Romantic, sexy and dangerous. The three words that actress Sarah Shahi uses to describe Netflix’s latest steamy drama Sex/Life. “What I hope this show does is really empower women – sexually. I hope it makes them unafraid to ask for the things that they want, and the things that they need,” stresses Shahi who plays main character, Billie Connelly. With 60+ previous acting credits, and an NFL cheerleader and theatre past, Shahi’s acting popularity exploded from her role as Billie — a suburban wife and mother undergoing an identity crisis featuring lust-filled daydreams, countless bare encounters and unlimited drama — all of which she intimately chronicles. From her own little oasis in Texas, Shahi spoke to Schon! about sex, life and what she hopes viewers take from the show.
Hello to a fellow Texan! Tell us about where you grew up, and where you consider to be home.
Home is definitely Texas for me. I was born and raised in the little suburb right in between Dallas and Fort Worth called Euless. And I, like many others who grew up in a super small town, I couldn’t wait to break out. Now that I have, and I feel a little bit more established, and I’ve got kids, I just find myself coming back to my country roots more and more. So, in between projects, I always find myself out here. My mom and my brother and his family are out here in Rockwall. And so yeah, that’s pretty much where I hang my hat in-between jobs.
Generally, how have you been doing so far in 2021?
2021 is great. I felt 2020 before 2020 hit. I always found a lot of significance in the numbers 2020 in 2019. I remember going, oh, 2020 — that’s the year of perfect vision. It was just interesting, all the different changes that I went through personally in 2020. And, you know, I’m really grateful for that sort of forced quiet, internal look at oneself that was placed upon us in that time. 2021 is a year of celebration for me, and a lot of wonderful things have happened. The show is great. My kids and my family are healthy. I’m doing Black Adam. So, I’ve been out in Georgia for the majority of my time in 2021. And yeah, that’s it.
Before you were an actress, you were an NFL cheerleader and pageant participant. How did you get into acting? Do you ever miss cheering or participating in pageants?
I definitely do not miss participating, but my time in pageants was really great. It taught me how to have stage presence, to walk straight, stand up straight, how to speak in public. So, I definitely had a great experience with all of that. With cheerleading, I really miss having the front and centre looks at the games. That was kind of the best part of it all for me — the game.
Being a cheerleader was kind of a stepping stone for me. It was never something that I aspired to be when I was a kid. The way I even got to be a cheerleader was because I was in a musical theatre production over at SMU. I’d always wanted to be an actress but didn’t really know how to do it. And one of the backroom performers said, well, why don’t you try out for the cheerleaders?… So, I tried out and made the team. Then I met Robert Altman while I was a cheerleader, and Robert Altman is pretty much the godfather of film. He was very encouraging. One day he just asked me what I wanted to do. I was 19 at the time. I said, ‘Well, I want to be an actress, but I just don’t know how to do it.’ To which he replied that he thought I had something, and he suggested that I move out to LA. He gave me his number and encouraged me to call him when I came out there. So, that’s how it happened. The rest is history.
You have had roles in Alias, Fairly Legal, Chicago Fire and more. What attracted you to each of these series? What did you learn the most from those experiences?
Every time I look for a job — no matter how big or small the role is — I always look to see what the character’s vulnerabilities are. I don’t like the idea of playing people who have nothing to struggle against. So, I always want to find what their struggle is, because that’s sort of the humanity in everything. Those are things that I find to be the most real because real life is a struggle. And so, I feel like if I can find out what their struggle is, and if it’s something I feel like I can relate to or something that stretches me as an actor, or even better — something that scares me, that is perfect. I love doing things that scare me — that’s what I go for.
More recently, you took on the role of Billie Connelly in the lust worthy Netflix series Sex/Life. Describe this show in three words.
Romantic, sexy and dangerous.
What attracted you to this show? And why right now?
There was a point where I took a year to be super picky about what I was going to do. It was very scary, because it’s easy to take a job just because the money is there. I was getting offers from things that I was usually getting offers in, and they weren’t making me happy anymore. I was turning down projects and dollar signs left and right — much to the dismay of the people around me! I didn’t have a lot of money, and it was a little scary, but I just kept thinking, when the time was right, I was hoping that the universe would take care of me. I was thinking that hopefully it would all work out.
