Leila Khan

Students & Alumni. Drama & English Literature

Leila Khan

Leila Khan landed acting roles in Netlix’s Heartstopper series and the BBC’s Death in Paradise Christmas Special while studying on our BA (Hons) Drama & English Literature degree.

Who are you and what do you do at ARU?

I am Leila Khan and I study Drama and English literature at ARU. I am just finishing – finally! I should have graduated last summer, but because of Heartstopper season three filming I had to come back in January to finish it off.

I got the audition for season two just before I was meant to come back for the third year. So I emailed Sue Wilson, one of the Course Leaders at the time, and said “Hi Sue, I have an audition for this Netflix show and I might get it, and if I do get it, I won't be able to come back to uni.” She said, “Well, let's just see if you get it first.” About two hours later I emailed her: “Sue, I got it. What do we do?” And she just said “It's fine. We can work around it.”

How long were you shooting for?

The shoot was about twelve weeks and I worked for nine of them. You get given a shooting script, but it changed quite a bit because of COVID regulations and stuff like that.

When I first went for a chemistry rehearsal with Rhea Norwood, she said to me “By the way, you get paid to wait.” A lot of the work is waiting for the cameras to be set up and everyone to do the important stuff, then you kind of go on and do your scene, then you wait again while everyone’s working really hard to get it all set up, and then you go again. They’re long hours, but it’s good fun.

I remember when we were filming in Paris, they hired out the whole floor of a hotel for us to stay in, and the floor above us was for makeup and costume. So they had these hotel rooms with all the beds taken out, and had clothes hangers and stuff set up instead. The makeup and costume team were working at ridiculous hours, like four in the morning, getting all the costumes ready. Then we were up in makeup at about five o’clock.

On the days we shot at the Eiffel Tower we were only allowed to shoot before they opened to the public, I think it was six am until ten. Then we would travel to the next location and start filming there. It was crazy! Really long hours, but good fun. A really good experience.

Camera view of Leila Khan on Heartstopper set, sitting on bed with guitar

How did it feel, getting a part in such a popular series as Heartstopper?

It was kind of surreal. Even when I was on set doing the work I was like “I can't believe I'm doing this. This is crazy!” I have a memory of driving in the car with a friend of mine a few weeks after I found out, I think we were on the way to Tesco or something. Usually I’m quite an energetic person – my excitement just comes out from my body – but I was dead silent and they asked me what was wrong. Then I just burst out into random excitement after realising again that I had got the job.

Even now, sat here doing my uni work, I keep forgetting that I've done it. It's really freaking cool that I got to do what I wanted to all along. But I almost missed out on the biggest opportunity of my life. After the initial Zoom audition, I didn’t hear back for a week. I was on the way up to Manchester with a friend of mine when I thought to check my junk emails. I had about five from Lucy in the casting team: “Leila, are you still interested?” “We've tried to find your Instagram. We can't find you.” “Please let us know.” “There's a meeting tomorrow. Can you make it?”

I started crying, thinking I was going to lose this opportunity. I rang the casting office and said “Guys, I'm so sorry. All your emails went to my spam. Can I still come tomorrow?” They said they were so glad I’d got back to them and just to come if I could make it. So we drove to Manchester, came back at two in the morning, and then I was up at six going to London for my audition. What a doughnut! Now I check my spam constantly!

Where and what did you study before coming to ARU?

I studied at a school called Helena Romanes School and Sixth Form in Dunmow, which is in Essex. It was weird for me because I grew up in Harlow, which was quite a rough area. Then, when I was about 14, we moved to Dunmow, and the school there was just completely different. I went from a working class area to a upper/ middle class area, and it was weird to navigate. The school was a lot smaller as well, and there wasn't as many kids in my classes. But I got used to it. I’m quite the chameleon, and pride myself on fitting into places.

At the school that I went to in Harlow, we did two GCSEs each year to get them over and done with too, rather than studying them from Years 9 to 11 then doing your exams. So when I moved school in Year 10, and they were doing it the traditional way, and I had a year to catch up with loads of work. So that was good fun!

I stayed on there for sixth form and studied law, English literature, and drama. Drama was my thing. I loved it, especially my teachers. I'm still in contact with them now and go to the sixth form every now and then to help the students and do workshops for them.

