If “Tangerine” is the film that gets people to think compassionately about the often dismal realities of life as a trans sex worker, that’s lovely. But Mya Taylor, one of the film’s stars, would like you to please get the words right.
“A ho is self-employed. A whore sleeps around with different men. Then you have a slut, and then you have a tramp — a tramp, you know, somebody who’s married, but she’s sleeping around with different men,” Taylor says matter-of-factly from the lobby of Washington’s Hotel Palomar. “I was a ho. There’s a difference between being a ho and a prostitute. A prostitute has a pimp.”
Just like the indie film whose script bears so much of her influence, Taylor, 24, has a way of discussing life on the street with a levity and frankness that belies the danger she often faced a mere two years ago, when she was doing sex work in Los Angeles to support herself. Taylor was raised by her grandparents, but she says they kicked her out of the house at age 18 on account of her being transgender. (She has since reconnected with her mother, who coined her name, Mya.) Unable to secure legal employment, like so many other young trans women of color, Taylor turned to the infamous intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, the unofficial marker of Hollywood’s red-light district.
“Out in those streets, the girls are all against each other,” Taylor said. “It’s like, ‘Okay, this b---- make more money than me? I’m ’bout to go rob her.’ It was like that. Or they’d have their men set up to try to go and get you. So you gotta work far away, scared that somebody’s gonna try to get you together. And if it’s not that, then it’s the cops bothering you, being undercover and everything. Oh my god. It’s so much.”
Eventually, she met director Sean Baker and agreed to be in his movie, a witty, utterly humane portrayal of a day in the life of two sex workers, Alexandra (played by Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who is also transgender). Sin-Dee, freshly sprung from 28 days in the joint, spends her day on the hunt for the woman with whom her boyfriend, who is a pimp, has been cheating. Alexandra agrees to help her as long as Sin-Dee promises to keep drama to a minimum. Naturally, it’s the opposite that happens.
“Tangerine” was well-received by critics and although its $700,000 box-office gross is paltry compared with any number of blockbusters, it’s a giant number for a film that was shot on iPhones (the 5S) and starred first-time actors. Executive producer Mark Duplass estimated that the film’s entire production budget was “akin to a day or two’s catering budget on a movie like ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ ” Encouraged by its success, “Tangerine’s” backers have set their sights on a bigger and historic goal — an Oscar nomination for Taylor.
The Duplass Brothers (Mark and Jay are the production team responsible for the HBO dramedy “Togetherness” and indie film faves such as “The Skeleton Twins” and “The Overnight”) and distributor Magnolia Pictures know they are fighting an uphill battle. If they’re successful, it would be the first Oscar nomination for a trans actress. It’s a bold play, one that seems either comically or pitifully implausible, especially when compared with big-budget Oscar campaigns financed by the likes of Harvey Weinstein. This year’s Weinstein juggernaut is “Carol,” a historical tear-jerker starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara at the center of a forbidden midcentury love affair.
And yet, maybe there’s hope. “Tangerine” netted four Independent Spirit Award nominations last week, including one for best feature alongside “Carol,” which led all films with six nominations. Baker was nominated for best director, while Taylor and Rodriguez received acting nods.
Magnolia and the Duplass brothers won’t go the classic route in the “for your consideration” game. That would cost too much money (a single full-page ad in Variety could cost around $15,000), and they are looking to disrupt the traditional formula of Oscar campaigning.
“To be perfectly honest with you, what we, like all politicians, were thinking was, ‘Well, we’ll never get nominated this year, but at least we’ll lay some track. We’ll open the Academy’s eyes to it,’ ” Mark Duplass said. “And then, I think the movie turned out so great, and the way people were responding to it. . . . I think it’s just zeitgeist stuff. What began as a pipe dream — let’s just get the conversation started in our quest to bring newer, more interesting and, quite frankly, cheaper films in front of the Academy — might just have the right timing and momentum to actually break through.”
The awards campaign doesn’t just take place in Hollywood, though.
