When “Suits” returns for its eighth season this Wednesday, a lot has changed: Gina Torres, Patrick J. Adams, and Meghan Markle are gone, and returning actors Dulé Hill (“Psych”) and Amanda Schull (“12 Monkeys”) have been upped to series regulars. But the biggest evolution may be the arrival of Katherine Heigl (“Grey’s Anatomy”) as Samantha Wheeler, a role that series creator Aaron Korsh wrote for her after discovering Heigl was a fan.
Heigl said she was attracted to the gig because Samantha “is a badass. She’s not to be trifled with,” Heigl told IndieWire. “That’s really fun too because playing a strong, powerful woman who can really kick ass in a room and not be afraid of the consequences and not be afraid of confrontation or conflict—things that I’m constantly worried about—it’s really freeing to do on set.”
In the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up, women are experiencing a watershed moment in Hollywood, with more TV pilots being directed by, written by, and featuring women in prominent roles and positions of power. But long before these shifting roles began taking effect on screen, “Suits” always had the balls to script its leading ladies like men.
Schull, whose “12 Monkeys” character Dr. Cassandra Railly was in an equally notable position of power, said she’s always been drawn to these types of characters — but now she sees the landscape changing even more.
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“It’s a really nice, great trend moving forward,” she said. “It’s an audience that is interested in seeing the real world reflected on television because that’s how things are off camera and in the real world. From the beginning of ‘Suits’—and I was a fan before I was cast—there wasn’t a weak woman on it, including guest stars. Every single woman who steps foot on this show has a brain and uses it very powerfully and that’s a real privilege.”
Korsh gives credit to both his wife and his writers’ room for the strong pool of female characters on “Suits.” He said his team has had numerous conversations about the current landscape and female issues, and that what’s going on in Hollywood and in the world at large will inevitably have an affect on the new season as it progresses.
“I like touching on these issues but I don’t want to feel like we are pausing the show to give a lecture to society,” he said. “I try to have them come up organically as they would in real life. There’s a scene towards the end of the first half that I love—it’s one of my favorite scenes of the year and it’s between Donna Paulson and Samantha Wheeler and the topic of gender comes up.”
“It’s a scene where these two formidable women really talk about gender roles and address it,” said Sarah Rafferty, who plays Donna. “I asked Aaron, ‘can we lean into that even more?’ I love that we’re acknowledging that and that we’re talking about it on this show.”
When Korsh first conceptualized the series, he based his legal world on the investment-banking environment he came from in the 1980s. As a result, he envisioned the show’s top boss, Jessica Pearson, as male, until the network stepped in with the suggestion of switching sexes — a note Korsh eventually came around to despite hating change. But when the team had a tough time casting the role, Korsh says execs wanted to revert back to the original plan.
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“I said no. They had great instincts so I wanted to leave it that way,” he said. “Gina Torres had always been in my mind but I thought she was too young. The essence of that role is power, Gina had it, so I finally got over it. I said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ But I will say this: when I changed the role from a man to a woman I did not alter the dialogue. I just left it. I said, ‘It’s going to come right from the right person’s mouth.’”
That enlightened approach is one Korsh has since taken in casting many of the show’s characters, asking to see both men and women during the audition process when he’s crafting a guest-starring role. Meanwhile, on screen he’s followed his female characters to some groundbreaking places in terms of his own world building. Markle’s Rachel Zane character was the first Pearson Specter Litt employee to negotiate a position for herself at the firm despite not going to Harvard Law like the others, for example. And more recently, Rafferty’s Donna Paulson character negotiated a position as the firm’s new COO.
“I had a conversation with Aaron in the hallway the day after the U.S. election, saying that in Season 7 we needed to do something with Donna, that we explicitly needed to take her on a new journey and he did,” Rafferty said. “The first episode of Season 7, Donna asked for the promotion. She said, ‘I deserve this. I need to know I’m not just respected at the firm but I need to be respected in a broader way, in the eyes of the law community at large. I want a voice, and a vote, and a seat at the table.’”
Heigl acknowledged that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements helped bring talk of female empowerment to the forefront in Hollywood. “There have been really strong, powerful women throughout the history of television and film, there just hasn’t been a lot of light shone on it until now,” she said. “It’s the same with the show. Donna has been a powerful woman from the get-go. Rachel was a strong, powerful woman. Jessica ran the company. Strong, powerful women who knew who they were and what they wanted always populated this show. So it’s not like suddenly Aaron is writing to that because of the movement. But I love that the movement bolsters it and puts a light on it.”
“Suits” returns Wednesday, July 18 on USA.