If you’re a fan of Sarah Shahi, you aren’t alone. The actress has had a long and varied career over the years on remarkable shows, from The L Word to Person of Interest. She’s also been an icon for women of color in the industry, specifically for Middle Eastern women who don’t always find representation on television.
Starting on May 30, you’ll find Shahi on your screens every Wednesday in the show Reverie. Shahi plays a former hostage negotiator named Mara Kint who left her role with the police after a personal tragedy. But now she’s called back into action by Charlie Ventana (Dennis Haysbert), the head of a private company called Onira-Tech.
It turns out that a tech genius named Alexis Barrett (Jessica Lu) has created a virtual-reality world in which people can live out their dreams and fantasies. But some people don’t want to leave, and their lives are in danger because they refuse to return to the real world. It’s Mara’s job to go in and convince them to come back to their actual lives. The series also stars Sendhil Ramamurthy and Kathryn Morris.
We spoke to Sarah Shahi about Reverie, her personal connection to the show, and the state of representation in Hollywood.
Can you tell me what specifically attracted you to Reverie?
You know, Reverie was one of those projects that fell kind of exactly at the right time. My father had just passed, and I didn't really have a great relationship with him. He was a drug addict. He was abusive. My mother and I were in and out of women's shelters when I was younger.
And I remember there were certain shows that the shelter would have on that I would watch and would take me out of my reality, would make my heart pretty light. I remember from an early age thinking to myself, you know, I had such a sense of escapism that I was like, "If I could make some other little girl feel like I just now felt, then that's my purpose. That's what I want to do."
When he died, I started seeing him and I started feeling him around me, and I started communicating with him in my dreams. And I just all of a sudden became such a believer that there's so much more to this world than what our eyes can see. I was also in a state of [an] immeasurable amount of grief. Even though we weren't close, his death really threw me back. And then I got Reverie after this happened.
Reverie was one of those pieces that I read and I felt like I was the perfect person to play it. She was so broken, she was trying to overcome the loss of her sister and her niece. She was being haunted by them throughout the series. And then on top of that you've got this new upcoming director named Steven Spielberg [laughs] — an opportunity to work with him. I felt like in a way I'd come full circle. Everything just made sense, you know?
Yeah, absolutely. Your character Mara, she has experienced such trauma. And she's not necessarily in a great place when the show starts. But you already begin to see her work through that trauma over the course of the first episode. Will we continue to see her deal with her emotions and her feelings and her growth over the course of the first season?
Oh yeah, it definitely gets worse before it gets better. And even in those moments that she's better, she's actually worse than she ever was. She just didn't realize it. She's become so disillusioned. The serialized portion of the show is some of my favorite stuff to play. I mean, I feel like they could build the show alone just based off of her crazy. And that's something that I hope the audience just latches onto, because it also provides for some really good jump scare moments. It's like Inception meets Alice in Wonderland, but set kind of in this virtual reality psychological thriller space, you know?
How much input do you have in terms of the direction your character goes, and how much of yourself and your own experiences and childhood experiences are you putting in the character as you play her?
Well, I put a lot of my own experiences into her. I mean, of all the projects that I've done, this one became very personal to me in a way that the others never were. Even at the end of the day, when you're playing an assassin running around with a gun in your hand, you're still trying to find the humanity in that. Because of everything that was going on with me personally at the time, this did become very personal, I was very raw. In the pilot, when I had to cry, there were times when I felt like I couldn't stop. It was such a purging of so many things for me shooting this show.
As far as the direction of my storyline, I didn't really have anything to do with the direction of the storyline, but Amblin and Mickey Fisher were very open if I felt like something wasn't working. I felt they really trusted me. If something wasn't working for me or if I wanted to kind of pump something up or I wanted to, any minimal changes that I wanted or I needed to make, to sort of make the character, whether it was more believable or make the words fit in my mouth a little bit easier, they were just so open and great about it. You really don't get writers like that very often.
There’s a lot of representation in this cast, and having a woman of color as the show’s lead is a big deal. How do you feel about this representation here and on TV in general?
Yeah. I'm not sure if it was something that happened on purpose, but I will say that compared to some of the other shows that I've seen where the diverse cast seems very derivative, this doesn't feel like that at all. Everyone is so just naturally inhabiting of their role. It doesn't feel like any of it was on purpose.
We are the United Colors of Benetton! ... We became a very fast family. We really spent a lot of time uplifting each other and I'm not sure if that's because we are all just mature or if because we are so different that there really was ... no, none of us were competing against one another. It was in our best interest to constantly lift each other up and help each other the best we could when the camera was in the other person's face. Their success is my success, vice versa. At the end of the day, it is an ensemble thing.
Me, being the first Middle Eastern woman to have the lead on a show is something [everyone] asks, "How does that feel?" And all that stuff. I've always said that I hope Hollywood becomes more colorful. Even the fact that we have to point out diversity in itself is, to me, a signal we're not there yet ... Is it diverse casting in the black man's eyes, in the white woman's eyes, in the Asian woman's eyes, in the Middle Eastern man's eyes? Diverse in whose eyes, first of all. Second of all, the fact that you're even pointing out the differences means that you're pointing out a difference, so it's not really diverse.
Diversity, that's a word that's always kind of pissed me off in a way. I feel like it's hypocritical, but whatever. Well, I'll take it as they come. Rome wasn't built in a day. It's fine. Yeah, you hope Hollywood is becoming more color blind in that sense.
In the end, what do you hope viewers kind of take from Reverie?
Well, I think that much like I said before, I feel this show was an opportunity for me to give back in a way. When I was going through a really hard time, I found a lot of comfort in certain shows. I found these shows that took me on a ride. I forgot about the fact that I was in a woman's shelter. I forgot about my father for 32 minutes, or however long it was.
Honestly, I felt such a sense of giving back with this show for so many reasons. I hope that's what I can do with it. I hope I'm able to take somebody watching the show who needs to be taken out of their reality and I can provide that for them.
Reverie premieres Wednesday, May 30, on NBC at 10/9 p.m. Central.