LGBT

Transgender Actress Mya Taylor’s Journey From Impoverished Sex Worker To Oscar Contender

CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

Actress Mya Taylor as Alexandra in Tangerine.

“See? You already got it wrong. The film is not about people in sex work. The film is about friendship. The people just happen to be sex workers. It’s just like a real life story, you know?”

That was actress Mya Taylor’s first response to ThinkProgress in an interview about the film Tangerine, in which she co-stars. The low-budget indie film — so low-budget it was shot on an iPhone 5s — was first released in July, but arrives on Netflix Friday.

Taylor was correct, of course. The characters Alexandra, played by Taylor, and Sin-Dee, played by her co-star Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, are indeed individuals who rely on sex work for survival, but the film is not at all about doing sex work. It’s actually a riotous “day in the life” romp about how Sin-Dee, fresh out of four weeks of jail, tracks down the new girl her drug-dealing boyfriend has been cheating on her with so that she can confront him. Alexandra, the ever-supportive friend, is simultaneously recruiting people to come see her sing at a club — a dream come true.

But not only is Tangerine a film about sex workers that’s not about sex work, it’s also a film about transgender people that isn’t about transitioning. Unlike contemporary works like The Danish Girl and Transparent, Alexandra and Sin-Dee are transgender characters who are having life experiences that aren’t about coming out as transgender or being trans people. They just happen to be trans people. More importantly, unlike the star actors Eddie Redmayne and Jeffrey Tambor, Taylor and Rodriguez are both transgender themselves.

As award season rolls around, the team behind Tangerine is hoping some unconventional buzz will help earn it the Oscar nods it probably deserves. The campaign is the latest chapter in the story behind the film, which is perhaps even more compelling than the film itself — a high bar.

As transgender actresses, Taylor and Rodriguez are already breaking some glass ceilings with the accolades they are receiving. Tangerine has received four nominations for Film Independent’s Spirit Awards, including acting nods for both actresses — the first time a trans woman has been nominated for both Best Female Lead and Best Supporting Female. At the Gotham Awards, Tangerine won for audience film favorite and Taylor won for breakthrough actor, making her the first trans actress to win that award.

But Taylor’s journey to award contender was not a glamorous one, as she shared with ThinkProgress.

Taylor did eventually answer the question ThinkProgress originally asked, which was about what she hopes audience members actually learn about sex work from the film. “I hope that people see this is real. Trans people — not every trans person — but trans people are doing sex work because they can’t get a job or anything,” she explained. She knows from experience.

“I could not get a job because I am trans,” she said matter-of-factly. That’s the only reason she was forced into sex work.

“I applied for everything under the sun. I applied for everything from cleaning all the way to being a personal assistant… from as low as you can go to the top. I did 26 interviews in one month and I know I was more than skilled in every job because a long time ago when I was a boy, I had those skills. It’s so different when you transition; nobody wants you around.” She applied for 186 jobs in one month, 146 the month before, and 121 the month before that. All that she did all day was apply for every job that she could find.

And Taylor had experiences in which she knows she was discriminated against. In one case, she had a great interview for a telemarketing job. She did not disclose that she was trans, but her identity documents had not been updated to match her appearance. The interviewer said she would be called over the weekend to test her voice, but the call never came. When she went back to the office to check, she was told, “We’re not hiring anymore. We’re having a hiring freeze.”

She went home and called the office again, identifying herself as “Jessica Miller” and asking about a job opening. The receptionist told her, “Oh yes, girl, we’re still hiring. Just come on in and do an interview.” Taylor returned to the office, explained to the receptionist that she was “Jessica Miller,” but that she was also Mya Taylor and how she had been turned away. The man who discriminated against her was forced by his boss to hire her, but he wasn’t disciplined. In fact, he became Taylor’s boss, so she left shortly thereafter. “Every time I’d pass through he’d just be looking at me all horrible and he didn’t really speak to me in the mornings. He’d say good morning to everybody else,” but not her. “It felt so awkward; it was so uncomfortable.” The story is only one of many.

But Taylor, like the many other trans women who experience such discrimination, did not bother to file a complaint. “It takes a long time to sue somebody for anything,” she told ThinkProgress. “I didn’t have time for that. I was sleeping on my friend’s floor; I had better things to do.”

“Instead of worrying about trying to sue somebody and hoping, ‘Oh, I’m gonna get all this money,’ or this or that? No. Look for me a fucking job and find somebody who’s going to give me the chance. That’s all I was focused on. I didn’t care about suing or anything; I just wanted to live a normal life.”

Taylor was desperate for a job — all she wanted was the opportunity to just go work all day and have a family and home to come home to. She didn’t care what it was, she would make a career out of it. “I would be so grateful that someone gave me the opportunity. Whether it was cleaning or not. It could be somebody’s house maid; I would turn it into a career and be the best fucking maid that I can be. Because I wanted a job.” She was tired of relying on sex work for money, non-profit organizations for food, and friends for a place to stay.

In many ways, Tangerine gave her the opportunity to escape that cycle of discrimination and despair, but that doesn’t mean she’s done fighting anti-trans discrimination.

With transgender characters increasingly garnering attention, Tangerine is still fighting for a place at the table even despite its acclaim and unique brand of authenticity. Last month, the White House honored a number of LGBT artists as “Champions of Change” and hosted a day-long event that included screenings of The Danish Girl and the Season 2 premiere of Transparent. There was also a panel discussion about transgender representation on television and film that ironically only featured one filmmaker who is actually trans (Rhys Ernst, a producer on Transparent).