I’ve always believed that the universe conspires in your favour, and you have to have the strength to follow your truth. Sometimes, your truth is going to be something controversial for other people. For a long time, I was doing what was expected or what other people wanted. I never really chased after what I wanted too much. So, when Sex/Life came around, and I read the script, two things happened to me: I was very turned on reading it, and I was very scared because it was so different. The level of emotional breakdowns that Billie had was scary, the sex scenes were scary and having to be nude on camera was scary. There was so much about it that put me out of my comfort zone. That is what drew me to Billie – and on top of that, I just really could relate to the idea of being a mother and having an identity crisis while kind of questioning the choices that you’ve made in your life. You can still be a good mom and question those things. So, there were just a lot of things about Billie that resonated with me. There’s also the female aspect of it – it is a female-centred show that’s written mostly by women, directed all by women. And I felt like you have an opportunity here to really tell the story through the female lens, which hasn’t been done too often before. Usually, when you have stories about women, especially involving sex of women, it’s shown through the male point-of-view. But this time, it was shown through literally all women.
“How much are you willing to risk for your deepest desires? It’s time to choose” is one of the main taglines of the show. Can you unpack this tagline more? What does that mean?
Well, I think one of the things that this show is saying is that people have wants and needs, and it’s not anything to be shameful about. I think that throughout time, society has told women that after a certain age or after you have kids or after you get married, you’re just not supposed to want the things of your past. But the truth is those things, for some people, don’t go away. And that’s a part of who they are. Admitting that is living in your truth. So, what are you willing to risk? It’s just like, how much are you willing to do in order to embody your own truth and go after it? And I don’t think it’s necessarily about a man. I always thought, anytime people asked me, are you team Billie or team Brad or team Cooper? I’m like I’m saying, Billie, because this story is not about a man. The story is about how she used to feel at one point in her life. And though we don’t have a season two — which, if we do, I hope we explore that side of Billie more — it’s not necessarily that the man made her feel this way, this sort of the adrenaline rush that she describes. Those feelings, those things were already in Billie. It is about whether she has the ability to tap into that without the relationship and without a man. So, the whole ‘willing to choose’ part of it, I really do think that refers to her as the individual and not in terms of any man.
We’ve all had partners who we were with at one point who made us feel a certain way. And maybe we loved how we were when we were with them. I think we can easily be mistaken for the notion that this person is who brought that out in us. However, the truth is actually that all of that was always there, and we don’t need that person in order for it to be tapped into again. It’s us. We’re the ones who get to decide how we are in this world and how we operate in the world. So, we have the ability to bring those things out.
Do you think this show will change how people view sex, life and the choices that we make — and the stigmas that surround each of these concepts?
I hope so…when we made the show, obviously, you’re not making it for a reaction. And you know, I never, ever expected this to kind of blow up the way it’s blown up. I’m super grateful for it. But at the same time, as an actress, I was just trying to tell the highest degree of truth of the story and to really honour anyone who’s ever felt lost, and anyone who has ever had an identity crisis, or has wondered, what would have happened if I took that left hand turn instead of the right, where would I be now?
What I hope this show does is really empower women – sexually. I hope it makes them unafraid to ask for the things that they want, the things that they need. You can still be married and a mother and want to be a sexual goddess. And you should have a partner who is able to treat you that way. And if that’s what you want, and you’re not getting that from someone, then maybe you do have some thinking to do. Look, we’ve got one life. The only thing that’s guaranteed is this moment, and tomorrow is never guaranteed to anyone. So, you really must have the courage to go after your truth. And sometimes your truth may not be a popular opinion amongst your friends. But I think deep down — we know what’s good for us, and sometimes it can be scary. But I think the definition of women’s liberation and women’s freedom is really honouring what resonates inside of you no matter what people think.
Give us your favourite Sex/Life moment.
I’ve got some memorable moments. Let’s see. The pool scene with Cooper was incredibly challenging — one of the most challenging scenes of my career, because it was a freezing night in Toronto, and we had to be nude outside of the pool and the pool wasn’t heated. And you have to work through all that stuff… That’s always going to be a memorable one for me. And, you know, much to the opposite of that was the pool scene with Brad, which was also on a cold night. Very cold and windy. But the pool was heated to 90 degrees that night. So, once you got in you were just like, holy shit, this is pretty amazing. Never in my life would I think of going skinny dipping on a rooftop pool in the middle of winter.
You have 60+ wonderful and diverse acting credits – what type of role would you like to pursue next?
Something small. Billie Connelly is amazing, and I would want to play her for, you know, six seasons, if I had the opportunity. Being a part of Black Adam, and in this sort of DC world is very surreal to me. And you know, you’re on a huge budget movie, and it shoots much differently than a TV show. So, for the next role, I would want to do something very insular, small… a gritty indie, or maybe a play. I don’t know, just something that feels a lot more intimate. Yes. Intimate in a different way. Or just a romantic comedy where I don’t have to cry as much!
And what are you working on next?
So, I’m doing Black Adam. I play a character named Adriana, and there’s not really much I can say, except I’m a freedom fighter. The movie comes out next year.
Sex/Life is currently streaming on Netflix.