In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people the same 11 interesting questions.
At 20 years old, Josie Totah has already established herself as a television mainstay. She led her first network series in her teens (NBC’s gone-too-soon Champions) and has racked up a series of unforgettable guest roles (Big Mouth and The Other Two, to name a few), making her something of a sitcom staple.
But her splashiest role so far came in the form of Lexi Haddad-DeFabrizio, the Queen Bee of Peacock’s outrageous and clever update of Saved By The Bell. Even among a charming cast of new and former Bayside High students, Totah shines as Lexi, with ace timing and barbed bon mots earning rave reviews as the heir apparent to 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney. Through her work behind the scenes as a producer, Totah has helped craft Lexi into a character who is both an authentic portrayal of a trans teen’s experiences and a hilariously over-the-top joke machine.
Saved By The Bell’s second season—which hits Peacock on November 25—brings us even deeper into Lexi’s ridiculous world. As Totah teases, Lexi’s journey this time around is one of self-discovery, as she learns how to share her true self with her boyfriend, Jamie (Belmont Cameli), and how to be a real team player while Bayside prepares to compete in the Southern California School Spirit Competition. According to Totah, “You really get to see a softer side of her, and you get to learn more about the insides of this monster that is Lexi.”
Ahead of the second-season premiere, The A.V. Club spoke with Totah about her brush with Britney Spears, her family’s wicked sense of humor, and her TV dream roles (look out The White Lotus and Elite, Josie’s coming for you next) in the latest round of 11 Questions.
Josie Totah: Well, I remember growing up—I am from a very un-athletic family, so we couldn’t do a lot of trips that required hiking or snorkeling or anything like that because it would cause too many fights and we just lacked those skills. So, we would go to L.A. a lot and just stay in a hotel and walk around the streets, which sounds very lame. We’re from San Francisco and there are a lot cooler things to do, like Yosemite or any national park.
But we’d come to L.A., and I think it foreshadowed my more adult life, my life later on since I ended up moving here. So I just [have] the memories of being—and it sounds so basic—at the Beverly Wilshire with my dad, who would take me shopping to all the little boutiques with my little cousin, Natalia. And we would just dream about L.A. and what we thought it would be like to live here one day. And we ended up doing it!
The A.V. Club: So, even at a young age, Hollywood was calling your name?
JT: You know, it felt like something so far away. And so it didn’t seem like that’s what it was to me, but I don’t know. My family and my cousins and I were obsessed with pop culture. I remember my sister and my cousin Nick had a 20-year-long lie—that they just told us last year was not true—which was that they ran into Raven-Symoné on an elevator at the Beverly Wilshire. That story that they told us stuck with me, and it truly is ingrained in my soul.
Also, the not-lie: They witnessed Emma Roberts getting into a fight with her mom. It’s an incredible story—it was over a shoe, by the way; it was in Bloomingdale’s. So we’re very immersed in pop culture, my family, and I think we were loving all of it.
AVC: Lying about Raven-Symoné is pretty brilliant because she does seem like the exact person you might just randomly bump into—I’d believe that.
JT: Well, it gets weirder, because my cousin and my sister gave my little cousin and I a snow globe, and they said Raven-Symoné gave it to them—they ran into her in an elevator when she had a snow globe, and she gave it to them. And, literally, 14 years later, we found out that they were lying to us.
2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn?
JT: Well, I think we can all relate to time management. I’m constantly learning how to manage my self-care time better. I feel like I’ve done a really good job of managing my work life. But I think part of your career is taking care of yourself, especially in a position where your job is your person. And I’ve struggled with just taking care of myself and taking that space to recover and recoup and focus on my health. Which is just as important—if not more important—than the actual work itself.
AVC: Is part of that just learning it’s okay to say no to things?
JT: Oh yeah. I mean, I have crippling FOMO—it comes from my sister. And, yeah, I always want to say yes to everything. I think, the older that I get—and obviously I’m still so young—but the older I get, the more comfortable I am with saying no, and the notion of just being there for myself.
3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or get into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?