Taylor was in attendance though, and during the discussion, The Danish Girl director Tom Hooper acknowledged her and praised Tangerine. But just as Tangerine was not screened, Taylor did not actually have the opportunity to speak. The Washington Post asked the White House why, but received no response.

“It pissed me off,” Taylor told ThinkProgress. “It really pissed me off.”

“I could have shed a lot of light in that room on a lot of issues because I can speak from my own personal experience, and I didn’t get that opportunity,” she said. “Here I am, the star of this movie, and I’ve actually been through shit.”

If she had been invited to speak, she would have emphasized what a difference it would make if transgender people could just get jobs. “All they need is the opportunity to get their life on track, and trans people are not given that opportunity. They’re just not.”

Taylor doesn’t subscribe to the ideas of “transphobia” and “homophobia”; instead, she simply believes that “people are just so hateful” and don’t know how to show respect:

I’m a very, very religious person. God lives within me, but this is what I have to say. God did not put me on this planet to worry about what Zack Ford is doing with his life, or who Zack Ford is fucking, because first, that’s not paying any of my bills. How can I tell you, “Well, you shouldn’t be doing this,” or, “Why are you doing that?” or “Eww!” How dare I say something to you about who you’re having sex with or what gender you choose. If you said you were a fucking tree, then you’re a fucking tree! I respect that! You’re a fucking daffodil! No, you’re a tree with oranges sprouting out of you right now! I’m so proud of you! I respect that.

That’s all we need in this world is respect. We wouldn’t have to go to Congress for shit. We wouldn’t have to do any petitions or any ordinances or anything like that if everybody just respected each other and minded their business. God put me in this world for a few reasons, and those are: to be the best person that I can be, to respect and love one another, and to honor Him. That’s it. I don’t know why people don’t get that, because I know that the Torah, the Quran, and the Bible don’t preach hate. I don’t know where people get that from.

In addition to continuing to advocate for Tangerine‘s accolades, Taylor plans to start speaking to college campuses in the spring, having signed with OutMedia. “I do want to be a spokesperson for transgender people,” she admitted. “I think about the girls who are still on the streets and doing the same thing and being taken over by drugs. It’s hard for me not to think about that.”

Acknowledging that could still be her, she insists, “I do have a platform and I do plan on using it to help other people, because I’ve gotten out of that hard, horrible life.”

Despite her feelings about the White House panel, Taylor doesn’t begrudge cisgender actors like Redmayne and Tambor for playing transgender roles. “If you’re telling the story truthfully and you’re being honest about it and you’re doing a wonderful fucking job, then do it. I don’t care who plays the roles.”

She believes both actors have done a “wonderful job” in their roles — “credit is due where credit is due” — but she also hopes that more transgender people get the opportunity to play different roles. “Everybody should just be treated fairly. If everybody just had ‘the opportunity,’ then everything would be much better.”

Though she considers herself more of a singer than an actor (she sings a lovely rendition of “Toyland” in Tangerine), Taylor is using her momentum from the film to spur other acting opportunities. She is currently developing a TV series about her own transition, and she stars in the upcoming short film Happy Birthday Marsha!

Happy Birthday Marsha!, now in post-production and still raising money on Indiegogo to support its completion, spotlights Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender artist and activist who was part of the Stonewall riots. Taylor said that the role was “so special to me” because “she has been so overlooked for so long” and was “such a sweet person” by all accounts. “She didn’t have much money for anything, so she’d go buy a box of cookies or something, but by the time she got home, they were gone because she gave them out to all the homeless people.”

That experience resonates with Taylor because she knows what it’s like to have nothing and still put others before her. One day, she recounted, she had only $5, but she encountered a homeless person who needed money for food. She gave the individual $4, because she knew that she was still better off because she at least had a place to stay that night. Playing Johnson was a chance to honor that sentiment, Taylor said, and she can’t wait for audiences to get to know an activist whose role was largely minimized in this year’s widely-panned film Stonewall. (She wouldn’t say whether or not Johnson “throws the first brick” in Happy Birthday Marsha!‘s version of events.)

The actress has come a long way from those days on the streets of Los Angeles, but she’s trying to remain humble. “There’s nothing that’s changed about me,” she said. “I take pride in myself, I take pride in who I am.” She admits that her life is now “fabulous,” because she’s not poor anymore, adding that she’s not rich either. What’s different is that she’s happy, and she takes none of it for granted — and it doesn’t seem like an Oscar nomination or win could change that.

As an Oscar contender, Tangerine has quite an uphill battle. At the box office, it brought in just $700,000 — a good return for a film that cost $100,000 to make, but paltry compared to blockbusters. The last 10 Best Picture winners averaged about $206 million at the box office, with The Hurt Locker being the lowest at $49.2 million.

Likewise, the Oscars have notoriously disfavored films that feature women as protagonists. In 2015, none of the nominated films were female-led. Only five films with female leads have ever won the top prize — Chicago, Out of Africa, Terms of Endearment, The Sound of Music, and All About Eve.

Likewise, only four winning films have starred people of color: Gandhi, The Last Emperor, Slumdog Millionaire, and 12 Years a Slave. No film featuring women of color in leading roles has ever won; in fact, only three have ever been nominated: The Color Purple, Precious, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

With the odds stacked against it, the one thing Tangerine has on its side is the glowing reviews it has received; it boasts a “Certified Fresh” 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The question is whether that near-unanimous acclaim will be enough for The Academy to notice its breakthrough actresses and production team.

No transgender actor has previously been nominated for an Oscar, but a source within the organization has confirmed that trans women will indeed count as women for nominations. Academy voters just have to follow through on actually nominating Taylor and Rodriguez, completing their Cinderella story with its Tangerine carriage.