J.J. Totah hasn’t seen “Love, Simon” yet.
Not that he’s opposed to the movie by any means, but there’s something about the film, the first backed by a major studio featuring a gay teen protagonist, that didn’t draw him in from watching the trailer.
At just 16 years old, he’s one of only a handful of young and out queer actors who’ve found success in an industry that has a history of casting straight leads to play gay, as is the case with “Love, Simon,” in the off-chance that a story about the LGBTQ community should break through to the mainstream at all.
Totah knows he’s one of the lucky few with an impressive resume of credits to his name before he’s even graduated high school ― a small Catholic one at that. But he’s always been an entertainer at heart, doing his first stand-up set at age 10 (Google it and thank us later), taking in musical theater and pop culture like a sponge and finding the confidence to be himself onstage, even when he didn’t feel it on the inside.
After coming up through the ranks with roles on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, he was given a bucket-list opportunity on NBC’s comedy series “Champions.” Rarely does an actor find a role that seems tailor-made for their talents, let alone on a show created by Mindy Kaling. Totah slips so easily into the character of Michael, a half-Indian gay teen with a penchant for sweater vests, that it’s easy to forget they’re not one and the same.
Michael is unapologetically himself, spouting off an impressive Rolodex of uniquely gay witticisms that reference shows like “Smash” and character actresses, but it’s the sweetness and authenticity of the performance that elevates the show. Totah understands who Michael is at his core, because he’s been through all of this, too.
If there’s one takeaway from Hollywood’s dismal track record of representing LGBTQ people on screen, it’s the ever-growing desire for queer people to inhabit these roles themselves. While there are still many wrongs to right, certainly an actor like J.J. Totah is part of the solution.
I binged the first season of ”Champions” over the weekend and any show that mentions “Smash” this often deserves a Season 2.
You are absolutely right. Except I was marathoning “How To Get Away with Murder” today when I should have been studying my own show.
Your character has been hailed as groundbreaking for TV. How did you ensure that Michael wasn’t going to fall prey to tired cliches we’ve seen time and time again?
I remember being in the writers room a month before we started shooting and they asked me if there was anything I wanted to bring to the character in particular. I flat-out told them I didn’t want Michael to be like every other gay guest star or co-star that we’ve seen before. I wanted him to extend past those cliches and be a more three-dimensional person.
I try to play Michael as grounded as possible. Throughout the season we really get past just his femininity, which is super fun and we see a lot from gay characters who have a few lines on an episode of a multi-cam show, but now we get to see what’s actually going on and his insecurities.
Michael certainly isn’t lacking for confidence, which is played for a lot of humor in the show, but where does your confidence come from? I’ve seen videos of you doing stand-up when you were younger. Were you always that kind of kid or was it something you’ve had to work on?
Michael as a character is just unapologetically himself, whether it’s him being gay or him being Indian. I always was super confident when I needed to be, but when the curtains close, obviously you see the real thing. I’ve always been able to pull it out when I need to be on, but I’ve definitely needed to place it in other aspects of my life when I’m not acting. That’s what I’ve been working on and what Michael has brought to me.
He owns himself, so I have to own myself in order to play him. I feel like I’ve instilled that confidence in me when I leave work because I’m so used to being Michael that it’s just helped me in my real life.
The character is unlike so many portrayals because the show embraces the more femme aspects of his personality. You previously wrote about feeling shame for gravitating toward “girlie” things and being bullied because of it. Accepting ourselves is a process that needs constant work, so do you think you’re over that hill yet?
No, definitely not over that hill. More like treading up the hill, but I think we’re running now. Before it was a slow trot, and now we’re running. There are still situations when I am not up for putting on that mask and not being myself just so I can feel comfortable being in a group of people.
It happens all the time when I’m just hanging out with my best friends watching a movie and one of them will invite a couple of our guy friends over ― straight soccer players ― who we aren’t that close to. At the time, I was just not up for it. I think only people in the LGBTQ+ community really understand that layer you have to put on yourself for other people.
You recently went to prom and are graduating from high school soon. Congrats! You have accomplished more than 99 percent of the population has by your age. Prom can often be a fraught time for queer kids, so I’m curious what that experience was like for you?
I go to a small Catholic school where we have mass every week and say a prayer every morning, but we also are in Los Angeles, where people are so progressive and open. I was super excited to go. I was not afraid. I got my suit custom-tailored. We picked it so it was matching my friend Kelly. I put on my Gucci shoes. I got my eyebrows did.
I had an incredible experience and I’m grateful I can look back on that. I definitely pride myself on suffering through a real high school. A lot of my friends are homeschooled and I love them for it, but I really wanted that high school experience. All of my friends at the time had been broken up with, which was super sad, but for me it was like, “OK, now I have a group.′ It was just like this my squad and we’re rolling up and all here for each other.
Before “Champions,” you starred in the final season of “Glee,” which was sort of a beacon on TV for a lot of LGBTQ youth. Did you have that same emotional attachment to that show before you walked the halls of McKinley High?
I already sang “Hairspray” songs in the halls of my school, so watching that show it was like was like, “I’m not crazy! Other people do this too!” Coming from a musical theater-loving family, that was just our show. We watched it religiously before I moved to Los Angeles and started acting. I still don’t think anything will ever top that experience because it was just this insane Broadway boot camp that challenged me in so many ways. I don’t know how that cast did it for so many seasons.
There’s been a larger conversation about the credibility of straight actors playing gay roles. I think what’s so refreshing about your performance in “Champions” is that it feels immediately authentic. Do you get ever get frustrated as an out LGBTQ actor when those roles go to straight guys?
Listen, we love an Armie Hammer. We love a Timothee Chalamet. We appreciate them. My thing is, whoever is right for the role should get the role. I feel like we need to create more roles that give LGBTQ people the opportunity to be on screen. There needs to be a bit more open-mindedness when it comes to casting and reaching out to those LGBT actors because they do exist, but its obviously harder for them to get jobs in this industry. If you have auditioned everyone you possibly can and that straight actor is just better for the role, then go ahead and cast him! But you need to have seen the whole pool of actors and that’s where casting directors go wrong.
Building off that, the representations we do see are rarely femme portrayals of queerness. Was it important to you to represent something other than that a gay masculine ideal in a film like “Love, Simon”?
I didn’t see “Love, Simon,” but just by looking at the trailer, I feel like they could’ve hired someone who identifies as gay since the person that they did cast is completely straight. He’s honestly a good actor and I love him in all the other stuff he’s done.
I think you might be the only remaining queer person on the planet to not have seen that movie.
I know! I haven’t seen it, but I do have a movie list that I’m trying to get through. I’m on “On The Waterfront” right now and I just finished “Shawshank Redemption.” We had to start alllll the way back.
Sorry, back to what you were saying ―
I think almost the film industry thinks that by making gay characters super masculine it’s an attempt at saying being gay is OK if you act like straight people. I don’t think we should just have gay characters who are 100 percent femme either. I just think it’s about that mix and creating more diverse gay characters. That’s what I love so much about Michael because we got to dive into him being messy, which isn’t cliche for gay people.
Who are some of your heroes, queer or otherwise, that have paved the way for you?
I mean, obviously I can say my parents ’cause everybody says that, but its true. My parents happen to be straight ― they’ve been married for 26 years, so I hope that they’re straight, but if they decide [they’re not] now I guess that’s cool, but you waited a long time, boo. They’re just so accepting of me and have been accepting since day one and want me to be my 100 percent true self. I just want to be as supportive for my children one day as they are for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
UPDATE: Aug. 20 — On Monday, the subject of this interview came out as transgender and now uses she/her pronouns.
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