SETTING FOOT ON SAM ASGHARI’S Los Angeles photo shoot one overcast day in July is like stepping into an episode of Entourage presented by Men’s Health. We’re squatting in a 1930s-era Hollywood Hills mansion borrowed from a designer friend of Asghari’s manager, Brandon Cohen, a one-man operation who also represents Salt-N-Pepa and Naughty by Nature and has been with Asghari since 2017. While our proprietors chitchat with us about local pastimes like botched plastic surgery and edibles, the KN95-masked crew is setting up a shot by an infinity pool overlooking Universal Studios.
Asghari does his initial round of handshakes, then quietly hangs back until he’s called on to pop his shirt off and glide into position, standing, literally, on top of the world. His friend/groomer/de facto stylist Maxi (one name) stands at a distance and eggs him on—“Flex those abs until you shit yourself!”—but doesn’t make a dent in Asghari’s Blue Steel. It’s a scrappy, tight-knit group dedicated to a dreamer who’s found himself at the center of a media storm he could easily whip up even more with one PR stunt, if only he were interested in that kind of fame.
For those who haven’t been following the #FreeBritney saga of late, let’s recap: Asghari, a 27-year-old Iranian American personal-trainer turned actor, has been dating Britney Spears since the two met on the set of a music-video shoot in 2016. Whereas most new boyfriends might face a firing squad of gal pals over dinner or have to run the gauntlet of an overbearing parent or two, Asghari has instead faced something uniquely challenging. For the past 13 years, Spears has been under a conservatorship arrangement, managed largely by her father, Jamie Spears, that has restricted virtually every facet of her life, including her relationships with her two teenage children, her friends and peers, and her potential partners. (In August, Jamie announced his intention to step down as Spears’s conservator. He has since petitioned the court to end her conservatorship entirely.)
In recent months, Spears’s contemporaries, like *NSYNC’s Lance Bass, have said that the conservatorship has in the past blocked them from making contact. Asghari himself either doesn’t quite know how he was able to slip into Spears’s orbit or isn’t willing to share how he was able to muscle in. When I ask him, he pivots quickly to the virtues of going with the flow. “A lot of crazy things have happened in my life, and they continue happening,” he says. “But also a lot of beautiful moments. All the rest of it is something I tried not to deal with.” Which, implausibly, actually sounds plausible when Asghari says it. He seems to consider his words—and especially their impact in the news-cycle echo chamber—carefully before speaking, then plows forward with conviction.
Though he stands six-foot-two with shoulders that seem almost as broad, he isn’t imposing. In fact, he’s downright unassuming, moving breezily and soundlessly. I imagine him carrying himself through the world the same way a hulking stealth ship glides below radar. You let a circa-2016 version of Asghari into the oppressive machinery you’ve built to control your famous daughter’s life for the same reason you let Clark Kent into your lair. What’s the harm?
But for almost as long as there has been a conservatorship, there’s been a small but vocal segment of Spears’s fans who have rallied against it. And they, too, at times have met Asghari with resistance ranging from conspiracy theories that he’s a conservatorship plant to, more often, protective skepticism. For example, when Asghari was recently seen gamely signing a few autographs for a fan, it raised the hackles of some Spears devotees. Yet you can’t exactly accuse him of using his association with the pop star to jump-start his own fame. A lesser man would take the first Sharknado 23 cameo to come along or reveal himself to be the Caterpillar Conquistador on The Masked Singer, but Asghari has instead slowly, assiduously been working his way up the IMDb food chain.
He’s turned down lead roles in questionable projects to try to build a résumé of small (and progressively less small) roles on shows that will put some respect on his name. Take a line on NCIS here, a small part in a mid-tier rom-com there, and soon TV legend Jean Smart is sitting on your lap while you’re improvising as a sexy Santa on the critically loved HBO Max series Hacks. What’s more, the creators and cast members of these projects all, with varying degrees of bemusement, report that Asghari is . . . good. Paul W. Downs, one of the cocreators behind Hacks, recently said in an interview, “I wish we had an extended scene of them improvising, because they had a blast together. . . . He was a natural improviser. It was really great.”
