Sarah Rafferty: Meet TV's Top (and Most-Talked About) Assistant

August 16th, 2012 11:15am EDT

Sarah Rafferty They say you never know what you've got until it's gone. That could apply to USA's Suits: ever since complex, sassy and deeply loyal assistant Donna Paulsen was fired from Pearson Hardman, the audience has been up in arms and the series hasn't been the same. It's not hard to see why Donna has captured the hearts of Suits fans and fans of good TV alike.

She's played by Sarah Rafferty, one of television's top actresses.

The role of Donna has brought plenty of deserved attention for the veteran actress. It's the part that many women would kill for: a great wardrobe, plenty of sharp dialogue, and the ability to work with the best ensemble on the small screen. Yet it's also a role that many would screw up. We've seen plenty of snappy secretaries with a third of the depth, not to mention that it's one tall order to be working opposite Gabriel Macht, who is the smartest actor on television. An actress could easily be vastly underutilized or eaten for lunch by this job description.

That's where Rafferty owns the part. While Donna's formal title may be "assistant," make no mistake about it: both character and actress are standing as equals, not subordinates. Donna may be witty, but she exists for far more than punchlines; she and Harvey Specter are an excellent partnership, with a real give and take between them. One could never imagine her relegated to merely fetching coffee and cracking wise. Not when the scenes between Donna and Harvey in the second season have been some of Suits' strongest and most emotionally raw to date.

If there's any question about Sarah Rafferty's acting, it's what took us so long to pay attention?

Like many talented actors and actresses, she started toward her career on stage. "I was sort of the theater geek all through, probably starting in sixth grade," she tells me during a recent interview. "In college, I spent my junior year abroad studying acting in London and in Oxford. When I was studying in Oxford, I met the dean of the Yale School of Drama. I auditioned for Yale and was accepted, and probably getting accepted into drama school was when I realized I'd pursue this."

In fact, her educational pedigree would make a lot of nerds jealous. The University of Oxford happens to be the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and the Yale School of Drama is an Ivy League graduate institution that also boasts director Elia Kazan and actresses Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver among its alumni. While many actors and actresses can point toward college as the beginning of their journeys, Rafferty started in the major leagues.

Post-higher education, her resume began with television guest roles, including Law & Order (in 1999), Third Watch (in 2002), and Without A Trace (in 2003). Chances are, you probably saw her in something before you even knew who she was. But these journeyman (or woman!) performers are some of the most underrated, because they are no flash in the pan. They have the time to hone their craft and to play many different roles, allowing us to see them as each character, rather than the person behind them.

Take, for example, Rafferty's guest appearance as Margo in the final season of CBS' Numb3rs in 2009: she is the anti-Donna, a character who isn't a good person and isn't around that long, but the character is still memorable regardless.

How does she take a role from script to screen so effectively? "I think a lot about the backstory," she explains. "Where they came from, the circumstances of their life. I like to imagine the circumstances that may have led to them being who they are in the moment that we meet them."

If that sounds familiar, it's because backstory is also something Macht discussed as important in his character development process, including with Suits. "Gabriel and I definitely talk a lot about backstory and who our characters are and ask a lot of questions," Rafferty confirmed. "We talk to our writers about those things too." That explains a lot about how they have created a pair of exceptional characters: they both go beyond the page. Great minds think alike.

No matter the part, she's always looking for one thing: solid writing. "It's always the writing that grabs you," she explains, "whether or not you connect to the writing and if you feel that you can bring something interesting to it. I'm very used to doing theater scripts, [so] I sometimes say to my manager and agent, 'Oh, I can hear this.'"

Just don't ask her to pick a favorite role from her resume: she confides that she's notorious for not being self-promoting, to the point where friends and family don't know she's in something until they spot her in it or her husband sends out emails behind her back. She is the very definition of the phrase "lack of ego," which only makes her even more endearing.

Her career continued with appearances on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (in 2004), in the busted pilot Football Wives (2007), and on Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2009). Yet without a doubt, her breakout role - the one she's deserved all along - came last year with Suits, an idea that got started courtesy of Macht, whom she's known since those early days in college.

"It was actually Gabriel who sent it to me," she said. "When I read the script for the first time, I knew it was really special. I could really hear each one of these characters. They were written so specifically. You had a sense of who they were."

