Director Sean Baker remembers the first time he saw his muse.
Several blocks from where the filmmaker lived in West Hollywood, at the intersection of Highland Ave and Santa Monica Blvd, there’s a corner that is, in his words, “known for its drama and its chaos.” That’s where the neighborhood’s transgender sex workers hung out, and for weeks, he and his cowriter Chris Bergoch had been trying to ingratiate themselves. A few people showed mild interest; most simply gave them the brush-off. Then one day, Baker noticed a tall, striking woman talking to a crowd of people. Her name was Mya Taylor. “She had that it-factor thing,” he says. “It wasn’t just her physicality, she was just. . .you could tell this person was running the show.”
Mya would become the key to making Tangerine, a raucous, raw, day-in-the-life transgender revenge comedy that became the left-of-center hit of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A motormouthed streetwalker named Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just finished a 30-day jail stretch on Christmas eve. Her best friend, Alexandra (played by Taylor), accidentally lets it slip that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend/pimp, Chester (The Wire‘s James Ransone), has hooked up with a new girl. Given that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, our heroine takes off in search of her romantic competition and her two-timing beau; Alexandra, meanwhile, is preparing for a singing slot at a local cabaret that might be her big break. Along with an Armenian cab driver who’s smitten by the ladies, everyone spends their day running around the city, finally converging at a late-night doughnut shop for one blowout confrontation.
Once Baker and Taylor initially exchanged numbers, she helped let everyone know that hey, these guys that keep nosing around? They’re not cops, they’re OK. She was the one who’d sit for hours at the local Jack in the Box, telling them about what life on the street was like. She was the one who told him, “I know someone you need to meet,” and introduced Baker to the force of nature that is her co-star, Rodriguez. And most importantly, Mya was the one who set down the ground rules. “She said, ‘There are two things you have to promise me, Sean,'” he recalls. ” ‘You have to show what it’s really like out there — how hard it is, especially for trans-women of color who are forced to resort to prostitution for a living, because there’s nothing else for us. You have to be brutal, even if it’s not PC.’ Then she took a long pause and told me, ‘And you have to make it hilarious. If we wouldn’t laugh at this, then what’s the point?'”