After Playing An 1800s Lesbian, Josie Totah Is A Period-Piece Convert
The Buccaneers star on trauma-free queer experiences and writing a coming-out scene in the weirdest part of Scotland.
The following contains spoilers for The Buccaneers.
In the Apple TV+ series The Buccaneers, Josie Totah plays a closeted, monied American living in 1800s England, but right now, she’s feeling like the Anna Delvey of The Plaza Hotel. The 22-year-old is in New York for work, and she has no interest in leaving her room. “It's truly embarrassing that the room-service people know me by name now,” Totah says.
Totah and her Buccaneers character Mabel share some striking similarities: They keep the party going; they’re young and rowdy; and, most crucially, they’re both queer girls. Totah has one of the more compelling arcs in the retelling of Edith Wharton’s final, unfinished novel, which follows a group of tight-knit American girls searching for husbands among stuffy blue bloods across the pond; as Mabel, she falls in love and comes out of the closet, finding a way to balance her agony and joy in an era unequipped to understand her queerness.
Ahead, Totah talks about playing a queer character in the 1800s, helping write a coming-out scene, and finding inspiration in the show GIRLS.
It’s funny how Mabel and Honoria have the best relationship in the show by comparison to the rest of the girls on The Buccaneers. The other girls are going through it.
They are! Which is strange considering they're in a lesbian relationship in the 1800s. Somehow they communicate and have a much healthier relationship than all these heterosexuals.
I feel for them. But it must've been exciting to play a queer role where she's not suffering all the time.
Totally. I think that [creator Katherine Jakeways’s] main objective was to center joy around Mabel's experience and their relationship because we've seen so much in media, especially in historical pieces, where the story is rooted in such pain and trauma. We walked that thin line between wanting to make it a joyous experience, but also acknowledge the difficulties.
Are you a fan of period pieces? Is this something you've always wanted to do?
Weirdly, no. I haven't watched The Crown or Bridgerton or The Gilded Age. I don't like war in real life, but I loved 1917 and All Quiet on the Western Front, but there's not really a role for me in them. I don't think women were allowed to fight back then, but maybe I could have been a nurse. I took a war and film class in college and have always found those movies very interesting. That's the closest historical thing that I've ever wanted, was to be in the trenches.
I feel like characters in a lot of period dramas are more caricatures than actual people. I think that the way that The Buccaneers modernizes the characters makes it for me, a viewer, a lot more digestible and relatable. I feel like they're not so far away.
I don't even want to say they’re dealing with “contemporary” issues. They're timeless issues of what women have always gone through. It's the struggles of not connecting with your spouse, being assaulted, or even gaslit.
I'm glad you said that their issues are timeless because queer people existed back then. Sexual assault existed back then. Misogyny obviously existed back then, all of these things have been around since the dawn of time.
So you're not a period-piece girl, but was it at least fun to dress up? Did you get into it while you were in costume?
Definitely, and I think I've been turned now. I'm like, bring it on. I found it very fun. I found it cool to immerse myself in a different world and try to change that lens in a way that I haven't really had to do in the past.
Do you see any of yourself in Mabel?
I think so. I think she's quite a rambunctious person. She kind of has this oppositional defiance where she refuses to conform in a way that I feel like I can relate to, and she's also just a fun time. She keeps the party going.
I love to hear more about the scene you helped write.
I got to co-write the coming-out scene in Episode 8 between Mabel and her sister Lizzie. The first week of pre-production, I asked them, “Is Mabel going to come out or is she just going to live in hiding?” And they were like, “What do you think?” I thought it should be a conversation that maybe didn't end in violence or trauma. From then on, it was an open conversation of what that scene could look like, what are we trying to achieve in it, and how to pay respect to the fact that we don't have the vernacular for queerness.
Ultimately, I had accidentally had coffee at 8 p.m. during a night shoot when I was getting dinner with Mia Threapleton in the weirdest part of Scotland. I broke out my computer and started writing a scene. And I sent it to Aubri [Ibrag] and Kristine [Frøseth] and they were like, “Wait, this is actually a vibe. You should send this to Katherine.” I was scared to do it because I have the utmost respect for Katherine and our writers. I ended up, in a roundabout way, calling Katherine later that night and saying, “So I was journaling this morning and I had a few ideas for the scene…” And Katherine was like, “Do you have this written down? Can you just send it to me?” The majority of those ideas got integrated, which was so cool and a testament to how loving Katherine is. She's not a queer woman and wanted it to be as authentic as possible. I was really grateful for that.
That's the benefit of casting queer people in queer roles: They can give feedback to make things more realistic and from the heart.
We have a queer writer and I am grateful for that. But you're right, I think it's important. And I think that not just with my storyline, but with even the other storylines, they were just very open, which was lovely.
I know that this show was pitched as GIRLS in the 1800s, and that you are a fan of the show. Who is your favorite girl?
I think that that show is very interesting because all of them, at one point, if not multiple points, piss you off in the most brilliant way. I love Zosia Mamet, and now I'm so obsessed with Allison Williams post-GIRLS that I think it's retroactively made me [Marnie]. I really cannot give an answer, but Hannah pisses me off through and through.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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