Black Adam's Sarah Shahi Doesn't Need Superpowers to Make a Big Impression


Sarah Shahi is fully soaking up the moment. When we meet via Zoom during a press stop for the DC antihero pic Black Adam, in which she stars as Adrianna Tomaz, my spirits are instantly lifted. Her enthusiasm is infectious, even through the computer screen. Joining the DC Universe alongside Dwayne Johnson in one of the year’s most action-packed superhero films is reason enough to be all smiles, but for Shahi, there’s more to it than that. Coming off the runaway success of last summer’s Netflix hit Sex/Life, the actress is feeling an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude for the current state of her career. "I’m in my 40s, and I am getting to tell some of the richest stories I’ve ever told in my life,” she tells me. Although Shahi has been in the business for over two decades, just talking about her current work brings back the giddiness of her early acting days. 

For Shahi, Black Adam felt like a calling. It was an opportunity to reteam with director Jaume Collet-Serra, who she describes as "brilliant and then some,” and being a voice for the hardworking layperson and representing a fierce woman fighting against oppression in her country was an honor she didn’t take lightly. Being a single mother and Persian woman whose parents fled to the States right before she was born, Shahi felt a deep personal connection with the character. She is the heartbeat of the film—or, as the actress brilliantly put it, "the Black Adam whisperer.” 

Below, I chat with Shahi about the makings of a good superhero, being brought to tears while watching the final film for the first time, and pulling out some ’90s-inspired looks for the global press tour. Oh, and she gave me a little glimpse into what to expect for season two of Sex/Life.


(Image credit: Nino Muñoz/Netflix)

In an industry saturated with superhero films and TV series, what really stood out to you about Black Adam?

There were a lot of things that were different about this film to me. You are so used to these superhero stories being about good versus bad, but this is one where he is blurring the line between good versus evil. I am a firm believer that nothing in this world is black-and-white, and there is so much gray, and I love that this movie really explores all of that space in between. Even more so than that, the character of Adrianna. I get paired up with the superheroes [of this film] a lot during these junkets, and sometimes, it can be a little intimidating because I don’t have any superpowers in the movie. But when I think about it—especially what’s happening right now in the world with women’s rights and what’s happening in Iran—it’s my privilege. It’s my honor to represent the common person. And if anything, Adrianna and the people of Kahndaq are even more powerful than the superheroes. So to be able to be a voice for the hardworking man, to fight against oppression, and represent that on-screen is also just super appealing. And then you have Pierce Brosnan! You have Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate. Who doesn’t want 007 to be Doctor Fate? And it’s genuinely funny. It���s not too dark. It’s not too dramatic. It balances comedy and drama very well.

You touched on this a bit, but Black Adam is unique, in that the movie is centered around an antihero or villain in the eyes of the Justice Society. Director Jaume Collet-Serra described him as the Dirty Harry of superheroes. What do you think the film is saying about what it means to be a hero in this world today?

That’s interesting. I love that Jaume said that. This is actually my second time working with him. And to go back to your first question, he was another reason why I wanted to do this film. It’s such a personal definition of what a hero is, but I truly believe… Again going back to the concept of nothing [being] black-and-white, if you have somebody who represents hope, somebody who can give you a voice, it depends on the circumstance whether or not you can judge if something is right or wrong. Not all of us are 100% saints. We’re not 100% sinners. We’ve all been in those in-between moments, and if you have somebody who can represent hope and change and for you to have the ability to be free in your choices, I think that would be a hero.


(Image credit: Warner Bros. )

Let’s talk about your character. In the film, we meet you as Adrianna Tomaz, a university professor and resistance fighter. What aspects of her really appealed to you when reading the script?

Well, it’s a very personal thing for me to play Adrianna. I’m Persian. My parents are both Persian, and they fled here right before I was born because of exactly what the men and women of Iran of today are fighting for. For me at this moment, it’s an honor to play Adrianna. It’s an honor to be in her skin and to put up in an entertaining way something that I hope the world does more of to inspire change in some way. I’ve always felt like movies and art and songs are the modern-day philosophers of our time if you look to art in that way for change. I just felt it was like a beckoning or like a calling that is happening right now for me being so closely tied to my Persian ancestry and speaking up about this kind of stuff. And on top of that, I’m a single mother of three kids. Adrianna is a single mom. When you are a mother, you would move a mountain for your child. So I felt very connected to her with all of those things. I really liked the idea that she was like the Black Adam whisperer and that she was able to get him to do things that nobody else could get him to do. There were a lot of things about her that really resonated with me and that I felt personally connected to. 

In reading about Adrianna, she is also Isis, an Egyptian goddess who possesses her own set of powers. We don’t necessarily see this side of her in the film. What was the conversation there, and are there Easter eggs for fans of the character/comics?

You know, I keep hearing about this Isis person too! I don’t know who she is, but that bitch must be special because I keep hearing about her. 

