While on the surface, USA’s hit legal drama “Suits” isn’t the first show to come to mind when you think of gay-centric television, star Sarah Rafferty, who plays the self-possessed Donna Paulson, shared a few reasons why the series has more of a gay sensibility than one initially might realize.
As the final six episodes of season three begin airing Thursday night, Rafferty talked to us about her recent visit to GLAAD, being a Mom with kids in today’s world and what would make the perfect Donna Drag Queen.
I heard you went to visit GLAAD recently. What was your experience when you went there and why was it important for you to talk with them?
Sarah Rafferty: I think what’s interesting in playing Donna and some of the things that people have responded to about Donna is how unapologetic she is for who she is and how much she celebrates being true to herself. So, my experience through Twitter and hearing feedback from people who watch the show, they definitely respond to that about her but it was a nice conversation with GLAAD just to talk about that.
We had an interesting conversation…for me as a Mom, the world that I grew up in and the world that my kids are growing up in are two very different things. And I saw that with my daughter when DOMA was struck down on that historic day. We were in Canada and I took my daughter out for a cupcake after school and I said ‘You’re going to study this day one day so I wanted you to remember it.’ She said ‘Okay! Why, Mommy?’
I said “You know Uncle Michael and Uncle Brian and how they’re married and everyone else is married just like Daddy and I are married? Until today, they weren’t really recognized for being married in the same way.” And she said “What?! That’s crazy!” Her five year old self could not get her mind around that. She almost blew it off like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about Mommy, you grew up in the dark ages.” [laughs]
But it filled me with joy seeing that difference and even some of my friends have kids who, I think, have an ability at a much younger age than my friends did to potentially accept who they are and celebrate who they are.
I sometimes wish we could see everything the way that kids do. They see it all so simply and I think we need that sometimes.
SR: I know! If we could just have that lens, it would all be good!
I was also thinking that I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw Donna Drag Queens. You haven’t seen any, have you?
SR: [laughs] No, except for the time my Dad dressed up as Donna for Halloween! Actually, it wasn’t Halloween, it was for a birthday video that my sister made for me and every member of my family at one time was wearing a red wig and my Dad was wearing the red wig and was wearing a Pearson/Hardman biker bag strung across him. It was very funny. But how thrilling would it be for there to be a Donna Drag Queen? It would be fabulous!
I live in West Hollywood so maybe I can make that happen next Halloween.
SR: The wardrobe alone…
I couldn’t pull it off. I’m a big guy and I couldn’t cinch that little waist like you have!
SR: Sure you can! You know what it’s all about! It’s all about the right undergarments!
And it’s about attitude because Donna has the right attitude so you have to wear that before anything else.
SR: Absolutely! I learned a lot about that from Charles Busch. I did a play with him about five years ago and we shared a dressing room and so I learned so much about his transformation. When he transforms, he’s a red head so that’s why I had to be a blonde [in the play] because you really can only have one red headed Diva on stage at one time.
What kind of conversations did you have sharing that dressing room?
SR: It was really wonderful! I enjoyed hearing about his creative process and, also, when he transformed, he’s transforming into the female character that he’s playing, he’s not sending it up as a man playing the character. He is a woman and a serious actor. You know that that actor is a man just in the way you knew all the actors in Twelfth Night were men. It wasn’t about how much this man can be a woman. It’s more like this serious actor is playing a character that happens to be a woman.
What was the name of that play?
SR: It was called “The Third Story.” And I always remember Charles’s hands. He had the most expressive hands when he would transform. But the makeup tips were awesome! Red would look good on a red head and all the different ways you can contour your face! All that good stuff! And I was very jealous of his undergarments! He had some really good undergarments that would make any lady jealous!
Now I have the idea of the Donna Drag Queen stuck in my head. What’s the key to being a successful Donna Drag Queen?
SR: I do think the key is the attitude. I think it’s not apologizing for who I am. I think she said it in season 2 in the five-year flashback where she says to Harvey, “I’m not apologizing for who I am.” That’s Donna mantra! When she sashays down the halls of Pearson/Spector, when all the women do, it’s like it’s a runway and there’s a mantra that creates that kind of confidence and self-acceptance and I think that would be the key.
And you can’t say something like ‘I’m Donna” unless you really know who you are.
SR: Right! Just that ease and comfort with herself. I think about that, going back to being a Mom, I think about what were Donna’s parents like? They nailed it in a lot of ways! “I’m Donna. That is enough! I am enough!” That’s a gift! If I can pass a bit of that onto my children, that would be a win.
Where did the ‘I’m Donna’ phrase come from? Was that yours or was it in a script?
SR: That was in a script. It’s funny, sometimes I tease Aaron Korsh, our creator, because he once said early on that Donna’s sense of humor is closest to Aaron Korsh’s actual sense of humor. I tease him and say, ‘You keep writing Donna as just being so fabulous because she’s the most like you!’ So he wrote in the ‘I’m Donna’ and this year I thought it was funny when she met her love interest, played by Max Beesley. He introduces himself and she just says ‘Donna.’ It’s like a name and a title in one. I have nothing to prove.
Have you played any gay roles in your past?
SR: I have not yet! That’s funny, no. But I’m ready!
“Suits” airs Thursdays at 9pm on USA.