Posted by Guest on June 13, 2018 in Blog

By Allison Ulven

June is pride month and Arab American teenage actor JJ Totah is a powerful force for the LGBTQ community, reminding everyone to be proud of who they are.

Totah was born in Sacramento, California to a family with Palestinian, Lebanese, and Italian ancestry. As a child, he was aware of the stereotypes and protocols of how young boys were supposed to act. Girls played dress up with dolls and Barbies, and boys played sports. JJ struggled with this view of genders because he knew he was different, and he spent many school days and recesses by himself, hiding from other students. But at a Mother’s Day Tea in his kindergarten class, he showed his true colors by wearing a pink sequin top and ballet flats. “I felt killer, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. That was my bravest moment.”

Totah, in many ways, did not lead the life of a normal kid. While most children had dreams of being teachers or engineers, JJ had always wanted “to be Wendy Williams” and host a talk show. He credited his maturity over his peers to the movies he was exposed to at a young age like Green Mile and Thelma & Louise (written by Arab American Callie Khouri). Totah was also an “avid watcher” of the Kardashians, playing the reality show on the morning car rides to school.

At only 10 years old, JJ did a stand-up comedy routine at the Hollywood Improv comedy club. His material as a young kid was mostly about his family. One joke he shared was on the film Contagion, where a girl returns from a trip with a deadly disease and eventually causes a “global pandemic.” “In an Arab family,” Totah joked, “everyone’s kissing and hugging, so that’s basically that. Like if one person had influenza, it would have spread like a wildfire in Montecito.”

His interest in theatre began after his sister performed in a Broadway production of Whistle Down the Wind. When she was accepted into UCLA, Totah travelled with his family to Los Angeles for her orientation. There, he took his first acting class, jump starting his career.

JJ’s first major job was in 2012 when he played the “Lil’ Dictator” for AwesomenessTV. From there, he appeared on the Disney Channel Original Series, Jessie, was a guest star on New Girl, Liv and Maddie, and 2 Broke Girls, had a main role in the ABC comedy Back in the Game, and was cast in four episodes of Glee. Variety magazine praised him for his role in the 2016 film Other People, making him one of the Sundance Breakout Stars of the Year. In 2017, he appeared in Marvel Studios film Spider Man: Homecoming and the Disney film Magic Camp with Adam Devine.

Even with his rigorous shooting schedule, JJ was still in high school. At one point, he was in the process of taking finals and applying to colleges after spending the entire day filming. “It was horrible. But I had great teachers who love and support me, and I got all A’s,” he said.

Playing the role of Michael in NBC’s show Champions, JJ has caught the world’s attention for being a “comedic powerhouse” and breaking stereotypes of a gay teenager. In the show, Michael ventures to New York to attend a performing arts school. His mother, played by Mindy Kaling, leaves him at the doorstep of his father and uncle, two womanizers who run a large fitness center and did not know of Michael’s existence. Many shows that star openly gay characters are usually centered around the struggles of coming out, but in Champions, JJ’s character is already out, loved and accepted. In fact, Michael being gay is only addressed for less than a minute in the pilot episode, with neither his father or his uncle making anything of it.

Before they started shooting, Totah expressed to the writers of the show that he did not want Michael to be the “stereotypical gay kid.” The role has been done well by plenty of actors, he argued, but there are different personalities and stories that need to be portrayed. The writers did just that. It is predictable that the character would be obsessively neat and organized. Michael, however, is actually messy, contradicting his father who is always cleaning the house and making sure they eat dinner together. The show also highlights that he is multiracial, bringing in many other actors of different backgrounds and ethnicities.

JJ has made a point to speak out about the stereotypes and biases of being gay, particularly for young boys. In an essay he wrote for Popsugar, he recalled his experiences of being bullied in school, and urges kids to accept who they are despite the opinions of others. “You don’t have to be L, G, B, or T. You can be the whole frickin’ alphabet. Because as long as you are yourself, being who you are, doing who you are, nothing else in the world matters.”  

Allison Ulven is a 2018 summer intern at the Arab American Institute.