Oohs, ahhs and laughter echoed from the ground floor to the upper balcony of the dimly lit Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on a crisp November evening. The cast of Sort Of grinned at each other as applause filled the theatre. They settled into their seats on stage, ready to discuss the magic that had filled the screen just moments before.
“I’m excited about when we look back at this piece 10 years from now—what got unlocked through Sort Of’s existence?” co-creator and Sort Of star Bilal Baig said following the screening. “But I think right now it’s just about being honest and playful and a little naughty.”
For the first time, a live audience got to see the first three episodes of Sort Of Season 2. And if the cheers are any indication of what they thought, they loved it. The second season, streaming on CBC Gem in Canada starting Nov. 15 and HBO Max in the U.S. on Dec. 1, is a highly anticipated release.
Sort Of is beloved by fans for its authentic depiction of life as a gender-fluid person of colour figuring out their family, career and love life. Shot and based in Toronto, watching Sort Of is like catching up with friends over drinks in the Village. It feels familiar––like it belongs to the audience.
From the bubbly chatter in the lobby and concession stands, to the relief that the second season was shaping up to be as compelling as its first, the audience seemed more than ready to rejoin the series they binged just over a year ago.
And the cast on stage did too. Baig stars as Sort Of’s main character, Sabi. Amanda Corder plays 7ven, Sabi’s lovable best friend. Ellora Patnaik is Raffo, Sabi’s strong-willed mother. Grace Lynn Kung plays the dedicated yet confused Bessy. Raymond Cham Jr. plays Wolf, a newcomer to the show.
“There’s a fearlessness and a boldness and searching for truth that is so unanimous in every person who works on this production, so I think that’s how something like this is made,” says Baig.
The cast’s chemistry, electric enough to earn them a Canadian Screen Award for Members’ Choice Series Ensemble this year (among several other awards), was palpable from the screen to the stage to the audience.
One cast member who prompted many laughs during both the show and the Q&A that followed the screening was Cordner, who was named one of Canada’s Rising Screen Stars for her work on the show. She has been celebrated for her comedic timing and being among the few representations of Black gender-fluid characters in Canadian television.
Xtra spoke to Cordner over Zoom about what the success of the show means to her and the LGBTQ2S+ community.
What makes Sort Of good television, but also good queer television—and is there even really a difference?
I think it’s good television and good queer television at the same time because it really shows a human story. It’s not “these people happen to be queer, trans, non-binary.” But they are dealing with life in the way that a lot of us do with relationships and work, career, dreams, failures and trying to find your place in this world. I know queer people have been excluded for so long, and if you were queer on television it was like, “You better hide that if you want to be successful in this industry.” It’s becoming more and more freeing to be whoever. I hope one day we’ll just have shows and not queer shows. We’ll just have characters with human stories and not necessarily dividing these categories. Is it necessary? I don’t know. I hope we can move beyond it one day.
As someone who writes, produces and directs, have you ever been apprehensive about entering a certain area of work, where your identity was something you were tempted to hide?
I’ve been pretty lucky in my life and in my career where I didn’t have to hide anything, and mostly it works in my favour. It is quite the time to be alive. It is time for BIPOC. Time for the BIPOC queers. It is time for us. So I didn’t have to experience that. And I went to theatre school too, and everybody was queer. But in terms of career, it’s been pretty seamless.
Having Black gender-fluid characters is also not very common, especially in Canadian television. Fans have really flocked to 7ven—what makes her so appealing and what are your favourite things about her?
My favourite things about 7ven are that she’s a truth-sayer and a lover and loves to have fun. We do, too. Me and Bilal love to buss up, we say. We have serious conversations, but then we buss up, you know? You need that balance in life to get down and serious when necessary, and then to, like, “bruk” your back when you can. And so I love that these characters are that and there’s so much joy and beauty and freedom. It’s very inspiring.
Have you noticed a difference between your different works where the presence of having more queer writers has led to shows that are received better?
I think this show is different in the sense that it’s just like a regular suburban young person who is going through a turning point in their life. Sabi is not some glam goddess walking the Vogue runway and [is also] not being portrayed as a sad target. It’s like this middle area, and the middle area, to me, is human. The humanity of queer people, queer people of colour, trans people of colour, who have to get up day-to-day, go to work, make money, make choices, tend to their relationships—just like a lot of other people. That’s the connect and that’s the kind of revolutionary thing that is just like, “Oh, yeah, I guess queer people are regular people!”
Who were your 7ven and Sabi on television growing up?
I’ve never seen Sabi and 7ven growing up, no. I think maybe the closest would be in True Blood. I think Lafayette [Reynolds] was the first time I really connected with a Black queer character. Lafayette was pretty non-binary when I think back to that show. Some days presented really femme and some days really stepping into their masc energy. And they also had a cousin, Tara. Their dynamic was amazing and queer and loving and fun. That’s what comes to mind in terms of, like, queer loving dynamics. Because growing up, the buddy stuff was always two girls or two guys.
What do you think it would take for more gender-fluid characters to become staples in television?
That’s a great question and I think it is one for the powers of the distributors, the networks, the executives who have to say, “Yes, we are going to produce the show.” Because I have tons of queer artist friends who are constantly creating. I’m not sure about what their pitching history is, but the stories are out there, and I think they will slowly become an even greater staple in our media.
