Medalion Rahimi is an American actor perhaps best known for her roles in Before I Fall (2017) and as Princess Isabella in the Shondaland drama, Still Star-Crossed (2017). Since 2019, she has played Special Agent Fatima Namazi in NCIS: Los Angeles (2009 – ).
In this interview, Medalion Rahimi discusses her journey into film and television; from working as receptionist and filming printer commercials, to sitting at a table read with Shonda Rhimes. She also talks about the importance of representation in the media, working on big budget sets and gives useful advice for actors starting out in their career.
FF: Could you introduce yourself?
MR: Hi, I’m Medalion Rahimi. I’m an actor and I live in Los Angeles, California.
FF: Have you always lived in California or did you move there specifically for your career?
MR: Actually, I have always lived here. I grew up here, my family immigrated here. I did live in Iran for the first few years of my life, but I was born here so I’m technically a US citizen, I have dual citizenship.
FF: That’s great, so do I. I’m Tunisian and Scottish, so I understand that. I was born and raised in Scotland though.
Growing up in LA and attending UCLA Theatre School
So, what brought you to acting? How did you fall into it?
MR: Well, growing up in Los Angeles you are definitely surrounded by the film industry in general, but I always really loved theatre growing up. I did all the school plays.
I never really considered it seriously as a career until I was on my own. But I did go to college. I went to UCLA theatre school, and minored in English, just because my parents were like, ‘Okay, if you want to try acting, that’s fine. But you have to have a degree. We’re not going to let you not go to college’. So I was like, ‘Okay’. And I went to the school of their choice, UCLA, which is a great school.
And then once I finished school, I started auditioning, finding breakdowns online, on casting websites, and just threw myself into whatever I could find.
FF: Totally understand that. That’s pretty much where I’m at, at the moment.
How to find representation
Did you try to get an agent immediately or did you wait until you had some things under your belt? Do you have any advice for people seeking representation?
MR: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny because it happened pretty organically for me. I was considering sending out headshots, reaching out to agencies and things like that. It just felt really overwhelming. I had sent out some things, but got nothing, because half the time they throw those out.
I’d actually found an audition on Actors Access and went there. And one of the casting directors also happened to be a manager. That was for a really indie, weird film and he basically recommended that I don’t do it, he didn’t think it was a good idea. So I was like, ‘I like that, I’ll hire you’.
I had a panic attack before my first big table read for the Shonda Rhimes show Still Star-Crossed (2017)…
They don’t make money until you make money so then he sent me out on an audition for an ABC family show. And I hadn’t had access to those types of auditions before. On our own, we don’t, there’s no way without an agent or a manager. So luckily for him, he sent me on that and then the casting directors for the ABC family show introduced me to my first agent because they were like, ‘Well, we really like you, but you need an agent’. And then the agent was like, ‘If you book this job, I’ll hire you’. And I ended up booking it. It was kind of rude of my agent to put that pressure on me, I have to say I’m not with her anymore, but it worked out.
The difference between agents and managers: do you need both?
FF: For us in the UK, things are a little bit different with talent agents and managers. A lot of the time our agent is also our manager and there’s kind of a grey area. Could you maybe explain what the difference is in LA, or in America specifically? I think that confuses quite a lot of British actors who are looking to make the move over there.
MR: Absolutely, I think you really need one or the other, at least when you’re starting out. You don’t need both. I just happened to get a manager first, which is supposed to be somebody who just guides you in your career, someone that you’re personal with. And you want somebody who also has connections, that has an ‘in’ to different casting directors, or they know people in the business. That’s really what a manager should do, help you network and help mould your career and market you and brand you.
— NCIS: LA (@NCISLA) March 1, 2021
An agent just handles the auditions and the money and the jobs. But I know people who are very close to their agents, and then don’t have a manager or people who don’t have an agent because their manager also submits them. My manager also submits me for certain things.
So right now, there’s not really that big of a difference. It used to be more, I think in the past, but now I have a lot of actor friends from the UK or from Europe that just have a manager or just have an agent, and they’re doing great.
