Saved by the Bell star Josie Totah on working 'twice as hard' as cis actors and what's next for season 2
The breakout star and producer says the Peacock revival tackles conversations about race and identity not just on a surface level, but from within its marginalized communities.
Long before she was roaming the halls of Bayside High on Peacock's Saved by the Bell revival, Josie Totah was performing in local theater productions of musicals like Beauty and the Beast. Playing the teacup Chip sparked a passion for acting, setting her on a path to stardom that included roles on New Girl and Glee, followed by her big break on Mindy Kaling's short-lived comedy Champions. In 2018, after that show's run, Totah came out as transgender, kick-starting the next chapter in her life.
"Since then, I've been able to play roles that align with my gender identity and live freely in my own skin, experiencing this new part of my life where I don't have to hide anything," the 19-year-old shares in EW's Pride Issue, available now.
Her turn as SBTB's trans cheerleader Lexi was written specifically for Totah, who is also a producer on the series, but the diversity on set goes well beyond that, with actors representing multiple communities that give the Los Angeles-based high school a real-world feel.
As a producer, Totah is using her rocky experience climbing the Hollywood ladder to make space for others who have faced similar challenges. "I think it would be dumb to say that Hollywood is at a point where everyone is getting equal opportunities and that as an actress who is trans I'm not having to work twice as hard as someone who is cisgender," she says. "But that goes for any marginalized identity. I can't claim to know how hard it must be to be an actress in Hollywood who is Black, Asian, or Latina, for example. It's a tough world."
Totah has formed a special bond with her costar Alycia Pascual-Peña, an Afro-Latina actress from New York who was at point also her roommate. Joining the sisterhood is Haskiri Velazquez, who plays Daisy Jiménez, Bayside's new Zack Morris. The trio learns from one another's experiences, and Totah says that will inspire storylines next season.
"I'm so proud to have not only two incredible Latinas on the show, but to have an Afro Latina, who is a beautiful actress and person," says Totah, a film studies major now in her junior year at California's Chapman University. "It's really important when talking about intersectionality because a lot of people are ignorant. Alycia is fully Dominican and a proud Black Latina. There's a lot of ignorance about Afro-Latino history, and people don't really understand that. Seeing her and Haskiri shine in their roles is so inspiring and empowering."
Totah is proud that the latest iteration of Saved by the Bell tackles conversations about race and identity not just on a surface level, but from within these marginalized groups. "You'll see a lot more of that in season 2," she says, "where we'll have these conversations within the same culture and communities, and how we navigate those paths and nuances of identity like colorism and classism within specific identities."
As Totah looks forward to creating more thought-provoking (but still fun) plot points for Saved by the Bell, she's also celebrating the positive feedback she's received from fans who binge-watched the show's first season. "I'm so proud to know that I've been able to help so many kids and adults feel less alone just by being able to show them a nuanced, three-dimensional character on screen who might share some parts of their identity," she says. "Had I had that growing up, it would've been easier to see there was a healthier and happier future for me."
And for those dreamers like her out there, she has a special message. "For so long I was told it would get better, and those words kind of sounded offensive to me. What does it even mean, that things will get better?" she says. "But keep pushing. You're not alone. Figure out what serves you and what creates a safe space for you. That's the most important thing."
To read more from EW's 2021 Pride Issue, order the June issue of Entertainment Weekly, with covers featuring Lil Nas X, Mj Rodriguez, Bowen Yang, and Lena Waithe. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.