JT: A lot of Spanish telenovela-akin shows, like soap operas. Alycia [Pascual-Peña], who’s on Saved By The Bell with me—an iconic, amazing person, and she does a wonderful job leading our beautiful show—she is Dominican and has introduced me to Spanish-language programs, such as Elite. We were obsessed with that. That and La Casa De Papel, we watched and binged it all through quarantine. We also watched their entire press tours that they all went on, even though none of it was in English, so I definitely learned a little bit more Spanish.
AVC: Elite is an especially great pick, and now I’m an envisioning an Elite-Saved By The Bell crossover. Lexi could be part of an exchange program or something.
JT: Yeah, I would love that! I would love to go to Spain and just, like, ruin everything.
AVC: Lexi would do well at Las Encinas, I’d think.
JT: One hundred percent. I think there’s a spin-off there.
4. What restaurant do you not live near, but make a point to hit every time you’re in the right town?
JT: Well, a few restaurants come to mind. Balade in New York, it’s a Lebanese-owned restaurant—incredible food—sadly I do not live near there. It’s 2,000 miles away.
If I’m in L.A., again, it’s sort of Middle Eastern. It’s kind of a chain called Cava, and that is on the West Side, so it’s not really near me. But it is like a Chipotle for hummus lovers. I could eat there every single day.
AVC: So what’s your go-to there?
JT: My go-to is a grain bowl with rice, and then their super greens. And then I’ll get feta, a spicy feta, I’ll get some red-hot tomato hummus, and then I’ll get some olives—I’m getting hungry talking about it! And then some dressing, some Italian dressing. It’s so good. I recommend it. I wish I owned it! I’m going to buy it one day, hopefully—maybe they’ll sell it to me, maybe they won’t.
Honestly, it’s always been a dream of mine to own my own bar-slash-restaurant and have my brother, who is a phenomenal chef, run it. He just moved to L.A., so I’m one step closer to my dream becoming true.
JT: Oftentimes, I’m in the car and I’m just like, “Why are we able to go to different planets, and yet we literally do not have the easiest things?”
A technology thing that I think would be really helpful—what is something that I need and I want? Okay: A nice, public bathroom app, that if you need to use a restroom when you are in public, there’s a list of the nearest bathrooms to you that are clean and comfortable and that have been rated, with reviews and it gives you directions how to get there.
AVC: Brilliant. Yes, you want to know what to expect: “What am I in for?”
JT: Yes—what am I expecting? I need a bathroom that I could fully have a Code Blue crash, near-death experience in. And you can’t find that a lot in L.A.!
There are certain bathrooms—honestly, you can always trust a Marriott, you cannot go wrong with a Marriott. Because that is a place that I think you can do enough damage to that you won’t look insane, but also you’ll be clean and you’ll be safe and you’ll be protected. Particularly in a J.W. Marriott.
AVC: Is that the sort of place where you can just nod to the folks at the front desk and they’ll just let you go on with your business?
JT: I think, if you walk fast enough, you can get in anywhere.
JT: I mean, I’ve gotten to meet so many incredible people. Well, number one: Whoopi Goldberg. She is iconic and so incredible, and I got to meet her when I was on The View when I was 15, and that was amazing. That was truly a dream come true. She is just such a force of nature, obviously, and is one of the most incredible women and people that exist and that are here today. I think one of the first things I ever saw was Ghost, and I am obsessed. I love her. So that has to be number one.
I did also hand Britney Spears an award—I did not give it to her, I didn’t announce the award—but I was the person who physically handed it to her, and then proceeded to watch her fall backwards off stage. And I picked her up and helped her, and she looked me in the eyes and she just said, “Thanks.” And that lived up to everything.
AVC: Well, now that you brought up Britney, I’m going to have to ask: What is the Britney song for you?
JT: Oh my gosh, that is such a hard question. Okay, Blackout is, in my opinion, my favorite album—is that controversial?
AVC: No! That’s a great pick. That pick is the sign of a true fan.
JT: I love Blackout! I remember, again, going to L.A. with my dad and my little cousin Natalia and just being obsessed withBritney. That was the beginning of this very toxic media war that she had—you know, during the 2009-2010 era where she was being treated terribly by the media. So she was very prominent then, and obviously she is now, too. “Gimme More” is just so good.
