With rich auburn hair, porcelain white skin and a statuesque frame, Sarah Rafferty is a classic beauty—and not in a dainty, need-rescue sort of way. She has the presence of John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” and the attitude of some of the most formidable heroines in literature. These distinguished qualities can also be likened to her career-making role on Suits, where she plays Donna Paulsen, Harvey Specter’s quick-witted executive assistant at Pearson Specter and Litt. The critically acclaimed legal drama is very Shakespearian in its narrative structure. There is turmoil, intrigue, comedy and, above all, intelligent dialogue. It is plum role for any actress, but especially for Rafferty who started in the theater.
“Early on, I played Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It,” she said. “She’s an amazing woman. She dresses up like a man, and tricks everyone into believing that she’s a man for most of the play. I feel like Donna has a little bit of Rosalind in her.”
Born in Connecticut, Rafferty caught the acting bug after appearing in her sixth grade musical. She would later attend Hamilton College, where upon the suggestion of her theater professor, she apprenticed at the Williamstown Theater Festival. “I really immersed myself in professional theater, around real actors,” she recounted. “That’s what did it for me.” Then after continuing her training at the Yale School of Drama, she moved to New York and strived to get her name in lights on The Great White Way. And though she increasingly had roles in a number of plays and television shows, it wasn’t until Suits came along that she truly made her mark in the entertainment industry.
“I’ve been an actor for a long time, and have experienced a lot of ups and downs,” she said. “I worked steadily since I became an actor in 1996, but many would say that Donna is my big break. One could call me a late bloomer.”
Despite achieving stardom well past her salad days, Rafferty has no regrets. Unlike Donna, who is career-focused almost to a fault, Rafferty has a rich family life. Married with two little girls, Rafferty has three sisters, and revels in dad-to-day activities like going to the playground. “It’s easy in life to compare and despair, but it’s important to have faith in your own path and time,” she explained. “I think it’s about being true to yourself. Run your own race.”
As for Donna, the rat race that is the male-dominated realm of corporate law has taken over her life. And now that Season 6 is a few episodes in, it seems that she is not backing down from it. Will she find love? Will Donna and Harvey rekindle their romance? Will she ever stop referring herself in the first person? For her, it really doesn’t matter because, to quote what she said on the show, she’s “too busy being a badass and worrying about my hair.”
Photographer: Daniel Savage - Styling & Text: Barry Samaha - Make Up: Kim Bower @Exclusive Artists Management, using Chanel Cosmetics - Hair: Sam Leonardi - Styling Associate: Tiffany Dyson
Why do you think the show is so successful?
I can’t begin to put my finger on it in a particularly articulate way. Perhaps fairy dust and magic, which is something that I always say to my kids. But really, I think the writers have done a great job of creating, first and foremost, dynamic characters. And then they create great circumstances for these characters to interact in. In this particular ensemble, there’s at least one person that a viewer can connect to. You can connect to Jessica as a leader and as a strong woman. You can connect to Harvey’s ambition to always win. You can connect to Rachel’s brains, or Mike’s heart.
So how would one connect to your character, Donna?
She’s incredibly empathetic and a people-person. Her special skill is that she understands what makes people tick. The show’s creator [Aaron Korsh] has often said that she’s the emotional glue of the cast. She’s also incredibly loyal, along with being confident to the point of colossal arrogance. Overall, she is very dedicated and sees everyone at the firm as family. She’s fierce in her love for them. They are her tribe.
Do you think Donna’s dedication to her work is why viewers haven’t really seen her personal life—Donna at home and not in the office?
Actually, I really wish we saw more of both Jessica and Donna at home, and with their families. I’m not going to speak for Gina [Torres], but I think that they really do have rich personal lives. This is why I was really excited last season when they introduced Donna’s father. He was the first family member of Donna’s that viewers got to see. This is a great question for Aaron. There is a reason why we stay in the realm of Pearson Specter Litt. It’s been successful so far, so I’m certainly not going to make any suggestions to break any template that is in place. People seem to be happy where we are.
Do you think not showing her personal life just drives the point that she is solely career-oriented?
I think there is some truth to that. It is probably a reason why it hasn’t worked out with some of the men in her life. That said, she doesn’t strike me as the person that would be going home to an apartment full of cats. She was a lead in a Shakespeare play a couple of seasons ago. She mentioned that she has a boyfriend named Mitchell. It seems that she has a lot going on.
Do think that Donna has a deep-seated secret that has yet to be uncovered?
I would love that. Deep-seated secrets would be great. Bring them on!
What can we expect from Donna in the sixth season?
In season 6, she is in full save-the-firm mode. In her case, this means that she is going to assist Harvey in navigating his emotional life, which is very complicated. He is feeling really guilty about Mike being in prison. She is going to steer him in the right direction, keeping him on point. At the same time, we’re bringing a little of the comedy back, which I’m really happy about. Donna and Louis are going to have some funny interactions. Season 5 got pretty dark, and I know that some of us really missed playing the comedy.
Do you think Donna’s and Harvey’s relationship is real love? Are they soul mates?
I don’t know what they are. I think they are something that they can’t even figure out. If they are soul mates, they are telling themselves that they’re not.
Do you share any similarities?
I think we both really care about things deeply. We’re also both really sensitive—though, she’s a lot tougher and braver than me.
If you were to give Donna a piece of advice, what would it be?
Freeze your eggs!
How would you describe Donna’s personal style?
Her personal style is very feminine, tailored and classic.
Why do you think viewers are so fascinated by the way she dresses?
I think it’s because Donna works in what can traditionally be perceived as a man’s world, but she is unabashedly feminine in it. I think her clothes match what is happening to her emotionally. Depending on a scene, a dress could be flowy and a have an open neckline if the situation is comedic, or structured and body conscious if she is armed for a battle. What’s probably most fascinating is that she clearly has an amazing wardrobe budget. Her closet is a prime example of someone who has no restrains in terms of purchasing power.
How would you describe your personal style?
My personal style is a lot more relaxed. I’m a mom, and need my clothes to be functional. It’s very feminine, too. I’m usually in a dress—even at the playground.
Has being mom affected the way you dress in any way?
It has in terms of functionality. I’m really psyched that white sneakers with dresses are really in right now. Basically, I’m into anything that’s great for chasing kids.
Has playing Donna influenced your style?
Yes, in terms of dressing up for an event or party. I mean, I don’t carpool in Valentino, but I have an appreciation for couture now that I’ve been playing Donna for a while. She carries herself with professionalism. Tom Ford is famous for saying that “dressing well is a form of good manners,” so I appreciate that more.
Who are you style icons?
Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore and Katherine Hepburn.