Sarah Shahi is probably best known for her television work on “Fairly Legal,” “Life,” “The L Word,” and a fairly memorable appearance on “The Sopranos.” While she’s no stranger to the big screen, “A Bullet to the Head” will undoubtedly make moviegoers sit up, and take notice of her. Shahi plays Lisa Bobo, estranged daughter of Sylvester Stallone’s Jimmy, who makes her living tattooing New Orleans citizens, and sports a fair share of ink herself.
Shahi was down with a cold and wasn’t even due on set, but she came in just to talk to us about her role in the film, and was so bubbly, energetic and lovely that you’d never even guess she was missing her voice. (Her anecdote about “Too much prosciutto” became the theme of our conversations with all the actors, as you’ll see.) It’s going to be exciting to watch her take a piece out of Momoa – Will she tattoo his eye? Let’s hope so! – and pick on Stallone.
Can you start off by telling us about your character?
Sarah Shahi: I haven’t read the script so I’m sorry but I can’t tell you anything about this movie. No, my character is Sly’s daughter in the movie. We have an estranged relationship. I play a tattoo artist. He was very in and out of my life as a child. He comes to me and needs some help. Taylor, Sung’s character, gets shot and I did a year of med school. I’m a very talented girl. What haven’t I done? I’m also a vet, a country singer and a dancer! So he comes to me for some help and this isn’t the first time this has happened. The kind of relationship we have, he only comes to me when he wants something. I’m not too happy when I see him because I know what this is about. I kind of get pulled along into the storyline from that point on. Taylor and Lisa sort of have an attraction that daddy’s not too happy about. Nothing’s really written about the attraction other than him going, “Rawr! You looked at my daughter too long the other day!” We’ve been trying to create as much as a love relationship between us as we can. Then fucking Jason Momoa comes into the picture. He’s the bad guy. He wants to kidnap me and he kidnaps me. Then big daddy comes in and saves the day.
How much of a victim is she versus how proactive is she?
Shahi: She’s a scrapper. She’s tough. That was one of the things when I was auditioning for her and that we talked about in my conversations with Walter. She’s fucking Sylvester Stallone’s daughter. She’s not going to be a victim. She’s definitely not going to go down without a fight either. Though we have yet to shoot that scene, I wanted it to be written like that. I said, “This isn’t right. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. You’ve got to make her a scrapper.” I mean, I understand that, at the end of the day, he’s six foot five and I’m five foot four. I get that. But she has to try to protect herself. She needs to knee him in the balls or tattoo his eye. Chair or something.
Do either of those things happen?
Shahi: Yes, they do. And if it goes my way, I’ll have all of them happen. When something is too much, Walter goes, “Too much prosciutto! Too much prosciutto!” I’m sure he’ll probably wind up saying that to me.
Do how does one learn to become Sylvester Stallone’s daughter?
Shahi: It’s funny. When I first met him, I was the most nervous I’ve ever been for anything. I tried to play cool. We met up at the Peninsula. I got there first and I got a paper. I was enthralled in the Wednesday morning edition of the LA Times. Not even caring about what I was reading, but trying to make it look like I was busy doing something so I don’t have too much attention on him. Then I see him come in from the corner of my eye. I still don’t look up and I still don’t look up. I wait till he’s just here and I go, “Oh, hi! How are you?” I was trying to be nonchalant and my heart was racing. From the moment we met, it was kind of instant in terms of our chemistry and, physically, we look like we could be related. I try to do this thing when I was with him. I try to imitate some of his mannerisms. I would imitate the way he sits and he like to talk with his hands. I would start using my hands. Just things that would basically get me the job. Other than my read. That is lesson 101 in how to be Sylvester Stallone’s daughter. Use your hands, puff up your chest a little bit, and sit with your legs slightly apart. And constantly practice your golf swing!
Is he a big golfer?
Shahi: Oh, yeah.
Did you have any sort of fight training?
Shahi: I didn’t have any fight training. Or, I take that back. No training, but we do have a couple — we already shot one. It’s a fight scene and I got roughed up a bit. Then the stuff that we’re going to shoot on Thursday, we’re going to have some choreography for. But because my character is a tattoo artist, I wanted to really have the mannerisms down. For the last week I’ve been kind of an apprentice at a tattoo parlor down here. That’s been very cool. I have to tell you, I’m not bad.
How much have they let you do?
Shahi: Man, my phone is in my trailer. I would show you what I did. I practiced on a grapefruit. That’s apparently what you start out on. Then you move up to a pig. A dead one. I had a great big pig that I was practicing on. The boys were impressed.
Does your character in the film have sleeves?
Shahi: Yeah. I’m covered. Covered. Two full sleeves. Some on my chest. Two on my back. No, three on my back. Some on my stomach.
How long does that take to apply?
Shahi: Three hours. When everyone else rolls in at seven, I’m here at four.
Did you get to pick any of the art?