After Asghari’s three-episode arc on Showtime’s cult comedy Black Monday, Casey Wilson recounted what it was like working with him on her Bitch Sesh podcast. “Am I trying to be respectful ’cause he’s a really nice guy and he’s just an actor trying to do his job and he’s lovely and funny? Yes,” she said. But she also pressed for some details about her favorite pop star and “didn’t get shit. . . . I left and I’m like, Wow, this is who I want for her. He did her so right.” Asghari has since landed a role on the next season of Hulu’s Dollface, starring Kat Dennings and produced by Margot Robbie.
Fame, Asghari says, was never exactly on his vision board, and certainly isn’t now that he’s found himself bearing witness to just how dark and complex it can become. “Fame is not a job,” he says. “So I don’t want to take it too seriously. And I don’t think that’s ever going to change, to be honest. I don’t want to mess with my happiness or mess with my spirit. No fame in the world is worth that.”
ON WEDNESDAY JUNE 23, Spears was remotely patched in via phone to a Los Angeles County court. While it was standard protocol amid a seemingly never-ending pandemic, it was a medium that was particularly appropriate for a star whose life has been both so public and so remote for so many years. Instagram, after all, has been her primary mode of interaction with the wider world since her Las Vegas residency—during which she performed 248 shows over four years to sold-out audiences 4,600 strong—ended on New Year’s Eve 2017. She was appearing to address the court for the first time about the havoc the conservatorship had wrought on her personal and professional lives. For 23 minutes, she commanded the courtroom’s attention—and the attention of what felt like everyone with Twitter or Slack or a pop-culture-savvy group-text chain on their smartphone. Her voice didn’t have the Disney Princess lilt her online followers were used to. Though it quaked at times, and though the judge had to ask her to slow down as she nervously barreled through parts of her statement, her voice was resolute, commanding, and it was angry.
As she detailed the many indignities of the unusually long and restrictive arrangement, live tweets from fans and journalists in the courtroom traveled through social media like seismic waves. One detail in particular sparked a queasy outrage: Spears has an IUD inside her body against her will and hasn’t been allowed to remove it. The literal invasiveness of that fact became an undeniable touch point not only for the #FreeBritney cause but also for an overdue reevaluation of the legal levers that control conservatorships nationwide.
But beneath that shock and indignation was an undertow of sadness for Spears, that she couldn’t even enjoy the quotidian motions of an average life that many of us take for granted. Family planning was taken off the table in a profoundly violating way, yes. But so, too, were the basic building blocks most people use to construct their lives. “I want to have the real deal. I want to be able to get married and have a baby. I was told [that] right now, in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby,” Spears said in her court statement, later adding, “All I want is to own my money, for this to end, and my boyfriend to drive me in his fucking car.”
By the time Spears logged off, the media was in a frenzy. Which wasn’t unusual. Spears does, after all, wield the digital presence that launched a thousand conspiracy theories (some, it turns out, true), controversies, and tabloid stories. Meanwhile, I like to imagine that Spears herself was able to return to a small, jury-rigged oasis of normalcy, dare we say banality, that she and Asghari have quietly built within the walls of her Ventura County home.
I have to imagine it because when Asghari paints a picture of their inner life together, he mostly draws around the margins. That is understandable when what would be the normal details of any other couple’s personal life are for you potential exhibits in a legal battle that’s only now kicking into gear. (In July, Spears was granted the ability to hire her own lawyer.) No, he does not volunteer his feelings about IUDgate. He made a point of saying he wouldn’t discuss the conservatorship for our interview. He also avoids using Spears’s name in any way that might make it easier to manufacture more spin, although it’s hard to tell if that’s intentional or because he’s a romantic. Asghari refers to her as “my girl.” He doesn’t share too many details, even of the sandwiches he likes to make her at home. He loves to cook, but those are Spears’s comfort food of choice (“My girl loves my sandwiches”); he doesn’t eat them (“I don’t like a lot of bread”).
Between Asghari’s background as a trainer (he still runs an online personalized fitness and nutrition program called Asghari Fitness) and Spears’s background as a dancer and choreographer, the two build much of their leisure time around sports and fitness. “A lot of people don’t get that she’s a crazy, crazy athlete. We play tennis together. We play ping-pong together. She’s really good at ping-pong. It’s a real competition,” he says. “And I’m competitive, but I try to take it easy. Not because she’s a woman. Not because she’s weak, because she’s not. But I grew up with three sisters, so I learned that taking competition too seriously can lead to hurt feelings. Family take it easy on each other.”
