Dina Shihabi is the first (and so far the only) Saudi woman to be accepted to both Julliard and Tisch, which is an incredible accomplishment in and of itself. Shihabi was also the first (and only) person we wanted to speak to for the fantastic new series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, which, if you haven’t heard about it, look out for the Amazon Studios series, as it’s intelligent and mesmerizing tv. She gives a searing, award-worthy performance on the show and you won’t be able to stop thinking about her character, long after you’ve watched all eight episodes.
Here is a condensed and edited version of our chat with the fascinating and inspiring Dina Shihabi (aka one of our favourite interviews of all time).
Brief Take: You’re such an inspiration to many Saudi women with everything that you’ve accomplished in your life so far.
Dina Shihabi: Oh my goodness, you’ve put such a smile on my face right now! That means the world to me, truly. My first inspiration, honestly, was my dance teacher growing up in the Middle East. Well before that was my Mom. My Mom was outspoken, this artist in Saudi Arabia who’d talk openly about anything she wanted to and was so strong. I have this amazing role model in her, and then when I was 11, I was taken to this dance class in Dubai, which is a Muslim country. So I was taken to this dance class with this Indian dance teacher who was so badass and confident and incredibly talented and so generous. She changed my life. She took me under her wing and within a year of being in her dance class I was dancing professionally with her. I’m still in awe of her and she changed so many lives. In a culture that hasn’t yet embraced expression and creativity, she completely encouraged it with this fierce free spirit of hers. I remember she drove a BMW and had her own house and I remember thinking, “she’s a woman and has her own house and makes her own money and is a dancer? oh I guess in order to get those things I have to become a dancer.” [laughs] I was just completely taken by her, and that’s what started my journey. She’s totally the reason I’m here.
BT: Now, thinking back on your scenes on the show, I can see how dance influenced the way you move as your character.
DS: Thank you! That means a lot.
BT: I’ve seen the first three episodes of the show and I’m completely hooked.
DS: Oh that’s amazing! I’m so glad that you’ve seen it. That makes me so happy! We finished shooting this over a year ago so for people to finally be seeing it is such a good feeling for me. I’m so proud of it.
BT: How did you first get involved with the show and what attracted you to the role?
DS: I remember that I was on a plane to New York because I was going there to audition for a play that I was in love with. I was flying myself out because I just had to be a part of that play, and so I went from L.A., got there at 9:30 pm. I was staying with my friend who I grew up dancing with, she’s my best friend from childhood. So I got to her place and I told her “I got this audition, I need it in by tomorrow morning, can you tape me?”. She agreed, and so we did it at midnight in two takes; it was so fast and it was so late. It’s funny because at that moment she turned to me and told me “Dina, I think you’re going to get this!”. And then I didn’t even get a call back for the play that I flew to New York to audition for, but then two months later I got a call from my agent saying “they want to test you for that show”, and I had never forgotten about it. It got to the point where my Dad, who never asks me about my auditions, asked me “what happened to Jack Ryan?”. He really loved it! So he kept asking me about it and then I found out later, through John Krasinski, the first thing he said when he met me was “we knew you were the girl the first second we saw your tape”. You just never know what’s happening behind the scenes when you’re an actor, you know what I mean?
But why I got attracted to the part so fast and why I couldn’t let it go was because I audition for Arab characters all the time, and a lot of the time they are the typical Americanized version of what the Middle East conflict is and who those people are. Even the way the women are presented in the media, on the news, they’re presented as victims. You see the men as monsters and the women as victims. What our show does so well is that it takes people that are in those circumstances but we get to look behind the curtain and see who they really are. You see that they are husband and wife and they love each other and they have a family, and their lives are just ruined. You see what creates a monster, and you see why my character’s husband, who’s played by Ali Suliman, who is just phenomenal, becomes who he is. It really humanizes these people and it was very important to Ali and I to show the love between them, so that when I have to leave, you see that it costs a lot. I have to break my family apart and, in the third episode, I have to leave my son and that’s so excruciating. When we finished shooting that scene I was just bawling for hours. I felt so heartbroken by it.
BT: I appreciated that the show is not your typical Americanized spin on terrorism and doesn’t paint the Americans as “good” and the Syrians as “evil”. Every character is so well written and fully fleshed out, with everyone having their own dark secrets and fractured personal histories.
DS: As an Arab, it makes me so proud that I get to portray and show this complex, three dimensional, real human being that could be from anywhere. I really believe that you could be from anywhere and you can relate to this woman. You can relate to her as a mother, as a young woman, and as a woman who’s willing to do anything to protect her family. She’s willing to sacrifice her own life. It’s a dream role no matter where she was from. The fact that I got to show a traditional Muslim woman in the life that I get to show her in and the many different ways that I get to show her, that, to me, was so exciting. I really wanted to take risks and be bold with that because I feel like the more vulnerable she is, the more people will connect to her and not see her just as an Arab, but as a woman and as a human being.
Honestly, until we humanize people from all over the world, we’re always going to see each other as ‘other’ and we’re always going to be afraid of one another. I think it’s our job in the entertainment industry to do this as much as possible. I think Graham Roland and Carlton Cuse, the creators, did such a beautiful job with humanizing each character. Plus they were so collaborative! They were so open to all of mine and Ali’s ideas and they made it a really amazing experience. I’m on such a high with this show and now my expectations for every show moving forward are really, really high. [laughs]
BT: Did you film all of your scenes in Montreal?
DS: I did all of the interiors in Montreal but we shot out of order. I think I did episodes 7 and 8 before doing anything else, which is crazy. But yeah, we did a lot of shooting in Montreal and we did a lot of the prep work in Montreal. I lived there for about four months, I had an apartment there, and I just loved it there. There’s this place there called Garde Manger that was our spot. We went there so much! We would always get the same table and sit in the back and hang out there until 4 in the morning all the time. Then there was this bar in the same neighbourhood, it was like a speakeasy bar, and then we’d all go there until 6 in the morning. [laughs] Oh my gosh, when you go to Montreal you have to go to Garde Manger! It’s so good.
BT: What was your experience like collaborating with your co-star John Krasinski?
DS: The best! When I first saw him, I was kind of shy and was sitting in the corner because I felt so shy around him. But he saw me and said [shouting excitedly] “Dina!”. He shouted from across the room and came over and lifted me up in his arms. He was so loving and said the sweetest things to me. It just meant the world to me. The Office is one of my favourite shows and I have so much respect for him as an actor and a writer and a director. With all the success of A Quiet Place, I’m just so proud of him. He’s so deserving of that success because he works so hard and he is the most generous actor to work with. In episode 6 we have this beautiful scene together, which I can’t wait for you to watch! He’s so giving. We started with my coverage and he gave 150 percent the whole time, which is very special to have in a scene partner. We constantly talk about working together again. I love him. It’s so great to work with someone who you respect so much as an artist and then they become like family.
BT: What are you working on next?
DS: Right now I’m pitching a pilot that I wrote about Saudi women in Los Angeles. It’s a half hour dramedy. I love writing and I love telling stories and creating. For my pilot, I’d star in it but I have other projects on the go as well. I have a project for NBC in the Middle East and that I wouldn’t star in. It would be shot in Dubai and I’d want to hire people living there, people authentically from there. There’s another project that I wrote, it’s an anthology series where it’s women in the same family, but each episode is a different woman from that family in a different point in time. Each episode would be a stand-alone movie almost, and I want a female director to direct each episode, preferably women from the Middle East as well. I’d want one episode set in Egypt and I’d want a woman from Egypt to direct that episode, for example, and I’d want it to feel very technicolor and of that time period.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan season 1 is available on Amazon Prime on August 31