Leila Khan between woman and man beneath Eiffel Tower

Did you always know that you would go to university and, if not, what changed your mind?

I didn't have a clue that I was going to go to uni. I didn't want to go to uni! From the age of about three, I always said I wanted to be a vet. Obviously when I was little, I didn't realise I'd have to go to uni for that.

Then I moved school, and I really loved drama, and I knew I wanted to go into it, but still didn't really have a clue how I was going to do it. It got to the applications stage for uni and I still thought “No, I'm not going. I don't want to go.” Then, literally a week before our personal statements had to be in, I was like “Sod it, I'm gonna go.”  I'm always last minute on things!

I applied to four different courses, all at ARU because I'd heard it was a really good uni and I didn't want to go too far, because at first I didn't think I was going to live there.  I was the first person in my family to go to uni, so my auntie and uncle said: ”You need to do something academic. You need to do law. You like doing law.” And I was like “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So I applied to do law, I applied to do English on its own, then I applied to do English Literature and drama. I also applied to do policing. I got unconditional offers for all of them, but I knew I wanted to do drama and English. So in the end I just went for it.

What do you hope to do when you graduate from ARU?

I’m with my agents over at Curtis Brown - Cordelia, Jill, and their assistant Nieve - and I love them. They really look after me and I trust them unequivocally. I'm quite “go with the flow,” if you hadn't noticed! So, at the minute I’m happy to see where life takes me.

Leila outside her Heartstopper van

What inspired you to get involved with drama in the first place?

I always think that I fell in love with drama in Year 9, when I was thirteen or fourteen. But if I look back at when I was really young, my mum bought me an iPad - I lived on this council estate, a block of maisonette flats - and I would round up all the kids on the block, create scripts and films, and film them on my iPad.

And I've always loved books. I remember when I'd been naughty, my mum could take my phone and I wouldn't care. The only way she could really upset me is if she took the book I was reading at the time. Reading and acting has always been a form of escapism for me, which sounds so cliché it makes me feel sick saying it!

Then in Year 9, when I started drama properly, I had this teacher called Mr Walker. He was really cool. He'd recommend me films to watch because he knew how much I loved the art. I’d get to class early and we’d talk about the film he’d suggested that week, like Kes.  In his class, we did a performance about the bombings in Paris, and that's when I realised that performance can be really thought-provoking and powerful and leave a message. Then I moved school and in the Sixth Form I studied Steven Berkoff - I just did my dissertation on him. I bloody love Berkovian theatre!

So I love drama and I love performing, but it's not just that. It’s like – and this sounds so cliché and cringy it makes my skin crawl - I actually need it to survive. There's something in me that needs to be creative. If I'm having a bad day, I know that I need to be creative and then I'll be fine.

What's the most valuable thing you will take away from your course?

I'd say the the relationships that you make. On any kind of creative course you have to work with people, and everyone has a different kind of vision, don't they? I've found that on the drama course especially. An old Sixth Form teacher, Simon Gair, who I’m still friends with now, says the best work usually comes out of the greatest conflict, and I've found that on the course as well. In a way, the kind of the arguments that you get into while devising a piece of theatre and in the rehearsal rooms are what help to heighten the show and make it even better.

So I love a bit of controlled conflict in a rehearsal space, because you can really learn life skills there. You learn how to deal with people that are a bit big-headed or how to deal with a conflict that there's no way of resolving. How that person and that person can bring a certain dynamic. It just teaches you life skills.

Leila with three other cast members posing on school set for Heartstopper

Which aspects of your course have most helped your career development, and why?

I think confidence is a big thing. I remember in Sixth Form I was going through some personal stuff and decided “You know what? I don't want to do this anymore” and walked out of the drama class! But Simon (my teacher)  followed me and said “No Leila, you’re going to do this. You’re not quitting drama.” So I carried on. It was purely a lack of confidence - I think we had to do monologues, and there was something really scary to me about doing a monologue. A kind of impostor syndrome.

Then at uni, you get confidence from having to just get up and do it, and with different people every trimester. When I went into the second year I met and worked with people on my course that I'd never even heard of before. That kind of confidence is a big thing.

