When you're down and out, and things can't get any worse, you have to keep your sense of humor. You have no other choice. So says Mya Taylor, the rising star of "Tangerine," a quirky buddy movie centered around two transgender sex workers, Alexandra (Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). It was written and directed with huge heart by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch. "I can't say that I did those things, but I can't say that I didn't," Taylor says of the sex work, but she speaks knowledgeably about that life and the challenges of being transgender in 2015. "You never get used to jumping in and out of cars," she says. "It isn't easy, it isn't safe, it's scary all the time...Since the film was made, I've applied for 186 jobs over the past months and gotten absolutely nothing in response. And when I have been asked for a job interview, they take one look at me and then at my ID which still has "Jeremiah" as my first name and that changes everything."
I met Taylor after a screening of "Tangerine" last week and spent the next day with her as she got ready for the film's opening Friday night. This film could not be more timely, with the public becoming more aware of transgender issues. An editorial in the New York Times last week urged legislation to end transgender discrimination in the workplace, citing "an economically disadvantaged community that continues to face pervasive employment discrimination." "Tangerine" uses its engaging storytelling and humor to reveal the humanity of its characters, vulnerable survivors in a sometimes terrifying universe.
Baker and Bergoch met Mya in 2013 at the LBGT Center in Hollywood, just around the corner from Donut Time, on Santa Monica Boulevard at Highland, where much of the movie takes place. She became their introduction into the world on the street. According to Bergoch, they sensed that there were stories to be told about the people in Donut Time, people most of us ignore as we drive by on our way home. Taylor introduced Baker to her then-roommate "Kiki," who became Sin-Dee, her co-star. Set on some of the gritty streets of Los Angeles, "Tangerine" focuses on the world of transgender sex workers. The film takes you on a wild ride one Christmas Eve up and down the boulevard as Sin Dee, in a fit of rage, sets off to confront an unfaithful pimp/boyfriend and seek revenge against his new girl. But what could have been a sad downer of a film instead is a raucous adventure that somehow keeps you laughing despite sordid car sex, cheating husbands, lots of drugs, angry johns, fits of rage and jealousy and outright acts of cruelty.
Mya was determined that, if the movie was made, it had to keep its sense of humor. The interplay between the two leads, and the unfiltered honesty between the characters, exposes strong bonds of love and friendship, despite life's difficulties.
In part, the visual humor helps lighten the mood. Baker shot the whole film using iPhone 5s outfitted with lens adapters to allow for wide shots. He also put the cameras on bicycles and shot during business hours using real people. Bergoch remembers chasing people down the street to get them to sign releases, many unaware that they were being filmed for a real movie rather than somebody's latest selfie. Baker's familiarity with and love for the city makes LA as much a character in the movie as its talented cast. Setting out mostly on foot, with some wild bus and subway rides, public transportation in LA was never so seamless.
While the film plays like a light-hearted romp through the streets of LA, the characters' stories are anything but. "I've lived a hard life," Taylor says. Brought up in Texas from a young age by her conservative grandparents,while her mother served time, Taylor left for Las Vegas shortly after realizing her family would never accept her for who she was. "I don't identify as gay. I should have been a woman," she says. "It's not about sexuality. It's about who you are as a person." Like many young transgender men and women, she lost the support and safety net of her family. She believes she has had to travel this path in life to gain strength. She's hoping "Tangerine" will be a turning point for her and open doors for other people to be comfortable with who they are.
She woke up on Friday to an article on Indiewire mentioning her name and "Oscar" in the same sentence. "That feels so good," she says. "But I'm still a humble person." Indeed, while preparing to attend the opening of "Tangerine" on Friday at the Hollywood Arclight, Taylor did some shopping at one of her favorite haunts: Fashion 4 Ever near the corner of Santa Monica and Western where she bought the stretch jeans she would wear that evening for $7.99.
Going to Donut Time for photos took her back to an old part of her life. "That's not me anymore," she said. She's moved on in many ways, living now in North Dakota with her boyfriend, and in love. Another acting gig is in the wings: She has signed on to portray transgender rights activist Marsha P. Johnson in an upcoming documentary "Happy Birthday Marsha."
Getting to know and work with Baker in 2013 and during the intense 23 days of filming, Taylor says they have developed a deep friendship and trust. "Sean is my hero," she says. "He knows everything about me. He's the person I trust the most...My advice is this: when a handsome man comes over to talk to you, and says he wants to make a movie about you, say yes!"