March 7, 2023
By Iman Sadri
Mercedes Mason is a prolific actress with a body of work spanning over 90 episodics of television and over a dozen film appearances. She is best known for her role of Ofelia Salazar in the highest rated cable show of all time, Fear The Walking Dead. The AMC juggernaut averaged over 13.9 Million viewers per show, eclipsing Game of Thrones and other cable TV hits. Mercedes was catapulted into international stardom as the show was seen in over 100 countries.
Mason, however, has been an A-List Iranian American actress from the get-go. She has played the female lead in over half a dozen network shows that appeared on Prime Time. Programs that had extensive marketing, with billboards and ads all over the country. Including The Finder, where she played U.S. Marshall Isabel Zambada. On 666 Park Avenue, a heavily marketed ABC show, Mason played the lead, Louise Leonard. In The Rookie, she starred as Captain Zoe Anderson. In NCIS : Los Angeles, she starred as DEA agent Talia Del Campo.
Mercedes Mason’s versatility on screen is ubiquitous. She can play a wide variety of characters from different backgrounds. She may be of Iranian descent, but Mercedes’ believability as any character she plays is evident by the massive cult following she has gained.
Mercedes has appeared on a plethora of late night and day time talk shows. Including appearances on Jimmy Kimmel, The Steve Harvey Show, The Late Show with Craig Ferguson and over a dozen European and So Cal news appearances.
To catch up with this prolific Persian, Mercedes Mason, we met up for a lunch interview at Avra in Beverly Hills. Where we dined on caviar from Iran, hoping that things turn around in the country of her birth.
Iman Sadri : Thank You for taking the time to chat with The Persian Observer. Please describe your early life, education and upbringing.
Mercedes Mason : My childhood was fairly idyllic in the sense of freedom and independence. My parents escaped Iran during the revolution of ‘79 and relocated to Sweden. A country almost the exact opposite. Sweden is one of the most egalitarian countries out there. (Something I wish desperately for Iran to have). So I had a very profound sense of self, especially as a girl, even at a young age. However, being the only brunette in a sea of blondes wasn’t easy (we were in a small town of Sweden). Physically and culturally I always felt like an outcast. As all Iranian parents can attest to: education was the most important aspect. So I threw myself into school. One of the only things I had confidence in because I knew I was good at it. My grades reflected as much. My father, being very Muslim, made sure we also studied the Q’uran. My sister and I used to climb out the windows at the center because even then, at a young age, I knew religion wasn’t for me.
IS : What were the earliest influences that inspired you to pursue a career as an actress ?
Mercedes Mason : Being the only brunette with olive skin, I was desperate to find heroes I could relate to. My favorite was Pippi Långstrump (Pippi Longstocking). She was quirky and funny and I watched her with utter adoration. Until one day I saw Ronja Rovardotter (The Robber’s Daughter). A brunette with olive skin. I was ENTRANCED. I wanted to be her so badly. She was the first example for me of people getting paid to be on my TV. My parents had only given me the options of medical school or becoming an engineer so this was a complete eye opener for me.
IS : Who were some of your earliest favorite + inspirational actresses and actors that you saw on Television or Cinema ?
Mercedes Mason : I was obsessed with Angelina Jolie when I saw her in Hackers. She was cool and smart and a little dangerous. I wanted to be her. I still do.
IS : Which TV shows were your favorites growing up and which had the most influence in you pursuing a career in film + television ?
Mercedes Mason : I’ve mentioned my earliest ones. But I was also a big fan of Benny Hill and James Bond (the only shows I could watch with my dad). My father didn’t speak much. Always a quiet presence, sort of living in the background of my childhood, as he worked two jobs to put food on the table. So whenever I could spend time with him, I would. Sadly, the women in both Benny Hill and James Bond weren’t exactly the picture of feminism. Took me years to realize that feminism is a HUGE part of my personality. I love women. I think we’re magical creatures.
IS : Many often watch movies and TV shows and are inspired. Few watch the same content and decide to follow the industry as a career. What internal mindset did you have that persuaded you to follow a career in Hollywood to make a living at it. What were the greatest influences that gave you the mindset to have a career in Film + TV ?
