Leanne Noelle Smith is no stranger to donning many hats. The actress, producer, director and dancer has put in the work, carving her own path in the entertainment industry. Whether she’s portraying the diva Deandra in The Influencers or secretive Jane in Pineapple, Leanne is determined to tell stories that move people.
The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native started out as a dancer prior to her leap into acting. But once she contracted the acting bug, there was no going back. I recently had the privilege of chatting with Leanne about her origins, The Influencers, making her dreams a reality and what’s on the horizon.
Melody McCune: All right, so let’s get started! We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Leanne Noelle Smith’s origin story?
Leanne Noelle Smith: I actually started out as a dancer. I started dancing specifically ballet at the age of five. And then I advanced to RAD, the Royal Academy of Dance out of London, England. I studied that syllabus. I had always loved acting ever since I was in high school. That’s kind of where I got my first taste. Unfortunately, when I ended up looking into universities, my dad told me, “No. You can’t go to the National Theater School.” He said, “You got to go get a real job.”
I dropped my artistic endeavors for a little bit and I started a marketing degree. But while I was doing my marketing, I still held on to my dance. I did tours. I toured in Ukraine with a dance troupe called Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble. It was a Ukrainian dance company in Saskatchewan, where I’m from. I knew I couldn’t stay in Saskatoon whether I have a marketing degree, if I want to dance or any kind of artistic endeavor.
So I knew I was going to move to a bigger city. I chose Toronto because it had arts and business. I was performing in Ukraine and I was a soloist in the tour that we did called Legacy. In Ukraine, it’s very different. When you’re dancing or when you’re performing, they won’t wait till the end of the performance to clap or the end of the show to throw flowers on stage. If they like a certain number, they’ll do it throughout the show. When I finished my solo, I couldn’t see anything because my eyes were blinded by the light. I went to turn because it was a very quick change to my next costume and I almost bulldozed this kid over.
MM: Oh no!
LNS: I know! The show we were doing at that time was in a more impoverished area of Ukraine. We were throwing a free show. This little boy, while I had been performing, went out into the field and he picked me a bunch of wildflowers. When I finished, he was standing there holding these flowers up to me. I don’t know where that kid is today, but he pretty much changed how I viewed how much performance can affect people. When I moved to Toronto, I said, “You know what? If I don’t go for it, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life.”
So I was only about 23 when I moved to Toronto. Then, I got my first taste and experience of a film set. As soon as that happened it was game over. The origin kind of started with that little boy where I made the transition from, “Okay, I’m 100 percent going to do this.”
Marketing has always helped. For the producing side of things, marketing has definitely come in handy. When we did a show called Fak Yaass, F-A-K-Y-A-A-S-S, I helped produce that so I did a lot of the tax credits as well. Having a marketing degree still came into play.
MM: It’s interesting what things in your life end up catalyzing you. As you said, that little boy was the spark that ignited your career.
LNS: That’s why I love acting so much because whether it’s a comedy or drama or a thriller, you make people feel things. Especially with COVID, I think we could all do with a little bit more laughter right now. And what will be the legacy I leave behind? So on that tour, I decided my legacy would be through the arts because of the power that you have to affect people in hopefully a positive way.
And even though parents and the Baby Boomer generation say, “Get a real job,” there’s really no stability in real jobs. I think people have realized that with COVID too, there’s no stability. Why wouldn’t you just do what you love to do instead of hanging on to a job that’s deemed stable by society?
MM: One thing I’ve learned throughout this pandemic is that stable jobs aren’t really stable. So why not just throw caution to the wind?
LNS: Go big or go home. It’s interesting because lo and behold, my dad was so against it initially, but I don’t blame him. Years later as I’ve invested in this industry and I guess as some people would call it, “Put in your time,” I’m on Good Witch now. I’m actually on set next week as a reoccurring principle. My dad, he’ll make little jokes now. I’ll call him and he’ll say, “Oh, how’s Angelina [Jolie] doing?”
I remember as a kid watching Pretty Woman. Julia Roberts was amazing. I always looked up to stronger women because I was raised by my dad with two siblings. So he was a single dad. He’s like, “Oh when you meet Julia, let her know I’m single.”
MM: Let’s talk about The Influencers. What was that audition process like?
LNS: I actually did not audition for The Influencers. So I know Mike Heslin and he’s the director and creator of the show. And Nick — they’re a couple.
