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‘Mental’: Actress Julie Lake and Shirin Najafi Discuss New Web Series

Julie Lake & Shirin Najafi

There’s always been an infectious, creative chemistry between “Mental” co-creators Julie Lake and Shirin Najafi. Whether it’s their natural way of playing off each other in roles loosely based on their own lives or the fact that they’ve been best friends since high school.

Many already know Lake for her role as the unstable meth-head, Angie Rice on the Netflix hit-series; “Orange is the New Black”, while Najafi has found success as a standup comic and for writing and directing videos that have been featured on websites like Funny or Die.

Najafi and Lake are now releasing more of their “Mental” passion project. A web series of shorts that takes a funny look inside the lives of two friends and their struggles with anxiety and mental instability. The insatiable series; produced, written, directed and starring both of these amazingly talented ladies is a testament to their natural charm and creative prowess.

I recently spoke with Julie Lake and Shrin Najafi about “Mental” and more in this exclusive new interview.

How did the “Mental” web series originate?

Julie Lake: Shirin and I have been pretty much bouncing around this idea our whole lives. We both went to high school together and have been friends forever but have also struggled with anxiety and depression. It’s something we bonded over and laughed about. So we decided to make a series about two friends who struggle with mental illness and the funny interactions they have that’s kind-of loosely based on our own lives and relationship. But we wanted to show it in a comedic way. That’s how “Mental” was born.

Where do ideas for episodes come from? Where do you draw your inspiration?

Shirin Najafi: The writing process usually begins from a dramatic point of view. Like our first episode, “Palm Springs”.  Julie and I both went there for a weekend but had difficulties falling asleep in the same hotel room. It wasn’t anything too crazy; just a two-minute exchange, like “Can we turn on the AC?” and “Am I going to hear the rain machine through my ear plugs?” We were going on what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation but ended up having this neurotic conversation. The next day, we both laughed about it. The irony of that situation made for a clear episode idea. Then what we’ll do is write and start talking out the dialogue, reliving the experience from the perspective of our made-up characters.

What can you tell me about the most recent episode, “Dr. Bleiffer is on Maternity Leave”?

Lake: There was a time where I had been on Klonopin as needed for anxiety. Klonopin is a symptom reliever and doesn’t really treat anxiety. But when I went to the doctor he wouldn’t give it to me because he said I wasn’t on an anti-depressant. Then when I went to Shirin’s house, I discovered she had been prescribed all of these pills. She told me that once you’re on an SSRI they’ll prescribe you anything. That led into this fantasy of what it would be like if Shirin went to the doctor [laughs].

Najafi: From a legal perspective, a psychiatrist has to be careful about issuing drugs. So if you come in and just have occasional anxiety they have to get you on a daily anti-depressant. But once you’re on one it’s no questions asked and you can get something else. The whole dichotomy is just ridiculous.

How about the episode, “Zoloft Brain”?

Lake: That’s another one that’s kind-of true to life. Shirin was on Zoloft and it was making her tired and forgetful. She really wanted to go off it but I was very alarmed, because I didn’t want to go back to the “Shirin before Zoloft” [laughs].

Najafi: A few years before I went on it I had been having this extreme, building anxiety that was getting worse and worse (which you see in the flashback scenes). There was even a time when Julie had to play a part-time therapist / caretaker. In the episode, my character forgets the code to her own building and in real life, I had once actually forgotten the code to the garage for my job. I drew a complete blank for something I use every day [laughs].. That’s when I texted Julie and told her I needed to get off Zoloft.

You both juggle so many hats with this series (writing, producing, directing, acting). What’s been the most challenging part?

Lake: There are so many pieces to the puzzle. It took a long time to do the editing, and then as we watched later we realized that we had to go through another round of edits. We had a super low budget and also had to produce, write, act and direct. We also had to move quickly, so it was a little stressful at times.

Najafi: The producing aspect was especially tough because of all the logistics. Especially when you’re trying to be creative and also having deal with lugging equipment, keeping track of when the sun goes down and wondering if everyone will be able to make it to the location on time. We had never done anything like it before.

What’s next for “Mental”?

Lake: We have two more episodes coming out. One is more like a short film and stars Emily Althaus, who plays Kukudio in “Orange Is The New Black”. She plays a crazy friend who comes into town from Orlando and is now a dominatrix. We also have another episode where Shrin and Julie are trying to pick a movie. Shirin wants to watch “Flight” with Denzel Washington and that triggers all of Julie’s anxieties about flying.

Did you both know that a career in entertainment would be your calling. Was it something you always aspired to do?

Lake: I always wanted to be an actress from the age of five. I initially started writing and creating as a vehicle for acting. Now, I really enjoy that part of it as well as directing.

Najafi: For me, I was doing a lot of writing and creating but ended up pursuing a few other things out of college. But then I realized that writing, directing and performing was in my blood, and something I’ve always wanted to do.

From a creative standpoint, what satisfies you the most about this series?

Lake: Just the fact that we did it. It’s hard to do something like this. It takes so much money, time and effort. I see a lot of people talking about what they’re working on and doing but they never seem to get it done. But we accomplished this huge undertaking with almost no experience.

Najafi: We’ve been talking about and actively writing scripts for a show like this since 2010. To finally make it all these years later was definitely an accomplishment. For me as a writer, being able to act was also an accomplishment. Acting is something I don’t do a lot of outside of “Mental”, but it’s a lot more fun!

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