Tangerine Peeled

Mya Taylor on her crash course in drag and her award-winning performance in ‘Stage Mother’

Mya Taylor. Photo by Daniel Bergeron

Countless actors fancy themselves overnight sensations. In the case of actress Mya Taylor, however, the claim is accurate.

A chance meeting at the Los Angeles LGBTQ Community Center paired Taylor–then a 23-year-old sex worker–with aspiring director Sean Baker. Baker convinced her to appear in his new movie, a film about Hollywood sex workers set to film on iPhones. The resulting movie, Tangerine, became a festival sensation. Taylor scored rave reviews for her work, and would go on to win the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress–the first-ever transgender performer to win the award.

Now Taylor returns to movies with Stage Mother. The film teams her with two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver, Lucy Liu, Adrian Grenier and Jackie Beat in a story about a conservative mother (Weaver) who inherits her son’s San Francisco drag bar. Taylor plays Cherry, a transgender queen who regularly takes to the stage, and who could use some maternal care herself.

Mya Taylor’s work in Stage Mother has earned her yet another accolade: this year, she receives the coveted Next Wave Award at the Provincetown Film Festival. The Next Wave Award recognizes distinctive artists who take artistic risks and have a passion for independent film. Past honorees include Chloe Grace Moritz and Jillian Bell.

We caught up with Taylor just ahead of the virtual Provincetown Film Festival, where Stage Mother will stream from July 16-19.

So things are crazy in the world at the moment. How are you doing?

Well I’m perfectly healthy. I haven’t gotten the virus, or been exposed to it. I do work as a nurse, so I am in the field where I could be exposed to it. But we’re tested every single week—I was just tested yesterday. I’m getting tired of getting stabbed in the throat…

Oh my. I can’t blame you for that one.

It’s a lot.

Well, thank you for your service. I’m so glad to hear you’re alright.

I just work and come home. I do auditions, tape them, send them in. I don’t know what’s going to happen if I actually get a job. A set is made up of a lot of people.

And you have a new movie coming out, so congratulations. Stage Mother is really adorable. It’s a sweet film.

I really loved it.

And you’re getting the Next Wave award!

Thank you. I’m excited.

How did the role of Cherry come to you?

In the beginning, I had done a ton of auditions. I was waiting for my next audition to come, and I expected my manager to call with one. But he called with my agent at ICM and said “We have this script we want you to look at. The director really wants to talk to you to see if you’re interested.” So I read the script, and…

[Her voice breaks. A beat]

It’s kind of emotional to me. When I was 18, I came out to my grandmother. I knew she already knew, but I came out as gay at that time. I didn’t start my transition until I was 22. Just the way she looked at me, and the way she started being different with me, I ended up leaving home. And that’s what started my journey.

Taylor with Oscar Moreno & Allister MacDonald 

Now, when I talked to Thom he mentioned that you were fairly uninitiated when it came to drag; your background was as an actress and singer. What kind of research did you do for the role?

Well, on set I was around professional drag queens. Even our make-up artist—she did drag too. And she did a little bit of coaching me. She was like ok girl, you’re going to wear these tall, platform heels. Walk like this and stick that ass out. Now, in my day-to-day life, I will wear heels, but no heels that are platform. But just to soften it up a bit, I was known as a trans drag queen. That’s my role. My character is a little bit more classy than my sisters.

You’re working with some heavyweight actors here, obviously. What do you learn from working with a great character actress like Jacki Weaver? How does it challenge you?

You know, I don’t even think about that. Here’s what I think about: there was a director that I worked with on the TV show Dietland. She’d been directing for a long time, like before I was even born. I asked her: “What makes a good actress? How can you be the best you can be as an actress?” She said, “The best thing you can do is just know your lines. When you get on the set, it will be totally different from what you imagined.” A director gives you the direction you need to go with that character. So that’s what I do. I just know my lines. You’ll never hear me say “Line?”

Related: Director Thom Fitzgerald on how the pain of loss fueled the comedy of ‘Stage Mother’

Well that’s good.

You have to take yourself out of the element, and really think how a character would react. That’s why you have to read a whole script: so you know the outcome. There’s a lot that comes along with it.

Jacki Weaver

One of the themes of the film is motherhood, of course, and Maybelline’s arc is primarily one of redemption for failing her son. You’re someone who has been very honest about your relationship with your own family, and how it’s improved. Is it a difficult experience doing a film that echoes your own life?

I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. I’ve pretty much overcome everything with my own family. I think some of my problems with my own family had to do with me, internally, not being entirely comfortable with who I was.

Interesting.

Feeling like my family members were judging me, or not accepting me. I’m one person who will overact about something. For instance…

Please.

I have a BMW that has turbos in it. I had it tuned. Then my car started misfiring, and the check engine light came on. I was like oh hell no, bitch! I’m about to buy an X-5!

[Laughter]

So I took it to a mechanic, and he said I needed new spark plugs. The tune gave it more power, so I needed new spark plugs, which is why it was misfiring. So I had overreacted. I was already on Cars.com looking for an X-5. I’m one to overreact. And my family—they just talk. I feel like sometimes they have diarrhea of the mouth.

Oh lord.

They’ll say stuff and not really think about what they’re saying, and they don’t mean what it sounds like they’re saying. So that’s where I’m going with that. But the film, in relation to my life—I could pull from my life as far as the emotions.

Taylor with Oscar Moreno & Allister MacDonald 

Sure.

Some of the things that happen in the film—if I’m doing a scene where I’m turned away or not accepted, all I have to do is think about the moment when I told my grandmother that I was gay. The look she gave…I remember how she looked in that moment. That’s how I pull out my emotions.

