5:15am PT by Lesley Goldberg
How Meghan Markle Got Her Big Break on 'Suits'
Jeff Wachtel doesn't know if he's going to get an invitation to the royal wedding — but he should.
The current chief content officer of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment and president of Suits producer Universal Cable Productions helped give Meghan Markle — now engaged to Prince Harry — her first big break on the USA Network drama. The executive, who will move to London next year when he takes on a new role as president of NBCUniversal International Studios, cast Markle over another actress in her first series-regular role back in 2011 when he was co-president of USA Network. Markle, who before then was a case model for a season on NBC's Deal or No Deal, is engaged to Prince Harry and will exit Suits, on which she has been a series regular on all seven seasons, in early 2018 when the legal drama wraps its current season. (Production on season seven has already wrapped.)
"The big question at the beginning was going to be her chemistry with Patrick J. Adams," Wachtel tells The Hollywood Reporter about the early Suits casting process for an actress to take on the role of Rachel Zane, the paralegal who would become a love interest for Adams' Mike Ross.
Markle was up for the part against Kim Shaw, an actress who Wachtel would go on to cast in MTV's short-lived dramedy Just Want My Pants Back, which was produced by the company (Hypnotic) behind Suits.
"[Shaw] was a little bit more traditional blond girl next door; [the decision] was a tough one because they were both really good," Wachtel says. "And Meghan had a certain type of sparkle and was a little more urbane, a little more worldly."
As it turns out, it would be Markle's chemistry with Adams that would help her land the part.
"One of the things that we needed at the beginning with Suits was Patrick's character comes in as the hottest thing in town: he's brilliant, has a photographic memory and fakes his way into being a lawyer and then he comes up against this girl who turns out to be the love of his life," the exec says. "We needed somebody who had a real authority to shut him down and still be the coolest thing around. And they had it right away. It was a lot of fun."
As Markle's relationship with Prince Harry grew more serious over the past year, Suits cast and crew, as well as executives at USA Network and UCP, had the feeling that a change was coming. Wachtel says he found out about their relationship more than a year ago and almost didn't believe it at first.
"When I knew, [my reaction was like], 'You're kidding!' You can't believe it. It's almost literally a fairy tale," Wachtel says. "And then it got more serious and everybody has been wonderful and professional about it."
While Wachtel isn't sure if Prince Harry has been to the Suits set (despite his visits to Toronto, where the show shoots), the production tightened security in a bid to protect Markle and allow the actress greater flexibility.
"We had a host of security issues around things that we've all been dealing with," he says. "It was pretty crazy when the rumors were going around — 'She's going to be gone for four or five days, do we think this is the time when she's going to meet the Queen?!' We'd have to change the call sheet because Meghan was going to be at Buckingham Palace. Everybody on the Suits team was great at being flexible about this once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing."
As for the timing of Markle's engagement — which arrived a few weeks after THR reported the actress would be exiting Suits — Wachtel is thankful that it worked out for everyone.
"If this had happened in the first year or two, that would have been a challenge for us because the Mike [Adams] and Rachel [Markle] of it all is so foundational to the show's success," he says. "When you're in the seventh season, things evolve. It was the right timing in that way for us. Everybody has known that that was going to happen. And from all signs, they've been this delightful, happy couple and their relationship has evolved organically. It was time to take the next step. It's been fun having a member of your cast be on the front page of the New York Times."