Sarah Shahi on her Journey From the Football Field to Cable

Name some shows about lawyers—it should be easy, there are more than a few. But a show about a legal mediator, i.e., a legal expert hired to bring opposing sides together to reach a solution? That's a bit tougher, but USA's "Fairly Legal" is the answer, and Sarah Shahi is that series' lovely and feisty leading lady. Shahi began her entertainment career as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, but she has proved to have the acting chops and intelligence to match her considerable good looks. She recently spoke with Back Stage about her career path from the football field in Dallas to her current gig as Kate Reed, television's finest—and perhaps only—legal mediator.

Back Stage: What is your background in the industry, and how did you get into acting?

Sarah Shahi: I was a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys, and Robert Altman came to Texas and he used our rehearsal facilities as a set [for "Dr. T and the Women"] for about two weeks. I had no idea who he was. And for whatever reason, he and I really got along, and became buddies. We talked about everything other than acting and movies, and he finally said to me on the last day, "What is it you that want to do?" And I said, "Well, I want to be an actress but I don't know how to do it out here." And he goes, "I think you have something, you have what it takes. You need to move out to L.A."

I went home that night and I Googled him; once again I did not know who this man was, and I saw his list of movies, the amazing, impressive stuff he directed. The only one I recognized was "Popeye." So I turned to my mom and said, "Mom, the guy who directed 'Popeye' told me I've got a shot. I can't ignore this." So that was it, I packed my stuff up in my truck and moved out. For about three months after I came out, we continued to play phone tag, and by the end of the three months, I'd told this story enough times so that people would look at me like I was an idiot. They went, "You don't know who Robert Altman is?" And by the last time he called me, I was so intimidated; I was too intimidated to call him back. I didn't know what to think about this person I was once so comfortable around, and we would talk about everything, and my nerves got the best of me and I never returned his call. But he was the catalyst. He is the reason I am here. I guess that's why they say ignorance is bliss; sometimes if you just don't know who people are, you will never get too nervous to talk to them.

Back Stage: Did you study acting formally before you came out to L.A.?

Shahi: No, I never did. I had done plays throughout school, but I never studied it, even in college. I was an English and communications major. When I came out, I opened up Back Stage West and was like "Okay, where do I start?" And I opened a random page to a random person, and I said, "Okay, I'll study with this person." I didn't know anybody, I did know what to do. I knew the magazine, and I knew I could get information from the magazine.

So, I studied with a coach for a year. I found a manager within the first week I was out here, and an agent, and I started auditioning. I booked a pilot my first year, and then pretty soon after that I started getting guest-star gigs; nothing that changed my life. I was a very month-to-month-living, struggling actress. You know, I would check every penny, that kind of thing. Dinners would come from the gas station across the street from my little apartment on Wilcox.

And then I guess it was my second year out here that I booked "Alias." That was something that had a bit more stability. I had a recurring gig on that, and it helped launch me into other things. I do study with a coach now. It's only within the last three years now, but before that, it was like "Acting is real make-believe," that's kind of the philosophy I had. J.J. Abrams, I remember, on "Alias," was very good for me. Everybody I work with for the most part is a very studied actor. Everyone was NYU, Juilliard. It's just ridiculously intimidating sometimes. Every time it would come up, it was like "No, no, no, you have something, don't touch it." But as I got more experienced, I realized something was missing. I could do the easy stuff, but anything super challenging, I need to go places I wasn't able to go myself, I needed someone to take me there. And that is when I got a coach. Bill Howey is his name. I believe hands down he changed my acting. The reason I can go places now that I couldn't go before is because of him.

Back Stage: How did you get the role of Kate Reed on "Fairly Legal"? Did you have to audition?

Shahi: Yes. I read the sides, and I was only five weeks postpartum so I was hormonal and tired all the time. But I read the sides, and liked her. I liked that she had some fire under her. I liked that she was a relatable character. I went in. I was wearing Nike running shorts, a white T-shirt, a white blazer jacket, and high heels, of course. Nothing would fit me. I hadn't lost all my pregnancy weight, but I really wanted to go out for this one. At the end of the audition, my boobs started lactating, my milk started coming through, because I forgot to pump before I left the house. So I delivered my last few lines, as I was literally running out the door, back turned to the people in the auditioning room, opening the door, exiting. And they were like, "That was the oddest audition, ever." They called my manager, and they were like "Okay, we thought she was wonderful, but have her come back. And also, can she put on a button-down [shirt]?"

So, I went back in and the only button-down that fit me was this country-western shirt with tassels and fringe. So I went back in and I did the audition again, and then I found out they wanted to test me, and I was like, "No, no, no, I don't want the job, I just wanted to be the character in the room. I don't know if I'm ready to go back to TV." So I went in and I basically told them, "Here are my reservations. I was on a show before, but I was not allowed any creative input. I was not able to be anything more than an actor for hire. And I now have a kid, so if I am going to come back for these hours, I want something that is life-changing for me and my family." And it turns out that is what they wanted to hear.

Back Stage: Which do you prefer, TV or film? Or both?

Shahi: You know, when I first came out to L.A., I wanted to do movies. I wanted to be a film actor. Now there are a lot of interesting things happening in TV these days. Networks, cable networks, are taking chances that aren't happening in movies anymore. I just like to go where the material is, whether that's TV, or movies, or the stage. As long as it's great writing, it's pretty much something I can't resist.

Back Stage: Do you have any advice for Back Stage readers?

Shahi: I am a big believer in my acting coach. I think he is Hollywood's best-kept secret. The other thing is, you know, I think acting is something where, it's so simple, which is why it's so difficult. I feel like I'm still learning. It's real make-believe. If that's something you can understand, then I feel like you will work forever. Every line is earned from a moment that happens before that. And I think a lot of actors rush through moments, and they don't listen. You really have to take your time, you have to know your character and your scene. The line you are about to say comes from the moment right before. It's not what's said, it's what is in between the spaces, it's what's in between the lines, that is the most important to play.