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Leila Khan

7th August 2023

Photographer & Editor-in-chief: Owen James Vincent

Interview & Digital Editor: Pankhuri Bhutani

Makeup Artist: Michaela Selene

Hairstylist: Lea Amy Jay

Styling: Megan Smales

Cover & Graphic Design: Emily Curtis

Please Note: This cover was conducted prior to the SAG strike.

Leila Khan's debut within the Netflix-verse could be written on the pages of history, massive thanks to her recent involvement in the highly anticipated second installment of the revolutionary LGBTQ+ inclusive project "Heartstopper".

Netflix’s 'Heartstopper' has been out only for a few days and it has already garnered a sensational response from around the world. Right before this season’s launch, the arrival of four novel additions to the live adaptation project of the best-selling LGBTQ+ inclusive graphic novels by Alice Oseman was announced. 

The creators of the show were thrilled to announce Leila Khan being one of the new members joining the Heartstopper family. She was stated to be embodying ‘Sahar Zahid’ within the new installment of the show and fans from around the world had left a rampant positive response; finally getting to know who will be playing this absolutely iconic character. 

A coming-of-age story of friendship, love, acceptance, exploration, challenges and a heartwarming journey, ‘Heartstopper’ shines a light on the lives of Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson; its two protagonists navigating their young romance. 

Pink Sequin T-Shirt Dress - Laura Wildish

As we began our conversation, it was quite evident how Leila was extremely eager to discuss significant insights into her journey as Sahar. 

She brought out the same charm and goodness of the character right from the pages of the novels to our small screens; crafting a sensational performance based entirely out of authenticity and her raw talent. 

It was quite surreal to witness a debut performance as skilful as Khan’s. All thanks to her impeccable talent, her debut was surely an explosive success. 

Delving into how this fascinating chapter of bringing Sahar to life initially came into existence, Leila shared some insights into her audition process. 

“I had just finished my second year of drama at my University. I was chilling at home and was on the phone with one of my friends when he told me, 'Oh, Leila! There’s a casting call on Instagram for a Netflix show called ‘Heartstopper’.’

I thought that was surreal since I didn’t know you could get casting calls via Instagram or social media. 

He asked me if I hadn’t watched the show and I said 'No, but I have to now, don’t I.’ (Laughs). 

I sent in some pictures and a little description of myself to the casting agency before initially starting to watch a few episodes of the series. Within moments I was like, 'Oh my god, I love this show!’ 

Before going further into the casting process, I decided to binge-read the books. I didn’t talk to anyone for days, just read all the novels.” (Laughs)

Red Glasses - Guess / Denim Jacket - Free People

When the show finally released its second season, Khan’s character charted on X’s(previously- Twitter) Trending list- right on the day of its launch; the instant fan love towards her character protruding out on the social media platform.  

It’s always a journey when someone has the opportunity to adapt a character straight from the pages of a best-selling novel. Especially when that character is so widely loved. 
Being one of the novel cast-member on the show, there surely must come some sort of pressure joining such a highly anticipated and well-loved project. Her massive popularity was bound to happen.

When asked about her personal experience joining the cast and if there was any pressure prior to finally getting to embody Sahar and portray her sequences, Leila commented,

“Getting cast was crazy. Even when I was on set, I was pinching myself like this was not real, surely. 

I didn’t feel any pressure while filming since everyone on set made it such an enjoyable and comfortable experience making me not feel out of place at all which was really nice. 
The director, producers, cast and everyone on set, all of us got on so well right from the beginning.

I only started to feel the pressure when the casting was announced. But then too since I was in such a loving and supportive environment, surrounded by such good people, especially for my first job, I felt really safe.

I believe the pressure also really followed once the season got announced and I started to gain followers. But it wasn’t too much, it only felt like a good amount of pressure. I always felt like I was in the right place.”

Within the graphic novels, Sahar is showcased to be an intellectual who is also an avid fan of music. Her Arabian descent surely makes the novels even more inclusive bringing in a diverse set of heritage within the overall plotline. 

Many fans were extremely keen on witnessing Khan’s iteration of the character and she clearly didn’t disappoint. It has only been a few days since the second season of the series launched on Netflix and Khan’s popularity has already skyrocketed; winning the hearts of millions of people from across the world; some even already claiming her to be their new favourite character. 

In terms of the route Khan took in order to embody her character, Leila revealed,

“A lot of research that I did was while I was auditioning since I wanted to learn as much as I could about her (Sahar) before meeting the director. 

I read the books and I got a good gist of who Sahar was through the novels. Also, when I did get cast, there was a rehearsal process where I was sat next to Euros Lyn who is the director, Patrick (Walters) and Alice (Oseman). 

We sat and discussed who Sahar was and who I think she was according to me from what I’ve read about her in the books. That was a really nice experience. 

During the rehearsal scenes, Euros (Lyn) used to help me with the sequences giving me direction with my scenes which really made me get a better understanding of who she was as a character.”

Tie-Dye Hoodie - Flo & Sang / Purple Trousers - Free People / Flower Socks - Sock Shop / Blue Trainers - Sketchers

Being an Indian and South-Asian myself, it was quite exhilarating to witness someone like me on-screen. In the current era, diversity has been at the forefront of discussion within the entertainment landscape. 

