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Interview: Rising Star Natasha Behnam Talks HBO‘s “The Girls on the Bus”

May 13, 2024

Text: Jeremy Whitaker

Natasha Behnam is the rare combination of sheer passion and committed execution.

Not only is their goal to portray complex characters that look like themself, but they’re actually doing it, all with humor and her heart on her sleeve. What I can say with full confidence after a conversation with Behnam is they are not to be underestimated.

To take a glance at the social accounts of the young actress and activist is to be educated. What I learned is in Western media there is a severe lack of Iranian-American representation. In fact, Behnam’s character Lola on HBO Max’s The Girls on the Bus constitutes a member of one of the first and only Iranian-American families on national television.

In late April, Behnam posted on Instagram explaining this monumental moment. She said, “I am so grateful to the writers who listened to me as I explained my experience being first-gen Iranian American, which is nowhere near any of the stereotypes most people have in their heads."

Recently cast in the final season of Netflix's You, Behnam will take her commitment to disproving stereotypes to one of the biggest shows on television.

From her rent-controlled apartment in New York City's West Village (yes, you read that correctly), the multi-hyphenate and I talked about her role on The Girls on the Bus, the reality of staying in the moment, and why she IS Jessica Alba in Honey.

Read the full interview below:

JEREMY WHITAKER: Who is Lola?

NATASHA BEHNAM: Lola is a passionate driven, young woman who has been through a lot of trauma and is really trying to find her way out, and figure out how to earnestly make this world a better place in the best way she knows how.

JW: How did this come about for you? It seems like you're made for this role.

NB: I remember getting the email notification on my phone and seeing “straight to series, shoots in New York,” and I was like, ‘I'm doing this job. I have to do this job.’ When I read the script and I read the character, it made so much sense to me. I thought it was such an amazing first episode. It was so well written, so I felt it in my bones in a way. I didn't work on the audition too hard. I sort of just did the work I needed to do, taped it, sent it in, and then a couple days later, my team was like, you're testing with the network. A couple of weeks after that, they were like, it's yours. It was bizarrely quick.

JW: What about Lola kind of jumped out to you in the script?

NB: I think I just related to her. I've been asked in interviews about her being this influencer and Lola to me was never an influencer or vapid at all. When I read the script, that first episode was so nuanced. She had this moment where in the first episode, Kimberly's being attacked by a mob of students and Lola doesn't even think twice about going in and saving her despite the fact that she has different politics. I relate to this. Of course, if there was a woman, especially a woman of color being attacked in front of me or any of my friends, it doesn't matter what the politics are, you go in and you help the person. I think I just understood this great conviction she had in her morals and her ethics. Her desire for social justice just made sense to me.

JW: It's interesting that interviewers have asked you about the influencer aspect of Lola because to me the most noticeable thing about your character was that she's a bit of comedic relief, but as the "funny friend" there's so many layers to unpack there.

NB: I think that's a very astute observation. I agree with you.

JW: What was the process of getting to know the other ladies? This cast is next level.

NB: Insane. I love them so much. I think our chemistry is palpable because we genuinely love each other. I am so sad that it's over and I want so badly to get another season to be with them again. Right away, we got along really well and there were no big egos. Carla, Melissa, and Christina are all so generous and kind and we all really wanted to make a good show and we all were lucky to get along so well.

JW: I know you're no stranger to improv. How much of your character did you get to play around with and how much was staunch script?

NB: A lot of it was scripted, but they were very generous to me in letting me improvise whenever I wanted to. I think a lot of little lines made it into the show.

JW: Do you feel like doing improvisation keeps you in the moment?

NB: I think because I come from a comedy background it's just a way for me as the character to be like, ‘What would be real for me right now? What would I say?’ I just think I try to allow that to happen because it's only going to create a more authentic moment for that character.

JW: You do improv comedy and you're also a dancer. It seems like you are about existing in your body in a moment. How do you keep yourself grounded like that?

NB: Through practice, through lots of practice. It's definitely hard. I'm a big meditator. I think my meditation, yoga practice, and dancing keep me really grounded. If I don't dance or do yoga or meditate for a week or two, I'm weird. I'm not in my body.

JW: How did you come to adopt these habits?

NB: I think I was always drawn to meditation. As early as taking a yoga class when I was a kid in my neighbor's garage and loving the breathing of it. Then you go to acting classes, and they always have breathing exercises. I was always really drawn to that aspect of acting, the sort of meditation and the visualization of it. There was a period in my life that got very mystical and, during COVID actually, I really jumped into two different types of breath work and meditation. I call it my journey back to self.

JW: It actually feels like meditative practices are instilled in us, whether you were raised to say your prayers or quiet time at school.  

