Sarah Shahi interview


Can Shahi tame Shane? 

by Jenny Stewart

February 25, 2005

Actress Sarah Shahi has just stepped into what could be one of the most enviable acting gigs on cable television. Well, lesbians would certainly think so. 

On Showtime’s hit series “The L Word,” Shahi plays Carmen, a feisty DJ with a heart of gold who may just turn out to be the woman who finally tames commitment-phobic Shane. It’s a solid, well-rounded character, and from the sound of things, Carmen may be around for season three.

The 25-year-old Shahi is a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who decided to pursue acting after a chance meeting with director Robert Altman. Encouraged by Altman, Shahi left her native Texas for Los Angeles in 2000 and nabbed a few minor TV roles, but none as high-profile as her “L Word” gig. 

The outspoken and down-to-earth actress chatted with PlanetOut entertainment editor Jenny Stewart about being the new girl on a hit series, lesbian love scenes and what it’s like playing the girl who may get Shane.

You’re new to the show, and your role is actually pretty complex. Your character is a lesbian who’s getting involved in an interesting dynamic between two women who are very good friends, Jenny and Shane. How did you formulate Carmen; how did you research her? 

I think there are a lot of similarities between me and Carmen, just in the sense that she’s a no-nonsense kind of girl, she’s very up-front with her feelings, she’s not wishy-washy and she knows what she wants. Carmen doesn’t play games, and I’m kind of like that myself. 

As far as the lesbian aspect goes, it’s also pretty similar in the fact that I … dabbled in it myself for a while. Also, I live in L.A., I have friends who go to gay bars, I hang out in those places. So that part came very natural to me, because of my own experiences.

In the very first episode, you have to do a pretty explicit love scene with Kate Moennig. You’d never done a lesbian scene like that before, so what was your comfort level during the scene? 

Well, you’re always nervous doing a love scene, because it’s always with a stranger, it’s never with someone you know. And there’s always a bunch of people watching, and even though it’s always a “closed set,” that still means there’s 15 people there, you know? [Laughs.] 

But Kate is a wonderful actress, and she made me feel very comfortable. And just like our characters on-screen, we felt very comfortable with each other off-screen as well. And I’m one of those kind of people where, when the cameras are rolling, I just like to kinda go for it — I don’t want to hold anything back. And Kate is sort of the same way, so it made it really easy, considering it was my first day. …

Wait, did you really have to film that scene on your very first day?

Yeah! I moved to Canada the previous day, and then the very next day, I’m on the set and it was, “Hi Sarah — this is Kate, and she’s going to go down on you today! Kate, meet Sarah.” [Laughs]

[Laughing.] Oh my god! Well, you survived it. Speaking of first days, being the new girl is never fun. Everyone knows the cast members are very close — some of them live with each other during filming. I personally would have been terrified walking into a situation like that, where everyone was already so close and tight. What was it like for you? 

Well, just like you said, they are tight, and they’re a great group of girls, so yeah, I did feel like the new kid on the block. So I just had to sort of let things happen organically, because you can’t just step in and say, “Hey, I’m the new kid, and we’re going to be best friends now!” 

So I would just go to work, I’d do the best job I knew how to do, and then I’d go back home. And then, little by little, I started hanging out with the girls on set, and after a while, they would ask me to do stuff off set, like go out to dinner or things like that. But I think that letting everything unfold naturally made the whole transition seamless.

Lesbians can be very … particular, and some lesbian fans of “The L Word” can be especially particular. They just can’t get enough, and they want details. I guess you’ve seen all the message boards on the Internet — everyone seems to be really curious about your heritage. Do you want to clear that up now? Because if you don’t, all hell is going to break loose.

[Laughs.] OK, well my father is Middle Eastern and my mother is Spanish, so I am more or less a mutt. I grew up in Texas with a bunch of white American kids around me, which is how I wanted to be. I was like, “Mom, I want to go to Catholic school, why can’t I?” “Well, because your dad is Muslim, so NO!” [Laughs.] My dad was a bit of a tyrant back in the day. He was very particular about what language I spoke, which naturally had to be Farsi. They divorced when I was very young.

Did you live with your mother after the divorce?

Yeah, and then my mom became this sort of amazing free spirit. In fact, it’s funny, when I first got the show, she was kind of like, “Whoa! Wait a minute — you’re going to be doing what on camera?” And now, since it’s aired, she thinks it’s hot and sexy, and she’s like [mimics mom] “Oh, I’d like to try lesbianism, I’d like to try!” [Laughs.]

I really love hearing when parents are so accepting of things like that. All the guys from “Queer Eye for the Straight Gal” said the first person each of them called when they found out they got the show was their fathers, and that their fathers were ecstatic. I just love hearing that, because like, would that have happened 20 years ago? Or even 10? Have you learned anything about lesbian life as a result from being on the show?

Just that there is no difference between them and a straight couple. I mean, what is the big fucking deal? They’re just like everybody else, so fucking leave ’em alone, you know? Sex is personal to everyone, so you know, however you want to do it! They have problems, infidelities, they want to get pregnant, they have marriages, they have issues — it’s just like everything else, so just let it go. 

The other answer to your question would be that I feel like I would definitely know how to go down on a woman if I was ever in that situation. [Laughs.]

Good, so it’s been … practical! And on that same topic, last year before the show began, the producers showed lesbian films like “High Art” and “Desert Hearts” to the cast as a way of having them see what scenes do and don’t work on-screen. Did they have you watch them too?

[Surprised.] Hmmm. No, nobody showed me anything. I didn’t know that. 

Well for me, doing the scenes works when you make the sex secondary, you know what I mean? Unless it’s like a raw, hardcore, two people fucking and that’s all it is thing, then fine. But there’s always a lot more stuff going on, and the sex is the last thing that should be played, you know? It’s all about the connection to the other person, be it with their eyes, or the way they touch or the way they feel. It’s just the period where you let yourself go, and the sex is all secondary to that. Unless of course it’s just an animalistic, that’s-all-the-director-wants sort of thing.

You really did get lucky with your character — it’s a juicy role. What do you like most about Carmen?

You know, the thing I really love about Carmen is that she’s such a great spirit. Well, I think all of the characters on the show are, but she so wants to be good, and she believes in having good energy around her. 

Yeah, she’s been through tough times, being a gay Latina — that’s not easy with her religion and everything. But she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve, and she’s not a victim of her society, so to speak. And I think that that’s where she and Shane really connect. Not only is she the love
of Shane’s life, but I think Shane is going to learn some things that impact her personal beliefs from Carmen. What they have is special. I mean, those two girls [pauses], they definitely pine for each other — they definitely are on a ride together.

I think so many viewers will be able to relate to that, even if they haven’t necessarily experienced it themselves. OK, closing with a few personal questions. We’ll be doing a poll with this question on our site, so I wanted to ask you first: If you, Sarah, could be in a long-term relationship with any of the characters on the show, who would you choose, and why?

[Pause.] Boy, that’s a great question. Um … let me think about it. ALICE!

Alice — OK, why?

She’s got great boobs. She’s got great, white, milky boobs. That’s why I’d choose her. 

I love it. OK, and which cast member would you choose to have a one-night stand with, and why?

[No pause] Shane. 


[Laughing.] It’s obvious why! It’s just completely, completely obvious why!

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