Bilal Baig co-created a hit in Sort Of (Photography by Ebti Nabag)

Bilal Baig co-created a hit in Sort Of (Photography by Ebti Nabag)

The Uncertain Stardom of Bilal Baig

‘Sort Of’ is one of the most original, exciting shows on TV today, and it might be star and co-creator Bilal Baig’s launchpad to fame. They’re not sure how to feel about that.

The first time Bilal Baig discussed gender with their parents was last fall, a week before the premiere of Sort Of, the CBC series inspired in part by Baig’s life. Yes, they know they should have done it earlier. Or at least before network promos began beaming Baig’s face into homes across the country. But for most of their adult life, the 27-year-old actor and writer—who uses they/them pronouns, and identifies as queer and transfemme—hasn’t had much to do with their parents. Not only did they not know Baig was transgender, they didn’t even know their child had become a celebrated writer and actor whose first show was about to debut on national television.

Baig had a feeling that coming out to these two first-generation Pakistani immigrants would go badly. It had to be done, though, so they sent a separate email to each parent, titled “My TV Show and Truth.” Baig described who they were now and outlined their show, in which they play Sabi Mehboob, a gender-fluid, twentysomething Pakistani-Canadian whose life, friends, family and gender journey are drawn partly from Baig’s own experience. And they explained that they were willing to have a relationship, if their parents were. The letter to their father was in English, and short. The letter to their mother took more time. Because their mom’s English isn’t great, Baig asked a friend in Pakistan to help translate her letter into Urdu; Baig can’t even read it in its current form. Their mom didn’t respond, but their dad did: I love you no matter what, he wrote. Baig was surprised, thinking it would be the opposite. A week later, all three met in a spacious coffee shop in Toronto’s Liberty Village. “It was a complicated moment,” Baig says. “And it was a complicated conversation.”

Baig’s mom was concerned about their safety. In Pakistan, transness is associated with the khawaja sira, the “third gender” community, which has been part of South Asian culture for centuries, and has long faced discrimination and violence. Beyond that, the reaction was strangely muted. “I’d have a more interesting story to tell if they freaked out,” says Baig. “But they had kind of a non-reaction that upset me even more. No one was really trying to make a deep connection.”

In retrospect, it wasn’t that surprising. Baig had spent much of their childhood feeling overlooked, the forgotten child of a harried couple too busy keeping their household afloat to bring much warmth to it. The underwhelming response to Baig’s monumental disclosure seemed like that past repeating itself. Baig has only sent their parents a handful of texts since that meeting, and the relationship remains unsettled. But Baig is at ease with that ambiguity—and their ease speaks to why Sort Of, and its creator, are so compelling. Actor and playwright Damien Atkins, a former mentor of Baig’s, says that even the show’s title is imbued with ambivalence. “It offers the notion of actually sitting in a question,” he says, “and understanding that one does not have to rush to an answer.”

Sort Of, which returns this November for a second season, doesn’t rush at all. The first season’s eight episodes have meandering titles like “Sort of Gone” and “Sort of Back.” This is mindfulness television, as impressionistic as a mainstream series gets. Co-created by Baig and actor-director-writer Fab Filippo, and loosely based on both of their lives, the show doesn’t pummel you with plot. Instead, it lets its characters breathe. Foremost among them is Sabi, the protagonist played by Baig, who balances various roles: second-generation Pakistani-Canadian, bartender, nanny, child, friend. There’s also Sabi’s mother, Raffo; their best friend, 7ven; and the family they nanny for.

Each character is in a state of flux, and Baig is a natural at capturing characters in the midst of transformation. They’ve spent the past decade navigating their own gender transition, as well as a multiplicity of identities: queer, Muslim, person of colour, child of immigrants. Their ability to weave that unique experience into such absorbing, relatable television makes Baig one of Canada’s most hypnotic writers and performers.

