It was fun to get to take part in a conference call interview with the star of the new USA Network series Fairly Legal. Sarah Shahi answered some questions about the new show, which premieres on January 20th at 10/9c. Here’s how the conversation went.
Q: How did you start working on the show? Did you audition?
Sarah Shahi: I did. I was about five weeks postpartum and I went in to the— I read the slides. I didn’t read the script, and I thought she’d be a fun girl to be for ten minutes in an auditioning room. I was not sure if I wanted to get back into TV because of my baby. It’s kind of funny, I went into the audition wearing my husband’s t-shirt, Nike running pants, a blazer, and heels because that’s the only thing that fit me just after five weeks of having my baby. I went in, I read, and I think towards the end of my audition I felt myself lactating and I was wearing a white t-shirt, and I kind of ran out of there as fast I could.
They called and said that they really like me but they thought I was wearing some interesting wardrobe. They wanted me to come back, but this time put a button-down on. For me the only thing that fit was my husband’s country western button down t-shirt from a Halloween costume that he had, so I wore that. Once again, they were like, “What the f is this girl thinking?”
So yeah, that’s what it was. It was a two round audition and then they wanted me to test. Once again, I still wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to go back in TV, so I sat down with them and I had a meeting with them before the test. I said, “Look, I don’t want to be just an actor for hire. I kind of want to have a say in the story lines and in the character and the other casting. If that’s something you guys are not interested in having, then I’m not your girl.” It turns out that’s probably exactly what they wanted to hear because that was the character.
That’s how it happened and then I tested and I got the part.
Q: Can you talk about working with Richard Dean Anderson this season?
S. Shahi: Richard is interesting. He’s very quiet, gets very excited when he talks about his daughter, but other than that he and I didn’t really engage too much with each other. There was a lot of mystery surrounding our relationship with one another on the show, and I think we kind of kept that for ourselves off screen as well just because it helped on screen.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges for you in bringing this character of Kate to life on screen in this show?
S. Shahi: There were a couple. By the way, I like that question. I’ve done so many interviews so far and nobody has ever asked that question. One of the challenges was, for me, this is a character who just goes on her heart. She becomes so involved with the people that she’s dealing with, whether it’s in her personal life or it’s a working relationship. The challenge was/is allowing myself as an actor to allow Kate to be emotional about it, but then at the same time she had to be professional. A note that I was constantly getting from certain producers were, “You need to be more business-like. You need to be more business-like,” but I think that’s the opposite of this character. That’s why people like her; she’s so anti-business. She’s so anti-corporate. There’s nothing about her that’s business necessarily.
I think the struggle with her is just trying to find that balance between what are the things that she does that she just runs with her emotions on, and then what are the things she has more of a business approach. It turns out that there wasn’t a lot that had a business approach. The beauty of this character is that she is so emotional. She gets caught up so much with what she does, and a lot of times she gets in trouble for it and her head doesn’t necessarily always follow what her heart tells her to do.
Q: What do viewers need to know about your character that might not be apparent from the premiere episode?
S. Shahi: I don’t know if there’s much because what you see is what you get with Kate. That’s the thing. You can pretty much be guaranteed that there’s always going to be a surprise. You won’t really know what that is. She’ll go to any length that she needs to to help people and solve their cases. She’s a no bullshit kind of girl, and I think that comes across in the pilot and you continue to see more of that. The dynamics between the characters are further explored as the series goes on, but as far as Kate goes you just see her. That’s it.
Q: What are some of the guest stars we can expect to see this season?
S. Shahi: Well we have Richard Dean Anderson who’s probably the most well-known guest star. Dean Norris from Breaking Bad was another one who’s amazing. Those are kind of the heavy hitters. The rest of them are wonderful actors, but not necessarily any names.
Q: Why do you think people will want to take their time to tune in and watch Fairly Legal?
S. Shahi: I don’t know. That’s not a question for me. I think that’s a question for the people who hopefully tune in to watch it, but here’s what I do hope for the show. I hope that people watch it because they just want to see a good story, and this storyline, and I hope people get caught up in the fantasy of TV. It’s not taking itself too seriously. The show is very light. It’s kind of cheeky and flirty. It’s not a procedural. So I just hope people tune in because they want to laugh or sometimes cry and just be entertained really.