There are different kinds of humans and we don’t all fit into the binary. And you know, tons of people are like, “Well, I don’t get it.” It messes with people’s brains. You can see sometimes in real time, “Oh, if I can’t categorize you, I don’t know what to do with myself.” And so I think audiences need to be ready for that too. That’s where it’s sticky, right? Because yes, you want to take a chance on something really innovative and revolutionary, but also you want to make money. You want to hit that bottom line. You want to make sure you get your audiences in. And so I think it’s like a collaborative effort down the road with artists and the gatekeepers to give these artists platforms.
How did you feel knowing that your show was actively creating opportunities for people who would otherwise struggle to get their foot in the door through initiatives like the Trans Film Mentorship, a training program for trans and non-binary film creatives?
So beautiful. I met these wonderful souls there who were super creative and so sweet. It felt like, “Damn, we’re part of something.” Like actively—not just speaking the words, but putting it into action. Giving opportunities, space, accessibility. That is the key. How do we make these spaces accessible? Bilal is doing it. Bilal is doing it tenfold. Making sure. Demanding it. Demanding to be treated with respect. Demanding kindness. She’s a revolutionary.
How long does it take to build up that kind of stamina? How do you encourage yourself that you’re worth betting on, that the projects you’re trying to get on the ground and into the world are worth being seen?
My goal is so clear that no one will stop me. My own agent, who I’ve since left, told me that I was not pretty enough and not skinny enough to be a lead in North American television. And that she was helping me make money so I could do my own thing—make my own projects, be a part of my own projects. On the one hand, it’s twofold. She didn’t believe that I could rise above. And I took that in. At first I said to myself, “Well, she knows better. She’s been in the industry longer than me.” But at the same time I was like, “You’ll see. Not to worry.” For me, it’’s like tooth and nail, blood and sweat. Nothing will stop me. And that’s really something that I’ve accepted. This work, this industry, this trajectory and career is a marathon. Like, there is no sprinting here. And once I accepted that, I let it all go. I’m gonna be in it for the rest of my life. And as slow as that takes, I’m here for it.
Seeing the different awards you have gotten since then, you as a collective are widely loved. How does that feel?
Like it’s a great time to be alive. Like this is the time. It feels right. It feels like, “Finally. Thank you.” All these boundaries are put up, excluding us. BIPOC, queer, all the others. So many boundaries are put up and then we get rewarded for breaking out of them. It’s a funny place to be. And I acknowledge progression and I acknowledge the change and I acknowledge that change is slow and necessary, but also, I just like to bring awareness to all these boundaries put in place so we don’t succeed. And then [they say], “Look at you! You managed to break past that boundary. And here you go, here’s a reward.”
Being acknowledged—it feels good. And it also leads to more. I like to say that awards are like keys to other projects. It increases visibility. And therefore more projects hopefully will come out of it.
Having gone to school for theatre and studied it as a precursor to your career, were you prepared for some of these barriers that you experienced?
Since high school, my own teachers were telling me how hard it was going to be for me as a Black person, that I would never be cast in a Jane Austen film unless Halle Berry directed it. This is what a 17-year-old is hearing. And then I get to university and it’s even worse. There’s one Black person accepted into the acting conservatory in my year. It was reinforced that there was only space for one—that there could not be more than one, or else it becomes a Black show.
Now when you get to see multiple leads who are people of colour, friend groups that have no white people, or one a white person in it—that is a magnificent change. Black people and queer people have been excluded from so many mainstream shows for so long. There’s like, Black TV or queer TV and it’s on the fringe, and when it becomes mainstream, it’s like “Oh, you did it. You are popular among the masses!” What you were doing would never be accepted, let’s say, 10 years ago. Would Sort Of even be on television if it was pitched five years ago?
When I first met my [former] agent, she was like, “You’re gonna have to be prepared to play single moms and ‘crack hoes.’” And I was like, “Wow. Is that all that’s available to me?” And then once someone like me becomes mainstream, it’s like, “Oh, my God, you did it. You broke through. We’ve been trying to keep you down for so long and you broke through.”
Is there a newfound pressure to break through in this way? Do you and your castmates feel you’re carrying this new weight as you go into the next season?
I don’t know what it is for everyone else, but I don’t know about pressure. For me, it’s excitement to keep going. I don’t listen to anyone who says I can’t do something or I can’t play something or I can’t be a part of this. “You’re too much like this to whatever be this.” Yeah, I don’t hear those words. For me, I’ll be on this ship for as long as it sails. If it sinks, I’ll go down with it.
What are you most excited for fans to see in the second season?
I’m excited for everyone to see all the relationships that develop. Some deepening of character arcs, some new characters. Love is in the air in the season, so get ready.
What projects are you excited to share with fans outside of Sort Of?
I have a show that my best friend from high school and I created back in 2016 with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Since then, the show has toured across Canada and the United States, and it’s coming to Toronto. Obviously, the pandemic put a damper on it. But it’s going to be programmed in the Buddies in Bad Times season in April 2023. The show is called Body So Fluorescent. It’s been a long time coming. Me and my friend have been waiting for this to be programmed in a season for years and it’s happening, and I’m really excited for that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.