Josie Totah is breaking huge barriers in Hollywood. A star on the "Saved by the Bell" reboot, which is currently streaming on Peacock now, the 19-year actress is redefining what it means to be transgender on-screen and off.
"About a year ago, the showrunner, Tracey Wigfield, pitched me the idea of this reimagined 'Saved by the Bell,' and what she had dreamt for a character that I could play," Totah told TODAY. "It was just this super fun, campy role that seemed like an incredible opportunity to play."
Known for roles on "Glee" and the Disney series "Jessie," and for starring as Mindy Kaling's child on NBC's short-lived comedy "Champions," Totah is not only one of the lead stars of the reboot, she is also a producer.
"When it became clear that we wanted the character to be trans, I spoke to Tracey. I'm down to portraying this story. However, I feel like there is no (transgender) representation in the writers' room or on the producers' side," Totah explained. "I need to have more stake and more of a larger role in order to tell this story authentically.... to do my due diligence as an actress and as a trans person playing a trans person."
Totah got her wish. "It was an incredible experience and being able to have a seat at the table really allows me to tell the most authentic story possible," she said. "People are really going to see the benefits with that."
While often LGBTQ characters are relegated to the margins of a narrative, in "Saved by the Bell" 2.0, Totah's character Lexi takes center stage. The popular girl, she is the one who has the witty reads and the fabulous outfits. Similar to Santana Lopez in "Glee" or the scrapped reboot of "Heathers," at the reimagined 2020 version of Bayside High ... the queer characters are the cool kids.
"Tracey and I both had loved that mean girl archetype, but we felt like for so long, we've seen carbon copies of the same character," Totah said. "Now we're getting to tell the story with a character who is everything that the archetype calls for but also nothing that that archetype carries with it such as like an identity that is marginalized or having faced oppression in the past."
Totah compares Lexi to the poster child for mean girl types on-screen: queen bee Regina George herself.
"She has never been oppressed and she doesn't know what that feels like," Totah said. "They gave me a character in that realm, but a role like Lexi is so much more interesting because of how much more dynamic it is to play and to watch."
That on-screen representation lends it itself to portray people with a multitude of identities. Characters, like the ones seen in "Saved by the Bell," don't stop at the labels of their sexuality, race or gender identity. They begin there, yes, but they continue with much evolved depictions. You can be transgender, but you can also be the bully.
"I think that's what makes great characters and just great writing in general is not writing the obvious," Totah added, "I love how that is reflected in all of our characters on our show. Tracey and the writers do a really great job with not playing the obvious, not always doing what's on the nose."
Totah was already established in television before she publicly came out as transgender in 2018. That year, she penned a moving essay for Time in which she revealed that she identified as a woman. Her transition is something that is easily searchable, and while some may be stressed about that, she has learned to find some solace in it.
"As far as being in the spotlight, something I can attest to is it has forced me to express myself at a much more visceral scale than I ever would have if I hadn't transitioned with people watching," she said. "Having thousands of Google photos of me, over 100 episodes of TV where I look completely different and I hate the way I looked at the time because I felt trapped in a body that wasn't what I identified with, having all of that has really forced me to love myself in a way I don't think I ever would have had it not gone that way."
"I've been forced to look myself in the mirror and accept that no matter what's out there, that someone could do a three-second Google search and find out my entire history, that I know who I am and I'm proud of that."
On people obsessing over things like what she looked like before she transitioned or what her deadname is, Totah says "the world can be a sick place."
"Especially with trans people, people are very accustomed to objectifying them and breaking those boundaries and are so interested in their personal lives," she said. "But as far as being my old name, I mean, it doesn't make me feel shame. It doesn't make me feel bad. I am proud of who I am and of where I've gotten to.
"It's been a journey, but I know that every step of the way was supposed to happen the way it was supposed to happen."