Gen Z Gets Its Own Wharton Heroine

Josie Totah breaks out in an updated Buccaneers.

Photo: Cheril Sanchez
Photo: Cheril Sanchez

It hasn’t even been five minutes into meeting Josie Totah over Zoom and she’s already run into a predicament. A bird has just swooped by, pooped on the 22-year-old actress’s Hermès ensemble, and shocked her into reality. But this incident doesn’t faze her: “That was the most me morning ever,” she says, laughing. A swift Google search reveals the incident symbolizes good tidings, incoming blessings, and luck. This all tracks — Totah, raised in a Lebanese Palestinian household in California, is already over a decade into a promising acting career, having started on a couple of Disney Channel shows before moving into more adult fare, like the Sundance favorite Other People alongside Molly Shannon, voicing a transgender character on the fourth season of Big Mouth, and playing a popular cheerleader on the recent Saved by the Bell reboot. For her latest adventure, she starred as Mabel on Apple TV+’s The Buccaneers, which just aired its first-season finale.

A week after graduating from Chapman University last year, Totah moved to Scotland to start filming The Buccaneers, a Bridgerton-esque, somewhat anachronistic Edith Wharton drama. “It was like college part two, but with very esteemed actors who actually prepared and were very hardworking,” she says. Sleepovers, nights cooking together, and endless group chats ensued, fueling palpable cast chemistry. Totah had a significant role in crafting her character, Mabel, a young socialite from new money who falls in love with a British noblewoman, in collaboration with the show’s creator, Katherine Jakeways. She also co-wrote a touching coming-out scene in the season finale based on a spec script she had jotted down in her journal. When it comes down to the central love triangle, Totah is team queers. “It’s kind of selfish, but I’m just focused on Mabel and Honoria. I’m Team Manoria. Or Habel. We haven’t decided yet.”

Like Mabel, Totah is witty and self-assured, relaxed but poised. The ambitious actress speaks carefully but with Gen-Z candor, casually revealing which celebrities she impersonates to get into popular restaurants while also effortlessly pointing to systemic change needed in an industry still reckoning with issues of equity and representation. She knows herself well, and while playing a queer role, she knows her audience too: “I am that audience. I know what it’s like to feel validated in that way.”

Where did you grow up, and where is home now?

I was born in Sacramento and raised in Davis, California, which we call “cow town.” It’s an agricultural town and very similar to Friday Night Lights. My family did not quite fit in with the conventional norms of that type of neighborhood, so we’d constantly escape to San Francisco on the weekends. But I started acting when I was 10 years old, so we then began driving from Davis to L.A. Eventually, my parents sold their place in Davis and moved to San Francisco, realizing they fit a lot better there. So now it’s kind of like San Francisco for the holidays, L.A. for life. I’ve always been between multiple places.

Who was the first actor who made you realize you could act too? 

My sister. She did a Broadway tour that came to Sacramento when I was 5 years old, and she was kind of my idol. I think she was the first real actor in my life. But I also grew up with such an eclectic exposure to film. Some of the first movies I saw were The Green Mile, Big Momma’s House, White Chicks, Thelma & Louise, Ghost, Dead Poets Society, ranging between dark drama and then lighthearted, crazy comedies. That’s why I point to people like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and Whoopi Goldberg. I didn’t realize it then, but now, looking back, I looked up to them so much. Especially Robin, because he was able to transcend genre in a way that I really aspire to and excel in the darkest of pieces but also in the very outlandish and hilarious. He could just do it all.

What’s the biggest misconception about acting that you’d like to clear up? 

Maybe that actors are more confident than they are. Every actor I know is incredibly insecure, including myself. A giant part of the experience, at least for me, is overcoming the insecurity just enough to not be afraid to look stupid and get the shot, only to go home and be insecure — Did I do that right? Did I say that right? — then overcome it in the morning. It’s this cyclical process of convincing yourself you’re good enough, but it’s a very weird dichotomy. You have to be very self-assured that you can do it, but at the same time, you’re so afraid. I don’t know, maybe that’s just me.

What’s something people would be surprised to know about you? 

At public events, I get quite nervous. I don’t wear my glasses or my contacts, so I’m quite blind at events. I’ll go with friends who have amazing eyesight. My best friend does all the talking and is able to tell me who’s approaching. I do that because I get anxious, and if I saw everything, I would be even more scared. I’m a bit shyer than people think I am. That’s not to say that I’m, like, a quirky quiet girl. I’m very loud, but I definitely go inward sometimes. That shocks people.

Photo: Cheril Sanchez

Do you have a hidden talent?

Calling as Kris Jenner to make reservations. I’ve done that since I was, like, 16. It works every time. Sometimes it’s a niche person; Edie Falco or someone’s manager. But usually Kris. I’ll say I’m her niece and no one questions it. I’m good at getting us into places when it involves food and if we’re hungry.