Q: Fairly Legal is kind of a new take on the lawyer genre. I just want to know, how familiar were you with a mediator before you joined?
S. Shahi: Not very. I actually didn’t even know what a mediator was when I auditioned for the show. I thought it was like a lawyer that didn’t pass the bar so they are just a mediator. But to me with this character it was not important to hover down as a mediator because if anything she’s the anti-corporate corporate girl. To me it was important to get to the heart, to understand her passion. Why she fights so hard for the things that she believes in. Why she is somewhat childlike in her personal relationship. For me, that was the most important. It wasn’t necessarily, “Do I think this is what it’s like as a real mediator?” It was more important for me to get her heart.
Q: Can you talk about the relationship between Kate and Leonardo and what that dynamic brings to the show?
S. Shahi: Yes, Kate and Leo, he’s the only one there in the show that doesn’t quite fawn over Kate. We were very careful when making the show to try not to present a blank persona. We wanted somebody who could fail, who had flaws. This Leo character and Kate, they have a very brotherly sisterly relationship, and he’s the kind of guy who knows her better than she knows herself. He knows what she’s going to do two steps before she does it. So it’s actually been pretty great to have somebody like that on her side.
Q: I was wondering if you are anything like Kate. Are there qualities there that you brought to the character?
S. Shahi: Yes, I think the things that she and I have in common—we’re both kind of flirty, feisty characters, kind of grab life by the balls kind of girls, and the what you see is what you get kind of attitude. But the part where she and I vastly differ is she’s a lot more immature than I am. She’s very childlike with her emotions and the way that she kind of handles her stepmother, her ex-husband. She’s very sort of just, “Love me, love me, love me,” but then she’ll push you away with the other hand, whereas I’m not like that. If I have a situation or a problem in my personal life, I like to tackle it head on just to get it over with and have some clarity. Kate sort of avoids conflict in her personal life at all costs, but when it comes to her work life, she dives head first in it. So those are the ways in which we differ.
Q: What can you tease about her love life in the first season? I know in the pilot episode she’s sort of with her ex-husband. So what can you tease about what’s coming up?
S. Shahi: Well, the tease is, I guess—the finale is incredible, a lot of unexpected things happen in the finale. I love the finale; it’s my favorite episode. But it’s more exploration of the dynamics of her and Justin. It’s like when we first meet them he is her soon to be ex-husband, so at one point I’m presented with divorce papers, but I don’t know if I want to sign them or not. So it’s interesting because a lot of times in TV shows, the dynamic between the male and female lead is sort of a will they won’t they, but this time it’s the opposite. It’s they already have and they’ve kind of fallen apart. So now the exploration is will they or won’t they get back together? Will they or won’t they get divorced? So that’s sort of the biggest relationship tease in the story. Then there’s just more sort of unexpected and sort of out of control—Kate’s like a tornado sometimes the way she kind of comes in and settles situations, so definitely a lot more tornados.
Q: In watching the first episode, you can see that Kate has a strange relationship with her stepmother. How do you see that relationship evolving throughout the series?
S. Shahi: It doesn’t evolve much beyond what you see. Kate is very straightforward. In the pilot where she says, “I thought my mother made him happy and then he met you so I don’t know what to do about that so I hate you. It’s simpler that way.” I can’t believe I just recited those lines from the pilot. That was so long ago. Kate has a lot of reasons for not liking her stepmother. She took her father away and now her father’s dead so if anything for Kate she blames her father’s loss on her stepmother. We do have to work together at some point, Lauren and Kate, so there is a bit of a nicer exchange that happens between the two of them, but as far as that relationship evolving, I think in Kate’s mind, Lauren would have to drop dead before she liked her.
Q: How does the role of Kate differ from your previous roles in shows like The L Word and Life?