Mercedes Mason : I was well on my way to med school, post graduation, as I received my BA in psychology. But the acting bug had already gripped me. I told my parents that since I had graduated a year early (I skipped a grade when we moved to America), I would take one year off to pursue my passion. If nothing came of it, I could at least look back on my life while on my deathbed and know that I TRIED. That one year was so successful that, to my parents’ chagrin, I decided to give it another year. Then another. The first five years my parents would beg me to go back to med school. Until they saw that I was able to provide for myself and even bought a house on my own. Only then did they realize that this is actually a career if you’re lucky enough to book jobs. I just knew that I had to give acting a try. I couldn’t ignore the voice in my head that told me it was my path in life.
IS : What were some of your earliest acting experiences in an amateur setting ? Did you take acting lessons / if so please elaborate on any drama / theatrical school experiences (if applicable).
Mercedes Mason : My parents were so strict with us about school. We had to get straight A’s. Had to graduate top of our class. It wasn’t an option not to. So I wasn’t allowed to partake in any acting or theater classes. But in one of my AP English classes was a boy who wanted to become a director. He knew I wanted to be an actress so he put me as his lead in his first short film. I played a witch. I remember feeling so much joy every time I was in front of the camera. It just confirmed my suspicion that my love for the craft wasn’t a passing phase.
IS : What was the professional transition process like as a young actress ? Please describe to up and coming actors / actresses your process of getting an agent, manager, publicist ? Breaking in the industry. Et al.
Mercedes Mason : I stopped modeling when I went to university so I could focus. One of my agents was very aware that I wanted to be an actress. When I left the agency he kindly told me about a cattle call for actresses for the movie The Break-Up, with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. I showed up, having memorized my 3 or 4 lines, and waited in a line of more than a hundred girls. Somehow, I made the director laugh. I booked the job. I was hooked after that. Once I graduated from school, I decided to throw caution to the wind and move to LA. I had about a thousand dollars to my name. With two parents who were terrified of my insane desire to be an actress. Despite their grumblings, I moved. I slept on a couch for a few months until I started booking commercials. I only got an agent because of the few lines in the The Break-Up (even though my scene got cut, I got footage of it and showed anyone and everyone). Eventually I got an agent who started sending me out on smaller role auditions. I booked an indie film with JK Simmons and Shane West. Somehow my current manager, Lena Roklin, got wind of the fact that I didn’t have a manager. (She repped a few of the guys in the movie). So she showed up on set, we met, and she signed me on the spot. I’ve been loyally with her ever since. She’s always been my champion. Sometimes it takes one person to really believe in you to help you believe in yourself. I’m always thankful to Lena for that.
IS : How did your earliest acting roles come about ? How long (hours, days, weeks) did you have to prepare for each role ? Especially with the one episode roles. Including Entourage, The Closer, NCIS.
Mercedes Mason : My early career was wrought with utter luck. I had no idea how I booked jobs and no clue what I was doing. I swear it was sheer luck. But it was all due to my auditioning. I was so green that I hadn’t allowed fear and insecurity to set in yet. Those lovely emotions came much later. All I knew was to memorize my lines. I had no clue what it meant to create a character or break down a scene.
IS : Can you elaborate on highlights from Three Rivers, playing Vanessa. and The Finder which was also a highly regarded show. Describe the premise of the show and your character, U.S. Marshall Zambada, which was the female lead on the Fox show.
Mercedes Mason : Sadly, I don’t remember much about the Three Rivers set. It was short lived but one of the first times I was a recurring character. So if nothing else, it helped my confidence grow.
The Finder will always have a special spot in my heart. It was the first time I became a series regular. I barely had any money left. I couldn’t pay my rent for the next month so I literally had two weeks left in LA before I knew I had to move back in with my parents in Chicago with my tail between my legs. Then, the audition for The Finder. When my agent and manager called me to tell me I booked it, I cried tears of joy. It was the first time the universe had come through for me when I asked for help. It allowed me to stay in LA and pursue the career I love.
IS : Congrats on 666 Park Avenue. The show was marketed heavily and its posters were ubiquitous. You played the lead, Louise Leonard. How did the role come about ? Please share highlights from the show ?
Mercedes Mason : 666 Park Ave was gotten through auditioning. Nothing out of the ordinary. But I learned so much on that set. I was a series regular again so my confidence was growing and I wasn’t afraid anymore like I had been on the set of The Finder. I also got to move back and shoot in NYC which was incredible at the time because I missed the city. It was an exciting time. One of my favorite highlights from that show is that I met my friend Robert Buckley, whom I adore! We remain friends to this day.
