Sarah Rafferty, who plays Donna Paulsen on the legal drama Suits, today became the latest recipient of Trinity’s Praeses Elit award.
The award, which was founded by former president Mary Robinson for “individuals who have truly excelled in their chosen vocation,” was presented to Rafferty by TCD Law Society in recognition of her achievements in the field of acting.
The award ceremony, which was originally due to be held in Regent House, had to be moved to Goldsmith Hall at the last minute to accommodate the huge demand, and Rafferty received a standing ovation from the packed lecture theatre on arrival.
Following the presentation of the award, Law Soc auditor Kean Kavanagh conducted a Q&A session, using both his own questions and some from the audience. Topics included Rafferty’s own life and career as well as questions relating to her character, described by Kavanagh as “the heart of the show.”
Much of the discussion centred on Rafferty’s role in fighting gender bias in Hollywood through her portrayal of Donna and other female characters. While she described Donna as “a kind of superhero,” she said that films and TV lack diversity in female roles, and that characters don’t need to be typically “strong” women to add value.
She also discussed her passion for educating girls in developing countries, as she believes that “investing in girls may be the way to solve all the world’s problems.”
Drawing parallels between herself and her character, Rafferty commented that the pursuit of law or law-based careers comes from a desire to provide a service and help others, while actors also serve others by telling stories and humanising people.
Though much of the discussion focused on serious issues such as sexism and the difficulties of acting, there were many lighter moments, such as the discovery of a rogue DCU student at the event and discussion of the infamous “can opener ritual,” a running gag from the show.
The event ended with the audience singing “Happy Birthday” to Rafferty’s parents, who were present at the ceremony along with her three sisters.
According to Law Soc secretary Hilary Hogan, “this year in particular, the Law Society is placing an emphasis on individuals who have inspired others to achieve their full potential.” Similarly, Kavanagh, while introducing Rafferty, acknowledged the role of law-based films and TV shows in motivating young people to pursue law degrees, and said that he found Donna’s “overarching sense of justice” particularly inspiring.
Rafferty was chosen to receive the award by Law Soc’s members and committee. “Sarah Rafferty was chosen for a number of reasons,” said Hogan. “First and foremost, we received a number of requests to invite her. Our members are the core of the society, and I see it is vital that they are the first port of call when it comes to the speaker series. Secondly, Sarah’s character on Suits is one that we can’t help but admire. So many lead roles for women on screen, both in Hollywood and on television, are confined to secondary supporting roles … Donna may be Harvey’s PA, but she is also authoritative, tough and wields a significant degree of power within the dynamics of the show,” she said.
Past recipients of the Praeses Elit award include Cherie Blair and astronaut Chris Hadfield. Due to visit visit Trinity and receive the award later in the year are Dr Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, Director of UN Women; Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian; Larry King, American broadcaster, and Theodore Olson, former Secretary General and prominent constitutional lawyer.