S. Shahi: Oh, God, they’re vastly different. My character on Life was very troubled, a lot darker than Kate. Kate, of course what I liked about her so much were her flaws. She can fix everybody but herself kind of thing. I think generally, she is a happy person. She’s very whimsical and spontaneous. My character on Life was not like that at all. She was the opposite; very by the book, very sort of calculated what she was going to do because she just didn’t want to mess up.
On The L Word to play a character like Carmen who was a DJ… she was raised in a Catholic household, a lot of hidden—what’s the word I’m looking for? Not agendas, but just hidden secrets—a lot of secrets from her families. So yes, they’re greatly different.
Q: You had mentioned earlier on the call that you were a little maybe hesitant about getting back into TV or not necessarily looking to get into TV, and I was wondering if you could just talk a little more about that.
S. Shahi: I had just come off of a show called Life where we worked for two seasons for 18 hours a day, and we ended up getting cancelled, so I kind of had a bitter taste in my mind about TV. I also worked up until I was six and a half months pregnant on the show, and they didn’t reduce my hours until later on in my pregnancy. So I just wasn’t sure if this was something that do I want to get back into this kind of schedule again, and especially now that I have a child to take care of, and still not really feel the love from the audience or the network. It’s that that I just was not sure of.
When I went into my meeting with Michael Sardo and Steve Stark and I just said, “Look, I’m flattered that you guys want me for this, but I’m at a different place where I’ve done this before and I didn’t really get much back in terms of recognition from the work.” It was going to be a much different case for me this time around because I had had a baby and the stakes were just so much higher. I don’t know if you have kids, but when I have to spend a moment away from my kid, it better be worth it.
So that’s kind of how I felt about it this time. It was like if I’m going to commit myself to another season of television with these hours and this work schedule, I want to be a big dog. I don’t want to just be another actor for hire with it. If they just wanted me to be the actor who comes to work, delivers the lines, and then beyond that I didn’t have any sort of creative say, meanwhile being the title role, it was not something I wanted to do.
Q: You talked about in Life you were a lead character and you’ve had these roles, but this is a series that’s really built around your character. What feels different about that? Do you feel more responsibility or anything different about having a series based around your character?
S. Shahi: There is more responsibility. Thank God, I’ve had a—knock on wood—long career in episodic television so as far as the hours were concerned that really was something I was very comfortable with actually. It’s funny, I did a sitcom one time and I didn’t know how to react at all when I had the time off. I was like, “What is this?” By the way, can you hear me because my gardeners here? But yes, I felt really odd being on a sitcom and getting off at three every day. I was like, “What do I do with my time? This is really weird.” Being on an episodic is like being home in a way. It’s weird.
It was just a lot more responsibility in terms of I felt like I had to look after, in a way, all the character’s story lines, of course. I say this very loosely. Michael Sardo and Steve Stark and the network have been so gracious and generous with making me a part of the creative process so I was careful not to push those boundaries, but I’m sure I will next year. But yes, there was a lot of responsibility because I feel like the show has a certain amount of integrity and we wanted to obtain that within all the story lines.
Q: Sort of a follow-up to the last question you had actually, USA Network prides itself on, “Characters Welcome.” The show is very much based on your character. I mean there is the story line, there are a few legal storylines in there, but very much based on how appealing the audience is going to find you in this role to be. How does that impact how you approach the role? Does that put any extra pressure on? Does it kind of give you a little bit of excitement knowing that so much of this show’s appeal and success is going to be based on whether they do buy Kate Reed as a likeable, charming, powerful female character?
S. Shahi: Oh, Gosh, Brian if I had thought about that as I was filming I’m sure I would have come across differently on screen. I did not think about that at all. I don’t know how the audience is going to react towards me. I’m a bit nervous about that, but I do feel like I serviced this character and I serviced the stories that I was telling. If anything, that’s always my goal when I am playing somebody is I’m not thinking about, “Well what is the audience going to like, not like.” I just try to be as true as I can to the character and the story that I’m telling. Then hopefully within that truth, people will find her charming and adorable and all those things I hope people see.
Q: Obviously in the premiere there was a lot of emphasis to do the right thing, and there was that kind of heartwarming side to the otherwise fairly lighthearted legal cases, at least compared to say something like The Practice or something like that. Going forward, are there going to be more heavy handed cases or is most of it going to be kind of more comedic, more fun, but still adding that little bit of character development and drama along the way?
