Sundance favourite Sean Baker’s Tangerine arrives in cinemas Friday. We meet trans actress Mya Taylor who outlines the importance of this social commentary.
“That one was ghetto,” spits Mya Taylor, as she throws a glass aside. I waited in the lobby of a fancy hotel for 40 minutes to see the star of Tangerine. Now we’re together, we’ve spent the first three of our precious 15 minute slot looking for a clean glass between us in this sweaty room. The first two – I might add – were not acceptable.
I’m not sure what I was expecting of Taylor. In Tangerine, Sean Baker’s no frills trans comedy (although some parts will tug at your heartstrings), Taylor plays Alexandra, a prostitute and lead character Sin-Dee Rella’s (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) best friend. Alexandra is sensitive, holding onto a failed singing career. Yet, she’s anything but vulnerable, working the less shiny streets of Hollywood and ready to backhand a customer at any point. In the flesh, Taylor’s a little more of a diva. With few major acting credits to her name, I naively expect humility.
I ask her what it was like to film a feature with iPhones, one of the major selling points of the movie. “I know what I’m doing,” Taylor says flatly. “It felt like any other thing, people think just because it was filmed on an iPhone it makes it much easier for me to act. I’m like, ‘No!’ It’s just obvious, don’t look at the fucking camera.” So that’s told me. “I’m sweating,” she bursts out. Taylor’s makeup looks airbrushed, her hair is perfectly curled and she’s wearing a fur cape. I can’t remember if I brushed my hair this morning. I tell her she still looks better than me even if the temperature’s a little high, while I stab at an air con button on the wall. “You’re really pretty,” she says, minutes ticking away while she’s keen to discuss anything but the film. “What are we talking about?” She sighs as I try to ask about the dark side of Hollywood — the grimy, sticky backstreets you don’t see on screen all that often.
I wait long enough for her to feel the need to fill the silence after I’ve repeated my question, “Well for one, Hollywood when you see it on TV it’s normally like Beverly Hills or Westwood and the Hollywood sign,” she accompanies this with an eye roll, “You see it as more glamorous than it really is. That part is glamorous, if you have $50 million in your bank account and your house is paid for. Yeah it’s glamorous, but not everybody has that. Where I come from in Hollywood, I didn’t have that. My parents pretty much had everything that they wanted through certain ways that they wanted it. But for me, growing up in my household I was abused and I moved out on my own and I struggled, a lot. Being homeless and everything, it was hard.” Was it easy for her to fall into a character that had to struggle too? “That’s not me. I’m not that sensitive, if you haven’t been able to tell, I’m really not.”
How did she get into character then, I press. “I don’t know. It’s hard for me to explain how I got into this character. I know you’re probably like, ‘Ok come on this bitch in this interview, come on.’ But it’s hard for me to really explain because I just act natural, acting just comes so easily to me.” As difficult as this interview is, I’m progressively coming to like Taylor more and more.
Tangerine focuses on Sin-Dee as she comes back to the curb after leaving prison. Upon her return she learns her boyfriend has been sleeping with another woman, a biological female and the film follows her one woman hunt for this girl and her intent to corner her pimp boyfriend with the girl by her side on Christmas Eve, all culminating in a suitably everyday donut shop. Spoiler alert – Alexandra has been sleeping with Chester, the pimp, too. The friends fight but Alexandra follows Sin-Dee and after she’s attacked by a passing car, Alexandra hands over her wig to a bare-headed Sin-Dee, a metaphorical olive branch.
Does Taylor have any friendships strong enough to overcome something like that in real life? “Overcoming something like that? No. Oh no! Hell no! If my best friend messed around with my man, I’m gonna beat his ass, and I’m gonna beat my friend’s ass. And they both better hope that they don’t get stabbed in the face. Because, you know, if your best friend messed with your boyfriend, would you still be friends with them? No, hell no! I wouldn’t do all that and I definitely wouldn’t be taking off my wig to give to her, no!” Taylor eventually pauses to take a breath, “The story is about friendship but what I would want is for people to see the way the transgender people live out there, it’s not easy and we’re so discriminated against, just ask yourself, why are these girls street working? Because they can’t get jobs. I’ve experienced that myself, that’s why we came up with all of this.”
I’m a teenager who’s luckily been brought up in a place and time where I’ve been taught that everyone’s equal and that’s the end of the discussion. It’s interesting to see films classified by the gender of their stars, confusing even, that they’re in some way separated. Without disputing the importance of Tangerine, trans leads included, wouldn’t it have more impact if it were treated as less of a, dare I say it, (for want of a much better word) novelty? Or is that time coming in the near future? Am I, again, being naive? I say all of this aloud, realising I’m undecided. “Would you want the film to be defined by the fact that you and your co star are transgender?” I conclude to Taylor. “That’s the first time I’ve been asked that question, I’m shocked,” she smiles. “I don’t really want it to be separate. Because, sure I’m transgender, but that doesn’t define me.” A publicist drops through the door to tell us we’ve got a minute left.
“I really want to give you more time, girl ask another question,” Taylor’s beginning to soften, finally.
If she doesn’t want her work to be separated, then how does she feel about her personal life? “Do you want to be seen as an activist for trans people, like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner?”
“Yes. Most definitely. If we don’t do it, us celebrities don’t do it, who else is going to do it? I’ve made it out of the homelessness and all of that, and now I have a platform, so instead of being selfish and just using it for myself, I really want to help other trans people because I know what it’s like to be in that position… This is what I feel like. I feel like it’s fucked up that people say ‘Caitlyn Jenner’ is the face of transgender. I love Caitlyn Jenner, I love the fact that she’s white, I love the fact that she’s rich, but, you can’t just say, ‘Oh this is the face of trans people!’ She doesn’t know all of the issues, she’s going through her own set of issues but Laverne Cox came out before her and Laverne has accomplished more, to me. So I feel like Laverne would be the face, because Laverne inspired Caitlyn.”
In turn, Taylor’s hoping to inspire a few of her own. After we meet, a campaign has been launched to get both her and Rodriguez nominated for Academy Awards. It’s the first Oscar campaign in history for openly trans actresses, backed by the Duplass brothers who produced the film. Whether they are recognised by the Academy or not, the campaign is receiving the attention it, and the stars, deserve. Hell if the Academy isn’t going to pay attention, Taylor’s going to make sure the rest of the world certainly will, she’s developing a TV show based on her transition, watch this space.
‘Tangerine’ is out in UK cinemas Friday 13th November.
Words: Lily Walker