Breaking Through: Dina Shihabi Owns Her Destiny (2024)

For the record, Dina Shihabi is on the hunt for the perfect pair of black, heeled Chanel boots. "I get butterflies just thinking about them. I would wear them every day,” she says.

The Saudi Arabia–born and Dubai-raised actress’s hair is still wet when we speak. She is fresh out of the shower after landing back in Los Angeles from a jet-set trip from London. It’s one of those idyllic days in L.A., the sun casting a hazy glow across her skin. Despite the warm weather and her locale, Shihabi is channeling her inner New Yorker—or, more specifically, her style icon Winona Ryder—as she’s clad in a sheer black top paired with a slew of delicate gold earrings and a sentimental charm necklace.

Netflix’s latest juggernaut, Archive 81 (the number two television show on Netflix in the United States when we speak), is a chilling horror thriller based on the hit podcast of the same name. The show centers around two characters in parallel narratives: Dan Turner, played by Mamoudou Athie, and Melody Pendras, played by Shihabi. Dan, a film archivist in modern-day New York City, is tasked with recovering damaged videotapes filmed by Melody in 1994 when she was researching the mysterious Visser building. As the story unfolds, Dan finds his own story is much more connected to Melody’s than he initially realized. With sweeping, David Fincher–esque shots and Hitchco*ckian musical suspense, it is a riveting, trembling show.

Melody’s ’90s-based character supplies prime fashion inspiration. With the recent resurgence of ’90s trends, Melody’s costuming—simple, layered pieces with neutral tones à la Carolyn Bessette and Brooklynite Nancy Drew—feels freshly modern.

"Melody’s costumes were very ’70s inspired—a young student living in New York who would have gone to thrift stores as opposed to buying new things,” Shihabi describes. She notes her favorite look was from the first episode. It was comprised of a classic dark-tan suede jacket layered over a truffle-colored vest and cream-toned pinstriped button-down. The worn-in brown leather bag, an accessory that looks like it came straight off the Coach runway, completes its sophisticated cool-girl charm.

Breaking Through: Dina Shihabi Owns Her Destiny (1)

(Image credit: Ryan Pfluger; Styling:Cult Gaia Ansel Dress($1119))

It is in the costuming that Shihabi finds herself coming into Melody’s character, something she describes as "visceral.” It was a process, she’s quick to add, of finding who Melody really is in her fashion. After trying miniskirts, for example, they realized clean, tailored trousers are more fitting for the character.

"I don’t know what I’m going to do with the character until I’m in a fitting,” Shihabi says. "You learn so much about a person based on how they dress. I always find fittings the most creative, collaborative, and insightful parts of creating a character. I would never want to wear something of mine for a character because I need that separation.”

As important as costuming is to her honing the characterization, the actress takes a similar approach to style in her personal life. Shihabi feels strongly about the thought she puts into getting dressed every morning and the way it impacts her throughout the day. In addition to her ongoing quest for the perfect Chanel boots, she notes that the latest collections of Celine, Stella McCartney, and Miu Miu are inspiring her—as well as Lebanon-based designer Sandra Mansour, who has been a staple in her recent red carpet repertoire.

"I always dress for the day. That’s something I’ve gotten from my mother and grandmother. I love being conscious about what I put on my body and feeling good. I get this feeling of being able to conquer the day and make things happen if I feel good about myself. It’s self-love,” she says.

Although she’s very much the proverbial "breakout star,” Shihabi has been climbing the Hollywood ranks with starring roles in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Altered Carbon, and Ramy, among others.

Since moving to the Big Apple at 18 ("I felt invincible when I moved to New York”) to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Shihabi has acquired an array of roles, both acting and dancing. She recalls one of her favorite jobs as a backup dancer to a drag queen—her name escapes Shihabi, but she was "gorgeous”—when she first moved to the city: "I came from Dubai, so I’d never seen behind the scenes of drag pageants!”

(Image credit: Ryan Pfluger;Styling:Cult GaiaAnsel Dress($1119)

After growing up in Dubai, which she calls home, Shihabi acknowledges the expectations and restrictions that are often set on women, in particular. As a Dubai native living in America, though, she emphasizes her thankfulness for her background.

"In the Middle East, there are expectations of women, but there’s also a worshipping of women—maybe too much. Women are on a pedestal, and there’s this mentality that we need to ‘be careful’ and ‘take care of them.’ But you also feel like people have your back there. There’s loyalty, and it’s very family and friendship oriented,” she says. "In America, it’s such an individualistic culture. It’s very much me, myself, and I. I like being an Arab living in America because I feel like I’ve taken the things that I think are valuable and make my life rich, and my relationships [are] deep and intimate. I’m grateful that I came from where I came from and that I get to be here. It’s the best-case scenario.”

On the horizon, Shihabi has her sights set on expanding her creativity, with the goal of writing as well. She gushes with excitement and passion as she describes a particular project she is in the process of workshopping. It combines her love of both acting and dancing. But while she is very much a writer, she finds it difficult to actually declare herself as one.

"It’s funny how we limit ourselves. My writing agent recently told me, ‘You need to start calling yourself a writer.’ And I had this block—thinking, ‘I can’t. I’m an actor. I’m just experimenting with writing. She told me, ‘Own it.’ I thought it was one of the most generous things anyone has ever given to me because I was like, ‘Oh, wait. I can be all. I can be a dancer and an actor and a writer. And I can become a director, too! Why not? Why hold yourself back? Give yourself freedom to explore and fail also. You may be terrible at the beginning, but don’t stop yourself,” she says.

With this optimistic nature, she looks forward to her next project: Netflix’s Painkiller, co-starring Uzo Aduba and Matthew Broderick, which is centered on the origin of the opioid crisis. The project is slated to come out this year, and Shihabi continues to break the mold of Hollywood ingénue and redefine the role to fit her.

Archive 81 is now streaming on Netflix.

Photographer: Ryan Pfluger

Stylist: Oliver Vaughn

Hairstylist: Kat Thompson at Tomlinson Management Group

Makeup Artist: Pircilla Pae at A-Frame Agency

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