Sitting down with Jeri Leader, it’s hard to believe she’s only 12 years old; only her sock-monkey mittens seem to give it away.
Speaking with the insight of someone twice her age, her passion for acting is obvious and her goals are clearly defined.
Recently Leader was nominated for two Joey Awards, given to young actors and actresses in Canada: best actress in a monologue ages 10 to 12, and best actress in a short film ages 11 to 12.
She won for her recorded performance of Making up Stories by Joseph Arnold.
“It was kind of one I had in my back pocket, I did it for a workshop in New York … it was the best one for film or TV,” she explains.
“With monologues, sometimes they just click with you and sometimes they don’t. I usually memorize scenes pretty quickly, so monologues take about an hour for me. It’s a good skill to have.”
Entrants had to record themselves performing the script and then submit the tape to the awards committee.
Leader said because that particular category was open for submissions, it came as a total surprise when she won.
“I was shocked. I was not expecting it because I thought you’re submitting yourself, you don’t have to be nominated so I thought, there’s probably going to be a lot of people,” she says.
“I was like, ‘maybe I’ll say [a speech] if I win,’ but I was so in shock that I froze.”
The other nomination she received was for her role in the short film The Spiked Watermelon.
The 10-minute short sees two young sisters encounter an intoxicated teenager as they’re walking through a neighbourhood park.
“My character was Amelia, she was an older sister and she’s kind of strong – she’s brave that’s for sure,” Leader says.
The movie was filmed over three days in Thornhill last January. Leader says being outside six hours a day in extreme weather conditions was definitely a learning experience.
“If you can remember it was a pretty bad January and our boots were just soaked and we had to get hot chocolate and buy new boots,” she said with a laugh. “The whole experience of being outside for six hours was pretty crazy, but it was fun.”
The Joey awards gala was held in Vancouver on Nov. 16 and it was the first time Leader had travelled to the coastal city. She says her family went down a few days early to do some sight seeing.
“It’s just beautiful out there right now. It was lovely weather. We had a hotel in New Westminster that looked out on the lake,” she says.
Back at home, multi-talented Leader stays busy with singing, guitar and piano lessons at Jam School in Guelph, along with ballet, tap and jazz dance classes in Oakville.
But her favourite place to be is on stage, she says.
“I’m always asked the question, do you enjoy theatre or film more, but I think I enjoy theatre better because there’s no do-overs because it’s live,” she says.
“I just love singing and I love being in front of people.”
Leader started acting when she was just seven years old in the River Run Centre productions of Willy Wonka and White Christmas.
She has since performed with major theatre companies such as Drayton Entertainment, The Grand Theatre in London and the Lower Ossington Theatre in Toronto.
Leader says her experience with Drayton Entertainment was invaluable and gave her a leg-up when she started auditioning for major productions in Toronto.
“It’s a great place if you’re just starting out in theatre because they always have ensemble roles, [and] a lot of people recognize the name and it’s great to have on a resume because they’re a professional theatre company,” she says. “It’s a great experience to try out some Drayton before you go out to Toronto because it’s a lot harder in Toronto … there’s a lot more kids trying out.”
So far, her two most memorable performances were as Patrice in 13 the Musical and Jojo in Seussical the Musical, a show that combines a menagerie of Dr. Seuss’ characters from his classic children’s books – but the play she really wants to be a part of is Fiddler on the Roof.
“It’s one of my favourite musicals,” she explains.
Leader says she has developed a love for classic films from watching them with her mom – it was a family tradition every Sunday, she says.
“When it came to Stratford, we saw it and I just loved it even more, because the stage production is much more touching … I really want to play one of the three daughters because all three have amazing songs to sing and stories to tell.”
In the future Leader says she would love be on Broadway – that’s the dream.
“I’m hoping to do acting for a very, very long time, until I’m at an age where I can’t anymore,” she says. “I’d love to make it big on Broadway. I’m hoping to move to New York in my 20s and get a Broadway musical there. I’ve been to New York three times and I love it. I just love the feel of being in New York.”