I really noticed it a few weeks ago when I had to do my final performance for my major project. It was a fifteen-minute monologue and Simon Gair, my old Sixth Form teacher, came to watch. And the difference between not wanting to do a one-minute monologue a few years ago, and now I'm getting up on stage and doing fifteen minutes of Steven Berkoff by myself - that kind of growth, the confidence to go out there and do that, has come from being thrown into the uni life.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

Check your spam!

There's loads of things that I'd say to my younger self, but the way my life has gone, even during the darker moments - I'm grateful for all of them because they teach you new things. When I was younger, I tried to control certain aspects of my life because it was a bit chaotic for me. So just don't worry about it, go with the flow.

You never stop learning and you never stop growing. I think the minute you think  you know everything, or even think you can know everything, is the day you should stop doing what you're doing because you're an idiot, If anyone tells you that they've got it all sussed out, then something's going to hit them from around the corner. You can't tell people how to live their lives, but everyone should be open-minded to learning new things, especially about yourself. I think that's what drama teaches you as well. I definitely learnt a lot about myself during the course.

So throw yourself into it and enjoy every moment. Don't get bogged down by thoughts like “Oh, I've got a performance on Friday and I'm really nervous and I haven't rehearsed well enough.” Now that I'm at the writing and essays stage, I'm looking back and thinking “I wish I'd thrown myself into it more.” Every performance you do at uni is the opportunity to perform. You don't know when your next performance is going to be, and when you’ll next get the chance to change someone’s life. And I think theatre should change the world. It should leave people thinking. So every performance you get, even it's just to entertain, you know you're going to have an effect on someone's life.

Leila and another female actor pulling faces

What is your favourite thing about studying in Cambridge, and what have you learned about it that other people might not know?

Cambridge is great. I actually love the atmosphere that you get going on long walks at about three or four in the morning. I'd do all my work, then feel like I needed some catharsis, so we'd just go for walks. I think it's beautiful place and really quite peaceful. You know, you've got the cows and everything!

But you do see some parts of it that you don’t expect at that time of day. I once saw a guy who obviously needed help, bless him. He was asking people for money and if they said no, he attacked them with a belt! I've also learned to lock my bike properly because people will steal your bike.

But I'm so glad I decided to live in Cambridge while I was studying instead of living at home - I don't think I could deal with my auntie telling me I need to do the washing up when I've got a 3000-word essay to do by the morning!

There's loads of theatre stuff to do there - quite a few theatres, and you've obviously got performances at ARU too. I went to watch a performance of Equus at the ADC, and I was like blown away that. You've got the festivals in summer as well, which is really cool. It's just quite an artsy place isn't it?

I also loved all the museums. If you're in a bit of a funk, you can go to the museums, go and see some art, and the buildings, the architecture - you're never really lost for inspiration in Cambridge. I'd be walking down the street thinking about what I'm going to devise for a piece of physical theatre, then I’d see something happen and think “Oh my God, that's a great idea. Let me implement that into the performance.”

So if you have the chance, go and live there and enjoy yourself, and really get the full experience of university, Cambridge is such a great place to do it.

What projects are you currently working on, both on and off the course?

I’ve finished all my performances for uni now - like I said, I did a fifteen minute performance of Tell-tale Heart by Steven Berkoff. I haven’t seen it yet, but I want to. I need to! I watched Heartstopper twice, and Death in Paradise once. And I was like “Oh, I can't watch it. The work was good and I just can't watch it.”  When I watch them I’m thinking “Did I do good enough?” or “I should have done that. What a good idea that would have been!” It's always on my mind when I'm devising.

I remember part of Sue Wilson’s feedback was that the work's never over for me. And it's true. I come to realise it when I'm on stage. Even if it's the final performance, I’m adding new things in the moment because I think of them there and then. I'm constantly seeing how I can make things better or improve them.

I'm also working with Sarah Gibson Yates, a media lecturer at ARU. She’s writing and directing a short research film about artificial intelligence. She's used A.I. to help write the script, so it's kind of like a collaboration with A.I. It’s about a girl who has a crush on a boy and then asks an A.I. how to get him to like her. We’re filming that in a few weeks in Cambridge, so that will be good fun.

And of course, I've just done Heartstopper season three - that’s coming out this year - and Death in Paradise came out on Boxing Day a few months ago, on BBC iPlayer.

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