S. Shahi: There’s going to be both. We don’t have 46 minutes of straight seriousness in our life or 46 minutes of straight comedy in our life. So I think there’s going to be a good mix of both of those.
Q: What I wanted to know is where you pull from to get that father daughter dynamic in the story since your father isn’t actually on screen?
S. Shahi: My father in my life is absent. So for me, anything that has to do with fatherly issues, I put that into it. I have a whole closet, I have a house dedicated to my father issues so that part I have a lot to draw on in that area.
My father is still alive, but he was an addict, well is an addict, and so he’s been absent for almost ten years. Before that, we were very sort of in and out with one another. My heart goes out to the people who are losing their fathers because—knock on wood—I haven’t lost a family member like that yet, but I do know what it feels like to not have a father.
Q: I was reading you originally moved to Hollywood after the late, great director Robert Altman suggested that you might give it a try. What exactly happened there?
S. Shahi: Yes. I always wanted to be an actor, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I was in a production of Chicago, I sang, and there was this girl that was a background dancer who said, “Why don’t you try out for the Dallas football cheerleaders,” because back in 1995 they were on Saturday Night Live. I thought, “Great. That’s my way in.” I tried out for the Dallas football cheerleaders. I made the team, and Robert Altman decided to come to Texas and use our facilities to shoot Dr. T and the Women.
So he came to the ranch and the cheerleaders, we were all sort of extras, we were background in the movie for about two weeks. I had no idea who he was. For whatever reason, maybe it’s because I didn’t know who he was, he took a liking to me and we hung out with each other every day for two weeks, and he said towards the end, “What is it that you want to do?” I said, “Well, I want to be an actor but I don’t how do it.” He looks at me and he goes, “I think you have what it takes. I think you should move to LA.”
So I went home that night. I Googled him, and from all the movies that he’s done, I’m embarrassed to say the only one I knew about was Popeye. I told my mom through the screen door. She’s in the kitchen and I was in my room, “The guy who directed Popeye is telling me I’ve got a shot.” So we packed up my truck and we moved to LA.
He gave me his mobile number and his office number and he said, “When you get to LA, I want you to call me. I want to help you.” For three months, he and I traded phone calls. We never actually connected, and then by the time I owed him—it was my turn to call him back. At that point, I had been educated on who he was and I told the story enough times around town that people were like, “Really? You and Altman?” After that I was intimidated, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what to say to him anymore,” and I never returned his phone call.
So I go into every meeting now not knowing who they are. I met Harvey Weinstein recently, and I did not have a clue, but anyway…
Q: I was also reading that you have a movie coming out called East Fifth Bliss with Michael Hall. What can you tell us about that?
S. Shahi: It’s kind of a coming of age character story. Michael is the lead of it, and it’s me, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Lucy Liu, and it’s a wonderful cast. We all sort of play very quirky characters that intertwine with Michael’s life. He plays a guy who’s kind of a loser. He still lives at home with his dad played by Peter Fonda. He talks a big game, but he’s really never done anything in his life, one of those guys, and by the end of the story, he’s inspired to finally do something.
Q: Happy belated birthday. I noticed that you’re a middle child, and in the psychology of birth order, middle children are the ones that are peacemakers, strong negotiators, the diplomats. Did you know about that and have you felt like that’s who you’ve been through your life?
S. Shahi: That’s funny because I didn’t know about that, but I’ve strangely always been in the position where people are telling me their life stories. I will meet somebody—I was at a party recently with my husband and there was a dresser who was just had been so cold to everybody on set, never talking and for whatever reason, within the first five minutes, he’s sitting next to me bawling telling me that his wife that just died and his children and this whole thing. I was happy to listen to him, but by the end of it, my husband could not believe that this guy was opening up to me because people thought he was such a dick, but it turned out to be he was just going through some stuff.
It’s funny you tell me that because I have always wondered, “Why do I have that? Why do people do that to me?” But yes, I kind of have been in that position. Even to this day, if my mom and sister fight, they’re each calling me asking me to sort it out with the other person. I don’t know why, maybe because— I don’t know.
