoyed the intensity of this season versus the first season?
SARAH: Yes. Great question. It did get darker this season and I have enjoyed it. I think we all have. I think because the nature of being in the second season there was the time and the luxury to really dig in with these people. And as an actor I was totally psyched that Donna got fired and all that messy stuff that was going to come out of that. And what pops in my mind right now is kind of one of the first big blowout scenes for Donna was the scene in – I don’t know if you remember in I think it was episode 205 when Harvey comes into the bathroom and they have it out. And she admits that she destroyed the document and then realizes what a mistake that was. And he says I’m not going to fire you, I might kill you but I’m not going to fire you. And that was exciting when the material took that kind of turn. I had fun with it and hopefully the fans too.

What do you enjoy the most about working on SUITS?
SARAH: Oh my gosh, that’s probably hard to nail it down. Right now, now that we’re not working on it, we’re on hiatus for a few months, and I can tell you I definitely miss my castmates. I miss seeing them every day. So I think the right TV family that we have is really special so I’m really grateful for that.

For you as an actress how hard is it to sort of put that down, walk away from it, take a break, and then pick it back up again?
SARAH: I think that there are a number of things that make it easy to have you return to it and I keep going back to the writing but the writing has such clarity for these characters and it’s so true to who these people are and has such a strong voice that you can kind of get right back into it. I’d also like to say, and it sounds superficial, but putting on those clothes really brings you back. Like you put on those high heels, you walk like Donna. You’re almost the same height as Jessica so you’re seeing her in a different have a different energy. So I think you can get right back into it when you’re on set and I’m sure that after some rest we’ll all be very excited to go back to season 3 which we’ve been so lucky to be picked up for which is great.

With the fate of the firm in the balance for these last six episodes of the second season, be sure to tune if for all new episodes of SUITS on Thursday, January 17th at 10:00 p.m. on USA Network. Donna not only gets all the best lines, she keeps her fingers on the pulse and helps everything find their way during this thorny time when the shadow of Daniel Hardman threatens to consume their firm.

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