Off Duty is a series of lively conversations with influential people, from CEOs to celebrities, on life, work and the art of taking time off.
Even as an accomplished triple-threat, Mississauga native (and writer, actor, producer) Bilal Baig felt nervous embarking on CBC Gem comedy series Sort Of before it premiered back in 2021. But today, with its third and final season set to make its debut on Nov. 17, and with seven Canadian Screen Awards and a Peabody Award in the bag, they feel proud of what they created: a true labour of love.
With co-creator Fab Filippo, Baig developed a boundary-breaking series that follows Sabi (played by Baig), a gender expansive Pakistani-Canadian millennial who is making more than a few transitions: in life, career, faith and love. Aren’t we all?
As the first queer South Asian Muslim actor to lead a Canadian prime-time television series, they have become a role model and a sign of what is possible for so many. But for Baig, it’s still ultimately about the storytelling, whether crafting new scripts and new worlds, or finding inspiration and learning how to understand their own emotional and creative processes.
In your time writing for and playing Sabi, have they influenced you in your daily life?
I think about that a lot. One of the things I loved playing in Sabi was their constant searching; in their quiet, deadpan way, there’s a real deep emotional well to this character. That sense of quiet searching stayed with me, but maybe I was doing it before but I felt it through Sabi. It’s something that I’ve been reflecting on a lot, because it’s a really cool way of understanding the world, to observe it and not always be the centre of it.
You have worked in so many creative mediums, from television to theatre. Can you describe your creative process?
It varies with the project, but one thing that unites all of them is that I really try to prioritize listening whether I’m working with a collaborator or even on my own. I try to open myself up enough to really hear what I or someone is feeling about something. I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to work in mediums and on projects where nuances are celebrated and embedded into the work; it helps me to know that I’m going to be writing about human beings who are complicated. I rely on entering each world with a real curiosity.
I also feel so lucky that I have yet to work on a project that I didn’t care immensely about. I don’t know how other artists survive that, but I’ve loved and cared deeply about everything that I’ve done in these last few years. When the work genuinely excites me and it’s something I’m obsessed with, the whole process feels more natural.
What series have served as influences for you?
Before Sort Of was even a thing, Fab and I talked about Fleabag and Please Like Me quite a bit. When you mash those two together, I think Sort Of starts to emerge. But also, Insecure started to become a reference, its sense of humour and realness. I thought a lot about attempting to capture Toronto in the way it captured L.A.
Kind of in the same neighbourhood, but also in its own world, is Mrs. Fletcher, which felt like a little sister to the show, and which I thought was stunning.
You have said you were nervous jumping into the television world ahead of Sort Of’s first season. Do you feel like you gained confidence going through the process?
When I think about Season 3, and being in the room and being on camera, which was also something that deeply terrified me at the start of all of this, there was an ease to how I approached the writing and performing that really surprised me. I think it was having three years of doing this and doing it so rigorously. We move quickly on our show, too, and that’s not easy.
I really didn’t know what was going to happen with this show, whether it would be cancelled right after Season 1, but having this three-year run has really deepened my own sense of artistry. I’m looking to return to theatre next, but doing television has been really informative; I feel a bit sharper. And at the same time, I’m always the first one to be like, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” But I always figure it out.
Does it feel daunting moving on to your next project?
Maybe that’s why I’m running towards theatre, because it feels different. It feels like I’m going back to myself a little bit, the self who existed before Sort Of was even a thing. I’m really into balance, and if I have too much of one thing, it doesn’t sit right with me. If I lean into what I want and continue to follow my heart, I mean, it’s served me up till this point.
The cast and production team for Sort Of has always seemed like a real family. What’s it been like to say goodbye?
We always tried our best to make the working experience on the show feel as good as possible and to include a real diversity of people. We had a mentorship program for trans, non-binary crew members for two years. We worked with a trans director, a queer South Asian Muslim woman director. We were able to do a lot of cool things in a short amount of time without the biggest budget in the world.
When I think about this project ending, I reflect most on the love that was poured into it by so many people who genuinely cared about what we were trying to do, and their vulnerability to share their own experiences. We really just lead with love, compassion and empathy. And I want to do this for the rest of my life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sarah Bernstein won this year's Giller for her novel Study for Obedience. Which of these authors has not won the book prize?
- Leonard Cohen
- Margaret Atwood
- Vincent Lam
- Souvankham Thammavongsa