But Edie Falco … does everyone immediately know who that is?

She’s iconic. But the more niche, the better. Anyone’s important if you frame them to be, you know what I mean? I’ve always done this. When I was 10 years old, I’d order coffee and I would give them the name Oprah. They’d call out “Oprah,” everyone would look, and it would just be my 10-year-old self. I told Oprah that, and she was very amused and very proud and told me to continue doing that. It was the best moment of my life.

Wait, when did you meet Oprah?

I was performing with the Broadway cast of Finding Neverland at a now-disgraced Hollywood producer’s famous Oscar party. One of the cast members of Finding Neverland had fallen ill. They called my agency at the time, asking if they had a kid who could sing, and my agent put me up for it. I went up to Oprah and I told her the coffee story. Oprah looked me in the eye and — I’m not even kidding — she said, “You have it, darling. You have it. Do you know what it is?” I was like, “Um, I don’t know, you have it?” She said, “I have it, and you have it too. You … have … it.” To this day, I look back on that. That was the entrance to the kingdom of life. Of course, she’ll never remember that moment.

Now that Oprah has blessed you, there’s no going back, but if you weren’t an actor, what do you think you’d be doing?

I’d be a lawyer. I was the captain of mock trial in high school, which everyone in my life makes fun of me for. I did indeed win best prosecutor for the Southern California congregation of mock-trial teams. My dad’s a lawyer; I love all of that. I’d probably be quite bored, but the Legally Blonde and Olivia Pope of it all! It’s very intriguing to me. It’s also just a performance. They’re all acting.

The SAG-AFTRA strike ended the day The Buccaneers premiered. Were you relieved to finally be able to talk about it? 

It was one of those weird things where it was like, Thank you so much to our amazing board that got us here, and now quickly, look at my show! I was hesitant to post immediately because I know how hard everyone fought. I have friends who had to get “real” jobs and move out of their homes and not even prioritize acting anymore. And that is heartbreaking. I have immense privilege that I was able to come out of that experience okay. In conjunction with that, I was very happy that I got to promote the show that I’d worked so hard on and for so long.

Did you do much research on the 1870s for the role? 

I was constantly Googling and looking up certain things. I think the tightrope was realizing the context of that era and how you were persecuted for diverging or being othered and not conforming, but also the freedom. There was so much unknown, and there were no labels. That was also the hard thing for me, how do we tell a story in this time that centers joy in a modernized way, while still paying respect to a time period where you’re not saying, “I like girls,” and everyone’s cheering, you know? We still want to acknowledge that trauma, while not making this a story of trauma. That was the line to walk.

The Buccaneers is certainly different from Saved by the Bell. But it sort of feels like both shows are developing cult followings. How did you take the news that there wouldn’t be future seasons of Saved by the Bell

I never really felt like Saved by the Bell ended, at least in my life. As a cast, we were all so close. But there were so many awesome things that came from it, that by the time it ended, it was only a time for celebration for we all had accomplished. I was at an event a few months ago and someone told me we were famous on TikTok. We didn’t even know people watched the show! Now, I’ve seen the TikToks, and, wow, people really liked it. In 80 years, we’ll be like Suits and be the most-watched show in the world.

You mentioned something really insightful at Vulture Fest about how conversations about queer representation are important but often kind of toothless, that systemic change is worth so much more than never-ending conversations. How do you envision that within Hollywood? 

Power is the word that comes to mind. People making decisions, the studio executives, people at the top. Who’s hiring producers, who’s picking up which show, and who’s financing? It’s so important that we’re seeing a more diversified onscreen presence, but we still have so much further to go; please, we’re not there yet. But we need it to start from the top. Not to say that allies are not very important; we need allies. We need people to be onboard and uplift other voices, but we also need actual diversity at the table and making decisions.

In thinking about queer visibility, you came out as trans in a pretty public way, since you’ve been acting for so long. What was that experience like for you? 

I’ve really relied on my community, who helped me through it. It could have gone a completely different direction. I had never really seen anyone similar to my experience have to go through that. I had no idea if I would even act again, let alone get to do roles that I had always dreamed of doing. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited to be on The Buccaneers. I want to tell stories of all kinds and of all identities.

What are you watching lately? 

I just finished Barry, which is probably my favorite show of all time. It would be a dream to be on a show like that. I just saw May December and Saltburn, and I’ve been watching Catastrophe. I also watched Bad Sisters; I’m very into Sharon Horgan as an auteur. I’m in an input mode; I’m kind of consuming everything right now.

You’re in the upcoming Faces of Death remake. Anything you can tease?

Charli XCX is a phenomenal actor. I knew she would be, but she’s a star. That’s my tease.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated “competent” and has been changed to accurately reflect the recorded interview quote as “confident.”

Gen Z Gets Its Own Wharton Heroine