And, also, I remember reenacting the intro of the “I Wanna Go” music video, where she’s like the press secretary being interviewed. That was also such a good one—from Femme Fatale. I mean, yes, she really is just so iconic. And I think, for any person—particularly if you’re queer, and you grew up in queer spaces—she was your god.
JT: Okay, so, my aunt had a lot of businesses growing up, and it’s very much in our Arab culture that, if your family runs a business, you sort of work there. And I got into a lot of fights with people who came into her flower shop—with some housewives that were very rude. So, I’d say either my aunt’s flower shop, but also my aunt’s gift shop—that was also a rendition of her journey through entrepreneurship. I almost caught someone stealing there, but then I almost got in trouble because, apparently, you can’t accuse anyone of stealing once they’re outside of the building? It’s like a whole thing. Honestly, my Aunt Nancy has taken me on a few journeys, and she has employed me many a time. So, those are pretty bad.
JT: I mean, the family from Schitt’s Creek is just amazing.
But I would also love to play Jennifer Coolidge’s daughter that she didn’t know that she had in The White Lotus. In season two, I want Jennifer Coolidge’s character to realize that she was, like, high on methamphetamines, and then fully gave birth to a child, and didn’t even remember and had retrograde amnesia. And I was that child. And I’m in Puerto Vallarta, and I’m living my life on a vacation. That’s my vibe. Or, I’m the dead mom—I’m the origin story of her dead mom. It’s flashbacks. That’s my hope.
9. What’s the first piece of art or earliest piece of media that inspired you to go into your field?
JT: Like I said, Ghost was the first thing I ever saw, which is insane because we were children—it’s literally about death. Another movie, also about death—that was another one of the first movies that I saw—was The Green Mile. So, I was exposed to two very dark films, but I’d say those were very much impactful. And Thelma & Louise. Those iconic ’80s and early ’90s films really shaped my idea of movies.
And, when I got older, Girl, Interrupted, with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. That is when I started to see people that I wanted to sort of emulate, or to become one day. I mean, Mrs. Doubtfire. Oh, and any Martin Lawrence movie—I feel like I have such a range of films that shaped me. But Martin Lawrence, Big Momma’s House, as problematic as that franchise is, it truly did contribute to my tastes. So, that, MADtv, SNL, so many different areas in the stratosphere contributed to why I’m so insane.
AVC: Wait, I’ve got to ask more about MADtv, because I also was a fan of that at a young age, even before SNL. Who were your favorites on there?
JT: I mean, again, so problematic. [Laughs.] But there was so many incredible things—Alex Borstein is just so phenomenal. Miss Swan and Bon Qui Qui. That show introduced me to so many incredible talents. And it’s so rare that we get to see people just being straight-up funny. Except for SNL, we don’t really get a lot of that. It’s usually a lot more narrative stuff. But, yeah, I loved that—Weekend Update, my dad and I would stay up every single week and watch Update with Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler.
JT: I’m really thinking about this one because I don’t want to lie to you. [Laughs.] The funniest person that I know personally would probably be my mom—my mother’s stories are violent. They are literally volatile in their humor, and I don’t think anyone can beat her. My mother is a woman who has snuck into an inaugural ball for a president—well, I’m just going to say it was in a dream so no one comes for us. In a dream she snuck into a president’s inaugural ball. So her stories beat out everybody else’s. And my brother, I think, is just ridiculously funny. We have videos of him that we watch to this day— probably 10 years later—and we still die laughing. My mom and my brother are just very funny people.
AVC: I can really sense how your entire family has shaped your sense of humor.
JT: Yeah, oh yeah. We’re a mess!
JT: Well, I’m vegetarian, but let’s say if it was for meat-eaters, I’d definitely be a chicken. A fried chicken. Also, maybe a vegetable or two in there, and then definitely something spicy, like a chipotle sauce. With a brioche bun.
AVC: Brioche feels like the right call, and you seem very confident in that. Why the brioche bun?
JT: I just feel like it really speaks to the intelligence of a person who enjoys gluten, because it’s not the typical pick.
Saved By The Bell’s second season begins streaming on November 25, exclusively on Peacock.