Dina Shihabi Trusts the Process
The actress, who stars in the Netflix series Archive 81, keeps her nose to the grindstone through life’s ups and downs.
The stars have aligned to bring Dina Shihabi good fortune at more than one crucial juncture in her acting career. First, they came together to grant Shihabi—who was born and raised in Dubai and is of Saudi Arabian, Norwegian, Palestinian, German, and Haitian descent—a place in NYU’s Tisch graduate program. Originally, she’d wanted to go to Juilliard, and bad; she saw a production of The Seagull directed by acting teacher Richard Feldman there and thought to herself, That’s the kind of actor I want to be. “Magically,” as she tells me from her parents’ home in Portugal one evening via Zoom, that very same teacher came to NYU to direct her class’ turn at the Anton Chekhov play. “It felt like, there is a god,” she adds. “Or some divine power.”
Years later, kismet arrived at her doorstep once more. After graduating from NYU in 2014, she’d made a name for herself as an actor, with appearances on Jack Ryan, Ramy, and the Netflix series Altered Carbon. While working on the latter series, the executives on the show told her they’d bought the rights to an upcoming, unnamed project she’d “actually be perfect for,” Shihabi remembers. The following year, she received the script for another Netflix series called Archive 81. “I was like, This is the best thing I’ve been sent in a long time,” she recalls. “The pilot’s incredible. I texted my friend who was an exec on Altered Carbon. I asked who was behind the show.” Turns out, it was the very series she’d been told about in 2019.
After not one, not two, but three false starts in which other actors were cast in Archive 81, Shihabi finally nabbed the starring role of Melody Pendras in the series, which debuts on January 14. (Throughout this entire grueling process, she notes that she “had this weird feeling that the part would come back around, that the casting director would call me and be like, it’s yours.”)
Archive 81, co-produced by Rebecca Sonnenshine (The Boys) and adapted from a podcast of the same name, is a horror-slash-thriller that centers Melody and an archivist named Dan, played by Mamoudou Athie, in parallel narratives. Dan, an employee at the Museum of the Moving Image in modern-day Queens, New York, is assigned the task of reviving damaged videotapes filmed by Melody, a grad student, back in 1994. In the footage, Melody discusses work she’s planning on doing at an East Side apartment building named the Visser, which Dan finds out burned down the very same year that Melody began recording the tapes. While both characters attempt to get to the bottom of the story behind the building, they become increasingly wrapped up in its mysterious origins.
Although this is Shihabi’s first time in a top billing spot, it’s far from her first rodeo. And frankly, to attribute her acting chops or past gigs to pure luck would be an unfair misrepresentation of her career thus far. Shihabi got her start as a dancer, joining Sharmila Kamte’s dance company in Dubai at the age of 12. “I went home the night after my first dance class and told my Arab parents, ‘I’m gonna be a professional dancer,’” she recalls. “When I left the room, my dad immediately told my mom, ‘Fuck no, that won’t happen.’” Shihabi, who grew up Muslim, says her mother, who was raised in the south of France, “fought my battles behind the scenes for me.”
“Growing up in Dubai, which is a Muslim Arab country, was amazing—I love my culture so much. There’s so much beauty to it,” Shihabi says. “But there’s also a lot of expectation and restrictions to be one sort of girl I was expected to be—not by my parents, who are remarkable people and allowed me to be whoever I wanted to be. But culturally, there are expectations that make you feel boxed in: really polite and sweet and with an expected submissiveness. And when I walked into that dance class, it was the first time I ever felt like I had space to be myself.”
For three years, she danced nonstop—until the family moved to Lebanon, where Shihabi dabbled in acting. “This acting bug was ignited, and I was so set on the idea that I could do both,” she says. At 18 years old, she moved to New York City in pursuit of her double-career. She attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan in the morning, and performed at Broadway Dance Center at night. “My first job was as a dancer on SNL—I would do digital shorts with Andy Sandberg,” Shihabi tells me brightly.
While recounting her personal history, the actress’ stories are peppered with memories of gigs, side hustles, late-night shows, and getting up early in the morning to do it all again. It’s clear her tenacity and work ethic—combined with that very special bit of luck—has gotten her this far. “Dance taught me a discipline,” she says. “When you’re a dancer, you have to dance every day. You have to be committed to it completely. I think I have that mentality when it comes to acting. I give it the same kind of discipline.”
There’s one more story Shihabi tells me before signing off in which the career gods were kind to her. Once the actress got the role in Archive 81 and found out who her costars were going to be, she realized Athie, who plays Dan, was someone she’d known since she was 18 years old. They auditioned for Juilliard and NYU at the same time, went through the whole process together. He attended the American Conservatory around the same time she did. And they met at a house party in New York City as youngsters.
“To do this with him felt really special,” she says of Archive 81’s full-circle feeling. “Acting together felt quite emotional, I think, for both of us.”