Making history

Oscar hopeful shot on iPhones tells a story of being young and trans in L.A.

In January, Mya Taylor may become the first openly transgender actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, having delivered a stunning performance as a sex worker in indie-hit “Tangerine”

When Mya Taylor spotted Sean Baker at the LGBT Center that she often visited on Santa Monica Boulevard, she had no idea who he was. She could not have anticipated how dramatically meeting the indie director would change her life. Nor could he have known how central she would become to the film that was just starting to take shape in his mind.

At the time, Baker had decided only that he wanted to make a micro-budget feature about his Hollywood neighborhood; that he wanted it to take place within a twenty-four hour window, to keep costs low (producer Mike Duplass had promised $100,000); and that he wanted the action to converge on Donut Time. Taylor and the other women he met in the neighborhood led him and his co-writer Chris Bergoch to the story. Much of it was based on their real lives.

Tangerine unfolds over roughly twelve hours in the lives of two transgender sex workers, on Christmas Eve day. Sin-Dee, played by Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez, has just gotten out of twenty-eight days in prison. In the first scene, she meets her close friend Alexandra. Their dialogue reveals at once how much they care for each other: Alexandra mentions that she has had to turn off her cell phone because she covered Sin-Dee’s rent while she was in jail.

Alexandra lets slip that her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a “white fish” — a Caucasian, cisgender woman. Sin-Dee goes ballistic. She storms across the neighborhood looking for the fish, about whom she knows only that her name “starts with D-something — Desirée?” Alexandra trails helplessly entreating Sin-Dee to promise that there will be “no drama.”

We follow in a kaleidoscopic series of tracking shots, canting along brightly graffitied walls, electronic music pounding. Picture a more dizzying LA remake of Run Lola Run. It’s captivating.

A lot of hype that surrounded the film when it premiered at Sundance last January came from the fact that Baker shot it using two iPhone 5s cameras. He attached anamorphic lenses to them to give Tangerine its widescreen look; the saturated colors must have come from post-production. Baker sourced some of the actors on social media in the area, and built the film’s soundtrack using Soundcloud.

Sean Baker, director of "Tangerine." (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Daniel Bergeron)

Sean Baker, director of “Tangerine.” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Daniel Bergeron)

But Tangerine also clearly got a PR boost from landing when it did.

Last April, the openly transgender British comedian Rebecca Root declared 2015 “The Year to Be Trans.” It is true that transgender women have become dramatically more visible in the entertainment industry recently.

On May 29, 2014, TIME magazine announced that America had reached a “Transgender Tipping Point.” The cover featured a striking photograph of the actress and activist Laverne Cox, who had recently become the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black.

Almost exactly one year later, Vanity Fair put Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of their June Issue, posing coyly beneath the headline: “Call Me Caitlyn.” Jenner was widely celebrated for the courage she showed conducting her transition in public. Meanwhile, Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness had become a bestseller, and the Amazon series Transparent won widespread acclaim.

Still, to be a trans woman — particularly a trans woman of color — in the United States remains extremely dangerous. It is difficult to get a firm grasp on exactly how bad the plague of violence against trans women is. But the most recent studies suggest that the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color in this country is between thirty and thirty-five.

Many different factors contribute to that appalling statistic: The homelessness that many trans kids experience after being rejected by their families. Harassment that often leads them to drop out of school and discrimination that makes it difficult to find jobs. Many trans youth, like homeless youth in general, turn to sex work to survive, which often makes them vulnerable. Suicide among trans youth is also widespread. To live with the conviction that (as one trans community organizer I interviewed recently put it) “no one will ever love you as you are” demands an almost impossible level of resilience.

What makes Tangerine so important and so striking is its status as a missive from that rough world, which is nonetheless, surprisingly entertaining. Magnolia Pictures is investing in a publicity campaign to try to get the film nominated for Academy Awards in January. And Taylor, who has already received a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor and a San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress, is trying to turn the serendipity that brought her to the limelight into a springboard for a longer term career.

Women in the World spoke with Taylor.

