When it comes to her career ambitions and natural diamonds, Sarah Shahi is going big or going home.
Photographed by: Milan Zrnic Words by: Marshall Heyman
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It seems par for the course that Iranian American actress Sarah Shahi is having one of the biggest moments of her career during an actor’s strike, a time when she can’t promote her film and television projects.
When Shahi got a leading role in the Netflix series Sex/Life, she had been out of work for two years. On the show, based on the novel 44 Chapters About 4 Men by BB Easton, she played Billie Connelly, a suburban mom of two who suffers a midlife crisis and starts lusting after an ex-boyfriend despite her supposedly perfect marriage.
It may be just Shahi’s luck that the show ended up paralleling her real life. Off-screen, Shahi is a mom of three who, during filming of Sex/Life , split from her husband and ended up dating her sexy Australian co-star Adam Demos.
Now, Shahi stars in the Amazon Prime hit Red, White & Royal Blue, based on the bestselling novel by Casey McQuinston, about what happens when Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez), the son of the American President Ellen Claremont (Uma Thurman), falls for the dashing Prince Henry of England (Nicholas Galitzine).
Shahi plays Zahra Bankston, the President’s right-hand and Deputy Chief of Staff. She has to keep tabs on Alex Claremont-Diaz’s dalliances with one of Britain’s finest to make sure they don’t torpedo his mother’s reelection campaign.
Shahi steals every scene she’s in, including one featuring Zakhar Perez’s bare backside. That should give you a sense of how valuable Shahi is to the film’s success. At the screening I attended, the person sitting next to me audibly swooned at every one of Shahi’s comebacks from start to finish.
But Shahi can’t talk about Red, White & Royal Blue, Sex/Life, or how those projects have impacted her life or not. Instead, she sits at a living room desk at her Los Angeles home, clad in a baseball cap and Nirvana T-shirt, right in front of a piano keyboard. She hasn’t used it yet, but she’s planning to take piano lessons along with her three children. Yes, they plan to take them together.
Shahi has a full house; three kids—William Wolf is 14, twins Knox Blue and Violet Moon are eight and their three dogs: Star, the eldest canine, and puppies Hershey and Cranberry she got for the kids last Christmas. “It was the Christmas I momentarily went insane,” Shahi recalls. “I was the Oprah of dogs. ‘And you get a dog! And you get a dog!’ But the smiles on their faces were worth it.”
From the sounds of it, they’re a deeply knit crew. Violet already shares her mother’s love of jewelry. “Oh my goodness, she’s already called dibs on so many things,” Shahi says of her wide collection. “She already wears some of my pieces. I have a massive jewelry collection.”
There are also plenty of pieces her kids have given her. “Those are definitely my favorites,” she explains. Shahi lifts her wrist and shows off a rope bracelet to the Zoom camera. “This is something that my daughter made me,” she says, excitedly. Then there’s the silver cuff her kids got her from Target. She wore it “on every single press line until it fell apart.”
Handmade bracelets and $20 cuffs are not necessarily oozing the sex appeal that exudes from the photo shoot that accompanies this story, but Shahi certainly exhibits the frank outspokenness she has become known for. This is why she has spent much of the strike working on a memoir, currently titled Life is Lifey.
if I want to turn it up, I’ll take those rocks as big as they get.
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It’s an expression that Shahi has used regularly in conversation over the years. “I’ve been married and divorced and a single mom of three,” she explains. “People would ask me how I was doing. There were times I couldn’t lie and say, ‘things are great.’ So, I’d say, ‘life is lifey,’ and leave it at that.”
Shahi says the book, which she hopes will be published next year, has been a tough project. Even working out has gone to the wayside. “I go from my desk to the kitchen as quickly as I can,” she jokes of her current training regimen.
It’s this brand of self-reflection and humor one imagines Shahi infuses into her writing. The book, she explains, is about “how I’ve gotten through my dark night of the soul moments. You’re living an absolutely perfect life, and you’ve had everything you wanted—why would you want more?”
Shahi says the book will also be about how she’s truly found her voice over the last several years. “I learned at a really young age to suppress that,” she says. “Sometimes I describe myself as a recovering people-pleaser. I was okay as long as everyone else was okay. I’ve stayed in relationships longer than I should have, both personal and professional.”
For a start, growing up was complicated. “At eight years old, I had to deliver the news to my mom that my dad wanted a divorce,” Shahi recalls. “My parents divorced on my 10th birthday.”
How did that happen, I wonder aloud. “I don’t know, you should ask them,” Shahi responds.
“My childhood was not an idyllic one,” Shahi continues. Besides being one of the only Middle Easterners in Euless, Texas, her father was an addict. She and her mother spent time living in a women’s shelter. Dad wasn’t supportive of his daughter’s dreams. “His philosophy was, ‘well you’re not going to make it, so why do it?’”
Her mother, thankfully, was more encouraging. “She believed in celebrating femininity and accepting all of yourself,” Shahi says. “The good, the bad, the sensual, the not so sensual. She wanted to celebrate me.”