Sort Of has already won three Canadian Screen Awards (though Baig refused to submit themself for an acting nomination due to the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television’s gender-binary classification system). HBO Max aired the show to critical adulation in the U.S., where it won a Peabody Award and landed Baig on Time magazine’s list of “next generation leaders.” Baig has received personal messages from people who have, thanks to Sort Of, been able to talk to their parents about gender—and others who have become more certain about who they are after watching it. The latter is ironic, considering that Baig, like their show, is so hard to define.

This is what I know about Baig: they are soft spoken and not overly emotive. I know they are deeply shy, because they told me, and everyone else did too. I spoke to them over the phone and via video chat, and during the latter conversation, they wore black hornrims, yellow and pink nails, bangles, big dangly earrings and a sheer dark evening top. Their conspicuous style was at odds with their reserved demeanour. For most of our video call, when they answered questions, they looked out the window to the left of the screen. You get the impression, from how quietly they speak and how little space they occupy, that Baig would be happy to disappear. They understand how odd it is to lead a television show while being, as they say, deeply terrified of the attention it brings, but the rare chance to represent an identity and a body like theirs outweighs those fears. There’s even a 12-page guide, written by a trans psychotherapist, distributed to media covering Sort Of, addressing everything from gender terminology to journalistic accountability. As Baig told the CBC, “I don’t know that I can do press if I’m going to get misgendered every other word.” Yet their hesitations about being the centre of attention run deeper than concerns about pronouns. “I just love not being referred to at all,” they say. “That’s the dream.”

***

Baig was born in Toronto’s east end, at Michael Garron Hospital, and grew up in Mississauga, the third of four kids. “Most of the ’90s for me,” they say, “is candy.” When Baig was very young, their parents co-owned a candy-filled convenience store, and Baig often played with their siblings—younger and older brothers, and an older sister—in the playground nearby. That was as idyllic as things got. The business went south, and Baig’s parents scrambled for work, moving often, which meant the kids’ schools changed too. Baig’s mom eventually found stability at Baskin-Robbins, while their dad worked his way up the ranks at a Whirlpool appliance factory. He might still be there; Baig isn’t sure.

With their parents consumed by work, the kids made their own fun. Baig would often take on girly roles during games of pretend; if their parents noticed, they never said anything. Baig was the quiet one, watching and listening as everyone else in this family of big personalities got loud. Sometimes too loud.

The scene made Baig sad, angry, horny, amazed: “I didn’t realize writing could make you feel, like, five different things at once. That was such a queer kind of feeling.”

Baig found their voice at school. In Grade 9 drama class, they were browsing the small library in the corner of the classroom when one vivid title jumped out: White Biting Dog. They didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded cool. The 1984 Governor General’s Award–winning play by Judith Thompson, set in Toronto’s Rosedale neighborhood and strongly infused with elements of magical realism, tells the story of a young man whose suicide attempt is halted by a talking dog, who enlists the man in a mission to save his own dying father. A note prefacing the play advises, “This play must SPIN, not just turn around.” What do you mean? Baig thought. How can words spin?

Then they read it, and the words were spinning—the accents, the voices, the abbreviations. Baig’s exposure to drama had previously been what they call “proper English reading,” along the lines of Shakespeare, and they’d had trouble connecting to it. With White Biting Dog, they could feel the words. In one scene, a fight between the young man and his mother’s boyfriend morphs into a romantic embrace. It made Baig sad and angry, horny and amazed—and scared that their own emerging teenage sexuality was playing out in front of them. “I didn’t realize writing could make you feel, like, five different things at once,” says Baig. “That was such a queer kind of feeling.”

From then on, Baig wrote a play a year, enthralled by the possibilities of drama. “Prose feels deeply intellectual to me,” they say. “But human speech feels completely emotional, and I just wanted to offer that to myself and the world.”

