Chalk it up to the Catholic school in me that I’ll never be able to fully shake, but there’s something nerve-wracking about meeting someone you’ve somewhat-secretly binge-watched on Netflix’s very popular Sex/Life series (the name doesn’t quite do it justice, but this isn’t the PG-rated version of a relationship show)—and seen naked on-screen during that time—in-person.
“Hi! I’m sorry I’m early!” says the petite woman who just snuck into our photoshoot. She’s fully clothed, sporting a baggy T-shirt, tie-dye sweatpants and zero makeup. And then you realize it: It’s Sarah Shahi—the 42-year-old, Persian-American actress who is all the above (and then some) and, in a very endearing way, doesn’t realize her star—or stress-inducing pull for the prudent—quite yet.
This fall, she’s starring alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in DC Comics’ Black Adam (in one week, the movie has made more than $147 million worldwide and is looking to add more in its second weekend in theaters); later this year, she’ll segue back to her “day job” as Billie in Sex/Life with her real-life partner and co-star, Adam Demos.
And, as she shares with me later, she’s also writing a book in between the around-the-world press for it all.
Before all that, she was a Texan-born model who changed her legal name in second grade, made her way to Hollywood, added a whole bunch of roles to her resume, and has had some highs and lows along the way (she’s recently divorced, has three kids, and just entered the dating pool again with her costar).
But all she wants to do today is take some nice photos, get some Starbucks and wrap on time to pick up her teenage son at school. “I have to pick up my baby,” she says, setting her priorities in place. “Can we talk beauty tomorrow?”
The Black Adam promos are everywhere right now. It has to be an exciting time for you.
“Yes. Well, my character is kind of a mix between Laura Croft and Indiana Jones. When we were first discussing the character, it’s easy to play something that’s tough. It’s easy to play someone that is a ‘badass.’ But that’s not interesting for us…what’s interesting is someone who is fearless. What’s interesting is the courage it takes to walk into that fear. To just remember her vulnerabilities, to make sure that her compassion, her warmth, her grace—these were all things that also came through the performance at certain times.
Then, also throughout the course of the movie, I kind of become the Black Adam whisperer. To be able to see the traces of that and how my demeanor changes, which, in turn, changes his demeanor and just how he and I affect one another in a softer space. Those are all the things that I’ve felt like I was at the forefront of my mind in portraying her and why she’s different for me.”
But, you are different.
“I feel like I couldn’t put my head down at night if I didn’t talk about the similarities between playing someone like Adrianna and then also what’s happening in the Middle East right now in Iran. Just being a female that’s leading this opposition against this suppressive regime. My parents are Persian. My mother was on the protesting lines over 40 years ago, fighting for the same thing that they’re fighting for now. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the courage of my mother and everybody else that came before her. It’s like I come here as one, but I 100-percent stand as many that came before me, so I’m very appreciative of the position I’m in right now.”
It’s a unique one. Netflix is coming out with the second season of Sex/Life soon…I know you can’t share too many spoilers but can you tell us something?
“Yes! It will be fun; I think I can tease it the right way…it’s different this year. I’ll leave you with that. The themes of romance, hope, second chances; I think those are all safe to say and I’ll let the audience’s imagination run wild with what that could mean. It’s little different. Also, I just feel really, really lucky. It’s like…I’m a minority actress in my 40s and I’m sitting here talking about one of the biggest DC movies and one of the biggest Netflix shows. At the end of the day, I’m just pretty damn grateful, no matter how you cut it.”
Every time I get a job, I’m at the very beginning of my career again.
That was my next question…I know you’ve had so many roles before both of these big ones, but what does it feel like having this moment in your 40s?
“It’s not lost on me at all. As a matter of fact, the way I feel about things…I guess I can best describe it as, every time I get a job, I’m at the very beginning of my career again. I never feel entitled. I don’t have that sense about me. It’s just an example that hard work works. That’s what I have learned and that all the time that things were not meant to work out for me, there really was a grander plan and to just keep remembering to just trust that there is a grand plan and that everything does conspire in your favor in the end after all. I don’t know. I’m happy as a clam.”
You should be. We don’t have to get into relationships, but I have to ask: How is it working with your significant other?
“I would much rather work with him than not! Our schedule is so grueling that we would never see each other otherwise. To be able to at least be in his space when we’re on-set…that’s better than not having it. What we do…it’s so strange to the outside world, which I get. To be able to have someone that’s on the inside that you can commiserate with or that you can vent to…it’s pretty helpful.”
Do you do anything special to get into character for Sex/Life? It’s pretty raw. There has to be a process of getting into the right headspace to do it.
“Yes, I pray! I literally say, ‘Dear God, please don’t let me mess this up.’ I’m a big music person, so I listen to music a lot. When I was younger in my career, whenever I had emotional scenes—they put a lot of pressure on myself in terms of being able to produce the tears and all of that stuff. There’s a part of that that doesn’t allow you to feel free. It doesn’t allow you to be in the moment. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I just learned that if you have a great understanding of the subtext and the text, you just let it go.
For me, I still like to be in my own space. I still like to have my music going, but I don’t hold on to it the way I used to. If I can get there, I get there. If I don’t, then what happens is another incredibly honest portrayal of whatever the scene could be about. As long as I’m hitting the truth, then, at least, in my opinion, that means more than manufactured or on-the-surface tears.”
It’s a cool moment to be in.
Not to change the subject, but the question we always ask: Anything beauty-wise that you really love right now?
“I’m big in lasers and anything that is ‘upkeep.’ The Merit brand has the most luxurious lip stains and lipsticks. I just now saw that they have a skin-care line that’s coming out. I am a huge fan of that line. I will absolutely have to hit them up for that! I’m also a big fan of Shani Darden. She has this lactic acid product and, anytime I wear it, people are like, ‘Your skin looks like glass.’ I’m big on skin care, that’s for sure—it’s my one splurge. What else? I love those wipes with the Dr. Dennis Gross. The peels! They are excellent. And Sol De Janeiro’s body creams are like crack. They smell so good.”
Plus, you’re Persian-American. Any beauty secrets from your mom or relatives you can share?
“My mom was big on something random, but I’m starting to think that maybe she was right. She would take egg yolks and put them all over her hair, and she would stink! The whole thing was so gross and smelly, and I was always like, ‘There’s no way that’s going to be good for me.’ She really tried to get me to do it, but I was always a hard no…but now she’s older, and she has hair like a horse. She’s got more hair than anyone I know, so I’m starting to think she was onto something with that.”
Photographer: Dennis Leupold; Makeup: Sarah Uslan using LULA at the Visionaries; Hair: Rod Ortega; Styling: Karen Raphael; Styling Assistant: Ilana Uretsky