That included entering her daughter in beauty pageants. So, by the time Shahi got to Southern Methodist University, she wanted a career as an actress, but she knew that wouldn’t be easy. “In fact, skating on the moon seemed more feasible.” At the time the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders had recently appeared on Saturday Night Live, “So I thought, that’s my way in,” Shahi recalls.
There was, however, a problem: “I had never been a cheerleader,” she says. “But I’d always had a secret envy that the cheerleaders got the popular guys. It was surprising that I made it. To this day it was one of the most rigorous audition processes I’d ever had. Hollywood looks like children playing in the sandbox in comparison. We’d have rehearsals six hours a day, Monday through Friday, and then I’d go back to the dorms and study.”
During her time on the team, the cheerleaders filmed scenes as extras in Robert Altman’s Dr. T & The Women. (In the movie, Kate Hudson plays an SMU student who is also an alternate for the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.)
“I had no idea who [Altman] was. I was 19 at the time,” says Shahi of the legendary filmmaker behind such classics as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player and Nashville. “If a movie didn’t have Julia Roberts or Richard Gere in it, I didn’t know what it was.”
Shahi recalls charming Altman on set. “It was just me trying to be nice and friendly,” she says. “I just wanted [everyone] to feel comfortable, so I introduced myself and said, ‘welcome to the ranch.’”
That led, she explains, to two weeks of conversations. “We talked about everything other than the business. We talked about school and youth and kids and my generation,” Shahi remembers. “He asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be an actress. He said, ‘I think you have what it takes. I think you should move to Los Angeles.’”
“I think of him as my acting catalyst,” she says.
Almost immediately—well, after looking up Altman’s resume of credits—Shahi quit SMU and the Dallas Cowboys, packed up her pickup truck and moved to Los Angeles with Altman’s office number and cell phone in tow. (They played phone tag for a while, she says.)
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“I was so green, but I couldn’t look back. There was no Plan B,” Shahi explains. “Every audition I would go into, they’d say, ‘How long have you been studying acting?’ and I would say, ‘Since Tuesday.’ I’d say, ‘Have you heard of Robert Altman?’ I’d tell the story, and they’d look at me like I was a one-eyed unicorn.”
“Little by little, I started getting an education [on Altman and show business] and by the time [Altman] called, I was too intimidated to call back,” Shahi recalls.
Of course, all of this led to an ongoing career of over two decades with roles on Alias, The L Word, Fairly Legal, Person of Interest, City on a Hill and last year’s DC superhero movie BlackAdam, opposite the Rock.
Now having three children of her own, Shahi can’t believe that her mother would let her head into the lion’s den at 19. But, as if you couldn’t tell, Shahi has always beat to her own drum. For instance, all three of her kids are a product of home birth.
“It’s not for everybody,” Shahi says. When her twins were born, her son was almost six. “He was kind of my birthing coach. I showed him videos of animals being born and I talked him through what it would be like, so he wouldn’t be frightened if I was making moaning sounds. It was a beautiful experience. I don’t know how many brothers can say they watched the birth of their siblings.”
Eccentricity also extends to Shahi’s personal style, including her jewelry. “It’s all over the place,” she says. “I’m a very mercurial person when it comes to my jewelry and what I wear is very dependent on my mood. It can be anything from big, gigantic David Yurman rings to tear drop diamond earrings that go all the way down to my collarbone to the thinnest turquoise necklace I got at a 76 Gas Station in New Mexico. It all truly takes on many personalities. Kind of like me.”
Favorite diamond designers include Jacqui Aiche, David Yurman and Bulgari. “I like a lot of wearable little things. I don’t wear diamonds every day, but I love a diamond tennis bracelet or a very thin necklace. I like paring it down and just being a mom and not having anything glamorous about me,” Shahi notes. “But if I want to turn it up, I’ll take those rocks as big as they get.”
Getting to dress up in gems for the accompanying photo shoot was “pretty specular,” Shahi says. “Holy shit! It was so huge and special. I mean, those yellow diamonds must have been tens of millions of dollars. It’s like never in my life. I can’t believe that Elizabeth Taylor would get diamonds as gifts all the time”
Being “expressive and artistic” is Shahi’s mantra these days. “Beauty and confidence come from within,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if someone else believes it goes with your outfit or not. If you feel good about wearing it, that’s all that matters.”
That kind of self-assurance is something she continues to work on herself. “I’m definitely learning that growth is a process, and we’re never done growing,” Shahi says, smiling. “If anything, I can only aspire to be wiser than I was the year before.”
Photographer: Milan Zrnic Stylist: Molly Dickson Creative Director: Lizzy Oppenheimer Hair: Sylvia Wheeler Makeup: Karo Kangas Manicurist: Natalie Minerva Bookings Editor: Glynis Costin Creative Production: Petty Cash Production Photo Assistants: Derec Patrick, Kurt Lavastida Digital Tech: Dom Ellis Fashion Assistants: Clarke Johnson, Jordan Gross