In the fall of 2012, they enrolled in the theatre program at the University of Guelph, specifically because Thompson taught there. Guelph was very white, and to Baig it seemed like they were the first person of colour some students had seen in the flesh. Then there was Baig’s obvious queerness—the green pants, the tight shirts. They constantly felt eyes on them. And the classes were huge, hundreds of people, a lecturer at the front, Baig’s brain shutting off. But they stuck around for Thompson, who invited her students to look deep inside themselves. That’s when Baig started writing South Asian characters for the first time, even submitting work in Urdu.

For Thompson’s final assignment, she instructed students to “write the story you need to tell.” It was the word “need” that got to Baig. The story they needed to tell was about their mother—how Baig felt she was slipping away because they were queer, because they weren’t religious enough, because they weren’t good enough. What would happen, Baig wondered, if they asked her straight up, “Do you think I’m a good person?” That question shaped the play, though the answer wasn’t the point. It was to relieve Baig of its weight, and let the characters grapple with it instead. That, Baig says, felt like the start of a real career in writing.

The result was Acha Bacha (“Good Kid”). It’s about a Pakistani-Canadian man, Zaya, confronting possible sexual abuse by his imam, while attempting to balance his Muslim background and queerness by (unsuccessfully) hiding his non-binary lover, Salim, from his devout mother, whom he calls Ma. “YOU DID NOT TAKE CARE OF ME,” Zaya berates her, which reads pointedly once you know Baig’s history. As does the last line, in which Salim expresses love to Zaya and says, in Urdu, “Tell me everything.”

Acha Bacha, which debuted in February of 2018 at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, is not funny like Sort Of, but it contains Baig’s trademarks: casual dialogue (“you’re being weird”), gender fluidity, a rambling plot, thorny family dynamics. There’s enfant terrible–style confrontation (the play opens on a blow job). Much of the dialogue is in Urdu, which gives the play the effect of inhabiting two different worlds. Damien Atkins, who met the 18-year-old Baig at a summer workshop at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre in 2013, advised Baig to make the language more accessible to English speakers. In retrospect, he’s glad they didn’t take the advice. Instead, the Urdu-speaking audience had uniquely deep access to the play, uncommon in Canadian theatre.

Acha Bacha’s most significant connection to Sort Of is Ellora Patnaik, who played Ma, and now plays Baig’s character’s mother on the show. Baig met Patnaik at Acha Bacha’s first workshop in 2014, after they had transferred to Humber College in Etobicoke, in Toronto’s suburban west end. Baig recalls racing across town to get to the workshop’s downtown venue in time, arriving with minutes to spare. And there she was: Ma. “There was something kind of instant and right about her,” says Baig, “the way she looked at me and the way I looked at her.” Patnaik calls herself Baig’s “mini mom”—she even went to their Humber graduation in 2016.

Baig remembers driving home with Patnaik from a pool party this past summer, talking about the “hybrid relationships” they have with certain women in their lives, who occupy multiple roles, as mothers, sisters, children, friends or even lovers. Baig didn’t realize one relationship could manifest in so many ways. In the pool that day, they’d looked at Patnaik and thought, I’d love to feel this with my actual mom.

***

You don’t do Canadian theatre for the money. Even after celebrating the well-reviewed premiere of their first major play, Baig was still living above a roti shop, with a bank account in overdraft while working as a nanny. (“Imagine me and two little white girls walking down Roncesvalles Avenue.”) Several months after Acha Bacha’s debut, when they were cast in a play called Theory, they were excited. They could stop nannying and start saving.

The play was about a professor who encourages unmoderated discussions among students as a free-speech experiment. Baig played a student, and actor and writer Fab Filippo played a professor. Neither was the lead, so in their free time between scenes, they worked on their own writing projects in the dressing room, laptops open opposite one another. Every night, Filippo heard the laughs Baig got. He recognized their dry sense of humour. Several weeks into the play, he asked Baig if they were interested in making television.

