EXCLUSIVE: 'Suits' Star Sarah Rafferty Reflects on 7-Season Journey and 'Special' 100th Episode

USA Network

The actress opens up to ET about playing Donna on the legal drama.

Suits is about to hit a TV milestone. For the past seven years, the USA Network legal drama has captured the imaginations of viewers with its impeccably-dressed cast of characters, complex law cases and Pearson Specter Litt’s tangled web of romances and inter-office politics.

For Sarah Rafferty, reaching the landmark 100th episode has been a surreal feat to be a part of. “It was such a tiny little blip,” she tells ET of her character, Donna’s, brief presence in the series’ first episode in 2011. “To see what Donna has grown into was really fun for me to go back and read in the pilot.”

Ahead of Wednesday’s 100th episode, Rafferty jumped on the phone with ET to discuss Donna’s journey over the past seven seasons (from Harvey’s loyal secretary to high-powered COO), her perspective on fans’ ongoing fascination with the Harvey-Donna bond and being directed by star Patrick J. Adams.

ET: What was it like getting to explore Donna’s romantic past through her ex, Mark Meadows (played by Jay Harrington), in last week’s episode?

Sarah Rafferty: It was so great on many levels. First of all, it was a pleasure to work with Jay, who is a great actor and a fun, supportive, amazing person to be around. I was so surprised by how emotional I was on behalf of Donna. I really felt for her. I’m always very moved by the flashbacks. I think we all are, as humans, just by the passage of time -- it’s such an emotional thing. When we went back in time with her and saw how that door may have closed or how her past shifted then, after shooting the date scene, I was like, “Oh, sister! Come on! There’s gotta be another way!” Going back to the six-month anniversary date with Mark was something Louis had referenced in a mock trial [in the past], so I already had some of that in my head -- who Mark was and how it played out. [Jay] brought so much sweetness to the relationship; he brought so much depth to it.

Did you view the six-month anniversary dinner as a major turning point in Donna’s life and career? Have you found yourself wondering how she would’ve turned out had she decided not to follow Harvey?

I’ve thought about wanting to dig further into why Donna’s so loyal to Harvey. I want to see more of those formative moments in the past. We’ve gotten some great ones already, and we also can imagine the depths of things we haven’t seen because of how much Harvey goes to bat for her, how much he protects her. They have a really palpable bond -- the moment in season two, when Donna says to Louis, “Harvey and I are like this.” I want a couple more clear reasons. I’m eager to explore them, especially when we introduced Donna’s father in season five, Donna was in the position where she had to choose between her dad and Harvey. And she came a little bit over to the Harvey side, so I made up backstory in my head as to why and that lives inside me.

Has it been surreal for you, seven seasons in, to know that Harvey and Donna’s relationship is still revered by viewers?

We get this immediate feedback [on Twitter] and I can certainly say that I am really amazed and in awe of the investment that many of the most vocal viewers have in the Harvey and Donna piece, in their connection.  Initially, we started out understanding Harvey better as a human via Donna -- Donna humanized [him]. He seemed like the winner, the gunslinger, the closer, but she would come in and soften him and really be invested in his personal life, so we had an opportunity on screen to learn more about our hero’s softer or more vulnerable or more emotional side, or his loyalty, or what drives his need for loyalty from others, or what makes him feel betrayed. Donna was a conduit of that. [Creator] Aaron Korsh always says that whatever we choose to play, different audience members will see it through their own personal lens, which is an exciting thing.

What has surprised you about fans’ reactions?

Donna got very clear that when she wanted more, that that was a career piece that she wanted more out of. And then Harvey was dating Paula (Christina Cole) and I have gotten a lot of tweet responses of “Girl! You deserve better. He can’t figure it out!” “I want only the best for Donna and now she has the best in her career and not always the best in her personal life, and he’s not ready.” (Laughs.) That’s interesting too -- the rooting for [certain things]. Like, “Go get some Mark until Harvey figures his stuff out. Go get another boyfriend.” There’s been lot of suggestions.

What was your take on Donna’s reaction to Harvey finally telling her that he has been seeing his therapist, Paula?

Donna’s always polished and doing her strut and on top of her game, and then we get these awesome moments where she falls off her game. I love that -- when she’s off-balance, because that’s when a real humanity comes through and she can no longer attempt to be perfect. She seems like a real perfectionist, so it was a really telling moment. When this personal thing came up, she had no idea that she was going to feel something and didn’t even understand what she was feeling, didn’t know how to metabolize the information and what her visceral response was to it. It’s really making her question, “Who am I?” and we see that going into the next episode because she’s still questioning her response, her choices and what it’s making her feel.

What do you remember about filming the 100th episode of Suits?

There was one really beautiful night. Rick and I got to shoot a scene on a rooftop -- it was very late at night on a Friday and [series star and director of the episode] Patrick [J. Adams] set up a gorgeous crane shot of us having a soulful conversation on a rooftop. It was one of those nights that I’ll always remember shooting Suits and it was perfect that it was Patrick directing. It was perfect that I was there with Rick. It was perfect that our characters were muscling through some of life’s complications together. I love when Donna and Louis are being great friends for each other; they’re both in the parallel moment of working through a lot of stuff in their personal lives and it was beautifully shot. My husband came to set with me and it was romantic to be up on the roof with him overlooking Toronto.

What is your fondest memory of being directed by your co-star Patrick J. Adams for such a monumental episode?

I had a scene that took place on a phone call -- those are always a little bit complicated. You don’t have the other actor there and you don’t get to look at them. Right before they went to set up the lights, Patrick started talking to me about how he perceived Donna’s journey throughout this episode: He was zeroing in on some loneliness and a void that’s in her life, and it clicked for me. He was like, “You don’t need to worry about it or overthink it,” and I went off in a corner and Spotify’d some songs I loved. He was like, “Don’t worry. You don’t need to dig anything up. We’re just going to shoot it. We’re going to find it.” Right after we shot it, he was like, “Oh yeah, we’re good.” It was something about how he explained it to me -- as a fellow actor and as a friend -- that clicked and made it really easy to shoot that scene. I’ll always remember it. I asked him to be the voice on the other side of the phone for me, so he read it with me and that was the icing on the cake.

Suits airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on USA Network.