Sarah Shahi says she never has had a master plan for her acting career. "I have no idea what is in store," she said. "I just hope that, whatever it is, I keep surprising people in a good way. I know that I've been attracted to the roles before the money, and I hope that that attitude will take me to where the two will combine nicely."
Sarah Shahi says that she and the character she plays in her new series are "both very feisty, very sort of flirty people, like-to-grab-life ... kind of girls."
That attitude - plus her looks, talent and hard work - has taken her to the leading role in a new American network TV show, a first for an Iranian-American actor. Fairly Legal premieres January 20 on the USA Network.
Shahi, who grew up in Texas, has been in front of audiences since age 8, when her parents entered her in her first of many beauty pageants. She sang in classical choirs, took voice lessons, appeared in musical theater and went to college in Dallas with hopes of becoming an actress. Other cast members in a college production of the musical Chicago suggested she try out for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, a group about as famous as the American football team it represents, and she was accepted. That led to a job as an extra in a movie that was shooting in Dallas and encouragement from the movie's director.
"I had no idea who he was, and for whatever reason, he took a liking to me, probably because he sensed that I didn't want anything from him or need anything from him," Shahi said. "On the final day that he was there, he said, 'What is it you want to do?' And I said, 'Well, I want to be an actress, but I just don't know how to go about it out here.' And he said, 'You know, you need to move to [Los Angeles]. I think you have what it takes.' And he gave me his office number and his cell number, and he said, 'When you get there, call me. I want to help you.'"
The director was Robert Altman, one of Hollywood's most acclaimed filmmakers, who died in 2006. Shahi said that after trading a few missed phone calls with him, she learned how important he was and "became so intimidated that I never called him again." Instead, "I kind of just started making my own mark in Hollywood, as little as it is."
Her mark has become bigger. Shahi, who turns 31 a few days before her new show airs, has built her career steadily since leaving Texas for Los Angeles at age 19. She has gone from small roles in TV shows and a few movies to major recurring roles in two series: playing a Mexican-American disc jockey on the Showtime series The L Word and playing a detective overcoming drug addiction on the NBC show Life. She also has appeared on various lists of Hollywood's most beautiful and sexiest actresses.
She said she knows that's not enough.
"Pretty girls are a dime a dozen in this town, so if you want to last, you have to have a little bit more than that," she said. "I think I've got something. Can I tell you what it is? No, I don't know what it is."
One thing Shahi knows she has is the discipline to take advantage of opportunities when they come along. "I work hard, I continue to work hard, and I guess whenever it's the right time, the right project and the right talent - when those three things meet and collide - I guess that's when and why I've gotten things," she said.
That discipline has been part of Shahi's makeup since childhood. "My parents split up when I was pretty young, and my mother had three kids and had to take care of all of them by herself, and I was the middle child. So I grew up really quickly, and have, at times, what I think is too much maturity," she said.
Her background is reflected in the roles she chooses, she added. "I like to play people that are fighters because given my childhood and my mother and my background, that's what I know, is to be a fighter," she said. "But I don't like to play perfect people. I don't like to play people who have it all figured out because to me that's boring and not interesting, and it's also not real."
Shahi's new role, of lawyer-turned-mediator Kate Reed, is an appealing if imperfect character who reflects, in part, Shahi's personality. "Kate and I are very similar in the sense that we're both very feisty, very sort of flirty people, like-to-grab-life ... kind of girls," Shahi said. "The part that we don't have in common is Kate is emotionally incredibly immature. ... She also doesn't want to confront things in her life."
Shahi said she is her character's opposite in that respect. "I'm very responsible when it comes to people's emotions and to be able to confront things and all of that. I've been doing that since I was about 8," she said.
Shahi said her work on Fairly Legal was especially demanding because she had to balance it with helping take care of her toddler son, Wolf. (Her husband is fellow actor Steve Howey.) "Unfortunately, babies don't sleep in, even if you wrap at 1 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and so I was up early with Wolf at 6 o'clock Saturday and Sunday and then had to start my days again 5 o'clock Monday morning, so I never had a moment to shut off," she said.
Filming is completed on the 10-episode first season of Fairly Legal, and the network will decide by the end of March whether to order a second season. Shahi also has supporting roles lined up in two movies, she said.
Shahi, born Aahoo Jahansouz Shahi and a great-great-granddaughter of a 19th-century Iranian ruler, Fath Ali Shah Qajar, grew up speaking Persian as well as English at her father's insistence. She said she never had much contact with the extended families of her immigrant parents, but "I like to celebrate where I come from and where my heritage lies," she said.
If other Iranian Americans make up a large portion of Shahi's fan base, she said she's not aware of it. But she said she has not paid much attention to the fame she has acquired. "I'm still surprised by the fact that I even have fans," she said.
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