In the first episode, Writer/Director Shirin Najafi and Actress Julie Lake – most prominently known for portraying Angie in Orange is the New Black – are sharing a hotel room in Palm Springs.
The show is Mental, an online series following the friendship of two young women, Shirin and Julie, as they parse through their own struggles with mental neurosis.
The hotel room is too cold, Julie can only sleep to rain sounds, the light from the coffee machine is like a “Vegas billboard”; the two spiral into an argument over the safety of combining Prozac and wine and their individual Zoloft prescriptions, all culminating in a mental break over how tucked the bed sheets are. It’s a comedy!
“I feel like that episode resonated with the Iranian community,” Shirin tells me on the phone last March. “I heard they screened it at one of those Palo Alto mehmoonis.”
I imagine the mehmooni went something like this:
A house somewhere in Palo Alto, California is in chaos. The cacophony of more than 60 separate conversations shared between 60 individual people rings through bustling rooms. Platters of carefully plated finger food materialize from the kitchen and disappear into contented bellies, as five people huddle over the stove in deep calculus, attempting to maneuver a large pot of rice onto an equally large pewter platter.
In another room the arbiter of community gossip enthusiastically shares with a circle of party goers: “Shirin Najafi, Hamid Najafi’s daughter, have you heard? She’s making a TV show. She went to Columbia, for Economics.The actress from ‘Orange is the New Black’ is in it.”
In fact, I had heard. My mom had told me about it.
“You know Shirin Najafi, Hamid Najafi’s daughter,” my mom had said. “She went to Columbia, worked in New York and now she is making a TV show. You should write about her.”
When I called Shirin, she was pacing.
“Sorry, I had way too many cups of coffee,” she joked, from her apartment on the east side of Los Angeles, a little out of breath.
The show Mental is a certain point of arrival in Shirin’s career. She has been actively working in the entertainment industry for the greater part of the last five years, writing and acting in shorts that have even been featured on FunnyorDie. Most recently she made a parody of Pixar’s Inside Out, which has garnered some attention, in an attempt to shed light on Hollywood’s trivialization of depression.
But Mental’s realness is different. It’s not the two broke girls struggling to become artists narratives that have defined some of her work in the past. That trope, while not entirely inaccurate, doesn’t capture the essence of her and Julie’s friendship, she said. The humor comes with the real neurosis, anxiety and depression.
It’s not autobiographical: In real life Shirin assured me that slightly untucked hotel sheets do not incite a mental break as they apparently do for her character in the show. But Shirin and Julie are actual childhood friends, and both have come to terms with varying degrees of mental illness. Her friends joke that there is a pre-Zoloft Shirin and a post-Zoloft Shirin.
They grew up in Palo Alto – the Silicon Valley town that has been home to every major tech company on your radar.
I also grew up in Palo Alto. We all graduated from Henry M. Gunn High School, albeit a decade apart, and despite the more inevitable developments that come over the course of ten years, her experience in Palo Alto wasn’t too far from my own.
“My life was on track,” she said. She was a good student, took five Advanced Placement classes, went to Columbia University, then went onto a successful job in the investment banking world.
Yet, she was also debilitatingly unhappy. She was tied down in the wrong world – all exacerbated by having to acknowledge her depression as a lifelong struggle, not an occasional sadness.
“At a young age I remember writing for this Stanford fiction writing class,” Shirin recounts. “I remember what my dad said was you are a very talented writer, make sure to pursue it as a hobby – don’t lose it.”
“Part of it is that fear of pursuing a crazy career and growing up in a culture where you don’t imagine following or pursuing an artistic career.”
It made sense coming from him. Like many in the Iranian diaspora, arts came second to providing a stable home. Her dad, a talented singer, also owned a tech company. But now Shirin has changed the tide. She’s doing it and can support herself.
“I think if I were to sum up the big picture take away from my life it is staying true to my passion,” Shirin said at the end of our conversation.
“I’m alive and this is what I should be doing.”
Tara Golshan is an Iranian-American reporter based in Washington DC. Her work has been published in Vox, USA Today, KQED, Wisconsin State Journal and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, among others. Golshan grew up in Palo Alto, California and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with degrees in journalism, international studies and a minor in French. At UW, she was Editor in Chief of The Badger Herald, a nationally acclaimed student-run publication.