Meet the Breakout Star of 'Tangerine,' the Sundance Sensation

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
image

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in ‘Tangerine’

It’s a sweltering Monday afternoon in midtown Manhattan, and Mya Taylor would maybe like to be elsewhere.

The 24-year-old actress has spent much of the day (and, indeed, the last few months) answering questions about Tangerine, the micro-budget indie film that became a critical hit as soon as it premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival. In the movie, which opens in limited release on Friday, Taylor and her co-star, Katana Kiki Rodriguez, play transgender prostitutes named Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella, respectively. As the movie opens, Sin-Dee has just gotten out of jail after a serving a month for covering up a crime committed by her pimp-slash-boyfriend Chester (The Wire’s James Ransone). When she finds out he’s been cheating on her, the two women head off on a romp through the seedier parts of Hollywood, where they encounter cops, johns, friends, and rivals, all of whom Taylor takes on with a sardonic wit and battering-ram charm. “Our characters are very much like us,” she says. “Except for all the drama and lies and cheating — that’s not like us, not at all.”

Tangerine marks Taylor’s big-screen debut, which means that she’s already been asked about her origin story over and over again from journalists trying to figure out where the on-screen dynamo blew in from. She treats the questions with an understandable exhaustion, but her story is too good not to tell.

Taylor met director Sean Baker, who most recently directed 2012’s porn-focused dramedy Starlet, one afternoon in 2013 while he was wandering around Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard — one of Los Angeles’ grittier intersections — looking for stories. Despite his efforts, the director was largely being ignored until Taylor stepped in and introduced herself — partly because she thought he was good-looking, and partly out of empathy.

“I’ve been treated bad so much in my life, I couldn’t dare [be rude] to somebody else,” she says. “He came over and started talking to me, and I was telling him all the information that I knew about the area. He fell in love with the way that I told him the story [of the area]. He loved my personality, too, and wanted to end up meeting more and more and more.”

During one of their get-togethers, Taylor brought along a friend, Katana Kiki Rodriguez. Baker “fell in love with us,” she says, and saw the potential for a film based on their unbelievable street stories: Their raucous run-ins with various lovers and exes; their street fights with rivals; and even their lowest points, such as police encounters and public humiliations — all moments that wound up in Tangerine. “We did a workshop and everything to see if we could actually act — of course we could — and he gave us this [story outline], and we got to work.”

image

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Sean Baker, James Ransome and Mya Taylor at the ‘Tangerine’ premiere at BAM CinemaFest (Getty Images)

In addition to mining the stars’ real lives for the script, Baker heightened the realism of Tangerine with his guerilla-style production, which included using an iPhone camera that was equipped with a special lens, allowing him to shoot on the go (and relatively uninterrupted) in buses and restaurants and other public places in West Hollywood.

The road to even meeting Baker was a fraught one. Taylor was born Jeremiah James Bonner in Houston, Texas, and grew up under the strict rules of very Christian grandparents. Openly gay in school, Jeremiah retreated to the closet back at home, before finally running away to Los Angeles with a cousin in 2009. Having modeled as a teenager, the newly liberated Mya came to Hollywood with show-biz aspirations.

“I consider myself to just be a full-on entertainer,” she explains. “I’ve been singing my whole life and then I just got into acting. I guess you could say I’m just an entertainer, period.” A falling-out with the cousin left her homeless and forced her to put her career on hold, but Taylor found a community at LA’s LGBT Center, outside of which she first met Baker.

Tangerine doesn’t flinch from showing the difficulties faced by the trans community, from loudly spewed slurs to subtle digs and discrimination. Throughout the film, Sin-Dee and Alexandra face opposition from everyone they encounter — bus drivers, bouncers, even clients, making them strangers even in this very strange land. And while Tangerine has some deeply comic moments, it’s often unflinching in its portrayal of Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s day-to-day life.

“I told Sean I want it to be very real, very raw,” Taylor says. “Don’t try to fabricate, don’t try to put wallpaper on it to make it pretty. Show the real stuff. I know the storyline is very sad, but I wanted it to be very funny, also. Because I don’t want a theater full of crying people.”

Watch the ‘Tangerine’ trailer:

Her costar Ransone insists that the film’s impeccable cultural timing — a release in the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic gay marriage decision and the success of trans-themed shows like Amazon’s Transparent — is a happy little accident, the kind of scheduling quirk that helps with headlines, but doesn’t indicate the filmmakers’ intent.

“It’s just blind, dumb luck,” he says. “We would have made this movie five years ago or five years from now. It just so happened that the trans movement … was hitting as we made this movie.”

Taylor is a bit more reticent to talk about the sea change in American culture, and stays silent when Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox’s Entertainment Weekly cover story is mentioned. As for her own career, she’s working on an album and just completed filming her next big screen project: The short film, Happy Birthday, Marsha!, in which she plays gay-rights icon and Stonewall rioter Marsha P. Johnson. The film, which was funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, co-stars Lena Dunham’s younger sister, Grace.

There are more projects in the works Taylor says, and opportunities will come as audiences discover Tangerine, which will be expanding to more cities throughout July and August. (Go here for a list of theaters.) Taylor promises that it will take moviegoers to places they’ve never been before, no matter how many iconic Hollywood montages they’ve seen. “It’s the real LA,” she says. “The real LA is not the place you see on TV, where it’s Beverly Hills and Westwood. This is risky.”