FF: Yeah, it’s really interesting to hear how that works, because I know a lot of the talent agents here subscribe to the Personal Managers’ Association so they’re basically both anyway. I used to be quite confused over how that worked in America because there seemed to be quite a stark difference, but we didn’t have it here.
Starting out in industrial commercials and lying to get cast in a Beck music video
Do you want to talk to us a little bit about self-submissions and things like that on breakdowns, did you do quite a lot of that yourself as well?
MR: I did. That was a lot of the work I started just to make money. I did industrial commercials for printers that people would show at work to demonstrate how to use the printer and the only people who see it are people who work in an office. And I did an ear-piercing gun industrial. So I have all these piercings on my ears from that day because they just wanted to show how to use this ear-piercing gun.
I started auditioning, finding breakdowns online, on casting websites, and just threw myself into whatever I could find.
It was a lot of those things, and music videos. I was in a Beck music video I found on my own. I lied about my age so I could be in it. Beck and Charlotte Gainsbourg, I was like, ‘I would love to be in this’. So you do what you gotta do!
FF: And the thing is, you never know what those people will be doing next as well. That’s what I always think. I love doing indies and things like that because you don’t know where those people are going to be in five years, if they’re still going to want to keep working with you. Everything can be an opportunity, I guess.
MR: Indies are also the dream. It’s hard to get good indie roles unless you have a big following or you were on a show or something and I realised that. I wanted to go the indie route but seemingly my career just went a bit more commercial, which I’m grateful for, it just wasn’t how I imagined it. It’s not as creative or alternative but I’m hoping that one day we can get there.
Starring in Shonda Rhimes’ series Still Star-Crossed (2017)
FF: Can I ask you a little bit about being on a big budget set? How did you take to that? Was it quite a shock to the system?
MR: It was, but all in a good way. It was wonderful. It was like nothing you’ve ever seen, the big scales of the sets and the costumes and everyone treats you so well. And that’s why actors get big heads. I get it, because you are so babied on set when it’s a big project.
But it’s also nerve-racking. I had a panic attack before my first big table read for the Shonda Rhimes show Still Star-Crossed (2017) because I heard that people get recast the first day. And someone did end up getting sent home and recast after the table read. Things like that happen. You’re always worried you’re gonna get fired the first few days. But once you get over that, and you’re like, ‘Okay, I think I’m good’, it’s amazing.
FF: That’s so cool. I can understand why it would be scary though. That sounds nerve-racking, if they can just make a cut like that so quickly on the day of the read. You don’t hear quite as much about that here to be honest. It’s quite interesting some of the differences as well.
Have you ever done any UK film work?
MR: No, I haven’t. I wish. I think a lot of content that comes out of the UK is really great. It’s so based in reality and I love that nitty gritty vibe, but I haven’t worked in any, no.
In Still Star-Crossed (2017) I had a British accent, but it was RP. It’s not really realistic.
FF: Yeah, every actor has to have RP in their bag, well done on that. Especially because it’s not something that you’ve grown up around. I think that must be quite hard to adjust to.
MR: I love mimicking people though.
FF: Have you ever done any impersonations or anything like that?
MR: I have, mostly just of people I know really well, like my good friends. But I should plan a couple so that the next interview I have I can whip them out.
FF: Yeah. Have you ever done any voice acting at all?
MR: No, that is something I would love to get into. That would be my dream. To be in a Studio Ghibli movie or anime and do the voice or something, that’d be awesome.
FF: Yeah, I recently did my first animation voiceover and I was just approached on Twitter. It’s really funny how jobs can just come up, things that you’re not looking for or applying for, but they’re good fun to do.
MR: It’s so hard to break into that here. Voice acting is really difficult.
FF: Yeah, I’m not actually sure what it’s like here because it’s not something that I put myself forward for. It’s funny because I grew up doing voices, impersonating people, picking up accents and prank calling, all that good stuff that you do when you’re an enthusiastic teenager that loves playing around. But, for some reason, I never thought about voice acting. I just wanted to do film and TV.
But then my agent said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing voiceover work?’ And I said, ‘I’ve got this silly clip where I do a bunch of different voices, I can send it to you and see if you think it’s useful’. And now she’s putting me forward for loads of voice work, some I’m like, ‘This is kind of and exciting!’