Well, maybe we will get to meet her in the future. How was it collaborating with Dwayne Johnson?

At the risk of sounding like a sycophant here, he is my favorite person to talk about. And the reason I say that is not because of the obvious things, like who he is and how much celebrity power he wields and that kind of stuff. What blows me away about DJ is he is one of the most magnanimous people I’ve ever met. He wants everybody to win, and he acts like it. We’ve had a couple of stops on this tour, and he was the first person to take the microphone and the spotlight and hand it to the person next to him. He is so generous like that. And on top of that, he is accessible as a human. He doesn’t carry himself like he’s in a different echelon. He really is just one of us joking around on set. He pours a lot of his heart into it, and it’s just nice to have somebody who cares that much. 


(Image credit: Left: Warner Bros.; Styling: Dolce & Gabbana suit; Danielle Guizio suspenders; Right: Cibelle Levi; Styling: Chanel blazer; Dr. Martens shoes)

This movie is so action-packed and features incredible special effects. What was your reaction to seeing the completed film for the first time?

Jessica, I was blown away. I almost started crying. For the most part, I was doing green screen for everything. And this was the first time I’ve ever been in a movie like this before. When I saw the final product, I almost got down to my knees and started weeping because I felt so grateful. I can’t believe this is what I am in. I never, in my wildest dreams, could have imagined it to be that. And the way they shot those action sequences and the soundtrack with it, it was art. That’s a combination of not just the CGI and the special-effects team but Jaume, most definitely Jaume. And then our DP, Lawrence Sher, he’s just out of this world. He won an Oscar for Joker. And just going back to the Western references—like Lawrence of Arabia, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—those big cinematic-scope Westerns were definitely a style inspiration for this movie. And oh my god, did they pull it off.

Okay, let’s switch gears for a minute. Everyone wants to know when season two of Sex/Life is happening. What, if anything, can you tell us about what’s next for Billie?

[The date of] season two of Sex/Life has not been announced yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s happening next year sometime. But I’m not at liberty to say more than that now. All I can say about that is the season this year is a little different. The themes this year are really about hope and second chances—wherever your imagination can go, if you can imagine Billie talking about second chances, [and] what that would mean. 

And for me, I’m sitting in this chair right now in front of you. I don’t really know too many people who have this opportunity. To sit here and talk to you about the Netflix series, this huge movie I’m a part of, and to be a female in this position is just really fucking cool to me. At the end of the day, I sit back and think, "Damn—no matter how things pan out, I’m just lucky.” I’m so grateful.

The show was watched by 67 million households in its first four weeks and centers on empowered female sexuality, which we don’t see a lot on TV. Did you know it would be such a hit? 

No, not at all. My job as an actor is to tell the highest level of truth for this character. That’s the only thing I can think of—to focus on her emotions, her feelings, who she is. To make sure I’m acting between the lines and to be so full of life and be present and just raw, that was my job. I also had a lot of personal life to draw from at the moment. I’m actually writing a book right now about all of that. But I was floored when I saw the response that all those people tuned in. Again, I sit here with so much humbleness. I guess hard work works. And keep going. Just put your head down, stop and smell the roses every once in a while, but this too shall pass just like everything else. I don’t get too attached to success. I don’t get too attached to failure. I just try to do me every single step of the way, and as long as my kids are provided for and I’m happy and healthy and they are too, that’s all I care about.


(Image credit: Getty Images; Styling: Left: vintage Versace top and skirt; Right: Vivienne Westwood dress)

That’s such a great life lesson. What about in the fashion space? Can you tell me what you have coming up for this tour?

Because you guys are Who What Wear, I have to throw a couple of things out there that I’m really excited about. There was an awesome designer I wore recently, and I just want to give him a shout-out because I thought he was really smart. His name is Bach Mai. I don’t know if you know of him, but I think he is an absolute genius. I wore him recently and was like, "Who the hell is this?” It was almost like a watermelon dress. The fabric and the way it glistened in the sun, it was just like wow. And the other thing is I am hoping to have a Wrangler collection because I’m from Texas, and jeans and cowboy boots, I want to reinvent them in a much more modern, hip, possibly grunge way. Take a little out of the rodeo and make it more accessible for everybody. 

For the film, we have vintage Vivienne Westwood and vintage Versace. I just did Oscar de la Renta. I think we have Chanel and Gucci coming up. We have so many yummy things. My inner girl and my daughter are freaking out over these things. 

What was the conversation with your stylist going into the press tour for Black Adam?

Well, I’m a child of the ’90s, and I have always been inspired by the looks of the ’90s and the late ’80s. The iconic Cindy Crawford Versace dress she wore, I’m going to replicate that look for something. So for me, I love that—that ’90s high fashion. It works for me. A lot of our choices reflected that.

Black Adam is in theaters now. 

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Executive Director, Entertainment

Jessica Baker is Who What Wear’s Executive Director, Entertainment, where she ideates, books, writes, and edits celebrity and entertainment features.