9-1-1 Lone Star's Natacha Karam talks season three's 'personal drama' and challenging her own expectations
The show returns on 3 January
9-1-1 Lone Star actress Natacha Karam joins me on Zoom from her Hollywood home, a whirlwind of color and personality. The 27-year-old is wearing a bright green turtleneck, large silver hoops and numerous gold chains, her hair in gorgeous messy waves and a big smile on her face. The black and white polka dot wall behind her is embellished with a neon light, there are monkey lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and burnt orange leather chairs placed in front of leafy green house plants.
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"One second, one second, I want to raise my camera up," are her first words to me, as she stands up - the green jumper has been paired with a pair of neon pink tracksuit bottoms - and readjusts the set up. Her dog Cleopatra, who quietly sits next to her for our entire hour, is dressed in an equally bright cable-knit jumper more fabulous than anything sitting in my own closet. Natacha has made a name for herself as the go-to girl for feisty, action-heavy roles, also starring in Netflix's The Old Guard, but in real life she appears anything but, subverting expectations immediately.
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Born in Saudi Arabia, Natacha grew up in the Middle East and later Ireland before moving back to London to pursue a career in acting which led to small roles in Homeland and Silent Witness, before she was cast as Sergeant Jasmine "Jaz" Khan on the military action drama series The Brave which ran for one season.
Now, TV fans know her as Lone Star's Marjan Marwani, the feisty firefighter and devout Muslim from Miami who was drafted to Firehouse 126 in Austin, Texas by Captain Owen Strand (Rob Lowe) after he saw her heroics on Instagram.
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Natacha's Irish accent is one of the first things I notice - being able to accurately speak with any accent is a "skill from being an outsider as a child, from observing and listening," she shares - but Natacha is also clearly very proud of her work portraying the story of one individual woman in very extraordinary circumstances, a challenge that has led to public reproval at times.
Ahead of season three dropping on 3 January 2022 - with what Natacha promises will be "more personal drama" for the crew, as well as the very cryptic tease that we'll be getting a scene of Owen and Marjan "singing together" - HELLO! speaks to the star about overcoming public criticism, how boyfriend John Clarence Stewart has influenced her decisions, and what comes next for Tarlos…
Natacha is HELLO!'s latest Spotlight star
It's been over two years since you were named in the cast of the 9-1-1 spin-off Lone Star, what was your audition process like?
When I got the email [to audition] I said the words out loud, "Watch me book this," the summary was so in line with what I do and where I have success. I came back to LA and sent the tape, and then there was eight weeks of silence. I emailed my agent and said, "Do we have any feedback? I swear I did a good job and I would be surprised if there were other people out there who did it as well as me…" To not even have a callback, when you know yourself and your casting success, I was surprised.
I was also in an awkward chapter of my life; bank account running low and I wasn't sure why I was in LA. I had never made a conscious decision to live here so I closed my lease on the apartment and then I get a call out of nowhere and it was my agents who said, "You booked that Ryan Murphy show," and I thought, 'Well, that's not how things have worked in my experience," I have had to audition for shows five times, so I was like, "When is the test deal?" and they laughed and said, "No you booked it".
Just through a self-tape, I never left my bedroom! It didn't feel real.
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Then it was like, "Well, what's the show actually about?" as there had been no script, and then I cried and laughed and cried again, but over the next week we pieced together more information about the show, and I still didn't believe it until we got to set. I assumed they would have done all this research into me, but no one knew I was British!
But in this Tim Minear and Ryan Murphy world, when they know they know. And I never got any feedback about what they saw.
Natacha, 26, grew up in the Middle East and Ireland
You and the cast - Brian Michael Smith, Rafael Silva, Ronen Rubenstein, Julian Works - have a chemistry that feels very organic considering you never met in auditions, how did you create that?
It was organic, we were so, so blessed. I think one of the main things about an ensemble show - especially when it's characters risking their lives for each other and with each other - is trust and a connection and chemistry you want to see as a viewer, and I think it works when that is authentically there, and it reads so well.
The first time I met anyone on the show was during firefighting training - not even everyone was cast but me and Brian Michael Smith and Ronen Rubenstein were there, we were the first three to meet.
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It was a fun way to do it, we went out on trucks and learned how to use hoses, Brian and I got breakfasts and coffees, and had such a laugh and have sustained such a friendship since, and then Julian was cast, and now Brian, Julian and I are the Three Musketeers, and that bleeds into what the writers see and they can write around it.