MR: Yeah, having credits will help if you transition west to the US market. It’s so hard to get even a waitering job here, you have to have experience to get anything.
Working side jobs to support an acting career
FF: Talking of side jobs, what side jobs have you done to support your career?
MR: I worked in both of my parent’s offices, just answering phones. My mom’s a lawyer, my dad’s a dentist. And then I was a receptionist at a hair salon in LA, throughout college, to help make some of my own money. I did that for a while when I started acting.
Then I got lucky with acting, so I didn’t have to work. There was a moment in time where I had to go back to working, so I worked. I was a Postmates driver for a while. And then I worked at Bloomingdale’s as a checker, someone who helps you with everything.
FF: Yeah, acting can be like that. It can come and go, especially when you’re starting out, definitely.
MR: You always think it’s gonna be your big break. And then it’s like, ‘Oh, no. Not yet’.
Acting in NCIS: Los Angeles (2009 – ) and the importance of representation
FF: So tell us what you’re doing now, what are you up to at the moment? You’re on NCIS right?
MR: Yes, I’m on NCIS: Los Angeles (2009 – ). I play Special Agent Fatima Namazi. She’s an agent who just joined the team, who is also a Muslim hijabi woman, which is really exciting.
A lot of the times I’ve gone up for a lot of Muslim roles just because I’m Iranian and I’m technically Muslim, but spiritual in my own way. But a lot of them have been to play spies or terrorists or mentally ill persons. It’s nice to finally have a role where I’m a real person, a real person on the good side of things, allowing Muslims to define themselves without a Western agenda smacked onto it.
I did industrial commercials for printers that people would show at work to demonstrate how to use the printer and the only people who see it are people who work in an office.
FF: I’m also from a Muslim background, obviously, Tunisia is Arabic, North Africa. And yeah, I think sometimes it’s kind of hard when you see those roles.
I didn’t realise how much that meant to me until I watched the first episode. And as soon as I watched it, I literally had to press pause and go find out where he was from because I was like, ‘He looks like us. He looks like me and my family’.
I needed to find out because I had only really seen those other roles, which are usually supporting roles as well, they’re not leading roles. So I can totally understand your excitement over getting a role that portrays someone who’s a little bit more diverse as well.
MR: Yeah, exactly. It’s positive for the community. And it’s not all about her being Muslim. She’s just Muslim and there, as opposed to every episode being about her struggle or fitting in and all of that. That’s what I’d love to see more of, just normalising people of colour as lead roles, regardless of what the story entails.
— NCIS: LA (@NCISLA) March 29, 2021
FF: Yeah, because all humans go through similar things. I think sometimes that’s kind of missed out a little bit in the media, but it is changing, it’s definitely changing. We can see massive steps forward, which I think is amazing.
And the roles that you’re playing and how well you’re doing is a tribute to that. You’re definitely being a role model for women of colour, particularly women from a similar background as well. It’s always really inspiring for me to see diversity in film, no matter where they’re from.
MR: That’s literally what I do it for. Because I remember growing up and feeling the same way of not seeing anybody that looked like me, or had any sort of similar cultural background, and wanting to be that person for some people.
And there were, of course, some actors like that for me as well. But for the most part, I looked up to Anglo white American or British actors. There’s a lot of great British actors that I love.
FF: Who would you say are your favourite actors?
MR: I love Tilda Swinton. She’s just incredible, and so chamaeleonic. And I love Julianne Moore. And then Golshifteh Farahani is actually an Iranian actress that I look up to a lot. I’m hoping we might be working together soon. I’m not sure, but it will be really exciting. Those are my top three. I also think Viola Davis is just incredible, such a powerhouse.
It’s nice to finally have a role where I’m a real person, a real person on the good side of things, allowing Muslims to define themselves without a Western agenda smacked onto it.
Advice for using social media as an actor: don’t be afraid to be political
FF: You have quite a strong social media presence, and obviously you’re very good at marketing yourself. Do you have any advice to actors about that and about how to do that?
MR: Yes, I got a lot of advice. People do love to see photos of you, I’ve realised. I don’t really like to post that many of myself, but I realised it is what a lot of your followers want.
