Life takes each one of us to some pretty far and away places but none quite like those that have led Kawa Ada to where he finds himself these days. The son of exiled parents fleeing their native Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion when he was a boy, it’s hard to believe the Canadian stage would be the place that he would finally call home.
That’s because few peppy performers have been fortunate enough to pursue the kinds of challenging roles that require extensive research and emotional mining. His greatest reward throughout these experiences has been connecting the dots between creativity and empathy in every new part that comes his way.
February 2015 suggests a bold new beginning for the actor with Soulpepper Theatre Company’s hilarious presentation of Accidental Death of an Anarchist casting him in a colourful role that might very well consume him when the curtain closes one last time.
Kawa Ada is the real deal with a ’20 Questions With…’ exclusive leaving little to the playgoer imagination.
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What did you want to be growing up?
Moving from country to country during my childhood, I was offered a glimpse into many cultures and people which fed my curiosity about different livelihoods.
When we lived in India and I immersed myself in Bollywood movies, becoming an Indian movie star was a huge dream. One problem: I wasn’t Indian, I was Afghan. And Afghanistan doesn’t have anything that even remotely resembles Bollywood.
Who were your childhood heroes?
My parents were very much heroes to me. Witnessing them as a young child, fleeing a war, running from country to country while always making sure their children were safe, housed and fed was astounding to me.
Even as a child, I knew their resiliency and bravery was something to be admired. But when we finally moved to Canada, I found other heroes in the comfort of freedom: James T. Kirk; Chita Rivera; Hulk Hogan. I was a very confusing child.
What sports did you play as a kid?
I played soccer for a hot second. Then I discovered running – cross country, relay, sprint – give me a reason to run, and I would take it. What does that say about me, I wonder?
Were your parents strict?
They were and they weren’t. Early on, especially when we first immigrated to Canada (I was 8), they were strict in the sense that they never let us waste time; every hour was filled and delayed gratification was a big player growing up. We (us kids) had to do useful things first, like homework, lessons and volunteering, before we could go out and play (or in my case, sing showtunes and build phasers).
As I got older, more neurotic and strict with myself, my parents began to loosen up and party more. I was such a nerd by the time high school came around, that I couldn’t stand all the late night parties they would have – on school nights!
I remember, on many occasions, going down to the basement where many a gathering took place, asking them to turn down the Afghan music as I had a test to study for the next day or something like that. They usually used it as an opportunity to make fun of me in front of their friends (mostly to get me to lighten up).
I don’t think they expected me to become so rigid and obsessed with education and my future – by that point, they needed to shift gears and tried to get me to chill. It didn’t really work. But it was nice to see them having fun for the first time in their lives.
What posters did you have on your bedroom wall growing up?
Okay, so I collected Star Trek figurines. Along with a few posters of Patrick Stewart and the gang or William Shatner and crew, I also hung up my unopened Star Trek figurines all over my walls. By the age of 14, I had collected 43 figurines.
My Mom still has them in a box in the storage room – I refuse to part with them or open them. I can’t believe I am revealing all this.
What was your nickname in high school?
I am sure I had many nicknames given to me by many people that I didn’t know about – you can guess what they were by picturing a singing, dancing kid who played all the leads in the musicals, got the highest grades, did the morning announcements, became school VP and graduated as valedictorian.
But I was always – and this remains true to this day – the first one to make fun of myself, so I think that softened things. You can’t really make fun of a guy too much when he is ready to do it to himself at the drop of a hat.
Also, I wasn’t good looking or smooth, so I definitely wasn’t a point of focus for the girls or a real threat to the guys.
What was the first concert you attended?
Coldplay at Six Flags Darien Lake. I was 28.
But I watched lots of bootleg Liza Minnelli concerts on VHS before that. Do those count?
What was the first job you ever had?
Cleaning toilets in exchange for dance classes. I was in heaven.
Have you ever been fired?
No. It might happen one day, who knows.
I think I would be devastated though. I feel like being fired – and I’m talking like “clean out your desk, you’re outta here” not “I am sorry, but this other person is better suited and has more experience” – but the first kind of ‘fired’ would mean, to me, that I wasn’t even performing adequately.
I would be crushed if I thought I wasn’t adequate. I am way too narcissistic for that.
Who was the first person you were sexually attracted to?
Her name was Serida. My best friend Joey and I were both in love with her – but neither of us told the other.
Serida kissed us both during recess and when Joey and I found out about each other’s attraction to her, it was the end of our friendship.
We became friends again the following year when she started dating the class jock. It helps to have a mutual enemy.
