The smash hit Sort Of made history last year as the first TV series to center a non-binary character. Here, its co-creator and star, Bilal Baig, discusses how the show came into being, the influence of their South Asian culture, and what “queerness” means to them
Bilal Baig is having a capital-M Moment. The 28-year-old transfeminine writer and actor has scored big success with the debut of their CBC/HBO Max dramedy, Sort Of, where Baig is co-creator (with Fab Filippo, Queer as Folk), co-writer, showrunner, executive producer, and star.
The show centers on Sabi Mehboob, a genderqueer, Pakistani-Canadian millennial who works as a nanny by day and a bartender by night in Toronto. They deal with family pressures, dating while trans, unexpected opportunities and disasters, and the dysfunctional family for which they nanny. Sort Of is hilarious, moving, relatable, and very, very queer. And after a hugely popular debut, Season Two was released on December 1 on HBO Max.
I chat over the phone with Baig from Toronto, where they’ve lived and worked for the last six years. Baig speaks gently, taking their time to get to the heart of each topic, and over the course of an hour, our conversation flows easily.
Baig grew up in a suburb of Toronto, the child of Pakistani immigrants. In their younger days, they took their identity at face value. “I didn’t spend a lot of time reconciling my sexuality and gender identity with my faith and my skin color and cultural upbringing,” they say. “It just all ended up existing together, and you just move through the world and you figure out whatever you need to figure out.”
Figuring it out took time, however. “I grew up in a big family with big personalities and lots of tempers. I’m the third kid out of four,” Baig says. “I couldn’t figure out how to stand out in the family. I discovered that I actually enjoyed being quieter and observing people, paying attention.” Cultivating that power of observation paid off. “It was great to grow up in a family that was so dynamic, because it gave me a sense of how different human beings can be when they’re forced to live together. [It was] one of the things that helped me as I determined for myself [that] storytelling is the way I want to go in the world.”
Baig pursued storytelling in theater school, where big discussions about identity were just beginning to pop up. “I grew up in the late ’90s, early 2000s. I was just seeing a lot of mostly whiteness and cis-ness and straightness, and I assumed that that was the norm.” That assumption didn’t last long, however, as Baig learned to find their voice. “I would center myself in my own stories. For a while now I’ve been curious about building a world that feels reflective of the kinds of worlds and spaces that I’m a part of. A real multiplicity of identities and ages and genders and colors.”
"What if the lead of a series is somebody like myself?"
“I was in a lot of circumstances where I was working intimately with people who are quite different from me and I was thrilled by that. I’m kind of twistedly into that, in spite of the hurdles,” Baig explains about their time at school. It was their theater work in Toronto that led to an auspicious meeting with fellow actor Fab Filippo, who asked if Baig was interested in television. “I really wasn’t; I found it quite terrifying! But I think life, especially as an artist, will take you wherever it wants to.” The two began working out ideas. “We were both tickled by, ‘What if the lead of a series is somebody like myself?’ We hadn’t seen a brown and trans nonbinary millennial, working multiple jobs.” In developing the show, they found a lot of humor together. “We were able to make each other laugh, especially when we were just sharing life stories back and forth. Some of Sort Of is true from my life, some of it is true from his life, and we just kind of smashed these things together.”
Sort Of is full of queer humor. “This thing about queerness, when it’s not attached to specific identity, [is] to be a little abstract or weird, or be drawn to things that feel atypical, or just outside the boundaries,” they explain. I can hear the smile in Baig’s voice as they proudly recount how the show is resonating. “I’ve got a lot of amazing queer trans friends and they think that the first season of the show felt like a nice hug from a cool queer friend.”
"I try not to freak out a lot, or all the time."
But Sort Of received accolades from far more than Baig’s circle of friends. The show was nominated for Outstanding New TV Series for the GLAAD Media Awards and won a coveted Peabody Award. The show swept the 10th Canadian Screen Awards, nominated in 14 categories with 3 wins. This was despite Baig refusing to submit for consideration due to the binary nature of the Best Actor and Best Actress categories (something the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television has changed for the future). “In our first season, to achieve something like that—these are big, big recognitions. It’s major. I try not to freak out a lot, or all the time,” they say with a wry chuckle.
One of the most interesting relationships in the series, which draws from Baig’s own experience, is that of Sabi and their mom, Raffo, as Raffo struggles to accept her genderqueer child. What’s striking, though, is that the mother is presented neither as a hero nor as a villain. “That was pretty intentional,” Baig confirms. “This character is not an exact representation of my mom. But one thing that felt really powerful for us was to present this relationship between mother and queer trans child in a nonantagonistic way—but it’s [also] not cheery and perfect. It’s a big, big turn on for me to watch human beings in their fullness, which includes the good and bad and pure and evil and right and wrong.”
Baig makes sure the character of Sabi is seen the way they want to be seen. “It helped that there were other South Asian writers in the room. It became about letting the culture be a character in this show, not the thing that Sabi is running away from,” Baig explains. “One of the things I love is the way in which [Sabi] just exists. They’re wearing bangles all the time. There’s a total mixture of who they are, which includes the South Asian heritage as well as their queerness.”
“I had a real fun time collabing on [Sabi’s look] with the wardrobe department,” Baig says, laughing. “Sabi’s a thrifter. Asian culture is so embracing of colors and patterns and shininess and vibrancy. There are a couple of pieces in our wardrobe that are completely South Asian, but they’re chopped up and either turned into crops or they’re paired with a belt and chunky boots. There’s a fluidity in the wardrobe.”
"For some people, there’s an immediate discomfort in seeing my face at the center of something."
Considering the world we live in, I ask whether there has been any backlash to the show. “My friends tell me not to read the comments when trailers of the show are posted, and I know, for some people, there’s an immediate discomfort in seeing my face at the center of something,” Baig explains. “I know it’s meant a lot for queer and trans South Asian, specifically Muslim, people, but I don’t think our world is completely in the place it needs to be to celebrate a story like this. I think there’s still a lot of hateful rhetoric out there, but I don’t let it reach me. And I’m trying not to do that terrible thing where I Google and find out for myself.”
Season Two of Sort Of promises to be full of surprises. Guest stars will include Amanda Brugel (The Handmaid’s Tale), Raymond Cham Jr. (The Big Leap), and queer comedy legend Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall). What will audiences take away from the season? Baig turns the question over with their trademark thoughtfulness. “It’d be awesome if this season allowed audiences to reflect on love. I feel like it’s an extension of the idea of being seen. If you start to feel that way in this world, then what does it mean to accept and receive love?”
By Phoenix Leigh // Photos by Kate Dockeray // styling by Mars Alexander // hair by Maxine Power // makeup by Olive Grey
Caption for first image: INWARD CLOTHING TOP; ARMED JEWELRY NECKLACE AND RINGS; BRACELETS: BAIG’S OWN.