How Saudi actress Dina Shihabi forged a path in US TV, from 'Archive 81' to 'Jack Ryan' (2024)

Any new TV show is always a throw of the dice. "You never really know how it’s gonna land,” says Dina Shihabi.

Fortunately, the Saudi actress has just seen her latest screen venture turn out to be the equivalent of a double six.

Archive 81, a smart, unsettling, found-footage horror arrived on Netflix with little fanfare, before effortlessly gliding to number one on the streaming platform.

“I was surprised, for sure,” the 32-year-old admits, bright and early, over the telephone from Los Angeles.

“Because there wasn’t really push for it. It really just arrived on the platform and resonated with people. And it seems like by word of mouth, that’s really spread like wildfire.

"So that feels in a way better. No one was inundated with our faces. They just found it on their own. And so I feel like [viewers have] a very genuine love for the show.”

How Saudi actress Dina Shihabi forged a path in US TV, from 'Archive 81' to 'Jack Ryan' (1)

It also feels rather fitting that fans might discover Archive 81 — and Shihabi — on their own. Loosely taken from the podcast of the same name, the show sees Mamoudou Athie play Dan Turner, a restoration expert for the Museum of the Moving Image who is employed to sift through some ageing fire-damaged VHS tapes. On them are recordings made by Shihabi’s graduate student character Melody Pendras, who years earlier documented events surrounding a mysterious fire in an apartment complex.

Although Dan and Melody are in parallel storylines, Shihabi immediately felt the connection. “I was really drawn to this … these two protagonists, that were both grappling with the same kind of loneliness and longing, and wanting for deep connection and a deep sense of who they are. They both grew up without families, essentially. And so they are both after the same thing, and I found that so moving and so beautiful. That really resonated with me deeply. That deep sense of longing and wanting to connect.”

With shades of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and even the recent British horror movie Censor, Archive 81 reeks of atmosphere. You can even see it as a metaphor for the virtual encounters that we are now locked into, post pandemic, as Dan spends hours studying Melody. “Trying to connect to someone through a computer screen, that felt really real,” says Shihabi, who auditioned for her role, shot the show and saw it released all during Covid-19.

When it comes to horror, Shihabi will watch the genre — under certain conditions. “I get really scared so I can’t watch it at night,” she says. “My scariest memory of watching a horror film was watching The Exorcist when I was four years old.”

William Friedkin’s tale of a young girl possessed “scarred me for life”, she says. “Especially [as] I watched it in Saudi Arabia, where you grew up with Islam, and you’re really made scared of the devil. And then I watched The Exorcist. And I was convinced I was gonna get possessed.”

A huge lover of TV and movies in her youth, the Riyadh-born Shihabi spent hours watching whatever she could get her hands on. “That was my meditation,” she says.

School years weren’t easy, though. “Distracted and disruptive in class”, she was put up for a school musical by a fourth-grade teacher in an effort to stimulate her. But acting felt an impossibility, given she’d grown up with a high-pitched voice. “People always laughed about it and made fun of it. Once I started kind of getting more self-conscious about my voice, I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t the thing for me. I can’t do this if I don’t feel comfortable speaking.’”

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Instead, she found dance as a means of expression after her family moved to Dubai, discovering a class run by renowned dancer and choreographer Sharmilla Kamte at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre. “I remember walking in and it felt like fate … this weird body feeling. I’d never felt that before. But I just knew that was my destiny in some way. I just walked through the door of my future. I went home that night and I told my parents that I was going to become a dancer.” Within a year, she was dancing professionally in Kamte’s company.

If an incredible project came my way from the Middle East, I would jump at the opportunity

Dina Shihabi, actress

Gradually, Shihabi’s confidence grew with acting, something she pursued in tandem with dance when she moved to New York aged 18. “I would take acting classes during the day and dance classes at night,” she explains. Before long, she scored her first gig, dancing on the sketch show Saturday Night Live, and began auditioning for acting schools. Places at Juilliard and NYU’s Graduate Acting programme were awarded. Impressively, she was the first Saudi woman to be accepted by both these institutions.

After graduating, she remained in the States, although has yet to work in the Mena region. “If an incredible project came my way from the Middle East, I would jump at the opportunity,” she says.

Instead, it’s been a steady rise for Shihabi through the American television industry. Small roles in Daredevil and Ramy have been interspersed with more significant parts, in Netflix sci-fi Altered Carbon and Amazon Prime action-drama Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, in which she featured opposite John Krasinski in the first season.

How Saudi actress Dina Shihabi forged a path in US TV, from 'Archive 81' to 'Jack Ryan' (2)

“What’s beautiful about this is that you’re always a student,” she says. “You’re always learning. And that’s part of what I love about it. Things happen that always surprise you. And you always learn things about yourself that cause you to grow and reassess, and make better decisions. And I think there’s a lot of failure in this business. While you’re doing these things. You take a couple of steps forward, a couple steps back … it’s ever changing. And it’s such a playground to test yourself and push yourself and get out of your comfort zone.”

She’s already shot her next mini-series, Painkiller, a drama about the origins of the opioid crisis co-starring Matthew Broderick and shot by director Peter Berg. “It’s very different from Archive 81,” she says. “I mean, that’s the career I want. And that’s what’s happened naturally — every part, every project I’ve gotten to do, has been completely different. I’ve never done the same thing twice. And so I hope to continue to do that because I think that’s what excites me most — to shape-shift.”

Archive 81 is available on Netflix

Updated: February 14, 2022, 3:57 AM

How Saudi actress Dina Shihabi forged a path in US TV, from 'Archive 81' to 'Jack Ryan' (2024)
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