This summer, Sarah Rafferty starred in one of the most-watched shows to hit streaming — four years after the series ended its run.
“Suits,” the legal drama that originally ran on USA Network from 2011 to 2019, has seen a resurgence in popularity since it became available to stream on Netflix in June. (It’s also available to stream in full on Peacock.) In the months since, the series has broken several streaming records — notching 18 billion streaming minutes in July alone — and is the most-watched title ever acquired by a streaming service, according to Nielsen.
It’s the sort of feat Rafferty’s character on the show, the all-knowing and impeccably dressed legal secretary-turned Chief Operations Officer Donna Paulsen, might be tempted to celebrate by partaking in the show’s ever-mysterious can opener ritual. (The series also famously stars Meghan Markle.) Rafferty, though, is hoping some of that success will benefit her newest series for the streamer.
She stars as Katherine Walter, the matriarch of the large Walter family, in Netflix’s adaptation of the Ali Novak’s coming-of-age novel, “My Life With the Walter Boys.” Now streaming, the series revolves around 15-year-old Jackie, who is uprooted from Manhattan to rural Colorado after the deaths of several members of her immediate family. She is taken in by her mom’s best friend, Katherine, and her husband, George (Marc Blucas), who are already raising 10 children, mostly boys.
In a recent video call from her home in the Valley, Rafftery, whose post-”Suits” credits include “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Chicago Med,” talked about the benefit of playing a mom on a teen show, watching “Suits” find a second life on streaming and the possibility of reprising Donna Paulsen.
How was Katherine Walter, this beloved veterinarian in her community and the matriarch to a family of 10 children, presented to you?
I only had the first episode, and I really focused just on the scene when she goes to Jackie — Jackie was supposed to have fallen in the pool, but [instead] she got splashed by the dogs. That was the scene I was given to make my decision about. I think what I really connected to was the humanity of this mother, desperately wanting to be picked by her best friend’s child to allow her the opportunity to nurture her into her new life. And that Katherine, not to the extent of Jackie, is also really grieving this loss too, and out of that comes this desire for the connection. That really spoke to me. I had known that Katherine herself was an adopted child. We know she had an amazing childhood and beautiful adoptive parents, but she still had an ache to understand her birth mother and where she came from, and maybe a little piece of the “why.” And out of seeking that, she went on this healing journey of building her own family in a modern way with chosen and blood family. I think the fact that she has a big, huge, sprawling, chaotic family is a huge part of her healing journey. She wants to offer that to Jackie.
The show has you back in Canada this time, though, in Alberta. Were you commuting back and forth?
I was commuting. I love Canada. I loved our time in Toronto [where “Suits” was shot.] I raised my kids for nine years there. When it came time to go to Calgary, my kids are too old to come with me. So I was ferociously commuting, like gunning it for the airport at every opportunity that I could. While I was there, there was this magical thing happening with my fictional sons, where sometimes if I had a weekend and I couldn’t go home, which was very hard for me — I didn’t make it on Father’s Day. I didn’t make it home for Mother’s Day. I was sad — they stepped in and folded me into plans and took road trips with me to Banff and those kinds of things. One of the benefits of electing to be the mom on a teen show is that I had downtime. I knew there would be days where we’re shooting a high school party, there’s no moms there, so I could get home to my real teens.
You’re often doing scenes with a gaggle of young actors, mainly boys. How much did you take on a motherly role with them?
If you could look through all my texts, you would see it’s definitely a motherly role. I was just texting with Noah LaLonde (who plays Cole] this morning. Those actors make it easy. I actually had one moment where I said to Melanie [Halsall, who developed the adaptation for TV], “I keep finding myself grabbing their faces!” I was like, “You’re gonna have to edit around a couple of face grabs. I just couldn’t help it. Like, you’ll have to cut away before my hands are on their face.” They were so delightful.
I want to take a step back. You received your MFA from the Yale School of Drama. What stands out to you about that experience?