IS : You then hit it just as big as DEA agent Talia Del Campo on NCIS : Los Angeles. Please elaborate on highlights / experiences from the series. What makes the long running series so popular ?
Mercedes Mason : NCIS:LA was so much fun! I became very close with Dani Ruah and Eric Christian Olsen. We spent the whole time laughing on set. So great to be on a set where you’re having a great time because then you can relax and enjoy every moment. Plus, Talia Del Campo was so much fun to play! She’s so sassy. Was honored to portray her.
IS : As Ofelia Salazar on Fear the Walking Dead you made cable television history with 10.1 Million viewers in AMC’s debut of the hit show. Averaging 11.6 Million viewers per episode made the show the #1 Cable series of All Time. How did the role come about ? Did you expect the show to be so popular ?
Mercedes Mason : Fear The Walking Dead was the first time I experienced any sort of fame. The fans are incredible and they are so supportive and loving. Ofelia had such a great arch. I just wish more had come of her character but I got pregnant at the end of season 3 and knew I wanted to stay home with my son for at least a year. I booked it from several auditions. We had an incling that the show might be as popular as it’s mothership show, The Walking Dead, but I don’t think any of us had any idea how popular it would actually become.
IS : You are always so comfortable in all of your interviews. Appearing on Kimmel, MTV, Craig Ferguson, a myriad of news programs, Steve Harvey and many others. Including Int’l TV. You quickly become BFFs with all interviewing hosts. What do you attribute this charisma to ? (Besides your lovely smile)
Mercedes Mason : Hahaha, you’re so sweet. I think I’m very good at having fun. That shows in interviews. I look at each interview like I’m hanging with a friend (whom I’ve never met before). I think my comfort makes it easier for the audience to feel comfortable. Plus the hosts are amazing at making their guests comfortable, hence they have long running shows.
IS : Fear The Dead has been a hit in over 100 countries. What do you attribute the popularity of the Zombie Apocalypse genre to ?
Mercedes Mason : I think humanity has a morbid fascination with death and the end of times. We want to know how people would react if their lives were at stake. Hence, people watch accidents on the freeway and obsess over serial killers, etc. The Apocalypse is just all that on a much grander scale. Sadly, as of late, we are closer to an end of times due to climate change. I genuinely am worried about what kind of world we are leaving our children.
IS : What is the key to memorization of your lines as an actress ? What are some ways you get into each character you play ? What kinds of research is necessary besides the screenplay with each differing role ?
Mercedes Mason : I memorize by running the lines over and over and over again until it’s in my bones. Otherwise, I won’t feel free enough to be in the moment during an audition. Preparation is the key for me. It helps ease anxiety and nerves. It helps me listen to the other person(s) in the scene. But I also like to put myself in the mind of the character. How would I react if I were put in their shoes. I always like to research the look of a character if they’re from a different era or place. I feel like wardrobe and hair and makeup really help me step outside of myself and into their skin.
IS : Discuss your role of Captain Zoe Anderson on The Rookie ? You played a senior, commanding officer. How did you prepare for the role ?
Mercedes Mason : The Rookie was so such a mixed bag for me. I had an incredible time on set because I adore Nathan Fillion so much (we still play backgammon and bust on each other whenever we can). But, I was also just a couple months postpartum and was in the darkest period of my life. I had horrible postpartum depression and anxiety and didn’t know how to handle anything. I honestly wasn’t ready to be on set but didn’t realize that until I left set and was home and able to slowly find myself again. I prepared for the role by doing drive-alongs and interviewing real life female police captains.
IS : The L Word : Gen Q has featured four actresses of Persian heritage thus far. Making TV history in that regard. Including Sarah Shahi (original), you, Sepideh Moafi and Arienne Mandi. What is the significance of this feat to you for the diaspora ?
Mercedes Mason : I am so incredibly impressed that The L Word: Gen Q has as many Iranian actresses as they do! As Iranians we have been overlooked by Hollywood. We aren’t considered white ethnically yet we aren’t considered diverse enough either so we end up falling between the cracks. It’s been one of the biggest frustrations for me as an actress. As much as Hollywood talks about inclusivity, I feel as though Iranians have been left by the wayside. I can’t think of a single show that showcases Iranian families. Or Iranian leads of TV shows. I’m hopeful that this will change. We have such a beautiful and warm culture. Saddens me that most people don’t know much about the Persian culture. There’s still so much stigma surrounding Iran. Despite the fact that the Iranian people are not nor have ever been representatives of the Islamic Republic; a bunch of blood thirsty monsters! (Don’t get me started on that. May Iran be free soon!)
