It's been a hot minute since Shonda Rhimes has graced us with a crisp new series. Now, conveniently timed and generously lessening the harsh blow of Scandal's cancellation, we can confirm: It was totally worth the wait.
Still Star-Crossed is a period drama like you've never seen before, picking up right where Shakespeare's epic play Romeo & Juliet left off. Based on Melinda Taub's 2013 novel of the same name, the show tells the story of the Montague and Capulet families as they continue to battle for power, prestige, and love. In retrospect, a follow-up makes a lot of sense. After all, any community with this many issues is proven to make for quality TV.
The notable diversity of the series' cast is an exciting (if not expected) complement to its as yet untold story, calling to mind Rhimes' splendid ability to create and produce addictive dramas that still manage to stand apart from the crowd.
Zimbio caught up with actor Medalion Rahimi, who plays Princess Isabella on the ABC series, a week before its May 29 premiere.
Zimbio: Tell me about your character, Princess Isabella. What makes her different?
MR: Princess Isabella is Prince Escalus' [actor Sterling Sulieman] sister. He's been away for a few years, sort of learning how to become a ruler. Isabella, meanwhile, has been at home with her father, so she's learned a lot about how the city works and how the politics are at home. Some might say she's more fit to rule, or more capable to rule because she has so much knowledge of how it all works, but because she's a woman, she doesn't have the opportunity to be in power. So she steps aside and lets her brother rule, but that's very difficult for her to deal with. She still acts as an advisor, but she does have a taste for power, and I think she wants more.
Zimbio: Does Escalus acknowledge and respect Isabella, or is he begrudgingly taking her advice? What is the dynamic between them?
MR: Most of the time he's a little reluctant, but she does actually convince him to listen. There are times they do butt heads and he doesn't follow through or do what she recommends, so that's where the conflict happens. They get themselves in a little bit of trouble.
Zimbio: Got it.
MR: They're young rulers, they're still figuring it out. They want to make their father proud, so there's a lot of pressure.
Zimbio: So lots of sibling rivalry?
MR: I think there's tension, but you can tell they're still loving with each other. As the season goes on, though, that tension starts to build. I don't know what that breaking point would be like, but I'm sure there would be one eventually.
Zimbio: Normally when a character has the title "Princess" in their name, a certain kind of person comes to mind. It sounds like Isabella isn't, you know...trope-y.
MR: Oh yeah. She isn't necessarily concerned with, you know, when the dress-maker is coming over to make her dress for the ball. She's more concerned with the Montagues slaughtering the Capulets, and what do we do, because our city is being torn apart. She's much more concerned with politics and power, not so much the frivolous things like getting her shoes or dresses made, or falling in love. She's not even looking for that. You know, she's an eligible princess, and eventually she might need to find somebody in order to cement relationships between other cities, so it'll be interesting to see how that works out.
Zimbio: For sure! So in Season 1, do we see Isabella with any sort of love interest at all?
MR: We do see someone. I can't say too much, but it's sort of just introduced, and...well, she has someone that comes into the picture who changes her mind about certain things. But she's very hard-headed, and she has one goal, so that's another conflict she has to face, is following her heart versus following her head. Usually she's following her head. Escalus is the one who's always following his heart, so that's why they say Isabella is more fit to rule. She's more logical.
Zimbio: Do you relate to Isabella as a person?
MR: Absolutely! I wish I was as strong as her. But she lives a very sheltered life, she doesn't ever get to leave the palace, and I had a pretty sheltered, strict upbringing, so I understand that — wanting a taste for freedom and having your own life and making your own decisions. She doesn't really get to do that, so I feel for her. She's constantly encaged, and also wearing these corsets, which are a physical metaphor for her being so oppressed, in a way. You get to see the corsets, what they're made out of. In one scene you see the whole process of her getting ready, and they show what it takes. It's really cool.
Zimbio: Ugh, yeah, I've always wondered about that. I can't even imagine.
MR: We were lucky in that we tried to be authentic, but they gave us more comfortable versions of the corsets. We weren't actually using whale bone, but you'll see. There was one corset I wore that was really crazy. It was really uncomfortable, but it was worth it.
Zimbio: It's no secret Shonda Rhimes has the Midas Touch. Did you have more confidence going into this show because of her involvement?
MR: I trust Shonda so much because all of her past work has done so well and has made such an impact on people's lives. She always casts such strong female leads, which as an actor — or actress, I prefer to say 'actor,' but 'lady actor' — I appreciate. As soon as I tell people this is Shonda Rhimes' show, they're like, 'Oh! That's gonna be amazing!' She has this great resume, this history, so I'm hoping that's gonna get us more attention. She really does have the Midas Touch, I just saw the cut of the series pilot after she put her touch on it and it looks amazing. It has that fast pace of Scandal and the drama of Grey's Anatomy and it's just, like, you can tell it's her, but it's also so different than anything that ABC or Shondaland has ever done before.
Zimbio: Did you know how diverse the cast would be when you signed on?
MR: Absolutely not! I was really excited about being cast in a period piece being a Middle-Eastern actor. Then when I found out who my brother was I was a little surprised at first. I was like, 'Oh, okay! This is cool,' and then I started seeing more of the cast and I just thought it was amazing. It made me really excited. I was a little nervous, because I know people are going to ask questions like, 'How does this work? This doesn't make sense,' but we're not trying to focus on race as much as we are just the prejudice and the power struggles. It's not black versus white or anything like that. Everyone was cast because they were just right for the role.
Zimbio: Ebony Magazine recently pointed out that this period of time in history — the 1300s and beyond — has been portrayed in a lot of TV shows and films, but most have failed to illustrate the fact that minorities even existed in society. The stories tend to revolve around white enclaves, or white families.
MR: Oh, absolutely. You know, if people want a reason for [Still Star-Crossed's casting], it's that Verona was a port city. People were coming from all over, they were doing trades and things like that. So there could have absolutely been people from all over the world, the Moors or Africa, whatever, if you want to really explain it. But again, this isn't an historical drama, it's an historical fiction. It's Shakespeare. People should remember that, and keep an open mind. It's fantasy.
Zimbio: Definitely! That's what makes it so fun. Do you think fans of Romeo & Juliet, or Shakespeare in general, will be pleased with Still Star-Crossed's portrayal of the same universe?
MR: I think they will. We've also taken a bit of liberty with the characters, so as long as they're open to that, I think they'll quickly fall in love with everyone. There are some characters who aren't in the play that viewers will get to meet, which is cool. There might even be some characters from other plays!
Zimbio: Interesting! So, some cross-overs from other Shakespearean pieces?
MR: Maybe, yeah. I think they were trying to do that by alluding to certain people. I can't say who exactly, but you'll see!
Zimbio: I heard that in Season 1, Isabella will be forced to "succumb to a twisted scheme." It brought to mind the fact that, often in history (but also in modern times) women have had to make moral concessions in order to do what is, ultimately, the best thing for them. For their survival.
MR: Absolutely. Isabella, for the greater good, definitely has to set some of her own morals aside and get herself into really uncomfortable situations, but it's because she's so dedicated and so loyal to her city and her people that she does it. I feel for her. She definitely gets herself into a really sticky situation. That will be Episode 5, I believe, in the middle of the season.
Zimbio: Is Still Star-Crossed one of those shows where someone dies every other episode? I mean, should viewers make an effort to hold characters at arm's length, Game of Thrones-style?
MR: I would say so, yeah. Unfortunately, there are a lot deaths, so yeah...
Zimbio: I'll brace myself.