Sarah Rafferty On Her Career, The Evolution of Her Role On ‘Suits’ And More!

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Sarah Rafferty has spent the past several years playing one of the most interesting characters on USA’s ‘Suits.’ As Donna Paulsen, she plays Harvey Specter’s executive assistant; one of the most formidable minds at Pearson Hardman.  Her razor sharp wit, comedic timing and incredible sense of style have established her as a fan favorite on the series. Each week, Rafferty makes her character jump from the screen and continues to captivate audiences with each passing season. 

Although she is a familiar face to us now, Rafferty is no overnight sensation but rather a seasoned veteran of stage and screen. Her journey began in high school at Philips Academy, her drama teacher caught her running across his lawn trying to get to field hockey practice on time. He told her to skip practice and join the cast of Richard III, and thus began her love of theatre. Rafferty went on to double major in English and Theatre at Hamilton College, and after graduating magna cum laude, went on to receive her MFA from The Yale School of Drama.

Rafferty has numerous theatre credits in New York, including appearances at Second Stage, The Roundabout Theatre Company and The Lucille Lortel. While starring opposite Kathleen Turner and Charles Busch in his play, “The Third Story”, The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called Rafferty “a screwball charmer.” Rafferty has appeared at many regional theatres across the country including productions and workshops of several new plays at South Coast Rep. and Shakespeare & Company where she played Rosalind in “As You Like It.” She also voiced several radio plays for “The Plays the Thing” on NPR.

On television, Rafferty has showcased her amazing talents by guest starring on several comedies and dramas including “Brothers and Sisters,” “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” “Six Feet Under,” “Without a Trace,” “Bones,” “Samantha Who?” and “8 Simple Rules.” She starred opposite Gena Rowlands in the television movie, “What if God were the Sun.” She was also seen in independent features “Falling for Grace” and “Small Beautifully Moving Parts,” which debuted at The Tribeca Film Festival and South by Southwest, respectively.

There is no question that the future is very bright for Sarah Rafferty, as ‘Suits’ returns on January 28th for it’s mid-season premiere and was recently renewed for it’s fifth season. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with this star on the rise to discuss her early years, her influences, bringing her beloved character from script to screen, her  work with Plan Canada’s “Because I am a Girl” movement and much more!

Sarah Rafferty

Sarah Rafferty

It is never easy to take on a career in the entertainment industry. When did you fall in love with acting and decide to pursue it as a career?

I was always that kid who was in the school play, starting in sixth grade. As I grew through high school and college, I was definitely trying to hang with the jocks! [laughs] I played lacrosse and was on the ski team but I always felt most at home in my theatre extracurriculars. I would say I fell in love with acting in my sophomore and junior year in college. During the summer of my sophomore year, I went away to the Williamstown Theatre Festival and was surrounded by the theatre and really inspired by having all of these amazing actors to look up to and learn from. My junior year, I went away to London to study acting. That is where I met the dean of the Yale School of Drama. After I graduated, I went to Yale to study acting. my route was definitely through school.

Who would you cite as your biggest influence or inspiration?

I would say that acting, especially in theatre, is such an intimate process that I would say every single actor you come across influences you. I remember my junior year abroad in London when Juliet Stevenson came and spoke to our class. We had the opportunity to see her in a play on the West End and I got to work with her where she coached me in a scene. I was just so amazed by her! Meryl Streep also came to visit our class at Yale. There were definitely amazing people who had these full careers but were taking time out to encourage students to work hard and go for it! Those were two really amazing women I got to meet early on. At Williamstown, I got to apprentice Blythe Danner one summer. That was pretty amazing too because I got to be backstage with her at all times. It was pretty great!

Sarah Rafferty

Sarah Rafferty

Did you ever have the often talked about Ah-Ha moment were you really felt you had made it as an actress or are you still kind of waiting for that moment in a way?

[laughs] Oh, secretly doesn’t everyone think they are some sort of fraud and wonder if they are ever going to make it! [laughs] I think you are always striving to do better, to go further and to deepen everything. I would say maybe that Ah-Ha moment is going to be a series of moments along the way. It was really interesting when watching this year’s Golden Globes that Kevin Spacey said, “I’m just trying to do better.” He admits that he is continuing to strive to be better. You think, “What?! You have arrived!” [laughs] I thought that was a really cool moment and something I could really relate to.

You became a familiar face to audiences with your work on USA’s “Suits.” What attracted you to the project early on?

The writing. When I read the pilot script, a number of things stood out. What struck me the most was that I could absolutely hear the voices of these characters right off the bat. You got such a great sense of who they were and a great sense of how there was so much further for the characters to go and you could go on a journey with them for a number of years. I was also amazed at how much happens in our pilot. It had a pace that was really kind of electric. On a personal note, Gabriel Macht was an old friend who I met back at the Williamstown Theatre Festival when we were kids. He was the one who gave me the script. He had been cast as Harvey. Knowing that I would have the chance to work with him was a huge incentive. He is such a wonderful actor and someone I trust so much, so that was another aspect that was really great.

What did you bring to your character that wasn’t on the written page initially?

I think that has been fun for all of us on the show. As the show grows, the writers write more towards what we bring to the characters and the characters grow in a certain direction based on that. One of the particularly fun moments that happens very early on is a scene between Donna and Lewis where Lewis has asked Harvey if he can borrow Donna. Harvey says, “Donna is the one thing I can’t give you but feel free to ask her yourself.” Donna pulls this whole crying jag on Lewis and totally freaks him out and he ends up running away! Then she just stops crying on a dime. She looks at Harvey and says, “That was really fun!” That playfulness and kind of actory-ness has been fun. I say that because moving forward from that point, Donna does do a lot of acting and pulling one over on Lewis and crying on a dime. We have now discovered, in the recent season, she once had aspirations to be an actor and that she is playing Portia this year in a community theatre gig. I think that the writers kind of took my passion for the theatre and acting and brought a little bit of that to Donna.

