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‘Suits’ Boss Talks Plotting a Royal Exit, Crafting a Spinoff and Becoming the Next ‘Grey’s Anatomy’

When the doors to Specter Litt open again for the back six episodes of season 7 of USA drama “Suits,” all eyes will be on outgoing stars Patrick J. Adams and soon-to-be royal family member Meghan Markle, who announced their departures from the series in between the winter hiatus and spring premiere.

As part of the original “core six” cast of characters on the legal drama, the duo’s exits come at an integral point in the series. Not only is “Suits” the last of the network’s “blue skies” dramas in a current era of darker fare such as”Mr. Robot,” but after seven seasons and a reset storyline involving Adams’ character Mike Ross going to jail for fraud, creator Aaron Korsh is looking to bring in fresh blood.

That includes the addition of this year’s new series regular Dulé Hill, the recent hiring of Amanda Schull as a full-time player in her role as Katrina Bennett, and the eighth season addition of Katherine Heigl as new firm partner Samantha Wheeler. Add in a Gina Torres-focused backdoor spinoff that takes place in the finale, and there’s a lot of ground to cover in these last six episodes.

Variety caught up with Korsh ahead of the return of season 7 to discuss the future of the series and core casting changes, along with the logistics of writing around a royal exit and crafting story in anticipation of a spinoff.

Patrick and Meghan announced their exits well into writing the back half of the season; logistically how did you turn that around?

We didn’t have to change things last minute because I made a decision early on — I don’t remember exactly when in the season, but Meghan’s relationship looked like it was going well. And if that was the case, I guessed that if she married a prince that she wasn’t going to stay on the show. So we decided, in our hearts, to bank on her finding love and kind of having a fairy tale ending in her own life and assuming that good things were going to happen for her. Plus it would be easier to undo a decision to write her off than it would be to at the last minute have to make her leave. She would have to get hit by a bus or something, and I didn’t want to do that. So, as the year progressed we were assuming Meghan was going to go. And Patrick, when he came to his decision to leave, he knew we needed some lead time and that sticking us with that at the last minute would really put us in a jam. So he came to me early enough that we had plenty of time to design the back six around knowing that they were both leaving.

If you had had more time to craft their exits would you have changed the storyline?

It’s hard to know because the puzzle would have had different parameters, but as it worked out the spinoff had to be [introduced] in this last episode. The thing is, we’re always under the gun at the end of the season anyway. So when we think something is going to work, we do it. I don’t have as much time to change my mind in the back six as I do in the rest of the season. So I would guess that even if we had more time I wouldn’t go back and undo what we did.

When Gina Torres decided to leave “Suits” your original plan was to kill off the Jessica character but the network stepped in. Did brass have any kind of similar input surrounding these exits? 

The difference is that wanting someone to die is a very harsh thing, and we focused on giving Mike and Rachel a positive ending. And so they were on board with it from the beginning.

With the Jessica-centric spinoff getting picked up during the season, how did that inform your attack plan in regards to the back six?

Obviously we knew it was coming [and] we knew we didn’t want it to just pop up out of the blue, so we developed the framework. What I always try to do within any episode is integrate things that have happened before. We had this notion of what was going to lead to Jessica returning and needing Harvey’s [Gabriel Macht] help. That began in episode 10 of the season and sparked the spinoff. Whenever we decide we’re going to do anything we then set about weaving it into the fabric of the show, making it look like it’s always been there. There are two ways of doing that. One would be when you’re coming up with ideas to look to things that have happened in the past and then develop consequences for those things. The other way is when you think of something you want to do, you begin laying it in earlier. Either way. Once we knew we were doing the spinoff, which was relatively early, we laid Jessica in and made it a priority to build the groundwork for it.

Why use the finale to focus on the spinoff, and does that mean Mike and Rachel’s farewell happens earlier in the season?

Nope, it doesn’t. What I didn’t want to do was to make the spinoff a completely separate episode on its own that wasn’t connected to our world. The way the sendoff happens and the way the spinoff happens integrates into what’s happening in the overall story, and they both ultimately happen in the same episode. It’s because of timing that the finale is the episode where the spinoff took place. The idea of the spinoff came up within the course of the year. So from idea, to getting deals finalized, and to getting everybody to say we’re definitely doing it, by the time that was all done it pretty much had to be the finale episode. You also then need a lot more lead time to produce the spinoff than you do to produce any given episode because of logistics; you have to cast it and make deals with actors that are more complicated than just a guest-starring role. At the time I didn’t mind it being the finale anyhow because that’s a good launch pad for a spinoff. But primarily even if we wanted to do it earlier the logistics forced it to be that last episode.

Mike and Rachel have been talking about a wedding for a while now — would it be a disservice not to give fans that walk down the aisle?

There is no doubt that we are going to honor the relationship of Mike and Rachel before we send them off. There was a promo to this effect, that went back to all of their moments — the key moments of their relationship that have built to where we ultimately conclude. We absolutely had all those moments in mind when we decided how we’re going to send them off and what we’re going to do.

You once said you could see “Suits” going the way of “Grey’s Anatomy” and continuing for a long time with new characters, is that still the case?

I do. Here’s the thing: you have a core group of characters that started this thing, and I don’t think you could wipe out the core and replace them with a new core and have all-new people and still do the same show. But as in life, workplaces change. Over time you embrace new members of the family. We’ve still got Harvey, Donna [Sarah Rafferty] and Louis [Rick Hoffman]. That is a huge core that’s still there. In addition to that, we’ve got people who aren’t all brand new characters. You’ve got Robert Zane [Wendell Pierce], Alex Williams [Hill], Gretchen [Aloma Wright], Benjamin [David Reale], Katrina. People who, from the characters perspectives are a regular part of their day-to-day lives. We’re going to delve into all of those characters’ lives more and more; they’re not just coming in off the street, so to speak. We’ve always had the formula of bringing people back. And then what we also do from time to time is bring in new, juicy, hopefully awesome characters like what we’re doing with Katherine Heigl. So that’s what we’re going to keep doing and to me that’s what makes continuation possible. It’s not like we’re bringing in a whole new cast — we’re integrating and involving people you spend time with from week to week.

Amanda Schull has been upped to series regular, do you consider her — along with Dule Hill and Katherine Heigl — to be the new “core six?”

Absolutely. Behind the scenes we talk about who’s a series regular and who’s not because that’s the deal you make with actors. But on camera in terms of the Suits family, and in terms of characters that regularly interact with that core, I would add Gretchen, Sheila [Rachael Harris] and Zane. All of these people are regular parts of the show whom you learn more and more about. That’s what we’re planning on doing next year.

Why was this a good time to up Amanda, and what will Katrina add?

I would have upped her years ago but she went onto “12 Monkeys,” which was in our UCP family. And once “12 Monkeys” was going down, we knew she’s a great actress, she’s a great person, it’s a great character and it was a natural fit. A perfect fit. Bringing Katrina in, she’s a great compadre for Louis, and that also adds an element. In the early days we used to spend more time in what I would call the downstairs. If the partners and senior partners are the upstairs, the associates are kind of the downstairs, and Katrina is a bridge between those worlds. Having her this next season, we’re going to be able to explore some of that downstairs with Katrina.

With everything coming to a head in the finale, will viewers meet Heigl’s character this season?

No, not until season eight.

“Suits” returns Mar. 28 on USA.

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