But while Macht may have opened the door, Rafferty earned the role, and she's likewise earned every bit of praise she's received for it and then some. She made my list of the top ten most underrated TV performers because the second season of Suits has been her season - even as her character isn't even in the workplace. The episode "Break Point" contains a scene between Harvey and Donna that is one of the show's best ever, because it's two great actors bringing their "A" game without anything else getting in the way.

What makes it all the more impressive is that the scene absolutely could not have been played by anyone else but Macht and Rafferty. There are many great actors and actresses, but they have a history, a chemistry and a mutual skill level that wouldn't exist with anyone else.

Asked if she similarly feels that her personal friendship with Macht helps her professional work with him, Rafferty says, "I think it does. It just brings an energy to it and for us, you just feel comfortable and safe and incredibly collaborative. We feel free to offer each other suggestions or anything like that. It's also really hard for us not to laugh a lot of the time," she adds with a laugh of her own.

"I'm just proud to be on the show. I'm just thrilled to be working with all these actors who I love. I'm continually surprised and delighted by the material," she continues, describing what sounds like an actor's playground on the Suits set. "We'll do the scene so many different ways and sometimes we'll ad-lib and what's always interesting is to see what take the editor and our creator and the director decide to use. You kind of don't know which way they want to go.

"Sometimes Rick [Hoffman] and I will ad-lib stuff," she adds, giving a little insight into the amusing relationship between Donna and Louis Litt. "The first time that Donna got to mess with Louis and fake cry and kind of freak him out, that was really fun. That was like the first window into the tools that she's willing to use."

In season two and even in the latter half of season one, we've had the pleasure of digging into Donna Paulsen's character the way we did with those of Harvey Specter and Mike Ross in the first season. We've seen that underneath Donna's brassy, never-short-of-a-comeback exterior is a woman who is fiercely loyal to her boss and best friend, who's been vulnerable and scared and hurt, and yet also well-developed enough that her whole world doesn't revolve around Harvey (no matter what Louis might try to insinuate).

Here is a character who is so deep and engaging that she could be the lead of her own series, even as she fits perfectly within the ensemble. This is Rafferty's time to shine, and she is doing just that.

You don't get to be as great as Rafferty is without putting in the work. She has an exceptional work ethic that has left some of her co-stars in awe. Last fall, she was the lead actress in the South Coast Repertory production of Catherine Trieschmann's How The World Began. The piece only had three characters, so Rafferty had to be on stage for almost the entire play. She was five months pregnant at the time, but that did not stop her from giving another fantastic performance. That certainly qualifies as going above and beyond the call of duty.

I asked her How The World Began co-star Jarrett Sleeper about her in our interview about that play, and here's what he said: "She's amazing. The whole cast is amazing, but Sarah is pregnant, playing this pregnant character, doing this play. She does the work and encourages other people to do the work...I said to her, 'Why are you doing this again?' She was like, 'It's such a good play.' All of her team encouraged her to do it and I'm so grateful. She's on this amazing TV show and she's busy in her life, and then on top of that, 'The show's too good, the part's too good, I have to do it.' That blows my mind."

Not to be overlooked is something else just as important as talent: that Rafferty is just as warm and quick-witted as her Suits alter ego. Well after all my interview questions have been asked, we're still on the phone, trading our Gabriel Macht stories and discussing shows we've recently watched (she's just gone through Homeland, Downton Abbey and the current season of Nurse Jackie, and is a fan of The Newsroom). I feel like I'm not just doing an interview with one of my favorite actresses, but also making a new friend; she couldn't be any more welcoming.

That makes her success story all the sweeter: it's proof that being a good person still counts for something. A lot, if all the uproar and frequent uses of the #savedonna Twitter hashtag are any indication (USA has even started placing said hashtag as an on-screen bug during the show). The entire Suits fandom is counting down the minutes until Harvey makes good on his vow to get Donna back. It would seem a lot of sound and fury for a fictional character, but not with this fictional character.

That's because Suits fans know exactly what we've got in Sarah Rafferty: an exemplary actress who is a pleasure to watch and an even more wonderful person.

You can follow Sarah Rafferty on Twitter (@SarahGRafferty). For more from Brittany Frederick, visit my Starpulse writer page and follow me on Twitter (@tvbrittanyf).

(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.

Related: Gabriel Macht, Rick Hoffman, Sarah Rafferty, Suits, Starpulse Exclusives, Television, Drama, Interviews, USA

Photo Credits: USA Network

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