How old were you when you had your first kiss and what do you remember about it?
I was 8. It was in the closet with an Afghan girl who had just arrived to Toronto as well.
I don’t remember a thing about it except that I probably felt like a rebel because it was in my parents’ closet.
What do you remember about the first time getting drunk?
It was a house party during high school. I think it was a cast party actually. People in the theatre can become very attached, and quickly. Everyone was kissing each other. And I definitely got in on it.
What is the hardest thing about being a man?
Remembering that masculinity has nothing to do with being butch or macho – it is more about taking care of those around you, taking care of the world and trying to better yourself.
Being a real man requires a lot of responsibility and constantly checking yourself. Men are still getting treated better, men still make more money, men still getting more than their equal share. Being in that position, I feel, constitutes that those in power have an obligation to set things right (and this goes for all those in power positions in our society).
And because of awareness and education, most men – in the first world, at least – know this inequality exists. We know that there are systemic barriers that we have to help break down. But we are also still asked, on some level, to remain stoic, strong and manly – emotion and vulnerability continue to elude men today because that also isn’t the norm.
There may be talk of wanting men to be more emotional, more sensitive and show their fragility, but the model of a man (on TV, in the zeitgeist and in our subconscious) remains an archaic one. So, I think men are stuck in a nether zone at the moment – not knowing how to behave, not knowing what is expected of us and what we are “supposed” to be, ultimately. This is part of ourcollective ‘growing pain’ as our human consciousness tries to find the balance between the feminine and the masculine.
What did you believe in at 18 that you wish that you believed in now?
I believed that there was enough time to do everything I wanted to accomplish in life. I don’t believe that anymore. But strangely, I will die trying.
What is the best advice your parents ever gave you?
Family comes first. Love is better than money. Wake up and think of the day as a blank slate. Eat lots of veggies and nuts. No one is better than anyone else.
What have you done that you will never do again?
I will probably never dance in the chorus of a musical again. Which makes me kind of sad.
I loved starting out my career as a chorus boy. But in order to be seen seriously as a leading man, I had to move away from the chorus and musicals altogether. Sometimes you want two things at once, but I had to make the choice that would help move my career to the next level. Maybe in the future, our producers and directors won’t look down on those from the musical theatre, but they do currently.
Last year was the first year I played a role that would normally be played by a white actor (Chelsea Manning) thanks to Sky Gilbert. This year, I am playing three roles not specifically designated as an ethnic role, which is very exciting and a long-time coming. I guess things are definitely changing. So, never mind. Maybe I will dance again someday.
What is the best lie you ever told?
Niagara Falls was our go-to vacation spot growing up. Every summer, on some random weekend, we would pack up the car and our parents would tell us we were going on a road trip. And every road trip would end at Clifton Hills.
We kind of hated it as kids, but it was also comforting. We tried out different motels every time. By the time I was older, we had all had our fair share of the falls.
Needless to say, when, as an adult, I told them I was treating the family to a getaway in Niagara Falls, my parents were actually thrilled – though I was expecting polite reticence.
What I had really planned was a romantic cruise vacation for the two of them. They were very surprised and I think they had a good time. But to this day, I am not sure if they would have been just as happy trekking to the Falls for old time’s sake – car and family in tow. We truly are creatures of comfort and habit and sentiment.
What is the scariest thing that ever happened to you?
When I went back to Afghanistan a few years ago on a research trip and to reconnect with my home country I was held up at gunpoint by soldiers in front of the German Embassy for taking photos of their grounds.
Those few days I was back in Kabul, I had to take a lot of secret shots as civilians weren’t allowed to take photos in many places. I felt indignation that I couldn’t take photos of my own country and document what a neo-colonial haven it had (once again) become.
So I took the risks and got a bit cocky in front of the Germans. They destroyed thephotos but let me keep my camera after I threw a fit – I think they were taken aback when they realized that Canadians are not as acquiescent as they would expect.
You’ve been exiled to an isolated island with no other inhabitants but permitted to bring one book, one CD, and one DVD what will this list include?
Book: the yet to be written account of my parents’ life. CD: Judy Garland Live at Carnegie Hall. DVD: All About Eve, one of the finest scripts ever written and one of the best films ever made (starring Bette Davis in her greatest performance).
If somebody made a movie about your life, whom would you want to play you?
Umm. Me, of course. I wouldn’t let anyone else try to portray me on film.
My mother would never forgive me if she saw someone else playing me. She keeps all my press clippings and anything that has been captured on screen. She would kill me, so for the sake of saving Hollywood (or Hollywood North) from her wrath, I would have to play myself.