Josie Totah Is Living Everybody's High School Dream in 'Saved By the Bell'

Josie Totah
Casey Durkin/Peacock

The original Saved by the Bell featured tanned California high schoolers learning life lessons every Saturday morning — cheating is bad, don't get addicted to caffeine pills, you can still win homecoming queen even with a zit on your face. Peacock's streaming Saved by the Bell reboot takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the same subject matter, but still touches on plenty of important issues. But instead of "be nice to nerds," those issues include economic inequality, school closures and LGBTQ representation.

It also features 2020 takes on the age-old high school character archetypes, which means that in this version, the school's bitchy popular girl is Lexi, a sharp-tongued cheerleader who is trans. Creator Tracey Wigfield wrote the role for actress Josie Totah, who had worked with Wigfield's pals Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy on Champions, after she'd seen Totah at a table read for NBC's short-lived sitcom.

"You need six, hilarious, beautiful, really skilled teenagers. Oh, that seems easy to find," Wigfield remembered telling herself while discussing the show on The Hollywood Reporter's TV's Top 5 podcast. It was a daunting prospect, but she had one comforting thought: "At least I knew Josie."

Totah tells THR that she met with Wigfield and was immediately sold on her pitch: "She wanted to make it into this more topical, edgier, smarter world that she was planning on creating, and I was just fell in love with that idea." After some back-and-forth about the character that Totah would play, the duo decided that they wanted to reflect some of Totah's real-life experience by making the character trans.

"It was important to us that I serve as a producer on the show in order to tell the story as authentically as possible," says the 19-year-old.

She'd already shared some of her experience coming out as trans in an essay for Time, but in helping shape Lexi from the ground up, she'd be able to have a direct hand in trans representation on screen.

While acting is such an internal craft, there's an inherently public component built in when the finished product is going to be broadcast to millions of people around the world. Whether she liked it or not, Totah knew that she was going to have to talk about being trans and playing a trans character while some of her castmates got to chat about ancient cell phones or working with the original cast.

"I think that's something that all people who have a marginalized identity deal with," she says. "It's definitely a conversation that I have with Alycia Pascual-Pena, who is on the show with me and lives with me and is my best friend. We have that conversation every day about what this role not only means to us, but so many people and that no matter how it affects us we need to understand that it's going to affect a large amount of people in ways that we might not even be able to predict. But it's super humbling and I think we're both really, really honored to be in the position that we are. And we're happy that somebody's doing it, because it's definitely something that we both have never seen on screen for both of us, and for me in particular."

Another selling point: The show is an ensemble comedy — it's not about Lexi being trans; it's not even only about Lexi.

"This is not the story of a trans person's experience. This show is not my story, or my telling of my journey. It's a show that existed in the past, and that we're bringing back, and it's funny, it's amusing, but it happens to have a character that's trans in it," says Totah. "And I think when we come at it from that angle it's a lot less daunting, because the show isn't only about my character being transgender, or even just about only my character. It's about this group of diverse kids that are together and are going through life and learning things about each other, and it's super exciting to get to be a part of a show that's like that. I didn't have any fears or hesitations only because I knew going into it that this wasn't going to be the time where I tell my story. That would come later on in my career."

Lexi's story is much more in line with the high school queen bees of teen projects past — a bit of Mean Girls, a bit of Heathers, a bit of wish fulfillment. Lexi wears heels and cocktail dresses to school and isn't really bothered with authority figures. Basically, Totah channeled "every single human being's dream in school," she says with a laugh. "I just wanted people to feel like they could live through me in the way that I lived through all of these characters growing up — the Regina George, the sort of Heathers vibe, the Cher from Clueless. I wanted to create that character, but make her more nuanced and layered, and not playing that on-the-nose archetype that we know all too well."

Saved By the Bell was the first scripted series to resume filming on the Universal lot this summer, but before that Totah spent her quarantine time the same way everyone else did: by bingeing television. "I had been watching so much Spanish television for five months," Totah says. "I was in such a deep hole watching Elite and Money Heist on Netflix. Like so many hours of me just staring at a screen — I needed to do something that wasn't just watching people get in fights and make love. Which was which was a great quarantine experience. But I was excited to actually get to do stuff."

She also started a new semester at film school, and is working on essays between interviews — while trying to carve out time to watch The Queen's Gambit and the rest of the shows on her Netflix queue. And she's excited for people to be able to watch Saved By the Bell and the newest, more diverse group of all-American teens attending Bayside High.

"I'm just really, really excited for people to feel like they can finally see themselves and that they're not alone in this world," she says. "And I love that as a cast, even our white, cis, straight cast members recognize what we're doing with this show and they're so excited about it too. So as a family, as a whole, it's a team effort. We know what we're bringing to the table and we're all super, super excited about it."

The first season of Saved By the Bell is now streaming on Peacock.