Sarah Shahi has been a fan favorite for TV viewers for years, from early roles on The L Word and Life to her short-lived USA series Fairly Legal to last season on Chicago Fire.
However, her Season 2 stint on Person of Interest was so well-received that she is now a series regular on the CBS drama and will play a key role on Tuesday's Person of Interest Season 3 premiere. Yes, she will return to conclude her story on Chicago Fire, but her new home is alongside co-stars Michael Emerson, Jim Caviezel, Taraji P Henson and fellow new series regular Amy Acker.
I spent the day on set this month in New York City's Chinatown, talking to Shahi between scenes to get more insight into Shaw; whether she sees a romance blossoming between her character and Caviezel’s Reese; and whether there are any similarities between Shaw and Fairly Legal’s Kate Reed...
TV Fanatic: Talk about Shaw a little bit. How do you connect with her as an actor because she's a darker character than what I've seen you play in the past?
Sarah Shahi: Yeah. It's interesting. Throughout the course of my career, there's this little pattern that I've noticed, where it started off after The L Word…I've had this thing where I'll do something dark and then I'll do something light, and then I'll do something dark and then I'll do something light. So like after Life came Fairly Legal. And then after Fairly Legal, it's now this. So it's interesting to see.
And [Shaw] is a very dark, damaged character. And how I can connect with her, the most PC answer I can give you is I think we all have skeletons in our closet, and it's a character that I really have to kind of tap into all of that to be able to access her, and yeah, she's damaged.
There are lots of ways in which I'm damaged, as well, but at the end of the day, I have to be able to cut it off because I do have a child at home. But, yeah, of all the characters, she's also the most fun that I've ever played. It really is like coming to work and pretending like I am the female Jason Bourne. I can't get enough of it.
TVF: Are we going to find out more about Shaw’s background? Maybe find out why she’s so damaged?
SS: In this episode five [the episode shooting while I was on set], we go into a whole Shaw flashback story, yeah.
TVF: Was that informative for you, as well, or did you already kind of know what her back story was?
SS: Well, Jonah [aka Jonathan Nolan, creator] and I had really discussed all this last year. And part of the thing that's interesting for me, as an actor, to play is people's backstory and people's history and why they are the way they are. I mean, the words on the page, they only make sense to me if I understand where they're coming from.
And it's always the stuff that's not said that I find kind of the most interesting. So yeah, we had discussed her back story prior to this, but it was really nice to finally see it formulate into something, and hopefully, people will really get a kick out of it.
TVF: When you came on last season doing kind of the guest arc, did it feel like a good fit, like ‘I could see myself hanging around here for a while?’
SS: Oh, gosh. I have no idea. You know? When I came in doing that guest arc, I just didn't want to f-ck up. That was just my main concern. I never once got ahead of myself and thought that I was here to stay, or this was a good fit or any of that stuff. All I wanted to do was to be true to the story that Jonah wrote and tell the highest degree of truth that I possibly could.
TVF: Is it safe to say you're partnered up with Reese again in the new season, or is it going to get mixed up a little bit more?
SS: It's going to get mixed up. I don't think it's safe to really say anything with Shaw except she likes being on the outskirts. I think that's a good place for her to be. I don't think she wants to be a part of anything and she really does kind of work best on her own and she is a lone wolf. She'll be with the boys as long as she wants to be. And there's an attitude about her that we keep, which is pretty much she can turn her back on them at any point and leave.
TVF: Fans, myself included, kind of see a little spark between you and Reese…
SS: People say that. I don't know where it's coming from. It's probably me being like, ‘What's my next line?’ [laughs]
TVF: But is there anything to that that the fans should look for or look forward to?
SS: Well, if it makes it more interesting, I'm going to say yes.
TVF: And how's working with the dog? Are you a dog person?
SS: I am a dog person! He's wonderful. You know, it's very hard doing scenes with him because I know no one's watching me. Scenes with dogs and babies, they steal the scene every time. But he's great.
TVF: And what does that say about your character, because the dog is the one thing she kind of has empathy for?
SS: She says that. She says that a few times. ‘The only reason I'm here is for the dog.’
TVF: What's been the biggest challenge so far, outside of shooting in the middle of Chinatown on a busy day?
SS: The biggest challenge of this show, it's the pace at which it moves. You know? There's a lot of locations...I did The Sopranos in New York but that was mostly all on the stage and so I've never really shot out on location every single day, five days a week, for months on end in New York. And now that I'm doing it, I find that the challenge is shooting in the city and it's all the different locations.
But, to be honest, to share the screen with four other cast members, this is kind of the most time off I've had in the past six years, because when I was on Life, my hours there were anywhere from 16 to 19 hours a day. On Fairly Legal, they were consistent 16 hours a day. And Jonah and Greg [Plageman, Exec Producer], they check up on me all the time, saying, ‘How you doing? How are the hours?’ I'm like, ‘Guys, it's a dream job for me, honestly, because it's the easiest schedule I've had in over six years.’
TVF: Which do you prefer as an actor? Something closer to you, or something like this, where it's kind of far from you?
SS: I don't know. I mean, Shaw's a little bit closer than you may think. [Shaw and Reed] both fit, in their own ways. And the Reed character was just as flawed. Maybe not equal in their flaws, but she was also flawed. Kate Reed was very childish and very immature. This character is clearly not that…honestly, they both feel right, and they're both fantastic to play because I get to access different parts of myself, you know?
Even though the Kate Reed character, yes, a lot of it did come from me [but] it wasn't completely me. It was a part of me. And the same with Shaw, you know? It's like there is a part of me that's in there. I don't know how to do it otherwise. I don't think I'm a very good actor, so for me, it has to feel real. I have to find a part of my own personality or a part of something for me to connect with to be able to understand it and do it, otherwise I don't know how to do it.