So when they wrote the script, they actually approached me and said, “Hey, we made this show and we couldn’t think of anyone else but you for Deandra. So would you be willing to do it?” I said, “100 percent, I’m all in.” Because the two of them are amazing close friends of mine. I read the script and I couldn’t put it down. I was laughing so hard at some of the moments. Then I was on set and got to meet everybody and it was a lot of fun!
MM: How did you prepare to play Deandra? Did your marketing background come into play when you were doing research?
LNS: Yeah, I’m actually really happy that my dad made me do some sort of degree. Because my marketing degree has helped in ways that I never would have imagined. As a creative, you have to use one side of your brain. But then as a more practical business person, you use the other side of your brain. So I feel like I’ve been blessed with both.
So preparing for Deandra, I definitely did do a little more research when it comes to hosts. Whenever I take on a character, I like to do research into that character’s life. There are more technicalities that an actor will do to break down a script in general. I also love finding characters in different ways. Sometimes it’s makeup, sometimes it’s the wardrobe. Sometimes it’s the way they say things. Or it’s speech and the way you use your voice. Or the way you walk.
For Deandra, I found her when it came to the wardrobe. It was Toronto Fashion Academy. They styled me for a few things during tests. So I ended up contacting them and saying, “Hey, there is a show that I’m a part of, they don’t have a massive budget for wardrobe. But this character is beyond. She’s a diva. She is a queen.” At the time I was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. So a lot of influence from RuPaul came into play.
MM: Yes! I love that.
LNS: All the confidence those queens have is so amazing. So I was watching RuPaul as a host or watching some of the queens when they would perform or how they would walk. I felt really inspired by that. When I went to go get the costuming, I explained to them, “Think RuPaul, but female form.” The biggest diva in real life, in front of the camera, and then she has this negative side. When the cameras aren’t rolling, she’s a little two-faced. I got to do mask work and stuff like that.
Toronto Fashion Academy hooked me up. I felt like a million bucks. They gave us some couture items. Every time you see Deandra, it’s a new fabulous outfit. That’s how I found her. Each outfit was a different tone, a different feel. Then each time I gave the challenges to the actors that were competing and whatnot, it was super fun. I got to play more and bring out my inner RuPaul.
MM: Do you have a favorite scene from The Influencers?
LNS: They’re all great, honestly. What I really liked was the fact that we shot in the same house throughout an entire week. Instead of meeting your co-stars right before you shoot the scene, we got to actually get to know each other and build a rapport, which I thought was amazing.
Aisha Evelyna plays my assistant on the show. The person who’s organizing all the influencers and getting them to sit and telling them what to do before the cameras are rolling. We were actually friends beforehand. We got to laugh and share moments and riff a little bit.
In the final scene in the season finale, we’re doing the last elimination of the final three. The way it’s shot, you’ll see there was a big pool. We had the actors on one side of the pool and then they put Deandra, my character, on the other side with a big fire behind her. Very Survivor-esque. I was wearing this gown from head to toe in massive high heels so that the gown wouldn’t be under my feet. So I was standing there and anytime we were shooting, I had to get help to get up there.
I got up on the platform and we did this one take, which was used in the show, where nobody came back to get me. The cameras were still rolling, but I was just standing there in the middle. So I stayed in character and I threw a fit. Then Aiesha came running around the pool. She ran back on as her character and we had this little improv, impromptu moment where she ran around the pool. She actually stepped into water and almost fell into the pool.
Then she froze and I froze. She just kept going. It was so hard for me not to laugh because it wasn’t planned. But they kept it because it was so funny. It was so genuine, her being this little assistant going to get Deandra who’s throwing a fit. So that was probably my favorite part. It was our final day and it was super fun.
MM: I feel like sometimes you end up finding moments that are totally not planned. Through improvisation. That’s where you find the gold.
LNS: Yeah, it’s true! As soon as the cameras were off and they said, “Cut,” everyone just burst out laughing. Because it wasn’t supposed to be there, but it was so perfect the way it happened. Definitely gold for sure.
MM: Switching gears here a little bit. You helped create and you starred in Pineapple, a comedy short about a couple with a surprising secret they keep in their closet. What was the inspiration behind that story?
LNS: That short is actually part of an anthology of nine other shorts. About a year and a half, two years ago I and a group of women formed the Counterbalance Collective. It’s a collective of women. We didn’t really plan on it being all women, but that was everyone that was interested. We all met through acting class. Through Sophie Ann Rooney, at RAW Acting Studios. We were just tired of waiting for that opportunity.
So as we say on our website, “Instead of waiting for a seat at the table, we decided to make our own.” A bunch of us got together and created this collective. It was originally 11 women, nine shorts. Our first season was going to be nine shorts shot in nine days.
