Pasadena, Calif. • To say that J.J. Totah has fond memories of his trip to the Sundance Film Festival in 2016 would be an understatement.
“That was the best experience of my entire life,” he said. “I’m not even kidding. That changed me.”
Not that his “entire life” is particularly long at this point. Totah is 16; he was 14 when he took Sundance by storm, playing flamboyant gay teenager Justin in “Other People” — a role for which Variety cited him for delivering one of the “19 biggest breakthrough performances” of the festival, and InStyle called him the “most inspirational person at Sundance.”
And that movie is directly responsible for Totah being cast in the upcoming NBC sitcom “Champions.” Executive producer Howard Klein saw “Other People” and “he was, like, ’We gotta check out this kid,’” said executive producer Charlie Grandy. “I think [Totah] read the next day, and it was just — ‘Oh, yes.’ As soon as you walked in the room.”
“Other People” is an autobiographical film by writer/director Chris Kelly (supervising writer on “Saturday Night Live”) about a gay comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) who returns home to care for his dying mother (Molly Shannon) and has to deal with his disapproving father (Bradley Whitford).
Totah appears in only two scenes: In one, he hits on the much-older Plemons; in the other, he performs an outrageous drag act. But, according to “New York” magazine, he makes the most of them.
The youngster helped develop the character with Kelly. “And that was the best gift anyone could give to you,” Totah said. “Like, the head of ‘SNL’ writing me that scene and being able to just do it like a sketch was just insane.”
He drew big reactions from the Sundance audience, both for his scenes and for the question-and-answer session after the screening.
“I got to experience so much good feedback from something that I’ve done,” Totah said. “It was so visceral and so in the moment — it was so cool.”
There are similarities between Justin and Michael, the character Totah plays in “Champions.” Michael is also a gay teenager who’s somewhat flamboyant.
In the premiere, ne’er-do-well Vince (Anders Holm) is about to sell off the gym when his high-school girlfriend, Priya (Mindy Kaling), shows up with their 15-year-old son, Michael (Totah) — who was unaware of Vince’s existence. Michael, an aspiring star, has been accepted to a performing-arts school in the city where his father lives, and he ends up moving in with Vince and his sweet-but-dumb uncle, Matthew (Andy Favreau).
Michael quickly comes out to Vince and Matthew, but the fact that he’s gay is not exactly a well-kept secret. Vince isn’t exactly the most enlightened of men, but — much to his credit — he has no problem with his son’s sexuality.
The idea that drives the show, according to Grandy, is exploring if “these two very different, set-in-their-ways, strong personalities, father-and-son couple, can they get along and live together?”
It adds a new layer of awkwardness to the father-son relationship, as in an episode with a “straight white man trying to give the sex talk to his openly gay, half-Indian son,” Grandy said.
Totah is not a newcomer. He got his first big break with a recurring role in the Disney Channel sitcom “Jessie.” He was a regular in the short-lived ABC sitcom “Back in the Game” (with James Caan) in 2013-14. He did guest shots on shows like “New Girl” and “2 Broke Girls” — and he appeared in four episodes of “Glee” as the youngest-ever member of the glee club. He had a small part in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
Totah said he fell in love with the character as soon as he read the pilot script.
“I’m super excited,” he said. “I feel very proud and very privileged to be a part of this show.
“I do recognize that it’s a privilege to play a role that is not on TV a lot,” Totah said — not just an LGBT character but one who is “a child.”
The teenager is aware there may be some controversy over a gay teenager in a network sitcom. While the reaction at Sundance to “Other People” was overwhelmingly positive, some audience members got up and walked out because of the gay content.
But Totah, who never seems to be at a loss for words, seemed at least slightly nonplussed when he was asked if his parents were OK with his character in “Champions.”
“No, everyone’s really excited. They love the script. They love me — my family loves me,” he said with a laugh. “Well, most of them do. There might be some cousins who are a little iffy,” he joked.