There is a lot of pressure and responsibility for playing this character - how do you handle that and deal with challenges or criticism sent your way?
What is so important for me to make clear is I have such a deep respect for human beings as individuals, and authenticity is important no matter who the character is.
I grew up in the Middle East, some of my best friends are Muslim women, so even though I myself don't wear the Hijab, I am so familiar with it and am aware of the complexities and level of individualism. One of the things I wanted to make clear was that this is one individual woman on her journey, and I asked writers and producers to help me get into the details of that.
'I have such a deep respect for human beings as individual,' she says
One of the most important things for me was the instant visual of what Marjan wears. I had two, three, four, different costume visits where I said, "This is people's entry way to her, what she wears, and it is so important to me to interrupt a very alive stereotype about modesty and what Muslim women dress like".
She is a young flamboyant Instagram sensation, who is from Miami, and I want her to be the trendiest person on the show, I want people to want to look like her rather than only see the thing they don't do; "I don't cover my hair, but I still want to look like that."
This season I had a meeting with our showrunners and producers and I asked that they hire consultants, and not just for specific episodes when handling certain subject matter, but have a room of females - not male Muslim scholars - but female Hijab-wearing women in my age range who can help consult with storylines and fleshing out the character.
In all storytelling across the board specificity is where we see ourselves, so it is in the details we see ourselves accurately represented and it is important for people to see themselves. And I think that is what makes characters whole and human and dynamic, when you bother to fill in the details. That has been important to me, and we do Zooms meetings; there are blind spots for all of us.
[The producers] had this male Muslim scholar and it's not his lived-in reality, he can't speak to their story, and in deciding that we are creating one specific woman's journey with Islam and firefighting, you need to reference many women's journeys.
So now we have a board with the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and I am at all the meetings, and I am so happy with this. I know there have been blind spots.
Natacha as Marjan
How do you prepare to step back into Marjan, and has it changed over the years?
It becomes a part of yourself. Movies are different, short little chapters where you pop in and out, whereas this character is very lived in now. It's my third season, so she's just another part of me. I say, "Come back up now", it's an alter-ego of sorts.
I don't do much work, as soon as I am on set and in uniform my body language changes.
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Season two ended with a big cliffhanger and the fate of 126 up in the air - when the show opens for season three, where do we find Marjan?
Marjan is at the tip of the spear in terms of changing the circumstances [that] we left [the 126] in at the end of season two.
The first few episodes are quite big for Marjan - she is relentless about getting the 126 back up and running, she will not let it go, and so I can't say what the consequences are, but there are positive and negative consequences.
With the crew of the 126 spread across the city, will we have scenes of everyone together?
We will be split up. A lot of what is going on [in the first few episodes focuses on] everyone's personal lives, and Marjan is not interested in personal lives, Marjan is interested in getting the 126 back together!
I don't know what else I can say.
This isn't a plot line but a fun fact, Rob Lowe and I - Marjan and Captain Strand - will be singing at some point!
'Marjan is interested in getting the 126 back together'
Hang on, are we getting a Lone Star musical episode?
No! Not yet - but there are so many talented singers that would be hilarious. But I will say, there is a circumstance, for some reason, at some point, Marjan and Owen sing…
What was that like filming?
We had a great time - Rob and I do a lot more work together this season than in the past, there's lots more Marjan and Owen together.
Rob is fun - he gets stuff done! I don't know how else to put it other than, he definitely is a commander on set. He knows how to make TV, and he's so playful as an actor.
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Do you do your own stunts? What is that like?
There is a limit but I will say I am one of the people who go right up to that limit! Whatever I can convince a stunt coordinator to let me do…!
But I also know there are people who have trained their entire lives to do those stunts so you have to respect your coordinator to know your limit. They always give me a chance but something I have learned is that once I say yes, I have to do that 400 times! So now I know I don't have anything to prove.
Brian, Juilan and I are the Three Musketeers'
Fans love the Begins episodes that 911 does and Lone Star started that in season two, can you share who may get one in season three - and is it you?
Not Marjan! Nine episodes in and it's not me... actually, there is a character that had a big episode but I don't think it was a Begins, it just had flashbacks for context.
But I'd love one [for Marjan] rounding out the human being and giving context on an individual's life and that exact moment you are seeing them.
Let's talk TK and Carlos - what can fans expect in season three?
You can expect ups and downs! That is all I will say, ups and downs!