MM: Wow! That’s impressive.
LNS: Yeah, it was crazy. Looking back on it, I think we were all insane. I don’t think any of us will ever do it again. We really wanted to make a splash in the industry because sometimes you just need that break. All of us were on different levels. Some people were still non-union. There were some loopholes we had to jump across, where the people that were non-union could only be on camera with those that are non-union. Those that were union could only be on camera with union.
Pineapple‘s premiering on Wednesday! We’re doing a live stream of it. It’ll be on YouTube and our Facebook, Counterbalance Collective. You see this very put together, almost a “vanilla” type couple. They come in and they seem very Type-A. Once they get home and they get more relaxed, you actually see that they’re not Type-A at all. They have this incredible, very promiscuous kind of sex life.
So my character, Jane, does more of a dominatrix kind of role and her husband really enjoys that. It’s the secret that they keep from everyone. Every short has its own thing and that’s specifically Pineapple.
It was nine shorts in nine days. People would take on roles that they had never done before. I took on a directing role and that was with Green. It was about a party girl. She gets this plant and she says, “I’m going to care of it.” But then she ends up being the worst. She has no idea how to deal with this plant and she kills it that night.
We weren’t afraid to touch on subjects like loneliness or sexuality or being drunk or careers. It was really nice to actually have an all women’s group. Because there were a lot of things that we could all relate to with each other.
MM: Speaking of Green, that actually led to my next question. What was that experience like being on the other side of the camera as a director?
LNS: It was really fun. Definitely a challenge. I wasn’t used to it. But I felt more relaxed because I realized sometimes as actors we feel so much pressure in front of the camera. We don’t necessarily know what’s going on behind the scenes.
Seled [Calderon] was the actress. At the end of shooting, she said, “You know what? It was so nice.” Because we all had to wear multiple hats. We had small crews and a small budget. It felt really nice to be the kind of director that I would want to work with. Or I would want to experience.
Everyone was great. We were the first short to be shot out of the nine. So we kind of set the bar for everyone. Each short probably took anywhere between nine to 13 hours. We tried to plan it out so that some people who were on set for maybe two or three days in a row would get a day off and then they’d come back. It was a lot of jigging.
MM: Sounds like a lot of juggling, a lot of balls in the air.
LNS: Tons of juggling. That’s why I don’t think any of us would ever do it again. But it was an awesome learning experience. Everyone learned something from it. That’s the point of the collective. We’re not a corporation or production company. We just decided to start it up and do something that no one had done before. Lo and behold, a lot of people who are part of that collective are working now. Some people have unionized that weren’t union before. It’s just nice to see.
MM: So let’s talk about Fak Yaass. How did your role in that come about?
LNS: That was the very first thing I ever did. I had done other non-union stuff. I had been doing student films. When I first moved, I obviously didn’t have a degree in fine arts. I had a degree in marketing. When I was approaching agents, they were like, “What are you doing? Are you wanting to do casting?” They didn’t understand.
In the first year and a half to two years that I was in Toronto, all I did was study. I pretty much did a whole other degree. I was doing it through private studios. So I studied at Pro Actors Lab. I studied with Sophie Ann Rooney, her studio is called RAW Studios. I trained a lot there. I went to Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. I did a summer intensive there. Then after studying and building up my resume with student films, non-paid work, anything I could get my hands on, I eventually got an agent. I started going out for commercials.
Then I booked a short film, unpaid, and I met this guy named Vasilios Filippakis. We met years ago. We’ve been friends for almost 10 years now, it’s crazy.
As soon as we met, we were like two peas in a pod. He is the male gay version of me and I am the female straight version of him. We started working together on everything. I worked at a restaurant at the time, and he worked at a restaurant. I didn’t like my restaurant, so he got me a job at his.
We started saying, “Yeah, we’re going to create stuff.” Vas said, “I’m going to tell my story. My story is freaking hilarious.” He comes from a very traditional Greek family and is the only gay person in his family where it’s a big no-no to be gay. He decided to talk about his whole experience of coming out.
Once I came on, he asked his friend Anthony [Filangeri] to write it. Then we’re like, “Okay, how are we going to get money?” It just became this snowball of one thing at a time. We applied for IPF, we didn’t get it. We met a guy named Matt who Vas knew at that time in the LGBTQ community. Through Matt, we got funding from OutTV. Because he used to work with a guy who used to be the CEO. So it was almost like connecting the dots.
