When Miguel Blanchett Almódovar — sorry, Michael — first appears in NBC’s newest sitcom Champions, everything he supposedly knew about his family implodes. See, Michael and his single mother (Mindy Kaling!) travel to New York City to settle him into a prestigious performing-arts school, only to discover that the prearranged housing arrangements are no longer possible due to a pesky, uh, Jared-from-Subway situation with the dean. Insert the dude-bro father and delightfully dim uncle he never knew he had, and all of a sudden this gay Indian teenager is navigating his new life in Brooklyn. Earlier this week, Vulture called up the spirited 16-year-old actor who plays Michael, J. J. Totah, to chat about working with Kaling, onscreen diversity, and goofing around with his TV family.
Has the Ohio tourism board offered you an all-expenses paid trip to Cleveland yet? You bash the city so much on the show, I’m afraid they may soon go into damage control mode.
Well, who knows. I think it’s safe to say that Middle America and Ohio isn’t really watching our show. We’d love them to. We love everyone! But I don’t know if a lot of people from Ohio would watch the show. I think they’re watching The Middle or something, which is a great show.
Hey, at least NBC is a free channel.
That’s true, they don’t have to pay extra. You know what they say about Ohioans and paying. [Laughs.] If they offered us a trip, I’d be glad to take it. I’d love to see my roots. Also, thanks for saying you love the show, we really appreciate it.
I just need to make sure you all get a second season.
Personally go to NBC yourself and scream at them.
Do you remember what your first meeting with Mindy was like?
I only had one audition, and that was a chemistry read between me and Mindy. I was completely enamored and starstruck by how wonderful she is. She’s a goddess and a legend in comedy. Insanely talented. I was definitely like, all right, I need to ease my way in like I’m meeting the queen. But as soon as I walked in, she was so nice and warm and welcoming, and we immediately started having so much fun together.
Did you two get to bond outside the constraints of the NBC studio lot?
You know, unbeknownst to me and everyone else at the time, Mindy was pregnant. And once I finally saw her as a pregnant individual I knew that. She had her baby, so I couldn’t really hop into the hospital room and chill with her while she was giving birth. I have to say, I did ask, though. [Laughs.] She was so involved, even though she wasn’t physically there some of the time. Again — she gave birth to a child, a human being, which is a lot of work! So, the bonding happened on set. We had those days where we had a ton of scenes together and we had so much fun. We really clicked immediately, and feel we’d been friends for ten years at that point.
What do you think Mindy understands about crafting such witty, diverse sitcoms that other TV creators don’t seem to grasp as well?
Mindy comes from a background that has been underrepresented on television and film across the board for a really long time, and she’s been a trailblazer as far as someone going out there and creating content with people from different backgrounds. I don’t know why she’s so amazing, but she is. She can relate to not seeing herself on television, and she doesn’t want anyone else wants to feel that way. That’s why she’s now doing Champions, and why we talk about people who are gay and Indian. Getting to play a role that hasn’t been played is such an honor. I’m happy to be a part of this new generation where people don’t care where you come from, what your orientation is, or what your identity is. They just accept you for you. There are funny gay people and there are funny Indian people, and that’s why we watch TV, to laugh. It only makes sense to include all types of funny people, whether or not they’re gay or straight or what have you. I’m blessed to be part of a show that’s paving a way that will hopefully pave the way for other shows.
How exactly was Michael described in the script when you auditioned, and how much of your own personality were you able to inject when you actually got the role?
Michael was described as a tour de force — as this kid who’s overzealous and unapologetically, unabashedly gay and Indian. He loves the world and he loves theater and wants to be Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and do all of these Broadway things. I’m a pretty fearless person. I’m afraid of, like, creepy men in white vans and sidewalks with no streetlights. But I’m not afraid to go in front of someone and twerk on them. Michael has that piece of me, especially with being fearless, and I made sure to make that shine through with the character. We do see him being insecure, which is important, because everyone’s insecure. But you always see Michael being 100 percent himself.
Does this naturally fearless personality of yours encourage you to go off-script every now and then?
I will say that Mindy and Charlie created a phenomenal show. They hired an insane group of writers to write such tight dialogue. It’s not like there isn’t breathing room for improvisation, but it’s just not necessary because the writers are already giving us so much. We do add in a lot of stuff, though, and try to pitch it, whether or not it makes it in. Ders [Anders Holm], Andy [Favreau], and I always like to try to get the last line in the scenes. We have little wars on set for who gets the last line. The writers are accepting, they take our opinions very seriously, and they want to work with us. But it’s hard to interrupt such awesome writing.
Your character has such an encyclopedic knowledge of not only the theater world, but pop culture as a whole. Do some of those references go over your head? Even I have to rewind at times.
Um, yes. Considering the fact I’m 16 years old and still a child. [Laughs.] I remember at the table read for one of the first episodes, there was a cheeky line about Moulin Rouge! And I instinctively called it Mulan Rogue. It was so awkward because the writers were so excited for that line and I wasn’t quite prepared and was like, Oh yeah, Mulan Rogue! A classic! In my head I was thinking about Mulan going rogue. I’m constantly educated like that. A lot of the time at table reads when I say something wrong, Ders will call me out and whisper to me and be like, You totally messed that up, kid.
That said, do you ever have opportunities to consult with the writers about dialogue choices, to give it a bona fide youthful touch?
Yes and no. Although I’m fairly young, a lot of the writers are pretty young, too. They’re in their late 20s and early 30s. It’s not like a bunch of 50-year-old men are writing jokes for teenagers. But, honestly, there’s so much current culture stuff I’m totally unfamiliar with — mostly because I stick myself in my room and binge-watch Black Mirror and don’t pay attention to pop culture a lot of the time.
Please tell me Anders and Andy are just as lovingly paternal offscreen as they are in this fictional Champions world.
They do not beat me in-between takes. Anymore, at least. Very exciting. It happened for the first couple of weeks, but Mindy talked to him and was like, Guys, you can’t really beat him, we can’t have him bruised on set while we’re filming. In all seriousness, they’re the kindest people. I consider them my brothers now. We have so much fun on our set messing around. Especially with Ders, he’s not coming from a conventional sitcom with Workaholics, he literally did whatever he wanted. He’s a cool dude who does what he wants, and that inspires me.
Vulture has spoken with former Disney and Nickelodeon stars before, and there’s been a generally divided consensus about what it was like to be a child actor on those networks. When you look back at your Disney experience, are your memories mostly positive ones?
Yeah, they are. Although I pretty much know at least everyone who was on a show, I don’t consider myself one of the Disney “stars.” I never really had my own show, although I’ve been close with the network for awhile. I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but I had a great time. It’s not like I was forced to do a show every single day at that young of an age, but I understand how that can be difficult. I still went to school and I had many weeks off during those days. So, good memories!
This interview has been edited and condensed.