Josie Totah Shapes a New Path for Trans Characters in ‘Saved by the Bell,’ ‘Big Mouth’ and Beyond

·11-min read

In trying to re-create the spark of the beloved teen TV series “Saved by the Bell,” Peacock’s revival had to find the right balance of comfort food and innovation, making a show fit for 2021 that didn’t completely leave the ’90s behind. And then there was the casting, which had proved so important for the original sitcom, launching the careers of Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Elizabeth Berkley and Mario Lopez. It was a tough task, but at the very least, showrunner Tracey Wigfield knew who she wanted to play the omnipresent role of Bayside High School’s most popular girl.

“I wrote the character of Lexi for Josie Totah,” Wigfield says. “Beyond being a talented actress and beautiful and cool, Josie is so deeply funny. She understands the rhythm of jokes and just has comedy in her bones.”

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In Totah’s hands, Lexi became an immediate highlight of the new “Saved by the Bell,” which debuted in November. She’s smart and witty, a little mean but ultimately kind. She’s melodramatic to the point that, Totah laughs, “I think about the craziest stuff I’d want to do in my regular life and just do it on the show.”

Lexi also, like Totah, happens to be trans. Totah was particularly thrilled at the prospect of playing a trans teen on a comedy, since most of the representation she’d seen was rooted in angst and trauma. But she also wanted to make sure the show got it right, and told Wigfield she would only play the part if she could also sign on as a producer. Wigfield agreed, and thus, a new queen bee was born.

While being a producer is a new experience for Totah, being a breakout star is not. As a child actor, she gave memorable performances in shows like “Glee,” “Jessie” and “The Other Two.” Her turn in the 2016 Sundance darling “Other People” almost stole the entire movie. She was a hit, but all the while, audiences and press assumed she was, like the roles she was playing, a flamboyant gay boy. While Totah and her parents knew from a young age that she was in fact a trans girl, the world didn’t, and the pressure to keep up appearances became overwhelming.

In 2018, Totah decided that it was time to merge her public and private lives by coming out in an essay for “Time,” and she hasn’t looked back. In addition to “Saved by the Bell,” she’s booked roles on Netflix’s “No Good Nick” and the coming-of-age animated sitcom “Big Mouth,” and is studying television writing at Chapman University in Southern California. Variety recently caught up with her in between Zoom classes to talk about her inspirations, transitioning in the public eye, and what she would do to play the lead in a “Veep” reboot. (Hint: “a lot of really bad shit.”)

As a producer on “Saved by the Bell,” what has your involvement in Season 2 been like?
Before, I would just kind of give notes from far away. Now I’m actually in the writers’ room and able to contribute to the stories that we’re telling. I’ll go like once a week for the day, and I’ll either be revising a script or breaking a new episode, which is just so much fun. I actually have worked with a good amount of the writers on a show that I did in high school [“Champions”], so it doesn’t feel scary to me. Everyone’s super nice.

Was being a producer a possibility they offered, or something you brought to them in the first season?
I was so grateful and excited when Tracey Wigfield told me she wrote this part for me, but I was also very upfront that I wouldn’t feel comfortable on a show that featured a trans character if I wasn’t a producer. She championed that and agreed that in order for the representation to be authentic, it needed to be seen on both sides of the camera, not just in front of it.

What were some of the clichés you wanted the show to avoid with Lexi?
So much of trans representation in the media is surrounded by trans struggle and negative experiences, which is important to tell to an extent. There are struggles. Black trans women are endangered species in this country. That’s not something that you can avoid, and if it’s not talked about, it’s ignorant. But you shouldn’t only be talking about the struggles of trans people, because trans people live joyful lives and have the ability to live joyful lives.

I also think so much of trans representation not only is negative, but typically has everything to do with their gender identity. In reality, we have multiple other dimensions to us just like any other human does. So that was really important to me, to tell a full story of a 3D character that had all these different layers to her.

What was it like for you to grow up knowing you were trans while working as an actor in roles as a very differently presenting person?
It was very strange. When I was growing up, I was on the Disney Channel and the audience was a bunch of people my age. Everywhere I went, people came up to me. I was recognized to the point where it had to be a conversation with my family about even painting my nails, the way I dressed, the way I was perceived. … I was having to avoid people seeing me, and avoiding the public humiliation really stunted my growth. I felt very trapped and isolated.

I think the older you get, the closer to your truth you start to grow towards. There came a point where the water was boiling over. I wasn’t able to keep it in anymore, and I had to choose my life, or whatever life that I was trying to live for this construct of the world that we live in, which tells you you can’t be yourself and you have to be the norm.