Shahi: I did. Because she is way cooler than I am — most characters I play are — She’s a modern girl. I wanted to pick out something that was reflective of what’s going on now with girls and tattoos. I went to some tattoo shops, looked at some pictures and spent about six hours reading magazines. Cupcakes were very popular. I have a cupcake on my ass. Sweet cheeks. In the storyline they wanted to have a cat, so I have kind of like a jaguar. The other thing that’s really popular is leopard prints or cheetah prints. A lot of girls have those as a filler. My fillers in between all my tats are all cheetah prints.
Did you ever go out in public with the tattoos and notice a difference?
Shahi: Absolutely. If they didn’t wear off so easily, I’d have them on me right now. I love going out with my tattoos. I get hit on by girls, boys. It doesn’t matter what walk of life. I don’t know what it does. Maybe it just shows I’m tough or something to be able to handle all that ink on a little girl. I don’t know. I’ve had guys come up to me and go, “What color did you use to fill in your spots? I’ve been trying to fill mine in with something.” I go, “They’re not real.” and they always think I’m fucking with them. They’re like, “I’m not hitting on you. I’m just asking what color you used.” I’m like, “I’m telling you. They’re not real.” They’re like, “Fucking bitch.” I’m like, “No, man. I’m serious! They’re not real!” Once you say you’re doing a movie and playing Sly’s daughter, it’s [fine].
Are the tattoos just decorative or do they factor into the plot?
Shahi: There’s one little one at the beginning of the movie. Jimmy, Sly’s character, kind of makes this decision to save a hooker’s life. The thing that does it for him is that, on her back, she has this cat. That cat reminds him of the cat that I have. Other than that, it’s just that my character is a tattoo artist and it doesn’t go much further than that.
Can you talk a bit about working Walter Hill?
Shahi: Oh, god. I love working with Walter. I wish he would just direct everything I’m in from this point forward. Except for when he tells me, “Too much prosciutto!” I didn’t like that.
This is a line of direction he gives people?
Shahi: Yeah. When it’s too cheesy. I mentioned something to him about Sung and I maybe sharing a kiss. Something small. He goes, “Are you trying to get me fired?!” I’m like, “It would be a good moment! Come on!” But Walter, aside from the obvious, which is what a fucking legend he is, I bow to him almost every morning. He knows exactly what he wants. He doesn’t overshoot. He’s not one of those insecure directors who shoots 80 different ways. We’re done every day within ten hours. If we do have a 12 hour day, the crew is just wiped. The hours, for the most part, have been so human. I come from the world of TV where you work 16 or 17 hour days. This has been a walk in the park compared to that. He’s just wonderful. He’s got great stories. He’s so open. There are things that I didn’t like that he was open to collaborating on and changing. To sit next to Walter Hill and to be able to exchange ideas back and forth and for him to be able to tell you that he likes what you’re doing — I don’t know. I kind of pinch myself.
Which of his films do you gravitate towards the most.
Shahi: “Warriors”. I mean, who doesn’t? The other thing he did, “The Getaway”. He wrote it. That one, too. Then there was that Duvall thing he did, “Broken Trails”.
What tone is this film? Is it more comedic or serious?
Shahi: It really goes back and forth between both. The thing that I love so much about my character is that I’m the only character in the movie — I’m the only girl in the movie, more or less — but I’m the only character in the movie that gives Sly shit and he has to take it. Because I’m his daughter. Any other character that gives him shit gets a bullet to the head. That was so cheesy. But I love that. I tease him about it. But the tone that Walter sets is a very comfortable tone. He’s there to work and that’s the priority but he — and it sounds cliche — makes it one big dysfunctional family. Everyone just kind of fits.
Can you talk a little bit about shooting in New Orleans?
Shahi: The pros and cons are the same. Its greatest strength is it’s greatest weakness. Or it’s my greatest weakness I should say. Alcohol. There’s nothing to — well, that’s not true. There’s lots to do in the city — but the thing I gravitate towards most is drinking. With anybody who will have a drink with me. Sometimes I don’t even need anybody. But coming from LA where bars close at 2am, it’s like there are drive-thru daiquiri shops. Are you serious? I see those more than I see Lutheran churches here. But what can I tell you? I’ve drunk a lot. I’ve been to museums. I’ve seen every movie at the IMAX at the aquarium. The World War II museum is pretty great. I did a swamp tour! That was fabulous. It’s beautiful. I held an alligator. It’s what you do.
Was there much on-location shooting?
Shahi: There’s been some. Actually, most of it has been on-location. We’ve only been here the last week or so. I like it both, though. It’s fun to work on location because you get the look and feel of everything, but it’s nice to be on a stage because you can control the elements.
When do you start shooting your show again?
Why did you want to do this in the hiatus?
Shahi: Because it’s different from anything I’ve done. The show that I’m on now is the first time I’ve been a good girl, I guess. Most of the stuff I do, like “Sopranos”, I’m a bad girl with a heart of gold. This one is rougher. She’s a bit raw and bit damaged. There’s a sadness to her and I like that.
Which pace do you prefer between TV and film?
Shahi: I prefer this pace.
“Bullet to the Head” opens February 1, 2013.