IS : Describe your character Michelle on American Horror Stories.
Mercedes Mason : Yet again, I booked American Horror Stories too early post having my second son. I was 6 weeks postpartum and still leaking milk every few seconds. It was a tough time being away from my infant son. I should’ve waited. But I thought I was ready. I don’t have much memory of that set sadly. Mostly because I was in such a sleepless state. I’m finally now sleeping again as my youngest son just turned 20 months old. It’s a game changer! I finally feel like human being again. I’m so excited about the new chapter of my acting career.
IS : What more can be done to have a greater number of actors of Iranian heritage to pursue careers in Showbiz ?
Mercedes Mason : I think the best thing is to recognize that Iranians are diverse. We are here. We are proud. We are talented and want to work. It’s up to directors and casting directors to take the chance and hire more Iranians. Iran has some of the greatest films. Hopefully Hollywood will recognize that and give us a chance. Aside from that, I hope more Iranian filmmakers and writers (myself included) will continue to bring our work to producers in hopes of making the content we provide. Change is coming. I’m excited about that.
IS : You have been very active on the red carpet making statements for a Free Iran. Thank you for your activism. What more can we do as a diaspora from the outside to help create change inside Iran ?
Mercedes Mason : I am so desperate to have a free Iran. To allow my people to live in joy and peace. I think we need people with a platform to pay attention and bring attention to the plight Iran is facing. I hope that congressional changes will be put into effect so that the powers that be can get involved and stop the very clear humanitarian crisis that is happening on Iranian soil. The Islamic Republic Of Iran is a terrorist group. A group of sycophantic psychopaths who will torture, rape and kill anyone who stands in their way. It’s time the UN steps in. It’s time useful sanctions are put in place. There is no reason any negotiations should be happening with the Islamic Republic. I want to take this opportunity to state how incredibly blown away I am by the sheer bravery and strength of the Iranian youth who continue to protest despite the death they face. I’m also blown away by people like my friend, Azadeh Parsa, who is one of the kindest and most relentless people in pursuit of justice for the Iranian people. She’s selfless and tireless. She inspires me every day.
IS : Describe some highlights of your film roles ? What have been your favorite roles to date ?
Mercedes Mason : The highlights of my film career have to be the times I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with directors who have allowed me to improv and trust me enough to allow me to breathe life into the character I was booked to play. I also love when I make an actual friend on set. Someone I keep in touch with. It’s not easy making friends as adults. Especially when we have kids who demand all our attention.
IS : If you could co-star opposite any actor and actress, one for each alive and one for each, no longer alive, who would you want to co-star with in a film ?
Mercedes Mason : Of course it’s every actor’s dream to play opposite the greats like Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. But I have always wanted to play opposite Shohreh Aghdashloo. I’ve actually written the first draft of a film I want her to star in. One of these days, hopefully, our paths will cross and I can fangirl with a script in hand for her. I’m also overtly obsessed with Viola Davis. I am so in awe of her. One of the greatest chameleon actors of our time is Tilda Swinton. I would play a scarf haphazardly thrown across her décolletage. As for no longer alive: Paul Newman. If there’s a heaven, I’m seeking him out when I die. So natural. Such a philanthropist. I love him.
IS : If you could play in a Biopic of any female, alive or historical figure. Notable or otherwise. Who would you play and why ?
Mercedes Mason : It’s already been done but I always wanted to play Gia Carangi. I also want to play Cleopatra. I want to play Neda Agha-Soltan. There are too many to mention. These are just the ones that popped into my head. As an homage to my father, I always wanted to play the female equivalent of a James Bond. Jamie Bond? Although that’s not a biopic. Ha!
IS : What does the next chapter of your career hold / what Film + TV goals do you have ?
Mercedes Mason : As a mother now, my eyes are so open. I feel like I’ve matured more in the past five years than all my years prior on this planet. I’m more humbled. I’m more grounded. I am excited to see how that changes the characters that I have the honor of playing. Also, I have written four TV pilots and a feature film. I’m hoping I can sell my work and continue as a writer/producer as I age in this industry.
Follow Mercedes Mason on social media @MercedesMason