Toronto Star

Groundbrea­king debut at TIFF

TV show brings gender-fluid lead to CBC, HBO Max.


What do you get when a straight, cisgender male actor and director, and a queer, trans-feminine actor and playwright create a television show together? Something that hopefully anyone can relate to.

For Fab Filippo and Bilal Baig, who cocreated “Sort Of” — the eight-episode CBC-HBO Max dramedy that debuts at the Toronto Internatio­nal Film Festival on Wednesday — it all hinges on the word “transition.”

Baig, who uses the pronouns they and them, stars in “Sort Of” as Sabi, a gender-fluid millennial who’s navigating not only their gender and sexuality but how to fit in with people — people who are experienci­ng changes of their own. Filippo is a co-writer, director and showrunner alongside Baig.

The pair met while performing in a play in Toronto in 2018 and hit on the idea of a TV series about a Bilal-like character, but Baig had a question: “Why should I, a brown non-binary millennial who feels like they might be transition­ing, make a story about me with you?”

As Filippo tells it in the series press kit, he thought about the uncertaint­y he was experienci­ng as his 15-year marriage ended and came back with the answer: “Everyone is in transition.”

“When Fab talked about his own kind of personal transition it really felt like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ ” Baig said in a Zoom interview. “Well, here we are, two very different people with such different kinds of lived experience­s, uniting on something that feels really resonant for both of us. And it’s so cool. And I kind of want to let more people in on it, you know?”

Filippo, on the same Zoom call, had an even more poetic way of explaining it. “I’d worked with this painter years ago, quite an accomplish­ed painter, and I said, ‘Can I ask you a super dumb question? … What’s your favourite colour?’ And he said, ‘My favourite colour is any colour becoming another colour.’

And that’s what all of our journeys are about.”

In “Sort Of,” Sabi is living in Toronto, working part-time at an LGBTQ bar and as a nanny for an upper-middle-class family: a straight, white therapist dad, a bisexual, Asian urban planner mom and their two children.

Sabi has a romantic relationsh­ip with a cisgender man; lives with their older sister but isn’t quite out to their Pakistani mother; has a gender-fluid best friend who wants them to move to Berlin together; and takes on more responsibi­lity as a nanny than they anticipate­d when the kids’ mom (Grace Lynn Kung, “Mary Kills People,” “Frankie Drake Mysteries”) is in a serious bike accident.

CBC says Sabi is the first nonbinary lead character on Canadian TV, and that Baig is the first queer South Asian, Muslim actor to star in a Canadian primetime TV series.

Asked if they feel pressure because of that, Baig responded, “I would be kind of lying to myself if I pretended that people aren’t going to be watching how I talk about things, what I talk about, how I see the world, (but) that’s not a pressure that’s paralyzing in any way …

“I would not be able to get out of bed if I was like, ‘Who is going to say what or how are people going to receive me?’ But there is joy for me in practising really being myself and sharing myself with people who might not have met me otherwise.”

Before “Sort Of,” Baig’s primary way of sharing was through theatre. Their best known play, “Acha Bacha,” about a Pakistani-Canadian Muslim trying to balance religious and queer identities, premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille in 2018.

Filippo is probably best known for TV and film work, including “Queer as Folk,” “Billable Hours,” “Save Me” (the Canadian Screen Award-winning web series he created), “Lives of the Saints” opposite Sophia Loren and the well-regarded indie film “Waydowntow­n.”

Despite the difference­s in Baig’s and Filippo’s experience, Filippo said their “creative connection is huge. And to be let into Bilal’s world and to get even a tiny glimpse of how they see the world is just life-changing for me.”

That juxtaposit­ion was also attractive for Jennifer Kawaja of Sienna Films (“Cardinal,” “Trickster”), which produced “Sort Of” with Sphere Media.

“I really like the way (Filippo and Baig) organicall­y met and then organicall­y were like ‘Oh, we really enjoy working together,’ ” she said on the Zoom call. “I love being party to that kind of creative process where none of us know what it might be, but it comes from the truth of the people involved.”

Part of that truth involved making sure that Baig wasn’t the only brown, queer person in the writers room; that diversity extended to the cast and crew as well, with transgende­r and nonbinary actors playing trans and non-binary roles, including Cassandra James (“General Hospital”) and Becca Blackwell (“Shameless”).

The cast includes Shaw Festival actor Gray Powell, Amanda Cordner (“The Expanse”), Ellora Patnaik (“Kim’s Convenienc­e”) and Supinder Wraich (“The 410”).

Baig found challenges being the lead in their first TV show — especially shooting scenes out of chronologi­cal order: “it took some time to settle into the jumping around” — but loved the team spirit of the endeavour, something it had in common with making theatre.

“We ended up putting something out there that just feels warm and beautiful and funny at times,” Filippo said.

Both hope those watching the series grasp the idea of transcendi­ng labels.

“So often when we’re thinking about trans or non-binary people and their life, we go right to their relationsh­ip to their own body, their relationsh­ip to how they use bathrooms in public spaces,” Baig said. “And those things are real, absolutely. But they’re just a piece of the entire lived experience. I think what’s going to be eye-opening is watching Sabi walk down the street and take care of kids and then try to listen to their mom, even though she sometimes pisses them off.

“We just haven’t really been given that space to exist in that way.”

“Sort Of” screens at 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Ontario Place West Island Open Air Cinema and Thursday at 7 p.m. in the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. It premieres on CBC Gem Oct. 5 and on

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 ?? CBC ?? Bilal Baig, left, as Sabi, Gray Powell as Paul, Kaya Kanashiro as Violet and Aden Bedard as Henry in the new series "Sort Of."
CBC Bilal Baig, left, as Sabi, Gray Powell as Paul, Kaya Kanashiro as Violet and Aden Bedard as Henry in the new series "Sort Of."
 ??  ?? Fab Filippo is co-writer, director and showrunner of the CBC-HBO Max dramedy series.
Fab Filippo is co-writer, director and showrunner of the CBC-HBO Max dramedy series.

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