There is some real drama this season, more than there has ever been there. But that's also one of the things about season three, personal drama is heightened beyond any other season before.
How about a love interest at some point for Marjan?
We haven't got there yet but I think it will happen. A lot of our meetings with the MPAC have been about doing that correctly; we want it to be realistic for her and for her world, and also exciting and titillating for the audience. It would be so interesting to see romance explored in a way not usually explored because there are so many different ways to fall in love.
'There is some real drama this season,' promises Natacha
Do you talk on set about fandom and expectations?
We talk about how much we love fans and how we have a responsibility towards specific groups seeing themselves on TV; I know Brian and Rafael do, there is a level of "I want to take care of this character to take care of these people," but when it comes to expectations [of characters], no.
What, if anything, can you tell us about the crossover with 9-1-1?
I know nothing, we still haven't started filming that!
We have 18 episodes for season three though so it's coming. I want to work with Aisha [Hinds] again though, I love her. We spent time together when we filmed the first crossover, and she actually got engaged the night before so I would run back and forth between takes to find out the entire story - "And then what?" - and it took a whole day to get through the story! But she is so lovely and sincere, and I love her character Hen, she is my number one choice.
All I want is Judd in LA…
He would be so perturbed, turning his nose up at everything. Yes!
But he has some stories this season, so much drama. And I want more of Buck being jealous that she doesn't follow him... or did she follow him? I am going to go with she did follow him.
Can you tell us anything about Judd and Grace?
Good baby news! I don't care if it's a spoiler, it's good baby news!
You have been dating John Stewart, how does his relationship with acting help influence you and encourage you?
My love! We are very different in our approaches so it can be interesting. John is so insanely talented, what he does he does with such ease.
People could say that with me and accents - as long as I have been exposed to an accent I can do that accent, and it was a skill from being an outsider as a child, from observing and listening a lot.
He approaches work with a level of fluency and ability and ease that I encourage myself to copy. John also is not afraid of making a fool of himself and I do not enjoy that.
That difference, learning how to shake it off and be free I have learned from him, and I think he learns from me a little about preparation.
John and Natacha live together in LA
The pandemic changed everyone's priorities, how did it affect you and what you're looking for?
It was a really challenging time globally and heightened things that matter to us all - how much time we spend deafened by background noise, and the hustle and bustle of things that do not matter and distract you from listening to the people you love.
For me, I realized you are going to be indoctrinated and influenced by something so you have a choice about what that is - what TV or books do you want in your life? If you don't decide someone else will for you, and you will get their message.
I also lost my biggest job to date, the female lead in a Sylvester Stallone movie. We shut down in March and by the time it picked back up Lone Star was scheduled so they had to recast me. And that was so painful and now looking back, I think, does a job really matter when my family and loved ones are safe and so many people have lost so much? And if this is my biggest loss, I am okay.
You know, I was so furious around the rhetoric of the "COVID-15", as if [gaining weight] was the most important thing coming out of a health crisis.. That industry that is obsessed with monetizing men and women and everyone in-between's insecurities; it came out so hard at the end of the first chapter of the pandemic, screaming "You must lose weight", and a lot of people did so much work in that chapter thinking, "Mute that, unfollow that."
Eat the pizza! As long as it's pleasurable, eat the pizza! I think I have now cut the ties about caring about others' expectations on my physical form, and I am happier now.
You've spoken in the past about how boxing has helped you inhabit your space and put you in line for action roles, would you like to do something different? A romcom? Or drama? What is next?
I am drawn to action roles but I want to up the ante - if it is not bigger and better I don't want to do it. John says to me all the time, "You are so funny," and I forget. When I first met NBC they thought they were going to put me in comedies.
John reminds me I am funny and cute and I get annoyed, but there are lots of sides to me, and it helps to be reminded I can portray other sides. So yes I would do a romantic comedy - but I am not into gratuitous nudity, so I want to know how differently I can tell this love story or this comedy?
It was almost the end of season two when we heard we'd get a season three [of Lone Star] so a season four would be good! I have a feeling it will keep going... the trajectory of episodes as well, from ten in season one to 14 in season two and 18 in season three, we are gathering more and more speed. But it is also nice as the characters are so lived in and we are all so much more invested.
9-1-1 Lone Star returns to Fox on 3 January 2022
Styling by Scot Louie, photography by Easton Schirra, make up by Jose Corella and hair styled by Cynthia Alvarez
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