Sarah Shahi

Fairly Legal creator and executive producer Michael Sardo remembers exactly when he realized he had found his leading lady.

"I had seen 90 women when Sarah Shahi came in. When the casting director pulled out a pretend gun in the audition scene, they all backed up," Sardo tells TVGuide.com.  "Sarah's audition started, the casting director pulled out the fake gun, and she leaned in. Right then and there, I knew she was Kate."

Fearlessness was an important prerequisite for the role of mediator Kate Reed, the center of USA's new drama, Fairly Legal. After the sudden death of her father, both her mentor and best friend, Kate agrees to work for her difficult stepmother (Virginia Williams) to help keep her father's law firm afloat. When she's not settling disputes for bitter divorcees and powerful CEOs, Kate is also still dealing with her split from husband, local prosecutor Justin (Michael Trucco).

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"For me, the show is about Kate's heart," Shahi says. "[Kate] leads with her heart, and her mind sometimes follows. A lot of times it gets her into dire situations, but it's the risk she's willing to take because she's so passionate."

Like her character, passion and fearlessness have taken Shahi far. In person, the 31-year-old actress is warm but assertive. Whether she's discussing her career ("I was kind of over the network thing"), or recalling her high school days as a member of glee club ("We were never cool"), she's not afraid to tell the truth. In fact, she credits her show choir teacher, Miss Townsend, for some of her success.

"She was so passionate about show choir and the routines that if anybody messed up, she actually threw chairs. She would get so angry because she knew that we were better than that," Shahi says. "She was scary, but she was the best teacher I could have ever had and absolutely groomed me for this business."

What will Sarah Shahi be facing in her new USA series?

Enduring flying furniture was just the beginning. After memorable turns on The Sopranos and The L Word, she landed her first series regular role on NBC's Life in 2007. The show drew critical acclaim, but it failed to connect with a mass audience and was canceled after two seasons.

Shahi had just given birth to her first child, son William, five weeks earlier when she first heard about Fairly Legal (then called Facing Kate). While some would have shied away from the pressure and long hours a starring role would entail, Shahi says her son was her greatest motivation to pursue the project.

"The stakes were different for me because I just had a baby. So if I was going to dive into TV, it had to be something special," she says. "I wanted to be the face of a show and I wanted to have some creative input. I pretty much gave them every reason not to hire me."

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Fortunately, she found producers more than happy to listen. "It's been nice because I think they recognize that Kate is such a big part of the show. There are a lot of things which Michael doesn't agree with me on, and then there are things where he's like, 'Yes, that's better,'" Shahi says. "Everyone is encouraged to go off book and discover things in the moment."

But she knows the tough stuff is yet to come. Having a new show and a newborn baby has already proved challenging — Sardo recalls Shahi breastfeeding her then three-month-old between takes filming the pilot.

"My mother raised three kids on her own, so I was taught that to be a working mom was a good thing," she says. "It was quite good for the character because she's chaotic and messy in her life, and I kind of became that in my life."

Fairly Legal premieres Thursday, Jan. 20 at 10/9c on USA.