In 2016’s “Other People,” a film about a young man visiting his ill mother, vibrant teenager Justin stole the show when he performed a musical number in his family living room. That show-stopping supporting character was played by real-life teen JJ Totah. Now, in 2018, the talented teenager is taking his skills center stage as a main character on NBC comedy “Champions.”
Created by Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy, "Champions" is about a bachelor enjoying the carefree life until a long-forgotten high school fling shows up and introduces him to their 15-year-old son, Michael. Played by Totah, Michael loves the theater and is openly and proudly gay.
“We deal with Michael being gay within the 30 seconds of the pilot, and there’s no issue with it,” Totah told NBC News during a phone interview. "We wanted to do a show where Michael was just accepted. He could just be him and people could just love him for him.”
NBC News caught up with Totah and asked him a few questions about his career and LGBTQ representation in film and TV.
Why did you pursue an acting career?
"I feel like I’m absolutely insane, and I don’t think I could probably do anything else. I just love entertaining, and I feel like pretending to be people ... and having that as a job is crazy. I couldn’t do anything else without making people around me go insane."
How does it feel to be playing LGBTQ characters as a young LGBTQ person?
"It feels awesome. These characters haven’t been seen on television, like at all. When they are seen on television they are in small portions — like guest stars. The fact that Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy created this show that has a kid that who is gay and also Indian, so a double whammy, at the forefront of a show is super super cool and super exciting, because all those kids who are gay or Indian get to be recognized and represented."
How would you compare "Champions" to past roles?
"This character is definitely the one that I have gotten to dive into the most. We shot an entire season of television with Michael and seeing the trajectory of him. Especially because a lot of characters that are gay or flamboyant are guest star roles and you get to see a part of that character. Since we have a season of television, you get to see all aspects of Michael. He is confident and exciting, but you also see his insecurities, and I think that is very cool and something that I have not had the opportunity to do before. You really get into his life and mindset."
What are you experiences like with LGBTQ youth? Do people reach out to you?
"I get reached out to by a lot of people who just thank me for representing them and their friends. Just showing people like them on TV. It’s just really awesome to hear from them. To know that we’re not only making a funny show but also a show that’s impacting people. There’s definitely a lot of people who come up to me and stuff. It’s really sweet."
What does "pride" mean to you?
"Accepting yourself, loving yourself and respecting yourself. Also, making sure to respect those around you. As long as you’ve got pride, you’re good."