They say

Life

is what you make it. Sarah Shahi is making the NBC series, on Fridays at 10 p.m., into a career turn.

The actress plays LAPD Detective Dani Reese, who is partnered with the curiously detached Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis of

Band of Brothers

).

Both cops have issues. Dani is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who can be a little intense. Charlie served 10 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, and after being sprung and reinstated, carries a blithe Zen spirit.

"Charlie is so unguarded and unfiltered, he's spinning out of control," says

Life

's creator, Rand Ravich. "I wanted Dani to be incredibly grounded."

To explain Dani's hard-bitten attitude, Shahi provides a little back story. "She's in a man's world and she got there by using her abilities as a cop," she says. "She was pulled from the [police] academy because she was so good. Doing undercover work, she stumbled into heroin and alcohol."

But Dani is also full of surprises. Last season, she started speaking fluent Farsi to an immigrant crime victim. That came naturally to the actress, who was born Aahoo Jahansouz Shahi. Her family fled Iran in 1979 as the Islamic revolution unfolded - undoubtedly a wise move since Shahi, 28, is of royal descent. Her mother is Spanish but her paternal great-great-grandfather was Fath Ali Shah, a 19th-century ruler of what was then Persia. Her name denotes the family's august lineage.

Growing up in Euless, Texas, Shahi was often mistaken for Mexican. "I would go to the grocery store," she says, "and I would get my change counted out in Spanish."

While studying at Southern Methodist University, she became a member of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, the world's most famous pom-pom troupe.

"It was a huge commitment to rehearsal," she says. I know how hard they work, especially in that Texas heat. It's brutal."

Shahi dropped out of college to pursue acting in Los Angeles. The move occasioned some culture shock.

"When you walk down the street in Texas, you make eye contact with people and nod at them," she says. "In L.A. nobody did, and it really surprised me. You can walk right past somebody and pretend they aren't there. I would say 'hello' to everybody. People looked at me like I was insane."

At first, work was spotty. Shahi could land only sporadic guest-starring TV spots. On the plus side, that's how she met her fiance, Steve Howey, another native Texan, on the set of

Reba

.

Her first regular role was the flamboyant lesbian Carmen de la Pica Morales on

The L Word

. "That was the first time I was making money and getting a stable weekly check," she says.

Shahi's big break came when she was cast in the memorable

Sopranos

episode "Kennedy & Heidi" as the young stripper in Las Vegas who introduces Tony (James Gandolfini) to peyote - with less than blissful results.

"They tried to cast the role out of New York for a couple of months but didn't find a girl who was appropriate," she says. "Then they held an open audition in Los Angeles. I got a call saying, 'There's a role in

The Sopranos

, but you have to put yourself on tape and have it in by 5 [p.m.] today."

Maybe it was Shahi's feistiness that landed her the part.

"They called and said, 'She ad-libbed a little bit. She needs to go back and do it exactly as it's written,' " she recalls. "I was doing an independent [film] and didn't have the time. I told them, 'What you see is what you get.' "

She was flying to New York to tape the show when she was informed she would be starring on

Life

.

The Sopranos

episode ran the same week Shahi was back in Manhattan for the upfronts, the annual though endangered dog-and-pony show where the networks introduce the coming season's shows to advertisers and the press.

Everywhere she went, she says, people hailed her as "the girl from

The Sopranos

."

"At one point, I was walking out of my hotel and people were freaking out," she says. "You would figure America Ferrera or somebody famous was behind me. I turned around and there was nobody there."

She would soon be recognized everywhere as that girl on

Life

. But the 5-foot-4 actress had to make some adjustments when appearing with the 6-foot-1 Lewis.

"When Damian and I were in scenes together, I'd have to stand on an apple crate," she says. "Then they built me something they call 'the Shahi ramp,' " an inclined platform.

As the second season begins, Dani has let her hair down, both literally and figuratively.

"There have been physical changes," says Shahi. "She's looking sexy."

As a result, in almost every episode so far, Dani is getting hit on by some guy, often in an inappropriate fashion. Even the squad's creepy new captain (Donal Logue) finds her irresistible.

"Previously her wall was so high and strong, she was unapproachable," says Ravich. "Because she has opened herself up, she is attracting more men."

Whether Dani is running hot or cold, Shahi is just happy to tear into a part with some meat on it.

"Nobody ever thought I could do this kind of role," she says. "I was stuck in the position of either 'she's too pretty' or 'she's too ethnic' or 'not ethnic enough.' There was always a reason I couldn't play an everyday, blue-collar character."

Well, that's

Life

.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@ phillynews.com or 215-854-4552. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/daveondemand

.