Shonda, if you're reading this, J.J. Totah would like a role on Grey's Anatomy. He's currently binge-watching his way through past seasons, and, like a true digital native, he's completely fearless of spoilers: "It's not about what happens, it's about how you get there," he says. "When I watch TV shows, I watch how is the camera moving, how are they acting, how do I want to incorporate this into my work someday?"
When he's not holed up watching Grey's, he's appearing on TV shows like Glee—Totah played memorable bar-mitzvah boy, Myron Muskovitz—and in the upcoming Chris Kelly film, Other People. It premiered at Sundance, getting raves from critics who loved Kelly's semi-autobiographical film about a 29-year-old named David (Jesse Plemons) who returns home when his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), gets cancer.
Sad, yes, but amid the sickness comes an unexpected bright spot—one that had Vulture's Kyle Buchanan writing, "You Need to Meet the 14-Year-Old Who Won Sundance." That's Totah, just 14 years old and already 'winning' Sundance with his small but memorable performance as Justin, the younger brother of David's friend, Gabe (John Early). He's in two scenes: one where he carelessly flirts with way-older David and another where he appears in drag—performing a full dance sequence for his half-amused, half-confused family. David watches, too, and it's clear that Justin is the happy, confident gay kid he never got to be. Brave, even.
Watch the trailer for "Other People."
"To me, it's not brave," says Totah. "It was almost a turning moment in the film—it gave perspective to Steven, of who he could be if he opened up and started being himself." That turning moment is meant to be open to interpretation. "As far as labels go and stuff, what [Kelly and I] really wanted for Justin is for him not to have a label," Totah explains. "A lot of people [will] say, 'Oh, it's a gay boy.' But it's just a boy who's expressing himself. You don't have to necessarily get that label of drag, or gay, or transgender, even if you're just playing around, or just playing dress up. People should have the freedom to express themselves, however they want to."
Kelly and Totah agreed that Justin would best like to express himself to a "non-copyrighted Britney Spears-y type song," careful to avoid the real thing for fear of what the cost might be to license it. "I went in a little room, met with a choreographer for, like, 45 minutes, and we broke out a dance," Totah says. "Then on the day of shooting, we went there and mixed it up. It was a lot of fun."
Let's say Totah's Justin could dance to the copyright-infringing Britney song of his dreams, which song would it be? "There's always the classic, 'Hit Me Baby One More Time.' Then there's also 'Toxic,'" he answers, understandably torn between the two.
More difficult than having to choose between two iconic Britney songs? Explaining why the internet has turned his face into a meme. "I was actually just at dinner the other day, I had taken a funny picture of myself, and my mom was like, 'Oh my God, that should be a may-may.' We were like, 'What are you talking about? Mom, it's a meme.' And someone made a meme of me, I have a weird face, and it says, 'When you realize it wasn't a fart.'"
Styled by Jessie Cohan. Grooming: Lauren Kaye Cohen. Creative Direction: Christian Storm