Sarah Shahi headlines the steamy Netflix streamer as a woman torn between the past and present

Sex/LifeNetflixAfter roles on acclaimed favourites like The L Word, Person of Interest and City On a Hill, Sarah Shahi stars in the Netflix streaming hit Sex/Life. She sat down with TV Week to discuss the new show and the challenges of tackling taboo subjects.

TV Week: A big part of the marketing campaign for Sex/Life has been “steaminess.” But there’s more to this show’s use of sexuality than just cheap thrills...
Well, the show upon first glance, it’s very sort of candy-coloured. It’s rosy and very glossy and very sexually driven. But once you start watching, you quickly realize the psychological layers that are going on behind all of this stuff. The sex itself, it’s just a platform in which to tell these stories. These sex scenes, none of them are gratuitous. They inform the emotional states of the characters. Everything down to the type of breath the characters were having in the sex scenes, whether some of them were heavier breathing... some of the Brad and Billie scenes, they’re so intimate, they’re so connected, it’s almost quiet. Other ones are more graphic. The sex with Cooper, it’s just not quite there, but they keep trying.

A lot of times, we would use animal references—“This one is like two snakes’ bodies intertwining.” There was a lot of thought that went into choreographing these sex scenes to make sure it informed the story and the characters. It wasn’t just something to be gratuitous and shocking.

As you say, when a show features any graphic sexuality, it’s often dismissed as “gratuitous,” as unnecessary...
Sometimes I think we’ve become anesthetized—we’re just so used to seeing something. But with this show in particular, I think very quickly you realize the psychological layers each of these characters have. With Billie, Brad, Cooper, Sasha, all of them, there’s so much going on, and the show does such a great job of exploring all of the characters’ vulnerabilities and their faults. Very quickly I think people realize that this show is not just about sex.

Sex/LifeNetflixYou do a lot of narration here. Was that a new challenge? Was Carrie Bradshaw in the back of your head?
The challenge as an actress was, there were a lot of times where what I was doing [on screen] had to be reflective of what the voiceover would be. In my preparation for it, especially going in and out of the flashbacks, it was to be able to differentiate each flashback and make my mannerisms somewhat different with each flashback—whether it was a blink or whether it was something that caught my breath or me baring my face or twirling my hair, just depending on what the tone of the voiceover was gonna be. A lot of the times, we recorded these voiceovers and I hadn’t even filmed anything yet, so it was a tricky thing and something that I had to pay astute detail to, because I just didn’t want to miss a beat with her.

Was being so exposed, both emotionally and physically, intimidating?
Oh, I was so scared! First of all, as an actress, I just want to do something that’s real and I don’t want to push anything. But I also feel a big sense of responsibility in portraying this story and I just want to be truthful, you know? But then you’re also going for that moment, as Marlon Brando put it, when the audience reaches for the popcorn and they stop before they put it in their mouth; so there’s that element that’s also there. But it was a scary thing. It’s like not only am I emotionally so vulnerable and raw and real, but I’m naked [laughs]. I’m physically vulnerable as well. And I don’t think any kind of preparation could really prepare me for any of those things. My biggest preparation was to pray. “Dear God, please let this work!”

Sex/Life streams on Netflix