Saved by the Bell's Josie Totah Says She's 'Humbled' to Play a Character Who Is Transgender

"There is so much more to go," says the actress of achieving inclusivity in Hollywood

josie totah
Photo: Brett Lemke

The night before the launch of her show, a reboot of Saved by the Bell, actress Josie Totah admits she was a little nervous.

"I was excited — and I was scared!" the 19-year-old tells PEOPLE. "But then I binge-watched the entire season and I'm so happy the way it turned out."

Indeed, the former child star, who has been performing since she was 10, has already garnered critical acclaim for her role as Lexi, the queen bee of Bayside High. And the character, like Totah herself, happens to be transgender.

"We wanted to tell a story that normalized being trans in high school," says Totah, who is also a producer on the show, which is streaming now on Peacock. "The entire character isn't based on that one part of her. We have normal lives. We do normal things. And there is so much more to us than our gender identities."

saved by the bell 2020
Josie Totah in Saved by the Bell. Casey Durkin/Peacock

Nonetheless, when it comes to her own journey, Totah says she often struggled in her younger years. "I grew up in a small town where I often felt like I was drowning because I couldn't be my authentic identity," says the actress, who grew up in Davis, California. "All I wanted to do was pretend to be someone I wasn't. Acting was an escape."

After memorable roles on shows like Jessie, Glee and Champions, Totah wrote a public essay about her transition in 2018.

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"For so long I removed a giant part of myself in the workplace," says Totah. Finally playing roles that align with her gender identity "is so much easier."

Playing Lexi on the modernized iteration of the hit '90s series has been particularly "freeing," says Totah, thanks to her character's unique qualities. "Lexi is so confident," says Totah. "There were moments when I was channeling my inner Catherine O'Hara from Schitt's Creek. Basically, she's everything I want to be in my normal life, but can't!"

Not to mention, Totah says she's felt immense "pride and happiness" when it comes to the reception in the trans community. "I never saw someone like me on a TV show before. For so many years we weren't reflected or seen in the proper light," she says. "And people have come out and said how much the show already means to them. It's humbling."

Still, the TV star, who is also a writer with several projects in the works, acknowledges there is work to be done as far as inclusivity in Hollywood.

"We've come such a long way," says Totah. "But there is so much more to go. I want to uplift people and write about things that really matter. It's about telling progressive stories — and shifting the way we view our culture."

The Saved by the Bell reboot is available to stream now on Peacock.

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