Sarah Rafferty

Sarah Rafferty

This character has gone on quite a journey over the course of the series. What have some of the highlights been for you and where do you hope to see it lead in the future?

I think you are right. Donna has gone on a journey. Every time a major plot point comes up in the Donna storyline, I am always surprised and delighted by what the writers have come up with. That probably first happened in Season 2 when Donna was fired. That just opened up so much with the opportunity to do flashbacks and the complicated moment Donna was in. There were opportunities for amazing scenes with all of my castmates. That was a great moment for me to discover how the audience was responding to my character. People took to Twitter and really engaged with that plot point, so that was a lot of fun for me. In terms of where I hope to see it go, we are going into the last six episodes of Season 4 and something comes up for Donna that I was surprised and delighted by. They just keep pushing further and further with these amazing plot points. I just sit back and trust the writers and I am really excited to see what they come up with for Season 5. I have always been delighted with every season, so it has really been great!

Looking back on your time with the series and all the people involved, what is the biggest thing you will take away from the experience?

I am sure I have taken a lot away from it but it is difficult to focus in on it because I am so in it. I am not out of it enough to have the opportunity for reflection. For me, it has been really gratifying and interesting in creating a lot of backstory for the character. In watching, as I have, I have notions in my head of the backstory and it’s funny how some of it comes through in the writing by the writers. For example, the part of her being an actor and deciding she wasn’t going in that direction and why she chose to carry on working with Harvey. I have found you can keep digging deeper and deeper into the character and make it more and more alive for yourself and the audience. I can tell you I have been away from shooting since November and we all certainly needed a rest before going into Season 5. Although I am enjoying my hiatus, there is a little part of me that misses playing her! There is a little part of me that misses running around in the shoes of someone with that kind of sense of self, self-love and witty banter. She is a really fun character to play. Ultimately, I think when the series is done, I will miss her.

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What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a part of this unique series?

Ok, Season 2, I had a newborn! [laughs]

I imagine that is quite the challenge! [laughs]

Yeah! When we went back to shoot Season 2, my second child was 6 weeks old! Dealing with the breast feeding, the breast pumping and the timing of all that while shooting and wearing Dior was one of the more hilarious challenges! [laughs] It was to the point on set where the assistant directors on set were watching their clocks hoping to get to a turn around so I could run off and pump and not have a wardrobe malfunction! [laughs]

Sarah Rafferty

Sarah Rafferty

Your character is known for her fashion sense. Is that something that comes naturally to you or do you have a team of pros giving you a fashion education?

All of the credit has to go to Jolie [Andreatta], our designer. She is the one who had the vision for the show and had the real understanding of fashion. She has introduced us to all of these designers. There is no going back once you have been trotting around in Valentino and Dior all day. It is kind of a personal disaster to know that kind of fashion is out there. That has been a really fun byproduct of the show. I have really had a masterclass in fashion. Even being around our seamstress, who is a couturier, I get the understanding of how the clothes are built and what is so special about the different aspects of fashion as an artform. It has been a fascinating thing to learn about and a major plus!

Looking to the future, is there any type of project you always had on your bucket list?

I want to be like Maggie Smith and be working for a long time! That is my dream. Right now, the series takes up so much of my time and my kids are little, so my plate is definitely full. Before my second child was born, I did a play in our hiatus. I was actually five months pregnant with Iris while we were on hiatus and I did a play because I knew it might be a little while before I made it back to the theatre, which is my love. I look forward to going back to doing plays at a more convenient time in my life! [laughs] My husband and I are New Yorkers originally, so I do think about someday moving back there and getting involved with the theatre again, living in New York and soaking it all in. It is really inspiring to be able to go to a play every night of the week and watch people on the stage digging in.

Any young actor can look to you and your work as an inspiration. What is best piece of advice you can pass along to those looking to make their career in the entertainment industry?

Just thinking about how our conversation started, for me, my path was through studying. I continued to study acting and even when I was out of drama school I always said yes when someone wanted me to do a play reading, a workshop of a new play or be a reader for auditions. I just kept showing up to keep working on acting because you never know what will come of it. Like Kevin Spacey said, “You are really never done. The process is never done and you are always seeking to grow more as an actor.” My advice would be to continue to look for the opportunities for growth. Whatever it takes to continue to grow as an actor is what you have to do. There is so much downtime between jobs, so continuing to exercise the acting muscles is something you have to do when you’re young and starting out.

Sarah Rafferty

Sarah Rafferty

Are you involved with any charity work we can help shine a light on?

Absolutely! There is an amazing organization called Plan Canada. They have an initiative called Because I Am A Girl Initiative. I am proud to say I am one of their ambassadors. It shines a light on girl’s rights as human rights. You can check it out at www.becauseiamagirl.ca. I got involved with them after seeing a documentary called “Girl Rising,” a few years ago. At the end of it, they showed the different charities that were involved with the making of the film. I was just struck by Because I Am A Girl. I looked into it and I was thrilled to find out it was Canadian because I spend seven months out of the year in Canada. Our show is based in Toronto. I reached out to them and have met with them at their offices. I am looking forward to traveling with them in the future. I will probably go to Africa to visit some schools they have set up there and will get a chance to see first hand what they have been doing. I am really looking forward to spreading the word because they are doing such amazing work!

Thank you so much for your time today, Sarah! Keep up the great work and we look forward to seeing what you bring our way in the future!

Thank you so much, Jason! Take care!

Be sure to connect with Sarah Rafferty on Twitter and Instagram! Catch Sarah Rafferty on ‘Suits’ on the USA Network, airing Wednesdays at 10/9 c.

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