Women in the World: Tell me a bit about yourself. What was your life like before making this film?

Mya Taylor: I am 24-years old. I grew up in Texas with my grandparents, who weren’t that nice to me. So I later on moved to L.A. with another family member who was not that nice to me and started me with sex work. Later on down the road things got rougher and rougher. I went through homelessness and more sex work. I went through discrimination with jobs because I had just started my transition.

WITW: Was that about when you met the filmmakers?

MT: I met Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch at the LGBT Center on Santa Monica and Hancock. This was 2012 going into 2013. They wanted me to feed them information about the area. During that time they fell in love with my personality.

WITW: Had you acted before?

MT: I had never done acting before. But singing I had been doing my whole life, so it came pretty easy to me. Acting was fluid, simple. I was determined to get it right, and I dived into it head first.

WITW: Were there performers you looked up to or tried to emulate?

MT: The only performer I really admired at the time was a singer killed in 2001, Aaliyah. For her first movie, Romeo Must Die, Aaliyah was so determined to get that role down. People could not tell that it was her first movie either.

WITW: What about your co-star Kiki Rodriguez?

MT: Kiki was somebody I knew from before. We were roommates, and she was fun to be around. I saw that this was an opportunity for us to do something, so I introduced her to Sean and Chris.

WITW: Are you close in real life?

MT: Just because we’re friends in the film doesn’t mean we’re, like, best friends. We’re so opposite from each other.

WITW: How?

MT: We just are.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in "Tangerine." (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in “Tangerine.” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

WITW: What was your role in creating the story?

MT: Sean Baker and Chris Bigash did the writing of the script. I just collaborated with them on the ideas. I’d say, “Let’s talk about the guys who pay you, and then want to take their money back, the car wash scene.” This was all necessary to get into. A lot of the funny stuff was our improv, too. It came from us.

WITW: What was the shoot like?

MT: When Sean said “So we’re gonna do this film on iPhones,” my first response was ‘This is gonna be ghetto.” But it’s just so fabulous. Sean is amazing. He does all his own editing and everything. A lot of people want to give credit to the iPhone but you have to give credit to Sean.

WITW: Was it weird to act for an iPhone?

MT: The rules are pretty obvious: Don’t look at the camera. The hard part was balance. We were creating these characters who were so similar to us. We were trying to make these sad, depressing characters who still love each other strongly. Who are funny like we are in real life. You have to put everything into that. So the biggest challenge was trying to balance out the plot being so depressing and making it humorous.

WITW: What has the Oscar campaign been like?

MT: [She seems, not unreasonably, exasperated by this predictable question.] All I can say is that it is exciting!

WITW: Have you gotten strong support from other members of the trans community? I saw that Laverne Cox supported the film.

MT: We finally met in person at the beginning of December. I had been in the same room with her before, three or four years ago when she had just started [Orange is the New Black], at an event at an LGBT Center in LA. I had just started my transition probably a month before that. Now Laverne and I have been talking on the phone for months on end. She has helped me handle this situation. I’ll ask her things like there was an interview person who asked me what my previous name was. Why would anyone ask that? So I ask Laverne how to deal with stuff like that.

WITW: What’s next?

MT: I did a short film called Happy Birthday Marsha [about the transgender artists and activist Marsha P. Johnson, in the hours right before the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969.] Tomorrow I go to Palm Springs to do another short fiction film called Diane from the Moon. I am also developing my own TV show and next year I want to take off with my music. But all that is still under wraps.

Nowadays I live in North Dakota, with my fiancé. It’s very quiet, very different from my Hollywood lifestyle, going back and forth between Los Angeles and New York. I like it.

Tangerine is available for streaming on Netflix.

Moira Weigel is a writer and PhD candidate at Yale University. Follow her at or @moiragweigel 

Other stories by this author:

A fresh take on teen comedy aims to bring black female friendships to the fore

Christine Vachon: “It was exactly the kind of film I wanted to make: provocative, exciting, original”

Chantal Akerman: Remembering a pioneering feminist filmmaker

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