Rising star Josie Totah may be a new name to many watching the Peacock reboot of Saved by the Bell, but she’s been working on television since she was a tween, appearing alongside Nick Kroll on the Kroll Show, Molly Shannon in Other People and the cast of Glee before eventually breaking out with the short-lived 2018 NBC series Champions.
Not only that, but she’s been a trailblazer for LGBTQ representation ever since she came out as transgender in a 2018 essay written for Time magazine. Only 17 at the time, it made her one the youngest and most visible transgender performers onscreen. “I identify as female, specifically as a transgender female. And my name is Josie Totah,” she wrote, adding that she would no longer “let myself be shoved into a box.”
“That was definitely a very vulnerable, personal letter that I wrote,” Totah, 19, says now while speaking to ET about her standout role as Lexi on Saved by the Bell. Just like her character, who also identifies as transgender, Totah is not defined by her gender identity. “I think that is what’s so important about representation now,” she continues, “and what we look to for the work that we need to do for representation in the future is getting to have these types of characters, but not making it all about X, all about race, all about their gender, all about their sexual orientation.”
For Totah, “The way we tell this story in a dynamic, layered way is just so fun to watch and play. And it makes my job easier.”
On the refreshingly funny and smart Peacock original series written and executive produced by Tracey Wigfield (30 Rock, Great News) and longtime Saved by the Bell boss Franco Bario, the franchise picks up with a whole new generation of students attending Bayside High. While the original cast makes appearances as adults in this high school universe, the focus is on the teens who are adding a much-needed dose of reality and diversity to the franchise.
“I think it’s extremely important to recognize that although that show was so fun and so wonderful and served so many people this, like, warm comfort, it also was full of a lot of ignorances,” says Totah, who was born in 2001 and is not as attached to the original. “So what’s amusing about our show is we take everything good from the original, but we have those topical conversations and we do evolve through our characters and through our storylines, which I think makes for a smarter, more enjoyable piece of television.”
When it comes to Lexi -- easily the most watchable of the new characters -- she’s the All-American teen. She’s popular, she’s a fashionista, she’s a cheerleader and she most closely resembles Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Thiessen). But there’s a bite to her. Lexi is imbued with wit and self-awareness in a similar fashion to Regina George (Rachel McAdams) of Mean Girls, which was written by 30 Rock creator and Wigfield’s former boss, Tina Fey.
Written for Totah, the actress says she and Wigfield worked closely to develop who Lexi would ultimately be onscreen. “We were on the same page,” Totah says, adding that Wigfield, who was in constant communication with her, “was open to whatever I wanted to do. And I was really grateful for that.”
Totah was even named a producer on the series to help ensure that her character and storyline were representative of a genuine transgender experience. “We definitely had queer members on our writing staff, but as a producer, that was probably one of the sole goals of my role, which is telling the story as authentic as possible,” she says. “I felt that I needed to be [a producer] in order to do the show because we would not have been able to tell an authentic story had I not have that place or a seat at the table.”
And at times, that meant Totah had to step in and help the writers rework scenes. One such example is in episode three, “The Bayside Triangle,” that played on the dynamic between Lexi, her original Bayside friends and newcomer Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez). “It just seemed weird to me that she would come to Daisy if she had all these friends,” Totah says of the characters’ initial encounter.
Instead, she came up with an idea that Lexi had this fear “of having all these things leaked from her,” like her crush on Jamie (Belmont Cameli). “And I think that kind of drives the storyline… and that is why she develops a friendship with Daisy, because she’s the only one she can trust and I think it creates a beautiful arc for the show.”
The mix of meanness and sweetness and keeping in tone with the show is a hard line to straddle, but Totah does it seamlessly. When it comes to Lexi’s overall arc this season, the actress says she “loves how she’s on this journey of self-discovery. I feel like this character, she gives weight and backing to all those mean girls that we’ve seen in the past.”
Now streaming in full, Saved by the Bell will certainly get Totah much-deserved attention as a scene stealer, which will only be backed by her forthcoming guest role on the Netflix animated series Big Mouth. Co-created by and starring Kroll, the Emmy-winning series follows a group of pre-teens as they discover their bodies, genders and sexualities and returns for season 4 on Dec. 4.
“Big Mouth is the one example of educating people without them even knowing that they’re being educated,” Totah says of the series. “First and foremost, it’s a funny show. It’s a raunchy show. It’s an incredible ride. But then you realize, ‘Wait, I’ve learned so much.’”
While Totah couldn’t disclose any details about her role -- which will be a first for the series -- she did reflect on the full-circle moment it was for her. “My first-ever project was actually a background player on the Kroll Show. To be in scenes with him and be on his show is one of the most exciting things in my life,” Totah says. “And as a lover of comedy and as someone who’s pursued a career in that for the past 10 years, it’s definitely a landmark moment.”