Academy Screenings: ‘Tangerine’ star Mya Taylor on her breakthrough performance
If You Go …
What: ‘Tangerine’ at Academy Screenings
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Friday, Jan. 1, 5:30 p.m.
How much: $20/GA; $15 Aspen Film members; Free/AMPAS, BFTA, guild members
Tickets: Harris Concert Hall and Wheeler Opera House box offices; www.aspenshowtix.com
Mya Taylor’s 2015 was the stuff of Hollywood dreams.
She emerged from obscurity last January at the Sundance Film Festival with a star turn in the critical darling “Tangerine” about transgender Los Angeles sex workers. As 2016 begins, Taylor is being touted for a historic Academy Award nomination as she could become the first transgender actor to get an Oscar nod. “Tangerine” distributor Magnolia Pictures is campaigning for Taylor and co-star Kitana Kiki Rodriquez. The film plays Friday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings.
“I just want people to be happy and be proud that there are two transgender people in the movie and two transgender people actually playing those roles,” Taylor said in a recent phone interview.
First and foremost, “Tangerine” is a raucous screwball comedy. Set on Christmas Eve, its main plotline follows a transgender prostitute, Sin-Dee (Rodriguez), just out of jail, on a quest to get revenge on her cheating boyfriend/pimp. A trash-talking diva, Sin-Dee drags his other woman around the seedier sections of Los Angeles — quite literally by her hair — on the way to a climactic showdown. Her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) tries to keep her from going too far off the rails.
But, by the time Sin-Dee finds her man, “Tangerine” has drawn you into a tender story about friendship and loyalty, carried largely by the charismatic performances of Taylor and Rodriguez. Taylor’s Alexandra is the calm center — the eye of the storm in a frenetically paced movie romp of big laughs and palpable heartache.
“She needed to be mellow,” Taylor said of her character. “She needed to be more put-together than Sin-Dee. … The part that made it a little difficult was that the story is very depressing, and I wanted to make people laugh, to balance funny with this depressing story.”
After Sundance, “Tangerine” found itself in the zeitgeist of a watershed year that a Time magazine cover dubbed “The Transgender Tipping Point” — the year of Caitlyn Jenner, of Laverne Cox’s Emmy nomination, and of President Barack Obama making history by using the word “transgender” in his State of the Union address.
The politics ought not overshadow the cinematic achievement of “Tangerine,” an apolitical film that is only tangentially about trans identity. It also made headlines for being shot (and gorgeously so) entirely on iPhones, which, in the age of mega-budget tent-pole movie primacy and billion dollar box office grosses, should give some hope to cash-strapped independent filmmakers that they still have a forum and an audience.
Taylor met “Tangerine” director Sean Baker at an LGBT center in Los Angeles and helped introduce him to trans sex workers in Hollywood to shape his story.
“I didn’t think it was going to be like this,” she said of the attention and acclaim that’s swirled around her and the film. “I don’t put high expectations on anything. I was just doing something I thought was really great at the time.”
Last month, “Tangerine” won the audience prize at the Gotham Awards and has garnered Film Independent Spirit Award nominations for both Rodriguez (Best Female Lead) and for Taylor (Best Supporting Female). In a year when transgender civil rights and representation emerged as a mainstream cultural issue, Rodriguez and Taylor’s performances are getting their due.
“It’s groundbreaking that Magnolia Pictures is investing in campaigns for two transgender actors in acting categories,” said Aspen Film artistic director Maggie Mackay. “This is the year and this is the movie to do it.”
The acclaim has quickly made Taylor an inspirational figure and a spokesperson for the trans community — roles she’s proud to take on.
“Now that I have the opportunity, I’m happy to be speaking for other people,” she said. “It’s true that this has been great for me — things like the Gotham Award and nominations and an Oscar campaign — yes, that’s for me. But it’s also paving the way for other trans girls to be able to come in and say, ‘OK, if she can do it, I can do it.’”
Taylor is eager to keep growing as an actor and singer (she showcases her voice in “Tangerine” as Alexandra, performing nobly to a scant crowd in a bar). This winter, she shot a short film, “Diane From the Moon,” about a transgender pagan priestess, and a TV series with her as its star is in the works.
“Mya Taylor is not stopping,” she said. “No. 1: It’s my dream, to act and to sing. But No. 2: I’m not doing it for me. I want to prove to other trans people that you can do it. Come on, bring your talent out there. And, No. 3,” she added with a laugh: “I love to make money.”
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