I don’t know about other people because I hate generalities, but I know with my situation my father left when I was eight. My brother is eight years older than me, so he was out of the house pretty early in my life. So I had one working mother. I had a single parent who worked, and then it was me and my younger sister so in a way I was in charge of a lot of things. I was in charge of the house. I was in charge of my sister. My mom wasn’t around. I had to be the second mom in a way. So I don’t know, maybe that’s why I kind of have that thing going. I don’t know, but interesting.
Q: In the pilot, my favorite part is the first mediation she does, which it’s not a technical one. But do you have a specific mediation that you’ve filmed that you can talk about a little bit and just tell us why that one stands out to you?
S. Shahi: How many episodes did you see, just the pilot?
Q: Yes, so I know you don’t want spoil anything for other people too, but is there one that just resonated with you and you said, “This is a really cool one that I just really love getting into?”
S. Shahi: I don’t know if it’s the second episode or what it is, but (inaudible) by the way I don’t know if the lady who asked about the guest stars, (inaudible) disk jockey was also on the show and a brilliant actor. There was this one story line where he played a guy who was wrongly imprisoned. He was prisoned for 25 years, and the whole mediation was about how much is a man’s life worth. The State of California only offers $100 a day. My character was fighting for a lot more than that, and it turns out that what he wanted was not necessarily money. He wanted his life. He didn’t want money. He wanted his life back.
So that was challenging to say, but the way in which she gets his character to open up just was so hard. The way she gets him to open up was very emotional and interesting, and if anything, that made the (inaudible) Kate. She goes about these very unconventional ways in a grocery store to get him to open up and tell her what it is that he wants specifically. So I think for me that was one of my favorites to play. I don’t want to give anything away.
Q: I watched the pilot and I think it’s amazing, and I just had a quick question. It kind of relates back to questions someone else had about you coming back to television, everything after you had your baby, and the decision to do that. What is it about this character that made you want to play her and go after that and give up spending time with your baby and that kind of stuff?
S. Shahi: It was her flaws. I knew what I was going to say before you finished your question. Things that I love most about this character are her flaws. I think, often times in TV, they try to put people up who are perfect people. Who kind of have it all figured out and that was, if anything, we wanted to do the opposite of that. We wanted to do somebody who was very confident in their job, but at the same time, she was internally incredibly flawed and had a lot of faults. That’s what I wanted to play.
That was the other thing that I was talking to Michael Sardo and Steve Stark about was that I wasn’t interested in playing a perfect person. I wanted to play somebody who struggled, and because for me, I think that’s real. I think it’s real for people to struggle, and I think it’s refreshing to see a character like that on TV, not a character who’s just willing to sell toothpaste. Often times TV gets kind of knocked, saying the space in between the commercials. I wanted to make sure that this character was not going to be playing to that. It was, in a sense, going to be representing a real person and some real struggles, and we were going to get a chance to explore that and to see her. To see her fail, to see her try to pick herself back up. That’s was I was interested in playing.
R. Thomas To that same extent then, do you have anything you would want to change about Kate yet or have you gotten enough into her to get to that point?
S. Shahi: I don’t know if there’s anything I want to change about Kate right now. She’s mentally and emotionally at a very interesting place. I don’t want to see her evolve quite yet because I think there are more stories to tell with her at where she’s at, but I do, as an actor, like to constantly be surprised. I don’t know what’s in store for her. I don’t know how I’m going to play her, and I enjoy the mystery and I hope I continue to discover her.
Q: When we spoke with Michael Sardo, he mentioned that the opening scene out of all the actors that auditioned for Kate you were the only one that didn’t back away from the gun. Can you tell us about filming that scene?
S. Shahi: Yes, I did that in the audition. I felt like this was a character who thrived on conflict. If anything, she gets excited by this kind of stuff, a bit of an adrenaline junky I guess. I figured in that situation the only way you could solve a conflict is by heading towards it. So for me, that’s what made the most sense. The character was that if this character sees a gun she has the strength and the confidence to believe that she can disarm the situation. Whether or not that’s true, that’s a different story because there are certain story lines where Kate feels like she has the confidence to fix it and if anything she ends up making it worse. But in this situation she does solve it and she solves it by walking towards it so that’s why I made that choice.