NB: Right. It doesn't matter what form it comes from, at some point we want to take a second to just stop. We live in such an insanely busy, overactive, capitalistic environment that we're not taught in the mainstream to slow down or stop. Those moments are so imperative, and you're right, they are built in here and there, especially when you're growing up like nap or quiet time. I think it's human and necessary to just get quiet and to sort of check in with yourself.

JW: I imagine that need has been taken to another level for you with the success of the show.

NB: I think with every project that comes out, it takes some amount of recalibrating for sure.

JW: I believe it. I saw that you just won an award for, was it Barden and Sarah Start A Pandemic?

NB: That was this project that my friend Tyler [Peterson] brought to me during the strike. He had this really funny absurd script. We had so much fun, there was no money, and it was a cast and crew of 10 people and we just had our premiere at Series Fest and we won the Audience Award.

JW: What's it about?

NB: These two absurd best friends who will do anything to get out of work, so they decide they want to start another pandemic just so they don't have to go back to work. Of course, chaos ensues and they're not successful, but a lot of insane stuff happens along the way.

JW: I'm going to keep my eye out for that. I see on your page that you discuss Iranian American representation in media, and the fact that there is almost none. What are you looking for in projects in terms of appropriate representation?

NB: I am a writer, I went to film school. I actually write and direct and produce my own stuff. I am in the early stages of development on a couple of feature films that I'm going to produce and I'm writing. Typically all of my stories have an Iranian lead, but not all of the stories are necessarily about the culture or the ethnicity. Some of them are, and some of them it's just woven in. That's who I am. Generally it's nice to see more diverse stories no matter what your ethnicity or sexual orientation. It's just lovely to see different types of people in the stories that we love. Nice to see diversity just existing.

JW: I love seeing queer stories, but more than anything, I just love seeing stories where queer people just are doing things. Just existing.  

NB: Both are so important. I relate, being queer as well. I feel like there was a time, it was important to have queer love stories. It's all about being queer and loving, and then we can graduate from that. Now it doesn't have to just be that we can do something else. It's this funny learning curve.

JW: It's an evolution.

NB: Yeah, I feel that way with the show Rami, which I love. He's Egyptian and Muslim, so a little bit different but similar. I love the representation, but it is all about the culture and ethnicity, which again is beautiful. I feel like we're more in the middle of getting Middle Eastern, Southwest Asian, and North African representation. So we need those stories. It's very important to tell the culture stories and then hopefully at the same time, we'll get more of the nuanced versions as well.

JW: I do think we're kind of in the incubation period for those kinds of stories, so we're going to take anything and everything. Have you been able to ever go to Iran?

NB: No, I haven't. I would love to go someday.

JW: I was actually chatting with someone a few days ago from Tehran and he was saying that to live in New York is the only thing comparable to living in Tehran. They're just two insanely large capital cities.

NB: That's where both of my parents are from. It's interesting because my family fled when the revolution happened in 1978. The way they talk about it is that Iran now is nothing like what it was when they were growing up. Once the Islamic Republic took over, that's not what their cherished memories are of the place. That's why they haven't encouraged me to go because it's a different place than what it once was. I still would love to go and connect and see it.

JW: I'm just curious what kind of media you grew up on. What were you drawn to?

NB: Do you know the film, Honey? Starring Jessica Alba.

JW: Love her, love her, love her.

NB: I'm dying because that's the first that came to my head. I was a kid and that was one of my favorite movies. I'm laughing because I'm going to tell you this story, which has nothing to do with anything. You're going to probably have to leave this all out.

JW: I don't care. I'm loving this.

NB: We were all hanging out with my best friends of many, many years and I brought up Honey. He's like, ‘I've never seen that movie.’ I was like, ‘You've NEVER seen that movie? It is like the core of my childhood. It's the core of my being. It's everything that made me who I am.' He was like, ‘What are you talking about? Let me watch the trailer.’ So I pulled the opening scene on YouTube.

The opening scene is Jessica Alba as a dancer and she's bartending at this club. Then she finishes her shift and she hops over the bar and gets in the middle of the dance floor. Her best friend comes through and then they have a dance battle. And he was watching it and he was like, ‘Oh, Natasha, now I understand everything about you.’ Again, it has nothing to do with anything, but I grew up watching Jessica Alba in Honey. I grew up watching all of Step Up.

JW: Step Up. Yes.

NB: I thought my life was going to be one big dance battle in an early 2000s club.

JW: And has it been?

NB: Yeah. Exactly that. 

Full Credits: 

Text: Jeremy Whitaker

Photos: Timothy Fernandez