The thought hadn’t occurred to Baig, but they have a twisted attraction to things that terrified them. What could be more terrifying than what Filippo intended—a show based on Baig’s own life? “You know when you see somebody,” he says, “and you go: them.” It was unclear to Baig where Filippo would fit into a story about a queer, young, non-binary person of colour, but as a recently divorced dad, he was in transition too. This would be a show about how everyone is, in their own way. His alter ego would be Paul (played in the show by actor Gray Powell), the dad whose kids Baig’s character nannies, and whose wife ends up in a coma. Once that was decided, says Filippo, it was simple: “The story fell from the sky.” Sort Of’s main character, Sabi, did not. Baig had never appeared on screen, but they had seen actresses who made it seem doable—like Maggie Gyllenhaal. “I always feel like she’s playing against the words,” says Baig. That’s what Baig eventually did too.

Filippo and Baig created a sizzle reel, which is a kind of trailer pitched to executives who can greenlight a series. Filippo encouraged them to smile if something seemed funny, even if the scene didn’t require it—like a commentary on their own dialogue. That smirk became a Sabi signature, unlocking the character. Filippo further encouraged Baig to perform the least of all the actors, to be the calm in the storm, the way they always were. It fit Sabi’s introversion, and Baig’s.

Television hadn’t occurred to Baig, but they had a twisted attraction to things that terrified them. What could be more terrifying than a show about their life?

The pair pitched Sort Of as a cross between the handheld wit of Fleabag and the queer warmth of Please Like Me. It ended up at Sphere Media (then Sienna Films) because of Filippo. “I know the person who won’t crush us,” he told Baig. It was Jennifer Kawaja, who had supported his work in the past. She ensured Sort Of’s original tone was preserved—some scenes from the sizzle reel were even recreated in the pilot.

Being more familiar with theatre, Baig had to get used to how visual television is. They spent a lot of time in the writers’ room, observing. “I don’t remember being a very useful presence,” they say. Sometimes Baig’s ideas were too subtle for the camera, like an emotion too difficult to capture on an actor’s face. But Baig took note of pitches that moved the story forward, and of how to be quippier. Watching Filippo in particular, they learned how to exit a scene and land a joke. According to Filippo, he and Baig never argue, and neither is driven by ego. If they fight for anything, it’s honesty. Baig feels most comfortable sharing observations around race, gender and sexuality, because they live it every day.

Ultimately, Sort Of’s momentum is not provided by outlandish characters and dialogue, but by the navigation of normal events: a breakup, a friend moving, a job lost. Baig is attracted to contrasts, confronting the somewhat disengaged Sabi with a barrage of crises—all that high-stakes drama knocking against all that low-key comedy. The juxtaposition echoes Sabi’s incongruity in this genre, as well as Baig’s, who doesn’t really like acting in the first place, or is at least ambivalent about it. Atkins once praised their performance, and their response was, “I’m not sure I should do it anymore.” They do it because they have to, because they know their appearance on screen is more important than their discomfort. Before a shoot, they go into what Filippo calls their “cocoon phase,” spending time alone, recharging. I watched them do that on set the day I visited. Between takes, in their clementine tank and turquoise cowboy boots, they leaned quietly against a doorway, alone, appearing to centre themself. To look at them, you wouldn’t know they were the star of the show. There wasn’t a magnetic field around them. It was the opposite. There was space.

***

What makes Sort Of so revolutionary is how little it cares about being revolutionary. While it is unapologetically queer, it never relies on exaggerated tropes. Sabi isn’t out and proud (though their best friend, 7ven, is). Raffo is not solely a disapproving immigrant mother, but one trying to understand (“If you’re not a girl, what are you?”). There’s no big coming-out moment. Nor is Sabi’s identity particularly clear, even to them. There’s no spectacle, no stacked witticisms or overbearing music or frenetic editing. Sabi always looks stylish, but in a realistic, DIY way. And Baig’s deadpan delivery makes the show’s subtle humour that much funnier. “I’m glad our kids have been exposed to you,” Paul tells Sabi. They respond, “I’m glad I exposed myself to them.”

