20 Under 20

Josie Totah is Forcing Hollywood to Grow Up

It’s rare to look at someone in their teen years and think, “that kid is destined for EGOT status.” Nonetheless, that’s the exact feeling you get watching any of actress Josie Totah’s early roles. From her earliest years, acting was the thing she knew she wanted to do for a living, and the industry has, so far, fully recognized Totah’s game, tapping her for roles in Mindy Kaling’s 2018 sitcom “Champions”, the 2016 Molly Shannon dramedy Other People, and the ABC comedy “Back in the Game.” 

But early fans of Josie Totah’s work weren’t seeing the whole truth, and they weren’t hearing the whole story. As an actress coming of age in the spotlight, coming out as trans was far from a walk in the park. 

“I know I’m lucky to be able to do what I love,” Totah wrote in a TIME op-ed in 2018. “But I also feel like I let myself be shoved into a box: “…gay boy.”

Her charisma onscreen and her natural flair for comedy made her a cinch for sassy teen roles: but after Totah came out as trans in 2018, she knew that things would change, and not necessarily for the better. In an industry that loves to put people in boxes, it’s never easy to try to change things up, especially when your identity is still seen as somehow transgressive.

 
 
 
 
 
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But Totah wouldn’t allow her career—or her sense of self—to get derailed by Hollywood’s narrow, reductive standards. By embracing who she was, Totah changed Hollywood forever. She showed an industry still reluctant to cast trans performers in roles that weren’t exploitative or lazy exactly how it can—and should—be done. 

By embracing who she was, Totah changed Hollywood forever.

Today, Totah isn’t just one of the most sought-after young stars in Hollywood, she’s undeniably one of the most talented. Her comedic gifts are on full, brilliantly bitchy display in Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” reboot, and Totah’s turn as trans teen Natalie on the Netflix animated comedy “Big Mouth” is tender, hilarious, and most importantly, completely real. Working with another trans icon, the comedian Patti Harrison, Josie Totah created a portrait of a young girl being who she is, and not taking any sh*t for it. “I love that she’s a ballbuster,” Totah told them in 2020. “I love that she’s cool and intelligent and so well-spoken and a fun character who just calls people out on their stuff.”

 
 
 
 
 
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Calling people out on their stuff, in fact, is a Josie Totah specialty. The sharp-tongued young adult brought her signature sass and unparalleled powers of observation to Natalie as well as to “Saved By the Bell’s” Lexi Haddad-DeFabrizio, the hilariously self-centered, loveable teen queen who demands to be the center of attention at all times, and for good reason. Whatever Totah shows up in, one thing is clear: you’re not going to be able to take your eyes off of her. Talent like this shows up maybe once every 50 years, and we’re getting to see Totah’s talent blossom in all areas. She’s already dipped her toes into producing on “Saved By the Bell”, and she continues to take on roles that challenge the limiting notions Hollywood has around what trans performers can and should do. 

“I plan to play roles I haven’t had the opportunity to play,” Totah wrote in her TIME op-ed. “And I can only imagine how much more fun it’s going to be to play someone who shares my identity, rather than having to contort myself… I’m going to gun for those roles, be it a transgender female or a cisgender female.”

Since that time, Totah has revolutionized Hollywood simply by refusing to be locked into transgressive trans stereotypes onscreen. In every role she plays, she brings that beautiful self-knowledge, that unshakeable sense of self that trans girls manifest wherever they go. She wasn’t content to exist in the Hollywood that existed before she came along: so she changed it. And she’ll keep changing it.

As for us, we can’t wait to say how far she’ll go and where she’ll take us next.♦

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