I learned there that the text is everything. I would say that my favorite class would be Shakespeare, for sure, because that’s the richest text you can be offered. Today, I just geeked out on my Instagram feed — my Instagram feed gives me a lot of Judi Dench. My Instagram is always like, “Here, I think you need a little Judi Dench right now, Sarah.”
Was it that clip from “The Graham Norton Show” where she recited Sonnet 29?
Exactly. Oh, my gosh, I loved that. A takeaway from Yale School of Drama is the reverence for the written word. And the process of taking the written word into being a spoken word. The best lesson I learned, and the most liberating lesson: Your attention is never on yourself. Your attention is always on your acting partner, making them feel something. That kind of relief from self-consciousness is bliss if you can get it.
I went on YouTube and relived your TV commercial era. You were part of that very memorable “Herbal Essences” ad campaign with the fake orgasm in the ’90s. Please tell me everything about this. What do you remember about that audition and being the face of it?
I do remember explaining to my parents, “Oh, I got a commercial.” “Oh, what are you going to be doing in it?” I said, “I’m gonna be doing what Meg Ryan did in ‘When Harry Met Sally.’” Because I can’t say “fake orgasm” in front of either one of my parents. I remember that struggle was real in my early 20s. That’s one of the only auditions I remember. I was like, “I’m not gonna get this,” so I just went in there and was so over the top. Maybe my entire Yale Drama School education went into that commercial. The people were in hysterics, they were just laughing so hard because I just assumed like, “This is comedy, right?” Perhaps other people went in with a strangely, real-life version of it. And when I walked out all the other women there were like, “That is yours.” I think it was one of the fastest calls that I got for something. And I got to do it with Dr. Ruth. It was the last commercial that aired before the last “Seinfeld.” I do know it was huge enough that I could cut down on my waitressing shifts, and I could actually shift to being coat check. That was back when commercials were life changing.
I have to tell you about an experience that I’ve never had before, in all my years covering TV. I was at a family birthday party — big Latino family, keep that in mind. And I was talking to an aunt and uncle that I hadn’t seen in months. And they were like, “Oh, what have you been watching lately?” And I said, “I’m rewatching ‘Suits.’” Long story short, half the people at this party were watching it and eager to discuss it. What were you thinking when it became clear it was having a moment over the summer, and even now?
I’m just grateful. It’s impossible to metabolize or wrap your brain around billions of minutes being watched. And we even have a group chat — the “Suits” family group chat — and sometimes an article would come out, and we’d all be like, “What??” What I feel about it is that right now, our world feels like it’s growing more and more fractured and dark. And if people are turning to television, or turning to “Suits,” to escape, or to find relief, or to find comfort, or to have a connection, then that’s incredibly gratifying. It sounds really cheesy, but that fills my heart.
My mom at one point was like, “Everybody at the assisted living is watching.” I was at my children’s bus stop the other day and a woman knocked on the passenger side window. I rolled down the window. She’s said, “You’re Donna from ‘Suits.’ Can you come out? Can you come here?” And I was like, “Sure.”
The timing must have been bittersweet. One of the rules for SAG-AFTRA members during the strike was to refrain from promoting current or past projects, so I imagine it must have been difficult to not be able to fully engage with the fandom.
The strike was a hard time for everybody in the industry. Nothing could ever eclipse my gratitude for “Suits” and for the people who are watching it and for how it is being received. But some of the celebration, of course, had to be tempered by the fact that we were a part of a labor movement, across multiple industries, where workers had to strike to fight for fair pay that was commensurate with the value of the products they were creating.
I think in terms of our industry, we all see really good evidence of the value — “Suits” was getting billions of minutes on Netflix. I hope that people who are into teen dramas are going to binge “My Life With the Walter Boys” on Netflix. I would say that having to fight as long and as hard as we did was at times disheartening, but at the same time, there was so much solidarity on the line, there was so much solidarity from sibling unions, who were also making great sacrifices. It really was a summer of holding two feelings at the same time.
