Sarah Shahi Loves Hollywood, Prefers Texas

The star of Road to Paloma and former Maxim cover model talks motorcycles, country music and kissing James Gandolfini.

You were raised in Euless, Texas, which is about as Lone Star as it gets. What was that like?

It’s a tiny little town. When I was growing up I absolutely hated it and I couldn’t stand being from there and all I wanted was to be out. Now that I’m out, I love it. I go back to Texas as often as I can. My family owns some property out in Comanche, Texas – about 100 acres of land and forest and trees and a lake – and we just camp out and sleep in the dirt and roll around in the mud. I’ve always been the kind of person that’s much happier wearing mud than makeup.

How did you wind up in Hollywood?

I was a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys during the ’99-2000 season and I met Robert Altman, who was using our rehearsal facilities as his set for three weeks. I had no idea who he was. For whatever reason, we just really got along. One day he asked me, “What is it that you want to do?” And I said, “I want to be an actress, but I just don’t know how to do it.” He said, “You know, you have what it takes. You should move out to L.A. I’m going to give you my number and when you move out, call me.” So I went home that night and Googled him, and I was like, “Mom, this guy’s the director of Popeye and he’s telling me I got a shot.”

That was in October ’99. In January, I just didn’t show up to the Cowboys, Giants game. I packed up my truck, headed west, and never looked back.

Can you tell us a little about Road to Paloma?

It’s a revenge-redemption story. Jason Momoa plays a guy whose mother was raped and murdered on an Indian reservation and the man goes free. So he kind of takes it into his own hands and goes after him. It’s kind of got everything. It’s a motorcycle movie – boys on bikes and girls in strip bars. There’s a lot of heart in it. It was definitely a labor of love.

Independent projects like this are so great because the conditions aren’t what you’re used to when you do have money, so the people involved are really doing it for the love of the project. It was a big group of friends getting together, bouncing ideas off each other, and creating. It got pretty serious at times, but then everyone went out afterwards and got a beer and we all laughed and came back the next day and did it all over again.

The soundtrack is pretty rocking. What’s your favorite band on it?

Shovels & Rope. They happen to be one of my favorite new bands right now. They’re kind of like country, rockabilly, folky, bluesy, and I want to be the lead singer when I grow up.

We’re huge Sopranos fans, so we have to ask: What was it like working with the late, great James Gandolfini?

He was wonderful, just wonderful. One of the best onscreen kissers I ever had in my life. You wouldn’t expect me to say that, but it’s true and we just really got along with each other and he was such an amazing actor. When we first met, he had sent me a dozen roses the night before. I showed up the next day and I remember someone telling me that you can’t treat him with kid gloves on. You just got to go at him. So I went up to him and I was like, “Flowers? You sent me flowers? Really? How about shoes next time, OK? Size seven. Give me something I can actually take on the plane with me.” And he just looked at me and I couldn’t tell if he was going to hit me or hug me. It just kind of started from there.

I was greatly affected by his death, and I can’t even imagine the way his family felt. 

Photos by Zoe McConnell