They do couples yoga. “There’s a lot of yoga that she likes to do. She’s flexible, she has endurance, she does handstands on my legs. I’m not good at it, but I do it because she wants to do it,” he says. “I just want her to be happy. If something makes her happy, I’ll do it. I’m not going to argue. What’s that saying? ‘Happy wife, happy life.’ ” It’s a cliché so old that it might be painted on a cave wall somewhere, but hearing it, you can’t help but flash back to Spears’s statement about wanting to have the freedom to get married to whom she wants. It’s just such an ordinary thing to say about such an extraordinary situation.
In the months surrounding Spears’s day in court, she and Asghari let their guard down on social media. For his part, Asghari commented #FreeBritney on one of Spears’s posts and began to speak up himself. “I have zero respect for someone trying to control our relationship and constantly throwing obstacles in our way,” he posted in an Instagram Story. “In my opinion Jamie is a total dick.” They later sparked a brief tabloid frenzy when Spears was photographed wearing what looked like an engagement ring. Asghari, who says he likes to “fuck with the paparazzi,” confirms that the ring Spears had on her finger was “not an engagement ring, no.” Though, laughing nervously, he adds, “We’ll see. Maybe. It’s ongoing. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. But, you know, love isn’t just a piece of paper.” Two months after his bashful deflection, Asghari proposed to Spears. The two are now officially engaged.
ASGHARI IS 12 YEARS YOUNGER than Spears, so he just missed the age when he might have had a Britney poster on his wall. He was four when . . . Baby One More Time was released in 1998. He was also living in Tehran. By the age of 13, he was bouncing between the U. S. and Iran while his father worked to navigate the red tape required to emigrate Asghari’s three older sisters, a slow process familiar to many Iranian immigrant families. “I’m fortunate to have grown up between two extremely different cultures,” he says. Even now, he speaks with the slight, inscrutable accent a lot of members of diasporas find themselves with in adulthood. But as a teenager, he was in a hurry to fit in. “We moved here to live here, to speak the language, to contribute to this country.”
In high school, he learned English; started taking odd jobs at an auto body shop, car wash, and catering company; made the football team; and became friends with jocks and theater kids alike. His sisters, the youngest being ten years older than Asghari, were already on their way to careers in the medical field, and he was looking for his place in their new life. Asghari’s playful personality, well honed by his enthusiastic bids to fit in at his Ventura County high school, shone in drama classes and on the improv team, and his teacher suggested he try acting.
If Asghari’s goal was to be part of the L. A. crowd, then this was fine counseling indeed. So he took a career path as well trod as Runyon Canyon in the pre-brunch hours of a Sunday morning: part-time personal trainer and aspiring actor. As an actor, he cycled through the usual casting calls, squint-or-you’ll-miss-it extra gigs, and failed auditions. “I went through a thousand auditions before booking my first TV show,” says Asghari of his walk-on role on CBS’s NCIS. Three years earlier, he’d had an uncredited spot as a greased-up construction worker in the music video for Fifth Harmony’s “Work from Home.” Through previous acting gigs, he’d met Maxi, the celebrity makeup artist and boisterous provocateur who struck up an unlikely bromance with Asghari. It was Maxi who called him up and told him to come to the set of another music video that needed a male lead. Without knowing what the video was or who it was for, Asghari showed up to Britney Spears’s “Slumber Party” shoot. When the cameras weren’t rolling, she and Asghari got to talking and a few weeks later made plans for a sushi date. It’s a detail he’s shared before and one he doesn’t seem to want to elaborate on. The rest is for his inner circle—and his family, who have for their part welcomed Spears into their lives.
“Of course they know my girl,” he says. “Everybody knows her. My grandmother knows my girl.” His sisters offer him guidance and don’t mince words. “When I need an honest opinion, I go to my sisters,” he says. “I learned a lot about women from them, and I learned a lot about respecting women. I had to; otherwise I would get my ass kicked.”
When it comes to troubleshooting in his life, Asghari tends not to leave much to chance. This year, he’s started to spend a few days a week at the Black House MMA gym to learn how to fight, and he’s been taking lessons with a stunt coordinator. Not because he’s landed a role that requires it but because one day maybe he’ll audition for one that does. “I want to offer something when I walk into a room filled with guys that look like me, that dress like me, that sound like me,” he says. “That are exactly the same as me.” He wants to build something instead of letting something be built around him.
This story appears in the October 2021 issue of Men’s Health.