Eventually, Fak Yaass got made as a mini web series. OutTV aired it as two 30 minute episodes. I started stepping into the producer role. It just all snowballed from one thing to the next. From Fak Yaass, that actually moved my career forward to getting the agent I have now. It moved me to become union. Then I got my name out there. I started going out a lot more. From that my agent built me up. Now I’m on Good Witch which is a union show. So I unionized because of Good Witch.
MM: It sounds like it was built from the ground up, like a grassroots thing. Instead of just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, you decided to say, “F*ck it, I’m going to do my own thing.” That’s so great.
LNS: I sometimes beat myself up, that I didn’t start doing that earlier when I first moved to Toronto. Because I thought, “Oh no, there’s a process. I have to go to school. I have to do this. I have to do that.” But with technology now, with grants and stuff that are out there, people are creating content all the time. So it’s not impossible. You just really have to do the work. Fak Yaass aired probably two years ago.
Since then we’ve actually been rewriting it, redoing it, and we’re trying to pitch it to get picked up as a full TV series. Now Vas lives in LA. I live here in Toronto. I’m planning on hopefully being out in LA after all this COVID stuff is over. But that’s where we want to take it, after rewriting it and doing the pilot and making it more suited for three, four, five seasons.
It’s definitely a story that we want to be told. It’s quite timeless. It promotes the LGBTQ community, which funny enough, has been where most of my work has come from. Started in Fak Yaass and then from there, I met more people in the community. I’m a huge advocate, a huge supporter.
The Influencers has been nominated for a Queerty Award, which is usually a big thing in LA. We would have flown down, but we’re not now because of COVID. Just promoting that community that has always been there for me, I’m ecstatic to do it. And a lot of my friends are in that community. I’m happy to support those stories too.
MM: Do you have a dream role? It can be in film, TV, theater, etc.
MM: You do! I see it.
LNS: Lately I’ve been really into strong badass women. I love Viola Davis. If I could meet her, I think I would faint. Or Charlize Theron. She’s unreal. Her role in Atomic Blonde or even The Old Guard. She’s just such a powerhouse. I would love to have her career. Bombshell, being able to showcase that for women.
Any role that Charlize Theron has done or any kind of badass role, that would be my dream role. I grew up watching what my dad calls “shoot-em-ups,” or thrillers, action movies. Having watched action movies my whole life with my dad. That was something we bonded over. Being able to star in something like that, I think that would be a dream come true.
MM: Do you have any advice for aspiring performers looking to get their foot in the door?
LNS: I’d say two things. One: create, create, create. I would definitely push people to, especially if they get discouraged or anything like that in the industry. It’s definitely not an industry for the faint of heart. If people are doing it for fame or riches or anything like that, you’ll probably be very disappointed. So I would recommend people do it for the right reasons. Do it for your artistry. And if you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re getting down on your luck, then find a new way to make your own luck. Don’t wait for someone to give it to you. Make your own luck.
MM: Solid advice, I like that. So I know you mentioned Good Witch. Is there anything else coming up in terms of upcoming projects?
LNS: There are a few projects in development. I can’t really talk about them now because we’re just in the beginning stages. Fak Yaass we’re trying to push forward. We have a few meetings with that, which is good news. Good Witch is the most recent thing. So I’ll be on set three days next week as a reoccurring principle. From there, I just keep auditioning and doing my own thing. And if I’m not auditioning because of COVID, which has obviously changed the field of work, then I’ll definitely still create my own stuff and move forward with that.
MM: Have you binge-watched anything during quarantine?
LNS: Oh my God. Besides everything? I was a really big fan of The Queen’s Gambit. I thought that was unreal. I loved that TV series. Just the way it was shot: the colors, the story, the intensity of it. I would say that’s my favorite.
MM: All right. Last question. Name your top five favorite films. Give me anything that pops into your head.
I love anything that Ridley Scott does. If I could meet him, I would die. Newsroom was really good. No scratch that. I’m going to say Moulin Rouge!.
MM: Well, thank you so much for chatting with me!
LNS: Thank you so much for taking the time!
Be sure to watch The Influencers and Fak Yaass on Amazon Prime. You can also check out Pineapple on Counterbalance Collective‘s Facebook and YouTube page. Follow Leanne on Instagram at @leannensmith_.
This interview was originally published on 2/10/21
- THE EXPANSE Season 5: A Crash Course for Screaming Firehawks - December 2, 2021
- Samer Salem Talks Season 6 of THE EXPANSE and What to Expect - December 2, 2021
- DICKINSON Gift Guide: What to Buy for Your Poet - December 2, 2021