Sarah Shahi Always Looks to the Stars

The Sex/Life actress discusses the show’s exploration of the female gaze and how she’s helping raise awareness about the current social movement in Iran.

by Max Gao

A portrait of Sarah Shahi
Photograph by Gonzalo Marroquín

When Sarah Shahi first read the scripts for Sex/Life, the steamy Netflix drama about a suburban housewife and mother of two yearning for the fast-paced existence she experienced with her ex-boyfriend, the Iranian-American actress jokes she was equal parts terrified and turned on.

“From the moment I got this role, I’ve made it no secret that Billie Mann definitely pierced my soul,” Shahi says of her liberating but morally complex character in the provocative series, which returned for its second season earlier this month. “I was going through a lot of personal reflection: I’m a mother of three, I was married, and I just wanted more. I felt like I had lost myself along the way. I put myself in my own prison, and I was also holding the keys to set myself free.”

“The thing that’s most admirable about Billie is how much courage she has,” Shahi adds. “It didn’t matter if Billie failed, she could not deny herself [what she wanted]. I found a lot of inspiration in her, so I started making little shifts in my [own] life.”

Calling from Atlanta, Shahi—whose past screen credits include Black Adam, The L Word, and The Sopranos—opens up to W about the show’s exploration of the female gaze and the personal responsibility she feels to help raise awareness about the current social movement in Iran.

Why do you think it’s still a cultural taboo to talk about female pleasure?

Throughout the entire history of the world, women have definitely been suppressed, and it’s nice to be a part of something that is forward-thinking and says, “We have needs. We have wants. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” When it comes to sexual empowerment, a lot of times in film and TV, we see the men being pleasured. We see the women as a way to service the man’s story. This time, the roles are flipped. It’s about female pleasure and what turns them on—and then, if anything, seeing men through that female gaze.

With a role like this, you have to bare it all both literally and figuratively, but you have the benefit of working with intimacy coordinators.

Let me tell you something: Those scenes suck. [Laughs.] Even though it’s a closed set and the other actors are right there with you, you’re very vulnerable; to stand there, physically naked in front of people is a whole other type of vulnerability. [Having Casey Hudecki, the intimacy coordinator] was really lovely because we would talk about what was off-limits. It became a dance that you try to choreograph. There are no surprises; you know what to expect, where the movements are, where the kissing and the touching is gonna happen. I was really proud that the sex scenes, I felt, came from an emotional, storytelling place.

Last fall, in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini and the protests in Iran, you wrote an essay for Harper’s Bazaar in which you detailed coming to terms with your own cultural heritage. How are you talking to your children about what’s going on?

There was a special that I was a part of—it was a bunch of Iranian Americans, and we were talking about [our heritage] and what it means to us. [It’s important] to be able to show that to my children. I’m definitely somebody who treats my kids like little adults, so I want them to know what’s going on. My mother was one of the original protesters in the ’70s. It’s what led her to [immigrate to] America. So when all of this started happening, I saw the stories that I heard when I was a little girl.

My mom was raised in Iran and denied an education, but she was so smart and put herself in college by the time she was 15. A lot of first-generation children of foreigners have been told, “You have no idea how good you have it out here. You have no idea how lucky you are to be an American, to have resources at your fingertips. You put your mind to anything, and you can succeed. I didn’t have this opportunity.” So [I want] to give my children that perspective as much as I can.

How does the opposition to the current regime come into play in your everyday life?

The other day, I was working with somebody who is Persian. I was like, “Do you have any friends that are over there right now? What’s happening?” I’ve never been, and I probably wouldn’t be allowed to go. But he was saying that the morality police are now just walking around very randomly and taking people’s phones. And if you’ve posted [about what’s happening], then the kind of repercussions depend on the mood of the officer—whether it’s a beating, whether they just take your phone, whether they put you in jail. If you didn’t post anything, they’re still gonna take your phone, but you can get it a week later.

I don’t know why we can’t do more, why we can’t send people over there, why the world leaders choose to turn a [blind] eye. Instagram and social media are [the protestors’] connection to the outside world. And as long as their voices keep going around, as long as we keep talking and posting about it, then for them, it’s like, “Okay, our efforts are not in vain. The world can see what’s happening.” They’re not asking for intervention; they’re not asking for us to come in and invade. All they’re saying is, “Please keep talking about this.”

On that topic, I wanted to ask you some questions from W’s Culture Diet. Do you have any favorite social media accounts to follow that shine a light on what’s happening in Iran?

I recently met the actress Nazanin Boniadi and loved her, so I started following her. She’s in the political world, and she is very good about posting up-to-date, factual information. Another one is journalist Masih Alinejad. She’s seeking asylum in France right now, and she’s had death threats after death threats, but nothing slows her down. There’s another one called @HelpFreeIran, and I just bounce back and forth between those three. I don’t really watch the news, but NPR’s a place I go for national stuff.

So you don’t normally watch the news—but are there any TV shows that have been keeping you up at night?

Well, I have to admit, I am a Brad and Billie fan [the actress and her costar and real-life boyfriend Adam Demos’s characters on Sex/Life]. It’s funny because Adam and I are in different locations right now, and he called me the other night to catch up, and I was like, “I have to let you go. I can’t talk right now! [Our characters] Brad and Billie are getting married!” [Laughs.]

I love how you are able to separate yourselves from your characters.

I don’t see myself. I fully wear a different hat when I’m an audience member, and I got swept up in their love story too, so I did pull an all-nighter the other night. [Laughs.] I’m also really into the second season of The White Lotus. I watch a lot more movies than TV shows, so I’m catching up on all the movies right now that have been nominated.

Adam Demos and Sarah Shahi attend Netflix’s Sex/Life season 2 special screening on February 23, 2023 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

Do you remember the last movie you saw in theaters?

It was Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. I took my kids, and I actually really liked it. And the last movie I saw that was not a kid’s movie was The Fabelmans. It was classic Spielberg, very nostalgic.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

There are two books I’m reading right now; I always have a couple going. One of them is called It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover—I’m also reading something called The Betty Body [by Dr. Stephanie Estima]. When you hit your 40s, women’s bodies change. That’s something I’ve been on a journey to try to figure out: what my body needs right now. I’m also in the process of writing a book!

What albums or playlists are you listening to right now? Do you have any songs on repeat?

It’s all over the place; I’m very hippy-dippy and kind of flowy as a person. There’s this one artist I love named Charlotte Cardin, she’s a bluesy, French Canadian singer. I was able to get her in season two of Sex/Life. I can’t deny Miley [Cyrus]; I love a good Miley album. And I love SZA.

I listen to movie scores like The Hours a lot. I have a lot of noise around me, and sometimes the last thing I need is lyrics—so I also listen to a lot of frequency vibrational music.

Do you believe in astrology, and what’s your zodiac sign?

Oh yeah, I do. I’m a Capricorn, and I’ve really gotten into my [full chart]. The other cool thing about my ancestry that I didn’t know until recently is, as a culture, we’re very attached to the stars. The followers of the first religion in Iran were sun worshippers. I often realize how small I am in relation to everything in the world—and how connected I am at the same time. That feeling creates a sense of, “Wow, you have to let go of things, and you have to trust there is some kind of world order, and just go with the flow.” At the end of the day, as long as you can look in the mirror and be happy with what you see, the rest is out of your control.