Leila Unveiled: A blend of pride, passion and Persian

Izad Etemadi is drama. A Toronto-based actor, singer and creator, Izad has toured Canada performing for sold-out shows yet remains grounded despite soaring to (billboard) stardom. On and off the stage, Izad explores life’s hardships with a healthy helping of humour and always looks for innovative ways to give back to the community.

Formally trained at the Canadian College of Performing Arts and naturally funny, Izad uses his talents to unpack challenging topics through theatre and performance. In between sold-out houses, earning coveted accolades and generating rave reviews from coast to coast, Izad found time to connect with A Quarter Young to share his story.

  1. Have you always loved performing? If not, what inspired you to become an actor?

Performing is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I started out in choir in grade eight because it was the only place I seemed to fit in during junior high. I loved to sing. It was a great outlet for me and it was the first place where I truly felt like I belonged. I devoted all of my extracurricular time to choir, jazz choir, band, jazz band, strings, improv, drama, etc. I basically took every performance arts class my school offered. Outside of school, I participated in several productions with the community musical theatre company and then I went to post-secondary for Musical Theatre at the Canadian College of Performing Arts.

  1. In three words, how would you describe your acting career?

Dude #2. Terrorist. Leila.

  1. How has your upbringing and background influenced you and your overall progression?

Basically, I was a gay Iranian immigrant growing up in a traditional Iranian home in a white conservative neighbourhood in Victoria, B.C. I think that basically covers it. I can connect you with my therapist for the rest!

Izad Etemadi 2
Photo by: Hill Peppard Photography.
  1. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment as an actor?

This industry can be really grueling. When it’s great, it’s really great but when it’s not, it’s REALLY not. It can get exhausting, competitive and hurtful. I think the greatest accomplishment I’ve made so far as an actor is creating my own work. It keeps me artistically and creatively fulfilled. It gives me a voice and point of view. It gives me opportunities to perform on my terms.

For me, there is no better feeling than performing my own creation in front of a sold out house knowing I made it all happen on my own.

  1. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment as a living being?

Hmmmm. Not sure about that one yet! Can I get back to you when I figure that out?

  1. When not on stage, where can we find you?

In my room… writing weird jokes and planning out the next time you can find me on stage.

  1. You are best known for your portrayal of Leila, a charming and flamboyant woman. Seeing you perform as Leila remains one of my favourite theatrical experiences. Describe Leila’s character and the idea behind her conception.

Leila is a sassy, witty, charming, confident, bearded Persian woman who lives her life out loud. She is an immigrant in Canada ready to do what it takes to become a star! She loves to sing, she loves to tell stories, she loves to make people laugh, she loves to tell people when they are racists and she loves Zac Efron. People have called her the Persian Judy Garland but she self identifies as the Persian Beyoncé.

Originally, Leila was a character I created for a completely different solo show called Borderland. This was the first show I ever created. It brought up the issues with gay rights in the Middle East and the immigration process for Queer refugees. It followed a young man named Navid, who was hidden in the back of a truck to smuggle himself out of Iran into Turkey, where he would work on getting refugee status in a safer country. Leila ran “Borderland,” a half-way house for young queer people looking to escape. She was a much older character at the time, more of a mother figure. Her story was one of an “ugly” woman who never found true love and dedicated her life to helping others. People were so taken by the character and constantly asked to see more.

When I was touring Borderland in Hamilton, someone recommended I write a solo show for Leila around the theme of love. This resulted in Love With Leila, my first solo show! Now, Leila is much younger and dealing with dating and love as someone who is not socially considered beautiful, all while navigating through life in Canada as an immigrant.

  1. How did you land on Leila for this character’s name?

I tried out a few different names when I was first creating the character. It ended up being between Leila and Zara. I switched between the two names for weeks during rehearsals and Leila was just more fun to say in the character’s accent.

  1. How do you decide which themes and topics to broach, with this character and in your work as a whole?

I try to take whatever I am personally going through in my own life and explore it through Leila’s eyes.