It was recently announced that a new show in the “Suits” universe is in the works. But have there been discussions about reviving the original series and having you and some of the original cast reprise roles before Aaron Korsh and NBCUniversal went the route they did?
Oh, I don’t know anything about any discussions prior to the announcement of the other iteration of “Suits.” But I can say that Donna lives in my heart forever. And at any time, I’ll be happy to let her out and play. I’m excited as a viewer to enjoy the next “Suits.” I have had a lot of conversations with my friend Patrick [J. Adams, who played Mike Ross on the show] about this moment and that gratitude and connection with the Suitors, as we call them. We’re marinating on some ideas to cook something up for them.
Other USA network shows like “Monk” and “Psych” got a movie. Would you do that? Tell me where you see Donna and Harvey in 2023.
Yes, I would do that. The beauty is the writers get to tell me where Donna and Harvey are in 2023. And the sky’s the limit. They can come up with anything, especially if we’re doing a movie version of it. I just have to potentially adjust Donna’s heel height because I’ve taken a significant amount of time outside of those Barbie-like shoes. Since 2019, when I took off the shoes, I haven’t really put them back on. But I’m happy to put on maybe one inch lower or a half-inch lower. Maybe they’ll just custom make them? Do you think there could be a movie?
I think the fans are hungry for one. I’m game for something à la “And Just Like That.” Give me a multiple season return.
I’m down. I was just with with Gina [Torres, who played Jessica Pearson] last week. Jessica and Donna, I think, have a lot left unexplored in their relationship. And they did have a phone call where they called each other by their last names. And they said they missed each other. And so I was like, “I think this is indicative of other phone calls happening, other things happening, maybe offscreen.” And I’d like to know what’s there.
We’ll have “Suits” creator Aaron Korsh read this story and make it happen. Cast members revisiting some of their popular works in the form of a rewatch podcast is also a growing genre. Would you consider doing a “Suits” podcast?
[Calls out to her rep in the other room to get guidance.] How about I answer it this way: Patrick and I have been having some conversations about how we can celebrate this kind of historic viewing of the show, how we can actually process that and feel it and and how we can connect with the fans who made it what it was, in a more real way. I hope that in the new year, we will have something, a way for everybody to connect and celebrate together.
There was also the recent news about this reunion at the ATX TV festival. So far, it was announced that you, Patrick, Aaron and Dulé Hill are participating. Have you been nudging your other co-stars on that group chat — Gabriel, Rick, Gina — to get on board with this?
Yes. And they are all excited pending, literally, just being able to go. We just have so much fun when we’re all together, and ATX has been so good to us and Austin [Texas] is such a cool town.
Has your perception of Donna changed in the time since the show ended?
You saw “Barbie,” right? I actually went to that movie with Gina. There is that moment in that film when the character of the woman who created Barbie says, “Mothers stand still so our daughters can look back and see how far they’ve come.” And, obviously, there’s America Ferrera’s monologue. I think having had some time reflecting on that has deepened my experience of myself as a professional woman and my imaginary experience of Donna’s experience as a professional woman. Another thing I really appreciate about having played Donna is how much Donna resonated with women and young women and with women who perceived her to be a feminist and to be a feminist story.
We were on that show for long enough, almost a decade. The world changed while we were on the show. I was on set when it became clear that Hillary Clinton was probably not going to win the presidential election and very shortly after that, Aaron and I had a conversation — “We got to do something with Donna.” I think I said it pretty emotionally and tearfully, “We’ve got to do something; we’ve got to say more.” Maybe it’s just gonna be a lighter version of some other female dealing with crashing through a glass ceiling, but if three people care, then we did something. The following season, Donna spoke up and said, “I want to be a voting partner and I want a seat at the table, and I want a voice.” And I think all along she knew she was going for COO, so she went for this other thing — she was just playing chess, not checkers. But it was a great conversation. Aaron did an amazing job writing a compelling story and not writing it because he was making a message out of it. As a professional woman saying, “I don’t want to be the woman behind the man.”