Though the 32-old Sarah Shahi seems far too beautiful to be a feisty lawyer like Kate Reed in USA Network Friday night series Fairly Legal, the way she plays against her looks illustrates that she understands her character far too well.
When the series debuted last season, Kate's father has just died, leaving her and the law firm he founded to adjust to his loss just as she changed professions from lawyer to mediator. To work there at his San Francisco firm, she had to endure her dad's much younger wife as heir to the firm and her boss.
With this second season, their tussle involves further twists and a new partner who both abrades and attracts Kate. As the show proceeds, episodes grapple with fairness, winning and the law.
SS: I actually don't feel any responsibility towards [them], to be honest with you. To me, my responsibility is to the character, telling the highest degree of truth... for the [most honest] storytelling that I possibly can for every moment. My research into this character was never about opening a law-book because that's not what she's about.
She's a much more intuitive, much more emotionally connected person than just a lawyer. So in that sense, I don't feel any responsibility.
Q: In the context of the series storyline, does she represent what people go into lawyering for?
SS: Yes, absolutely. I feel like she's Erin Brockovich, she's a crusader for the people. She hears what people say they want and gives them what they need. And I do know some lawyers, after all.
Q: And coming from an Iranian family where the parents all want their kids to become lawyers or doctors.
SS: Yeah, absolutely, or a carpet salesman. In that sense, Kate has been established as a hardcore family person, very close to her father, but that's the whole point of this character, she rebelled against the law and in some way, her family.
She has a line in the pilot that defines the show: "Laws are made by people, and people are often wrong." So she's going after what's right at whatever cost that it is.
Q: The show tries to exemplify, in its own snarky way, why people go into lawyering with the best of intentions.
SS: On the other side of it, it is a system that's corrupt and broken, where sometimes innocent people suffer, and sometimes the guilty go free. It's not a true and true system, for sure.
Q: So your character changes over time from being rebellious to her family to now upholding the firm. It's a similar conflict displayed in shows like Boston Legal or The Good Wife.
SS: I've never seen those shows.
SS: Never. I don't really see anything. I got a fulltime job and a two-year-old.
Q: Raising a two-year-old is a full-time job. Is that what made you not want to look at the other legal shows?
SS: Well, Erin Brockovich [the film and the person] is the only thing that comes to mind that touches on what Kate Reed does. But for the most part I'm not a big fan of procedural TV shows. Kate's objective is always a very personal, very biased, and very emotionally connected objective, which above anything that's procedural.
It's also about the character connections, like with the characters Ben and Warren. Those are the stories I really love to play. I've never been a fan of procedural shows, so I'm constantly fighting to prevent this from becoming that.
Q: We are going to see more of Kate in the courtroom as the season goes on...?
SS: It stays out of the courtroom most of the time this season. It's a little more than last season, but it's a character whose main objective is to stay out of court. So we do go to court a couple times, but it's still not court heavy.
Q: So how do you inform the character in this context? You're not exactly Perry Mason.
SS: She's not Perry Mason, no [laughs]. To me, the center of the show is Kate Reed's spirit and passion. Kate doesn't have very many procedural heavy legal jargon things to say, so to inform myself in that way, it didn't feel real.
It's the job of the other characters to know legal jargon and spit dialogue back and forth. But for Kate Reed, it's all about how she feels and how the people feel, and you're not going to find that in any law book. I try to play someone who is very emotionally invested in the people that she meets.
To her, this not just a job, to her it's a lifeline, a connection to her father, her morals, and her sense of truth. Then there's Kate's personal dynamic, which is to fix everybody up but herself. The more she throws herself into work and clients, the less she has to think about her own problems and flaws.
I hope I manage to actually portray someone with flaws and not this perfect person solving cases left and right. Those things were more important to me than to be accurate about law terminology with this anti-lawyer character on an anti-lawyer show.
Q: The other side of Kate is this person trying to deal with a relationship. There's a lot of back and forth.
SS: The character Justin tells her he cheated on her at the end of the last season. The goal of this season is to take Kate's security blanket out of her hands, and we just ripped it out of them in this first episode. Justin confessed to cheating on her, and her boat, which was a connection to her father, blows up. So the boat kept her from growing up in a way, it kept her out of the city and sort of disconnected.
She always used Justin as a lifeline, when she didn't have anybody, she could trust Justin to be there. So they do get divorced, but they don't stop sleeping with each other, so as the season goes on, there are a lot of ups and downs in their relationship.
And then there's Ben Grogan who gets under Kate's skin, but they have some sentimental moments as the series progresses and she realizes he's more than just money hungry. So she's torn, hearts are broken, she's going on dates with them, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't.
It's a really nice soap opera kind of romantic comedy element.
Q: It has a post-modern or post-feminist context with all these conflicting elements.
SS: I don't know if it's post-feminist or not. My whole goal was to make a character people find relatable, whether it's... more so women than men, you're right, but it's a woman who is led less by her emotions than her heart, and I think people can relate to that.
Whether it's your boss being your step-mother, to being in an off-again-on-again with a relationship with an ex that's good and bad for you, she's challenged by being in this world where everyone is telling her to grow up. But if growing up means giving up on your ideals and not fighting for what's right, then she doesn't want anything to do with it.
Q: How does this role fit into your evolution of who you are, both as a person and an actor?
SS: Kate and I are similar. Definitely what I play of her is a combination of Michael Sardo, who created the character, and me. I slip into this role without any kind of vanity.
Q: You sound invested and passionate about it.
SS: It's refreshing to find a character that is unapologetic in her boldness, that is flawed. A modern-day successful woman that's playing in the big leagues, but doing it in her own way and is a good role model. Kate and I are very similar.
We're both very feisty, we're both very carpe-diem and bold, but the way we're different is that Kate is a bit childish, immature, and Kate has to grow emotionally. I'm different. I'm a wife and a mother, I don't want to be immature, I have to be ready at all times.
Q: In a way, Kate allows you that outlet.
SS: Absolutely. I love playing her because I get to act out, I get to be the child, I get to stomp my foot and say this isn't fair. Those are all the things Kate gets to do. She says things other adults think, but are too grown up to say.
Q: Does your husband see another side of you in Kate or is Kate an expression of you?
SS: Both. She is a big part of who I am, but she's not all of who I am.
Q: Yeah, I figured that. Do the objects in her office reflect you and who she is?
SS: I like the record player.