Very few actresses
experience career highs like this Hollywood newcomer. Sarah Shahi welcomes
controversy on and off the TV screen. She reveals the key to her success,
the art of celebrating her body and mind, and the joys of working with a
naked Will Ferrell.
It was the career
break of a lifetime. The Hollywood newcomer would be making her big movie
debut starring opposite one of the funniest actors of our time, former
Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell. There was one catch: he would be
naked. It would be awkward, but not for Sarah Shahi.
Brought up to believe that we should celebrate our bodies, Shahi was in
a comfort zone, and thought her nude co-star was “adorable” in the buff.
Ferrell, on the other hand, was not feeling adorable or experiencing a
similar career high. “When the cameras were off, he was so humiliated by the
whole thing. He was like ‘So sorry, so sorry, so sorry.’”
They were working on the set of Old School. This particular scene called for
a middle-aged man (Ferrell) to be caught drunk and streaking on a college
campus by his new wife (Perrey Reeves) and her girlfriends (Shahi and
actress Leah Remini). Take after take, during a full evening of shooting,
Ferrell, wearing nothing but shoes and a strategically-placed sock, had to
nudge his way next to Shahi in the backseat of an SUV. “A couple of times,
the little sock in the front fell off. All of the other girls didn’t look,
but I looked. I feel bad about it, but I can’t lie. And I saw it.”
The audience never saw “it,” but the result was one of the most hilarious
movie scenes of 2003. Old School was a hit at the box office, and Shahi was
on her way. Confident, she found herself auditioning for more memorable
roles of a lifetime, and getting them. “I only take parts that are drastic,”
Next for Shahi: a role on one of the hottest series on TV. What started off
as just another simple audition ended up as a risky career move. She joined
the cast of Showtime’s critically acclaimed, yet highly controversial,
series The L Word, centered around a group of lesbians in Los Angeles. As
“Carmen,” a gay bilingual production assistant, and part-time DJ, Shahi
dates and hangs out with fellow lesbians.
"The first day we worked together, Sarah and I had to do a love scene, and
normally it can be really uncomfortable at first," says L Word co-star,
actress Katherine Moennig (Shane). "Sarah was fantastic right off the bat.
She had no inhibitions and was always open and creative. Bottom line, she’s
a no-kid-gloves kind of actor."
Straight in real life (Shahi has been dating a fellow actor for more than a
year), Shahi says she's not uncomfortable with the intimate lesbian sex
scenes on the show. But she was at first. Her initial reaction when she
landed the role: “Five years in Canada playing a lesbian? Ugh!” Her mom’s
initial reaction: “A lesbian? That’s hot!”
Admittedly, Shahi did not grow up in a typical Latino home. She was born and
raised in conservative Dallas, Texas. Her Spanish-born mother was a
free-thinking entrepreneur and her dad was a strict Middle Easterner of
royal decent. Shahi, their oldest daughter, wasn’t allowed to date or learn
Spanish, learning her father’s Farsi instead. She attended church regularly,
sang in her high school choir, and was a self-proclaimed teacher’s pet. “I
was the teacher’s favorite, but never the kids’ favorite.”
Shahi was also beautiful. She explains: “I was 11, and I was going to a
birthday party. I developed at a very young age, and I wasn’t comfortable
with it. I would wear baggy clothes. And my mom said: ‘You’re not going
until you put on a skirt! Celebrate your body!”
One way she celebrated was by entering beauty pageants as a hobby. “When
Sarah was 10, we went to New York for an international modelling contest.
The night before the competition, she had a 104° fever,” the proud mom
explains. “I had to have a doctor come and visit us in the room to see how
sick she was … she went to the competition the next day, danced, sang,
modelled on the runway, and placed first.”
But, as a teenager growing up in Dallas, Texas, Shahi never thought her
beauty pageant wins and competitive nature would lead anywhere but to a 9 to
5 job after college. “Going to the moon made more sense than being an
actress on a TV show. It wasn’t a reality.”
While attending Southern Methodist University, she met a former Dallas
Cowboys cheerleader who told her that the squad needed singers. She also
said that the squad had visited Saturday Night Live once. That’s all it took
for Shahi to try out. More interested in singing and being discovered on SNL
than cheering for a football team, Shahi tried out and joined the squad. As
for the SNL experience: “None of that ever happened.” But she did land on
the cover of the famous Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Calendar, and embarked on
a USO tour entertaining the troops in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Italy.
Then she got discovered by Hollywood, kind of. During a chance meeting with
Hollywood director Robert Altman, who was in Texas filming a movie, Shahi
was told what she always wanted to hear; “You should be in movies.” And she
believed him. Within a week, she decided to quit school and cheerleading,
and to move to LA. Her family was shocked, but supportive.
“When my sister was leaving to go to California, I didn’t think much of it.
I assumed I’d see her every weekend … ” says little sister Samantha. “It
wasn’t until that weekend that I realized I wasn’t going to see her but a
couple of times a year.”
With a truck, a dream to act, and no Plan B, Shahi set out to find a
manager. And she did. Things happened uncommonly fast from there for the
former cheerleader. Within weeks of her move, she had a manager and acting
gigs, including regular appearances on Alias and Dawson's Creek. After less
than two years in LA, she made her
film debut in Old School.
Today, Shahi says she’s the happiest she’s ever been, already planning for a
third season on The L Word, and looking for more hot movie roles.
What about the controversy? She loves it. “I think controversy is good. It
makes people think,” she explains, adding: “I go to work every day and it’s
like I stand up for the rights of every human being in the world. There’s
lots of satisfaction that comes out of that. It brings the biggest smile to
Her L Word co-star Moennig thinks the show's fans will be smiling too. "I
think Carmen is a great addition to the show.... I bet people are going to
want to know more about her as the season progresses."
She’s acted with a naked Will Ferrell and played a lesbian. What’s next?
“What more do I need? I’m done!” she laughs.