Sometimes the inspiration will come through a song that I think Leila should sing. Sometimes the inspiration will come through a theme that I think Leila would have a fun perspective on, such as Christmas in Canada. Sometimes it comes through me working through my own insecurities and heartbreaks. It is actually a very healing experience, getting to poke fun and laugh at myself through the eyes of this character.

  1. What motivates you to produce new and thought provoking material?

If I’m not making it…no one is going to make it for me.

  1. Navigating the world as a gay person of colour is not without personal and societal challenges. Has acting helped you overcome barriers? What barriers remain difficult to surmount?

Acting and writing allow me to showcase myself, the way I see myself and for a brief amount of time it lets strangers in on it. It has made me a more confident human being. It has made me much more articulate. It has also created great first date stories.

Being a gay Iranian artist, who dresses as a lady on stage, still comes with a lot of prejudice and judgement. Sometimes people really don’t understand what I’m doing as an artist and refuse to take the time to find out! They will judge the show and refuse to entertain the notion. If they just took the hour to get to know me, and Leila, they would see that we are all on the same journey, trying to find our place in society.

  1. Becoming Leila allows you the opportunity to take on a drag persona. What do you enjoy most about performing in this character?

I love the connection Leila has with her audience. No show is ever the same because I see the audience as my scene partner. I love taking the energy in the room and incorporating it into the show. It is so exhilarating as an actor to go with what people throw at you. It keeps me very grounded and present in the moment.

  1. How do you hope Leila will impact and influence Canada’s drag scene?

I don’t know if Leila fits into the type of drag that you see in The Village or on Ru Paul’s Drag Race – but she definitely lives in a theatrical drag world – she’s really my clown.

I hope that Leila will continue to spread her love and joy, continue to make people think and show our world that we all share similarities. One of the most beautiful parts of this character is when people from different backgrounds tell me how much they related to someone that “looks so different” than them. At one performance, someone told me they had never seen a Middle Eastern female character portrayed as FUN before. This made me happy but incredibly sad by the statement’s tragic reality. Middle Eastern people are greatly misrepresented in the media. I want people to continue to meet Leila and not be afraid of others that look like her.

  1. What advice would you give someone who wants to try drag? Even if just once.

Have some tequila and just do it! You don’t need to go all the way. If you really want to try drag, start with a wig (or headscarf) and a dress. Make sure you are surrounded by people you trust who love and encourage you. But really…tequila is the key element here.

Izad Etemadi 1
Photo by: Hill Peppard Photography.
  1. Which of Leila’s qualities do you wish you had?

Her naivety. She sees the good in everything and everyone and can turn any bad situation into a positive and hilarious one.

  1. For her first time, Leila will be performing a burlesque show as part of Toronto’s Pride festival programming. How has this experience promoted self-expression for you?

The burlesque number will actually be the show’s opening! What better way to start an evening than with a bit of burlesque? Pride is all about celebrating our individuality, the things that make us unique and sharing ourselves with one another. So I really wanted to take this opportunity to share Leila’s experience during her latest visit to Canadian Customs while crossing the border through the art of burlesque.

  1. What’s going to surprise people about Leila’s next performance and her evolution?

Leila and her mother are putting together an eleganza-cabaret-extravaganza! She is going to showcase her talents through singing, acting, dancing, monologues, stand up, puppets, sound effects, mime and tableau. She is not just a triple threat; she is a threat! She will be digging her heels deep into the stage and baring her soul for the audience with never before heard personal stories from Leila’s life. She will be belting out brand new songs and showing off her very first original Leila gown! Audiences who have followed Leila for a few years will see how Leila has matured and come into her own.

  1. Building on positive reactions and attention you’ve earned, what other projects and ideas are you cooking up and able to share?

Leila actually has a BIG secret project she is announcing right after her show on Wed. June 20. So if you can’t be there in person, please stay tuned the following day on her social media to find out what she’s working on next.

  1. How can I channel my inner queen to be successful in the workplace and beyond?

Tequila.

Try to keep up with Izad on Instagram at @izadetemadi and Leila at @_badgirl_leila. Leila’s next show in Toronto is on Wed. June 20. Tickets are (surprisingly) still available here. Let yourself be enchanted, you won’t regret it.

The feature photo is by Greg Wong.

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