Q: What is it like working with Michael Sardo and the cast of Fairly Legal?
S. Shahi: It’s amazing. I could pinch myself working with Michael. He is one of the most egoless show runners I have ever come across and such an amazing writer. I don’t want to make his head too big because I say how brilliant he is all the time, but I don’t want to do this interview and then he not give me what I want next season because I gave him a big ego, but yes, he’s wonderful to work with. He’s such a corroborator. He’s so creative, so smart, one of the wittiest people I know. I’m sure if you talked to his wife she’d say something different, but from my perspective that’s my experience with him.
The cast is great. We find it so easy for whatever reason and I think we just got lucky. The dynamics that you see are kind of real, in a way, and if Leonardo and Kate are annoyed with each other, that’s kind of how Baron and I can be with each other in real life. Virginia and I, we get along, and it’s really easy to play that we don’t like each other because we like each other so much. So it’s fun. We try to out bitch one another in the scenes actually. Michael Trucco is, unfortunately, so ugly that it’s hard to play love scenes with him because what girl would want to kiss a guy with blue eyes that looks like a Greek mythological figure, like Adonis or something with a body of a god. I hate him. So yes, the dynamics are awesome in the cast. It’s amazing. Like I said earlier, I could pinch myself because the job comes easy.
Q: What would be your ultimate dream role aside from this? Is there someone specific you want to work with in the future that you haven’t?
S. Shahi: Absolutely. Jeff Bridges is someone I’m dying to get my hands on. The list is so long, of course, Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock, I’m just in love with. Penelope Cruz, I’m crazy about. Tom Hanks, I’ve been infatuated with since I was eight. So if any of you guys on the call know any of these people, please put in a word for me.
Like I said earlier, I like surprising myself. I don’t know where my career’s going to go. I don’t know who I’m going to play. The show could come out and suck, and people never want to see me again, and then I’m going to have to find an amazing thing to do on stage. I don’t know what I would do; maybe do Indies for a while. I don’t know, but the beauty and the downfall of this business is that it is constantly a surprise and you don’t know what you’re going to get. I think it takes a person who kind of gets off on that kind of thing to do this, and I like the surprises. I like not knowing what’s next for me. So I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Q: Would you ever be interested in writing or directing?
S. Shahi: Not writing. I don’t feel like I have not even one molecule of a writer in my body. But directing is something that I would have interest in, not to sound too cliché, because I feel like every actor at some point kind of transitions into becoming a director. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good. So if the right project came along, and I felt like I had the chops, I wouldn’t do it just to say that I could do it. I would love to, yes.
Q: I asked Michael Sardo the same question about one of the quotes you said in the premier. You said, “I hate you. It’s simpler that way.” You even mentioned the line during this conference call. Will you discuss a little about what that meant? I also would like to know what that meant to you at the other call when you talked to Leonard and said, “Is that you? …” and you said, “Well I am the master.” I think it spoke a lot of both of the relationships. What are your thoughts?
S. Shahi: You’re talking about the part when I tell Lauren— yes, when I’m telling her—she’s like, “Is it me you hate or lawyers in general?” I just say, “My mom made him happy until he met you, and I hate you for that; it’s simpler that way.” That whole thing, what that meant.
A few things. First of all, you kind of get the impression that Kate is a no bullshit kind of girl. She says what she means and she means what she says. So she’s very straightforward so that’s one.
With Lauren and Kate, specifically she’s not making any apologies for how she feels about her. Kate was (inaudible). Then all the sudden he meets this woman who’s less than half of his age, and Kate kind of gets stuck to the corner and here’s the new wife, the trophy wife, and Kate hates it for a lot of reasons. I think it’s just her way of saying, “Look, I’m never going to like you. I’m never going to forgive you and there you have it.” She’s very unapologetic about her disdain for Lauren and she just tells her right there.