by Rebecca M. Alvin
When Sean Baker’s film about two transgender sex workers in Los Angeles, Tangerine, came out in 2015, it was hailed for depicting the lives of transgender street prostitutes in a boldly realistic and unsentimental way, neorealist in approach, but with a highly stylized look. Its two stars, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, both transgender sex workers whose experiences directly shaped Baker’s film, were brought out from the shadows of prostitution and thrust into the spotlight. It was one of those unexpected Hollywood stories of unlikely fame. For Taylor, the film brought accolades and awards as she was the first openly transgender actress to win the Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough Actor and also the first to receive the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress. It’s five years later, and Taylor will be receiving the Next Wave Award from the Provincetown International Film Festival in its reimagined edition this year, which features a screening of her latest film Stage Mother, starring Jacki Weaver and Lucy Liu.
“I want to be in a scary movie. Like, I don’t want to be the bitch that falls down every damn time. I want to be the person that gets away,” Taylor says when asked about her dream role. “Or something where maybe I’m playing like a high-powered attorney or doctor or something like that. Or it would be nice to just play a famous actress,” she adds.
It’s been a long hard road for the 29-year-old actress. Born and raised by her grandparents in Houston, Texas, Taylor studied acting in high school but wasn’t focused on that before she met Baker. “I really wanted to do music. Acting was not on my radar yet,” she recalls. “Then Tangerine came along and I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to do it.”
Meeting Baker when she was working the streets and only just starting hormone therapy, fame caught her at an awkward moment. “Everything happened so fast. I’d just started my transition. I didn’t even know who I was, and here I was presenting myself to the world, being judged by thousands of people—that was scary,” she says.
Given the way transgender women, women of color, and sex workers are typically portrayed in film, putting trust in Baker was not immediate, but she says she could sense he was for real, instinctively. “I’m sure you know a snake when you see a snake. And Sean is not that,” she says. “Plus on top of that I told him, ‘look, if we’re going to make this film, I want it to be funny. Yes, I’m sure the subject matter is sad and everything, but in real life I was a prostitute, you know.’ I was working on the street, sex work, tricks, and going to jail, getting robbed, or getting into all these different fights and things. It was hard for me to trust people. I don’t want to say that I was scared, because I don’t want to seem like some punk, but it can be scary,” she laughs. “I wanted it to be funny because even though the situation is dark, the way I got over my dark situation was I had my friends, my close friends like Alfred, like Kiki. And we’d laugh about our situation: ‘Okay, so what? So what rent didn’t get paid, bitch? What are we going to do? Okay, let’s go to the club. (laughs) You gotta make fun out of it. You just can’t be depressed all the time.”
The resulting film is a stark dramatic film, but it does include some of that humor Taylor demanded. Unique for its approach and style, but especially for its depiction of camaraderie between the two women, Tangerine is not like other films about prostitution, and it was eye-opening for many. Taylor was signed to a large Hollywood agency, but over these past five years, she, like many women, many trans women, many black women, has found the roles offered to her don’t match her interests.
“I will say I do a lot of auditions for many different types of roles. I mean just as a regular cisgender woman, or roles where it doesn’t really give a description of okay, this is what the character should be like,” she says. “My manager does a good job of kind of picking through because he knows I don’t want the sex-working roles. You know, it’s kind of been there, done that. I don’t want to just be known for that. You know, I worked very hard to get out of that life. I don’t want to keep acting that life on television. But you’d be surprised at how many auditions there are in the world for trans sex workers, I mean victims, being murdered or raped, or something—I don’t want to do all that. Uh-uh. That is not cute!” she adds.
She did have the opportunity to play legendary trans activist Marsha P. Johnson in a short film entitled Happy Birthday, Marsha in 2016. “I learned a lot through the film, she says. “I learned that Marsha was very carefree. She didn’t really give a damn about what anybody had to say about her. And she was always kind to other people,” Taylor says with reverence.
In the new film Stage Mother, Taylor plays Cherry, a drag performer in a club that a straight white woman from Texas inherits from her gay son after he dies of a drug overdose. The film is really about the struggle for family acceptance. Veteran actress Weaver portrays the Texas mother brilliantly as a woman who always really loved her son, but was unable to completely accept his “lifestyle” while he was alive. It’s a very sensitive film directed by Thom Fitgerald (Cloudburst), and Taylor says she is thrilled to have been a part of it.
“I loved that I was going to be singing and dancing and acting all at once, and I wanted to immediately be a part of it. Lucy Liu and Jacki Weaver, and it had Adrian Grenier— I love him. I was excited,” she says recalling first being offered the part.” Then going to Canada to film it and everything— Oh my God, it was a magical experience.”
Her own coming-out experience is an example of intersectionality, beginning with first coming out as gay to her grandmother. “She already knew, but to hear my lips say it… just the look that she gave me was the most evil look. Have you ever seen The Haves and the Have Nots? It’s Tyler Perry. He has a character in the show named Veronica Harrington, and her son Jeffrey Harrison is gay, and if you look at any scenes with her and him, the look that she gives him, that was the look that was given to me when I came out to my grandmother. And I loved her to death. I loved her so much that I told her I have to die before her because I wouldn’t be able to take it,” Taylor explains.
She eventually came out as transgender and, of course, as a sex worker, when Tangerine came out, further complicating the process for her and for her family. But she says her mother, with whom she did not grow up but reconnected as an adult, was an important source of strength for her.
Now, Taylor lives in North Dakota. She’s still an actress. She’s still pursuing her first love, music, but she’s also working as a nurse, on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked whether or not North Dakota is a tolerant place for a trans woman to live, Taylor explains, “I don’t really know because people don’t know I’m trans here. I keep it to myself.” Many don’t even know that she’s an actress, which she admits can cause some misunderstandings, as she reaps the benefits of her Hollywood career, while living in a very non-Hollywood place.
“ I love my life here. My life, it’s literally like the Hollywood life, but it’s in North Dakota. Like the life of glamour and fast cars, I have all of that, but I have it in North Dakota!” she laughs. “I have a normal job as a nurse and I will tell you this. Making money from acting and all of my speeches and everything, I was able to buy all these really expensive cars, like the Range Rovers and Jaguars and BMWs, and all these things, and people at my job would see and they’re like, ‘Okay. Bitch, are you making more money than me?’ Some of them had no idea that I was an actress. So it’s kind of a funny story because here I live a double life. Not everybody knows who Mya Taylor is, you know.”
The Provincetown International Film Festival will take place with both live and virtual events July 16 – 19. Mya Taylor will accept her award and participate in a conversation with filmmaker PJ Raval virtually and you may stream the conversation any day/time during the festival. For tickets (Free) and information visit provincetownfilm.org.