At home, though, your parents have always been supportive. What does that support look and feel like to you?
The relationship between my parents and I was a “whenever you’re ready” situation since the very beginning. They just did it on my terms. My mom put me with a therapist who specialized in trans children when I was like 5 or 6 years old. My dad has always been extremely compassionate, loving and loyal, which I’m super grateful for. I honestly don’t think that I deserved it because of how bad of a kid I was [laughs], but they’re pretty incredible. It is an insane privilege to have that.

I grew up in a smallish town in Northern California [near Sacramento]. It was a fun place to ride bikes or whatever, but it was still a very, very predominantly white town that wasn’t knowledgeable on a lot of these progressive issues that you would see in places like L.A. or San Francisco that were only a few hours away. It still felt kind of dated. I remember being like 5, and my mom found a camp for trans kids and was like, “You can go to this; you can be yourself.” I was just so afraid because of the town I lived in or because of the way that I was raised — not by my parents, but by teachers, neighbors, people around me — that it wouldn’t be safe for me.

So you had this very supportive home life, and then everything outside your home was telling you that it wasn’t actually safe or OK to be yourself?
It’s funny how they get you that way. It’s like a marketing scheme the universe does.

You sold a show to NBC when you were just 15. Are you still interested in doing something like that?
I haven’t really stopped writing. I’m developing a show over at another network. … I think it’s really important that, if you want to diversify the stories, you have to diversify the storytellers. So that’s a big, big part of who I am and what I want to do.

What shows did you grow up watching?
I had a wide range of consumption, starting with like things like “Desperate Housewives”…which is probably the extent of my soap knowledge. When I was really, really young, though, “Glee” was a show that my entire family watched religiously. We were obsessed. That was the first time I saw super edgy characters that were like, overly sexual and weren’t afraid to show their true feelings. “Veep” is my favorite show in the entire world. My dream role is to play Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character in a remake of that show. I would probably, like, kill a cow — no, I wouldn’t kill a cow, but I would do a lot of really bad shit to do that role.

What was your decision-making process around coming out through an essay in Time?
I didn’t want to make it a thing where I was like, “This is the biggest deal in the world; everyone needs to be shocked and losing their minds that someone can be trans!” But I also didn’t want it to be something where I was like, “Yep, I’m trans. All those years, you didn’t know, whatever.” That felt passive, and not something that would be helping the universe and so many young trans people. It was also really important to me that cover art wasn’t attached, because we didn’t want to show or tell people what a trans person should need to look like, or make it about visuals like the “before and after.” I wanted it to be more about the soul of who I was.

Did you hear from many trans kids after that?
I continue to, and that’s the greatest gift I’ve ever been given in my entire life. To be able to connect to people, and be seen by people, and allowing people to feel seen because of me. It just makes me so proud. When I’m somewhere where LGBTQ+ people are present, I just get so excited. It’s like family you don’t know, but you share so many experiences. They look up to me so much, but I look up to all of them.

How did “Big Mouth” come about for you? How much voice-over had you done before?
I actually, famously, was the lead of a British animated series that taught children how to pee called “Nina Needs to Go.” So I was obviously a pro.

When I got the audition for “Big Mouth,” I was a freshman in college, and all the guys in my dorm were freaking out about it. I literally did it in my dorm closet. Then when I was doing the role, [the “Big Mouth” team was] really loving and very open to communication. They had done their due diligence and worked with trans people, spoken to trans families and trans kids. They weren’t just putting a trans character on their show to save face or add a diverse story. They really wanted to do it for all the right reasons, and that just made me so happy.

And on top of that, again: It’s vile shit. That show is literally the pinnacle and poster child for vile television series. I just had so much fun. The fact that I got to literally do a make-out scene with Seth Rogen? I could die after that, truly.

Your first episode was so interesting in how it took the show’s “hormone monster” and really made it an actual monster to your character until she goes on hormone blockers. Is that a scene you discussed with them, to be accurate to your experience?
When you’re growing up trans, that’s a real big fear. Growing facial hair, body hair, stuff like that is really frightening. It feels like you’re running against a clock that you can’t stop. I thought that [puberty] was gonna deter me from living a fruitful life and from loving the body that I’m in, or make me hate it even more. So yeah, I can relate to that. That’s why the policy reform happening right now in so many states, where trans health care is being banned, is life-threatening. It’s deeper than just hair on a face. It’s these kids’ livelihoods. It’s how they feel about themselves. It’s an extremely important conversation that needs to be had.

What does Pride mean to you?
Pride to me just means being unequivocally and unapologetically your truest self against all the systems put in place to make you feel the exact opposite. It’s resistance in the form of joy, and it’s happiness in the form of truthfulness. I try to emulate that as I navigate a world that was not built for me in so many ways.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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