Despite Sort Of’s brevity—eight episodes in the first season, 20 minutes each—themes recur, threaded throughout like in a rich novella. Of particular importance is the idea of listening to and seeing others. The last scene of the first season shows Sabi alone, eating their mom’s leftovers. It’s a callback to the first episode, in which their mom showed up on their doorstep with leftovers and saw them in full femme for the first time—a symbol of the two finally connecting.

Bilal Baig as Sabi Mehboob and Grey Powell as Paul, a character based in part on series co-creator Fab Filippo.

Sort Of is not a term paper. Identity politics can even be the butt of jokes (“White-saviour it,” Sabi directs Paul). Because of its light touch, the show’s wisdom hits that much harder as it pops up in passing dialogue. And trying is valued. Not understanding and expressing contradiction is allowed, which is as fundamental to Baig as to their work. “What the world needs more of is understanding how to sit with our discomfort,” says Filippo. He describes “the Baig pause,” which evokes this idea perfectly. It would come up in meetings with executives when they were pitching the show. The suits would ask a question, and Baig would say nothing for as long as it took to formulate an answer they believed in. The discomfort of that silence made everyone listen much more intently when Baig finally spoke.

I’ve even experienced my own Baig pause. A month before we met for this story, I was in the café at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto, having tea with a friend. Baig had just arrived with Raymond Cham Jr. (a Sort Of cast member) and they were facing me. At that moment, I gesticulated widely and knocked a full cup of tea dramatically onto the ground. I stopped and considered it, agog, before looking up to see who had noticed. I believe Cham Jr. displayed that mildly shocked smile bystanders have when something embarrassing happens to someone else. But Baig caught my eye because of what they weren’t doing—their expression remained completely unchanged, refusing to fill the moment with artifice.

“I remember that moment really clearly,” Baig told me on the phone a month later. “I thought it was amazing.”

Their reaction made me feel like I had given them a gift. This is a particular talent Baig has: to make you feel valuable. It is something extraordinary that a person made to feel overlooked as a child can grow into someone who strives to ensure that everyone they meet feels the opposite. As Patnaik puts it: “When I’m with Bilal, I feel like I am their whole world.”

***

Before Sort Of, before Acha Bacha, Baig volunteered with Story Planet, a not-for-profit offering creative-writing workshops to kids in disadvantaged communities. Like many people, the first thing executive director Liz Haines noticed about Baig was their shyness. But she later reconsidered it as an “intentional hesitancy,” a way of holding themself back to give room to others, which served Baig well when working with kids. One of the big discussions at Story Planet was about gender. Baig’s approach was that learning never ends—and not just for kids, as Baig’s own gender expression transformed through the years.

In theatre school, they shaved their head as a form of resistance against the stuffy environment. “It was all about, like, Chekhov and breathing,” Baig explains. “I was like, ‘That’s not the world I want to be in.’ ” Then came the odd bangle, then longer hair, then a full beard plus makeup, and now today: no beard, hair down, makeup and dresses. They weren’t trying to make any political statements. They were just trying to do what felt right, though they often struggled with the attention it brought. Baig still doesn’t see gender in a linear way: “I’m not fussy about it and I really wish the world would move in that direction.”

This is Baig sitting in the question, as always. And it helps explain why they prefer not to be an overnight success. The slow spread of Sort Of—most people I mention it to haven’t heard of it—allows for time to reflect, and to change.

“There are just so many routes available, and that makes me really happy,” they say. Maybe, Baig suggests, they’ll disappear from the spotlight altogether and work with kids for the rest of their life. It would make sense. As Sabi says, “I like how they process stuff. They don’t rush to put things in boxes.”


This article appears in print in the November 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $8.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.