Returning to the halls of Bayside High, Josie Tota hopes that laughter will be the best medicine again.
Currently, the actor can be seen in the reboot of Peacock’s film Saved by the Bell, which features young newcomers and stars from the original. She plays Lexi Haddad-DeFabrizio, the popular cheerleader and daring Bayside High Bee Queen.
Tota plays Lexi as a direct descendant of Cher Horowitz in Clueless or Regina George in Mean Girls – the only difference being that she is trans. The 20-year-old said she hopes to “normalize the acceptance of the trans community” with her performance. For season two, which premiered last week, that meant focusing on storylines that didn’t revolve solely around Lexie’s gender identity.
Midway through the 10-episode season, the show touches on national discourse about whether trans athletes should be allowed to play on teams that match their gender identity. Lexie reacts in a way that only Lexie can: stage a school musical to cure transphobia, “how Hamilton ended racism,” and lip-syncing with Kim Petras.
“You will really see Lexi’s morality come to life,” said Tota, who also credits Glee, Champions and Moxie with Hollywood creations. “You will see how she is more in contact with her sensitive side. I think it’s fun to watch, given that she’s a psychopath who doesn’t usually delve into these areas of her life. “
Chatting with HuffPost, Tota shared her hopes for a second season, her transgender role models, and where she would like to take Lexi and her classmates next.
Season 2 deals with COVID-19 strongly, but it also avoids characters from wearing masks or taking visible social distancing measures. What was discussed on the set about this?
We touch on this for four minutes and then move on to the next – which I think is good because it doesn’t throw the pandemic in your face, but rather recognizes it as part of our world. Our show is so self-aware and I feel that if we weren’t aware of it, we would not be able to maintain the relationship that we have built so well with our audience. But it also spawns stories, in particular about Lexi’s travels and her relationship with her boyfriend, Jamie Spano (Belmont Cameli). This is a funny device.
In Episode 5, “From Damnation to Worse,” we see Lexi abandon the designation of a trans student in her school and learn an important lesson along the way. What did this storyline mean to you?
It’s a beautiful story that I think people can really learn from without hammering them in the head. I’m really lucky that week that I was able to sit in the writers’ room and help them come up with a story that really explores this, and I think we’ve done a great job. Everything that comes out of my mouth in this episode … was golden for me to say. And I just love it.
You are also the producer of the series. How do you think the show, and in particular Lexi’s character, benefited from your behind-the-scenes perspective?
I love that our show strives for diversity – true diversity both behind the scenes and in front of it. We have an incredible staff of people from different backgrounds, races and gender identities. I think this is cool and I am very proud of it. So I’m honored to be able to contribute to that authenticity and be the soundboard for my character as well as other characters. I’m also the youngest producer on the team, although Mario [Lopez] I probably would like you to believe that he is younger than me (laughs).
Do you have a favorite season 2 episode?
I’m really proud of Episode 7, Guerra de Aísha, in which Aisha (Alicia Pascual-Peña) confronts her Spanish teacher because the Spanish that is taught is an embellished version that prevents Spanish speakers from thriving. This is a very real problem and I think it is beautifully done and Alicia is one of the most talented people I have ever met. She is my best friend in the whole world, and the opportunity to see her radiance as the Dominican queen made me so happy.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle to true transgender equality in Hollywood?
I just think we need more transgender storytellers. We need more trans producers. We need more transgender leaders. This should start from top to bottom. For an image to be authentic, it must be three-dimensional. I’m so excited to see people like Janet Mock and Hunter Schafer taking control of their travels.
Looking back on Season 2, what are you hoping to explore with Lexi that you weren’t able to do this time around?
Cabo – I think she should go to Cabo. In fact, I think we should all go to Cabo. Or in Paris.
Season 2 of Saved By The Bell is now streaming on Peacock.