J.J. Totah and his character, Michael, on the new NBC sitcom Champions have a lot in common.
“I am a big fan of musical theater,” the actor tells EW, though he adds, “I’m not at the same level that Michael is. He can quote history in theater from like the ’40s, so he’s insane. However, I do love musical theater so much. We have some stuff in common. We’re both really confident. We’re outgoing and love life, but he’s definitely way more fabulous than I am, or ever could be.”
A rising young star, Totah makes his debut in a leading role on Champions, after building a steady resume of supporting turns on the Disney Channel and the final season of Glee. He was one of the final pieces of the puzzle when it came to casting Champions, and it was a role he craved because of the comedic pedigree of its two creators, Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project) and Charlie Grandy (Saturday Night Live).
On Champions, Totah portrays the precocious Michael, an openly gay teen who moves in with his father (never having met him before) to attend a performing arts school in New York City. The actor admits that he shares his character’s buoyant energy. “I like to think of myself as a confidently outgoing person,” he says. “I love talking to people and entertaining people.”
But one thing he doesn’t share with his on-screen alter ego is his fashion sense. “I have never worn a sweater vest a day in my life. Nor will I ever wear a sweater vest. Nothing against, just nothing for,” he says. “I am more of an athleisure kind of child, and Michael’s very preppy.”
While Michael is extremely confident and over-the-top when we first meet him in the pilot, Totah promises we’ll see a lot of growth from him over the course of the 10-episode season. “We start off in the pilot seeing Michael as this tour de force, very confident person that may or may not come off to some people as cocky or just ungrateful,” he says. “Throughout the season, we really get to see all facets of this character and all his insecurities and how grateful he is to be living with Vince and Matthew. I don’t want to spill any super details, but you really get to see the trajectory of Michael coming in and how different he is coming out of season 1. He’s more of a person.”
Totah says he’s enjoying his time on set, particularly learning tricks of the trade from Kaling, his on-screen mom, and spitting verses from Cardi B and Nicki Minaj on long night shoots with costar Andy Favreau. One thing that’s very far from his own world is the show’s setting in a gym, also aptly called Champions. “I love the idea of working out; I like to be gym-adjacent. I do not like to participate,” Totah jokes. “I feel like putting on jeans is hard enough for me. To be able to attend a facility seems outside of my skill set, and I have to be honest, I don’t think I could ever actively be in a gym. However, I did sign up for a gym and I’m still paying monthly, so I feel like that kind of counts. … I just don’t like the idea of watching people sweat while they watch me sweat.”
Still, he says if he had to work out, he’d do it to “I Feel the Earth Move” by Carole King — while he’s not busy listening to show tunes like “All That Jazz” from Chicago, that is.
Champions premieres Thursday, March 8, at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.