And it works every time?

Yes. If you notice in Tangerine I cried. That’s not glycerine. Those are actual tears. Any time you see my cry on screen, they are actual tears, not the fake stuff.

Is that exhausting? Do you feel like you carry pain around all the time then?

Not at all. I’m able to turn it on and turn it off. I’ve been through so much—all the prostitution and drug dealing and fights. I’ve been so much with so many different people, I can turn it on and turn it off. I’m pretty much numb to a lot of the emotions. I’m not saying things don’t bother me or hurt me, because they do. But I know how to get over it really quick and move on.

That’s healthy.

I’m not sure the way I do it is healthy. For instance, I just went through a divorce with my husband. But instead of being sad about it, I turn it to anger. I think about all the moments he pissed me off.

[Laughter]

But I can get over anger faster than I can get over sadness. That probably sounds crazy, but that’s just how I deal with it.

I don’t think that sounds crazy at all; everybody is different. As long as it’s not taking a toll on you, it seems healthy.

Yeah.

Taylor in ‘Tangerine’

You’ve been acting professionally for 5 years now. In that time—in part, thanks to your work—the images people have of transgender Americans has changed considerably. So have opportunities for trans performers. How have opportunities changed for you as an actress in that time?

You know, my manager Aaron Brown of Avalon Management—he shields me from a lot. I told him I didn’t want to keep getting offered roles and doing auditions for prostitutes or drug dealers. I don’t want to be a victim. I don’t want to play a transwoman that gets killed. Bring me an audition that’s just a regular person, a cisgender woman. A lot of the auditions he’ll send to me won’t even have a specific character in mind. [The character breakdown] won’t say “Latina woman,” or “caucasian man.” It’s just for a person. And the director wants to find a person that fits the role. I’ve done a lot of those kind of auditions recently. Yesterday I did an audition for a cartoon. They didn’t say they wanted a transgender woman or a white woman, they just needed a female.

That’s fantastic. So what kind of characters are you really interested in playing? What your dream role?

You know, what I really want to do is be a hero in something, or be in a horror movie. Not a whore movie. A horror movie.

[Laughter]

Thank you for clarifying.

A couple days ago someone asked me the same question. I said I do not want to be the bitch that falls down all the time. I will be the one that runs away or kills the killer.

The final girl—the girl that survives and beats the killer. That’s great.

It would be so fun. I have so much fun on set, and if it’s gonna be dull, I’ll make it fun.

How do you create that atmosphere of fun?

I’m just normally really comfortable with people, and I know how to bring that out of them. I love to see people laugh. I love to see happiness. If you remember, back when I did Tangerine, I was comfortable with Sean [director Sean Baker] because I said “Look, if we’re going to do this project, I know it’s a sad subject matter. So we’re going to make it fun.” That’s how I get through life. Let’s say you’re homeless on the street with your best friend. You’re at the bottom. All you can do is go up. You might as well make it fun. Go out to the club. Throw a party. Handle your business at the same time, but have fun. You don’t have to be down just because something bad happens to you.

That’s a wonderful outlook, and a healthy one. Obviously, Halle Berry just stepped in a gigantic mess for announcing she was going to play a trans man. She’s since backed off of that. Why do you think Hollywood, for all its advances, still can be so tone-deaf when it comes to casting a trans role?

Quite honestly, I do not know. I do not get it, for the life of me. We have made improvements, but it’s not enough. You see cisgender men and women playing their own roles, or our roles. It seems like we don’t get hired for much of anything, unless it has to do with prostitution or drug dealing or getting killed. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. It’s so hard and expensive to make your own work without others to help cover the bill. And by others, I mean cisgender people.

It still boggles my mind. On the subject of coming a long way in five years, obviously your life has changed so much. You’re playing higher-profile roles and winning awards. What are you most grateful for?

You know, it’s not even about the material things or luxury items. I don’t have to struggle anymore. When I did Tangerine and started making money, I don’t know if you noticed, but I gained a ton of weight. I was eating finally!

[Laughter]

Fortunately now I’ve lost 36 pounds.

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I am blessed to have had the opportunities I've been give. My success demonstrates that trans actors are not limited by their gender status, nor impair our ability to achieve remarkable things. I respect my trans brothers and sisters who work twice as hard to get half as far in this industry, and with the challenges we face with adequate representation and visibility in film, I am disappointed that and inordinate amount of roles go to cisgender actors who tell our stories while excluding qualified trans performers from the process. Thanks to those who have stood alongside us with love and support, and let's hope the recent dialogue, long overdue, begins to break this exclusionary trend in the entertainment industry. As always, treat one another with kindness and respect. – mya

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Wow.

I’m back to being small again. But I said this is my foot in the door. Time to get everything done. So I went and got my name and gender changed. I got a stable job, because acting’s not always stable. That’s what I’m most grateful for: normalcy.

That’s wonderful. When do you experience that the most?

When I go to work and live a stealth life of just being a woman. I go to work, and I’m Mya Taylor. Other than the coworkers that actually know who I am have seen my movies…I’m like bitch, shut your mouth. Then I get to come home and feel safe, not worry about where I’m going to sleep or what I’m going to eat. I still have people in my life like my longtime friend Alfred Lopez, who actually makes an appearance in Tangerine. I’m grateful for that.

It speaks so well of you that it’s just the basic stuff, not a misfiring BMW.

[Laughter]

So many people take for granted having a job, or food, or a place to live or friends. That’s beautiful.

It’s funny, but it’s true.

Stage Mother plays at the Provincetown Film Festival July 16-19.