And I used to be afraid to be political but now I just don’t give a fuck anymore. I will post whatever I feel I’m passionate about. And I do think that actors need to not be afraid to do that as well. Because yeah, I’ve lost some followers, but they’re people I don’t necessarily want following me anyway. And I gained new ones that are more diverse and open minded, and those are the people I want supporting me anyways. And I want to support and help as well and explain things if possible.
I think it’s just to have fun with it. And don’t let it become this gross thing, because it can get like that. I go through phases of sometimes I just don’t want to post because I can’t deal. We feel a pressure to post all the time.
FF: Have you had any like crazy fan experiences or anything like that?
MR: Nothing too crazy, just through DM’s and stuff like that. I do tend to engage sometimes when I know I probably shouldn’t. But it’s mostly always for the positive.
I just really want to understand where people are coming from. If they post something or I’m just like, ‘Can you tell me why you feel this way? I’m just curious. I would really like to understand your point of view’. But nothing crazy. I’ve been so lucky. And the fans are all really great.
FF: That’s really good to hear. People are just appreciating you.
Moving on to independent films
What do you think is next for you? What do you want to do now?
MR: Well, I’m sort of contractually obligated to stick around on NCIS: Los Angeles (2009 – ) for a little bit longer.
But after that, there are actually two independent films that I’m really interested in and hopefully can be a part of. They’re both about an Iranian American woman. One of them is about her experience and the other one is more of an art house abstract film that I think would be beautiful. And I would be very creatively involved which would be exciting, my poems would be in it.
I’m hoping all of those work out, it’s tough with COVID because they want to shoot that in France. So we’ll see what happens, I’m hoping.
FF: Hopefully they can do some kind of safeguarding or something.
Working on Before I Fall (2017)
With the films that you have done, are there any that were particularly interesting for you to be part of or that you had a really amazing experience with?
MR: I loved Before I Fall (2017), it was just such a beautiful, great experience. We shot in Canada and it was directed by this amazing director, Ry Russo-Young. She was just such a dream to work with. And all the girls that we got to work with, we just had so much fun. It was about bullying, which was great.
I mean, I’m obsessed with every project. Still Star-Crossed (2017) was, again, just so dreamy. We shot in Spain, and it was Shonda Rhimes, and I got to be a princess, so it was like a dream come true. And it’s technically a Disney princess because it’s ABC…but I didn’t get to become Jasmine.
Growing up in a different culture and finding your own identity
FF: Do you have any advice for people, perhaps young girls who are growing up in a similar multicultural home? Because obviously, inside the home, we’ve grown up with a very different culture and then we go out to school and it’s a whole different ball game.
Is there any advice that you would give to any young people that are struggling with that, finding their identity, finding their place, and also trying to pursue their creativity?
MR: It’s so hard because I know growing up in a different culture in a Western country is very confusing. We have this systematic shame of otherness. We know we’re different, it’s always pointed out to us that we’re different. You bring lunch to school, and everyone’s like, ‘What is that?’ You feel it.
So you have to learn to define your sense of self, outside of that shame. And to then find out that that culture is actually what sets you apart and what makes you interesting.
And your parents’ word isn’t God, I know that we also might grow up thinking like that. It’s what makes you happy that is what’s most important. And to not be afraid to follow the creative path. I think that that is something. My parents would have loved if I was a doctor or a lawyer, but you just have to do whatever is most fulfilling to you.
FF: Yeah. And it’s good. I think growing up, I was definitely like yourself, maybe felt a little bit out of place, not quite Scottish enough but not quite Tunisian enough, that sort of feeling. I’m not sure if you also kind of felt like that, but I think quite a lot of people do.
MR: I straightened my hair all the time. And plucked my eyebrows and went to the waxer. I didn’t want to speak Farsi for a long time because I didn’t want to be different. But yeah, there’s all of that.
FF: Yeah. And then, as you said, you realise as you get older that those are the things that make you unique and different and beautiful as well.
Do you have any final thoughts for our listeners?
MR: I just hope that somebody heard something that made them feel a little bit more comfortable in themselves today.
Transcription & Edited by: Keren Davies
Artwork: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of Markhor Entertainment