Watching ‘Heartstopper’ for the first time made me feel as if I had just been sucked into a world where distinct races, cultures, and sexualities were celebrated rather than looked down upon as certain differences. 

‘Heartstopper’ acted as one of the most realistic depictions of diversity, bringing all these different mindsets together and crafting an absolutely beautiful story out of them.

Being a part of such a diverse heritage herself, I had to ask Leila what she personally thought about the current state of diversity in Hollywood, whether she believed the industry had finally opened its door for much more inclusivity and if her opinions somehow branched towards the show also gaining popularity due to its beautiful depiction of diversity. 

“I agree 100%. It’s only going up and we can hope it stays the same. The show feels so real. We see these people with distinct sexualities, races and mindsets like you said so and having that is so real and important. 

That’s also why I believe this show is being loved so much since it is very true to what we see everyday.”

It’s quite a ride for someone going into their first day of job. Especially for Khan; having been a part of one of the biggest projects on the streaming platform and marking her debut through that very successful show. 

Speaking more about her experience on her first day as well as her initial impressions of everyone, Khan stated;-

“I was really nervous on my first day. Being the newbie, I wasn’t sure if everyone was going to be open to getting to know me. 

I think sometimes we just build up things in our mind so much since when I actually got there on-set, we all got on so well. It just felt like a big family union and those feelings of nervousness of my first day instantly went away.”

Indulging in a discussion about some memorable behind-the-scenes, Khan instantly jumps out of excitement, eager to share some beautiful memories she made with her on-screen Heartstopper family while working on this highly anticipated project. 

“I literally have a list on my phone, there were so many! 

There was this one moment when we were filming; we were all waiting for everything to be set up. One of our cast members- Bradley (Riches) who plays James on the show had his phone up reading all these jokes while we were having lunch. 

He had all these knock-knock jokes prepared trying to make us all laugh but while he was reading the jokes, he couldn’t finish them because he was too busy laughing at them himself. 

And we were all like, 'Bradley! Tell us the joke then!’ But he couldn’t get the words out; laughing at the jokes that he was reading. It was so funny. (Laughs).

Bradley’s so funny and such an adorable guy!

When we were all together, we had so much fun. There were so many memories from working together that I literally had to make a list for them. Although, this is the one that sticks out for me the most.”

Stripe Linen Shirt - GAP / Stripe Trouser - Jigsaw

The show delved into the feeling of friendship and acceptance within a tight-knit circle of friends. Sahar was introduced within the project as one of Tara, Darcy and Elle’s classmates who was in charge of the prom planning committee. Her character was showcased to be an avid lover of music and the show explored a creative side to her arc.

Scrolling through her Instagram, it will take merely a few moments for one to get familiarised with Leila’s passion for reading. During our conversation as well, Khan brought up her love for books on several occasions. 

Having that passionate side of herself just like Sahar’s love for music, I was prompted to ask Leila if she ever witnessed any mutuality between her character and her real-life self. 

When asked about what sort of personality traits she found similar to that of her character and if given an opportunity what element or trait she would absolutely love to garner from Sahar, Leila revealed;-

“Like you said, she loves her music. She has this creative side that I really admire. I personally wish I could play an instrument like a guitar or a piano like her but unfortunately, I can’t.

I believe her confidence is definitely something I strive to have more of. She doesn’t shy away from things.

Another thing that made me resonate with her on a deeper level was how she always spoke what was on her mind. I do that as well and that often got me in trouble. (Laughs)

Now that Khan had immersed herself within the shoes of Sahar, spending her time both on-set and off-set; getting a deeper insight into the show and its working both as a fan and a newcomer, I wondered out of all these beautiful characters which one was Leila’s favourite. 

“In real life, all of us get along very well. Me and Corinna (Brown) are quite close. There are instances like whenever we’re together and we look at each other, we can always sense what the other is thinking. 

In terms of characters, I have mentioned this before- Nellie is my absolute favourite because how can you just not love the dog? 

Also, Isaac (Henderson) and Nick (Nelson) as well since I love books and I absolutely admire Nick for his courage and his bravery.”  

White Shirt - GAP / Sequin Cable Knit Jumper - Bonita

Offering her own perspective on the second season of the show and what the fans can expect from the second season of “Heartstopper”, Leila states;

“The second season doesn’t feel any different from the previous one. Although, there’s a lot more going on. We do have a lot more characters within the project but that feeling and tone of Heartstopper still remains true. There’s a lot of fun! There’s some cheekiness and mischievousness going on as well.

I believe if you’ve read the novels, you’ll know exactly what to expect. I won’t say too much since I don’t want to get in trouble. (Laughs)”

Watch our interview with the wonderful Leila Khan where we discuss some more exciting insights into HEARTSTOPPER, her memorable debut, some funny BTS and her experience on the show.

Leila Khan can be currently witnessed embodying the character of ‘Sahar Zahid' in the second season of “Heartstopper”; currently streaming on Netflix. 

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