Last week, at an event honoring LGBT artists, the White House hosted screenings of “The Danish Girl,” a new film starring Eddie Redmayne about one of the first people to get gender reassignment surgery in the 1920s, along with the second-season premiere of “Transparent,” Amazon.com’s much-lauded series starring Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman, who is learning to live publicly as a woman. Jay Duplass is also one of the show’s stars. (Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The day included a panel discussion on transgender representation on television and film. The panel included “Danish Girl” director Tom Hooper, “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, Tambor and filmmaker Rhys Ernst; it was moderated by Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, the first openly trans person to work in the White House. During the discussion, Hooper took a minute to recognize Taylor and “Tangerine,” and asked her to stand up after saying a few words about how much he enjoyed the film.
It’s not all that surprising that “Tangerine” didn’t get a prestigious White House screening. It is a film that is blunt, direct and deliberately discomfiting. “The Danish Girl,” by comparison, is sensitive and delicate; one reviewer called it “yawningly polite.” (The White House did not respond to Washington Post inquiries about how the panel was chosen or why Taylor was not on it.)
However inappropriate “Tangerine” may seem, there’s a realness about it that is rarely seen in award-season films. It doesn’t boast a sweeping score. It doesn’t have a happy ending. It lacks the exquisite quiet desperation of a bygone era. But that doesn’t mean its characters lack dignity — far from it.
The story of “Tangerine” is threaded together and based on experiences Rodriguez and Taylor gathered from friends and acquaintances. Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s feelings, like the poverty they contend with on a daily basis, are real. Their problems, both large and trivial, are human problems. The problems many trans women of color face are different from those of middle-age, white trans women, who are often more financially stable.
Trans women of color made up half of all the LGBTQ and HIV-affected murder victims of hate-based crimes in 2014, according to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Trans women who survived hate-based violence were more likely to also experience police violence, physical violence, discrimination, harassment, sexual violence, threats and intimidation, the report said.
“People are just hateful,” Taylor said. “That’s all that it is. The only thing that can be helpful is if people just learn to respect everybody. . . . People are going to be people, no matter how many laws or acts or whatever are posted in the whatever, you know?” She laughed. “It’s still going to be the same.”
On the Monday morning before heading to the White House, Taylor was in full movie star regalia, sporting a black, body-con asymmetrical cocktail dress; a dramatic cape trimmed in black fur; sparkly pumps and red lipstick.
She was talking about how she ended up in sex work as a last resort, saying she filled out nearly 200 job applications in one month alone and went on more than 20 interviews but was unable to get hired.
Would legalized sex work have made it easier or more comfortable for Taylor to report attempted sexual assaults or other violent injustices that routinely occur as a matter of course in the underground economy?
“Most definitely,” Taylor said. “But I don’t condone sex work, I really don’t, because it is dangerous. But sometimes, you have to do what you have to do. So it’s kind of hard for me to answer these questions, because I don’t want people to read the interview or hear the interview and be like, ‘Oh, she’s like, it’s okay.’ ”
Taylor has little faith that policy changes alone would improve lives for the trans women working at Santa Monica and Highland and corners just like it all across the country. “This is what I feel like should happen: I feel like there should be a law passed that every business, every corporation that you see, they should have training on trans people so it just becomes more common,” Taylor said. “That’s what I think needs to happen. Because you have to think, every trans person isn’t going to be as pretty or as passable — I think all trans people are beautiful because that’s just me, but realistically, every trans person isn’t as passable to blend in with cisgender women. Like me!” she laughed, gesturing toward herself.
Even with the starring turn and the Oscar-nomination campaign, she’s in no danger of going Hollywood. She is focused on continuing her career by playing more trans women, such as the activist Marsha P. Johnson, whom Taylor depicts in the upcoming film “Happy Birthday, Marsha!”
“Some people in interviews, they ask, ‘So how has this changed your life?’ Oh, of course, I’m a movie star. It does feel better and everything,” Taylor said. “I’m not rich, but I’m not broke, either. I feel like, ‘Look at me, I’ve gotten out of that life, but look at the people who are left behind, who are still doing that same thing.’ It does still sadden me. I’m proud of myself for getting out of that and doing what I love to do, but look at some of the girls who’ve been left behind and are still doing the same thing. Yeah, that bothers me.”