Hustler at Heart: From Sex Worker to Silver Screen Star

For all her genial charm and cheeky disposition, acting newcomer Mya Taylor has seen her fair share of personal hardship. A former sex worker, Taylor’s acting debut in the film Tangerine came courtesy of a chance encounter with director and indie-darling Sean Baker (Prince of Broadway, Starlet); who spotted Taylor while researching the red-light districts of Los Angeles, and saw in her an untapped talent primed for the big screen. In a striking example of art imitating life, Taylor found herself drawing from her past experiences to play the role of Alexandra, a transgender sex worker and talented singer whose raucous Christmas-Day escapades with best friend Sin-Dee (Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez) form the narrative backbone of this very funny, raunchy, occasionally serious and often tender buddy-comedy; one that refuses to wallow in judgment, condescension, saccharine sentimentality or pity.

We’re first introduced to Alexandra and Sin-Dee as they catch up over donuts at Donut Time; the famous dingy L.A. joint and favorite local hangout on the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue that serves as the film’s aesthetic, geographic, narrative, and thematic fulcrum. Fresh off a brief jail stint for solicitation, Sin-Dee learns that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (the always wonderful James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was away—a betrayal that stings all the more since it was with a cis female—and with a sense of frenzied determination, she enlists Alexandra’s help in tracking down the cheating Chester. Opening on a zoomed-in shot of the grubby mustard-yellow surface of a Donut Time booth, Baker presents this seedy establishment as an important and integral fixture throughout the film—one that helps establish its sun-kissed setting, gritty visual texture and street-smart sensibility—and in a nice bit of full-circle storytelling, it is here where Tangerine’s action begins, and where much of it comes to a chaotic head as more characters converge in a dizzying and thrilling climactic scene.

Eschewing the trappings of fetishized exploitation or overt social commentary, Tangerine refuses to moralize, politicize or fixate on its central heroines’ predicaments or professions—and the few times it does address the circumstances or gender identity of its protagonists, it does so with striking realism: through a subtle dose of self-deprecating humor injected with casual, matter-of-fact restraint. Filmed on location and shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, Tangerine’s micro-budget lends the film a coarse verisimilitude not unlike that of a documentary—and with a photographic tapestry bathed in a gauzy haze of saturated golden hues, Tangerine’s Santa Monica atmosphere is so prominently felt, that in many ways the film treats it not only as a city, but a character in its own right.

While Taylor is making the most out of her short time in the spotlight, the Texas native never loses sight of where she came from—and rather than treat her difficult past as a shameful and distant memory, she owns it with a candid sense of personal triumph.  Carrying herself with the assertive poise of a career veteran who’s long been through the showbiz ropes, Taylor’s comportment disguises the fact that the Tangerine star is an industry neophyte who still finds herself cherishing the momentum of her whirlwind success. With an exuberance that spills from the screen and shines in person, the actress’s charismatic presence make it easy to forget that beyond the pampered glamour and casually confident effervescence lies a hustler at heart who refuses to take any good fortune for granted, and whose newfound stardom isn’t lost on her.

Following the film’s enthusiastic reception at its Sundance premiere, I had the chance to sit down with Taylor—and with our discussion spanning everything from her upbringing to the recent controversy over trans bathroom use; the actress opened up about what it was like to film on the very street corners she used to work, her transition from sex worker to playing one on the big screen, the need for greater trans visibility, and her meteoric rise from obscurity to magazine cover girl.

Check out the trailer and full interview below:

Can you describe the first time you met Sean Baker?

One day I was sitting outside the LGBT center in Santa Monica, and I was just talking with my friends and everything; and I saw this really, really cute white guy from across the room who started walking towards me. I was like, ‘Bitch, he’s coming! He’s coming!’ And he came up to me and asked if I knew anything about the area since he was doing some research for his next project and wanted to know some local information. And I was like ‘Of course, sure!’

Tell me about how your experiences and those of the people around you shaped what we see in the film.

Well, let’s backtrack a bit. From the beginning, I told Sean that if I was going to agree to do this project, I would need for it to be as real and as raw as possible, no condoms. Even though I used to be a sex worker, my character is still very different from the real me because in real life I’m always like this [gestures to outfit] – I’m always dolled up; I’m never that raggedy like Alexandra is. I think the only thing I can really relate to her on is humor because I’m a funny person. You know, I like to see people happy and laughing because I’ve had such a dark life. So I want to see happiness. And even though the movie’s storyline is pretty dark, I didn’t want a theater full of crying people. I feel like when you’re in the types of situations like these characters are, all you have is humor as a way of uplifting yourself.

It takes a lot of strength to want to share that humor through all the pain that you or those around you might have experienced.  Were you scared at the thought of opening up your life to Sean and to everyone involved in this film? 

No. [chuckles] I’m never scared of anything, and neither is Alexandra.


No, except when it comes to roaches – I’m scared of those.  But other than that, I’m not really scared of anything since I’m pretty much an open book.

Has that always been the case?

Yeah, I’ve always been like that.  And as far as replaying those parts of my life – like my sex work past – for the screen, it didn’t affect me mentally because I’m kind of numb to pain. It doesn’t really bother me. That’s not to say my feelings wouldn’t get hurt if someone said something mean to me. Eventually though, I would just brush it off.

Now that the film has been out for quite a while since its Sundance release, and you’ve been traveling around the country promoting it, what has that process been like in terms of engaging people and talking about your life?  Has that gotten easier or more difficult?

When I first started explaining, and going into detail, about my life to audiences, I would sometimes sense myself getting emotional and would have to pull back because it does sadden me knowing that I had to go through all of what I did. I grew up with a horrible family; I didn’t live with my mom or anything like that – I knew very little about her growing up because my grandparents were evil and completely shut us off from our mom. And as a result, my siblings and I were treated horribly growing up – but I was especially “targeted” because they knew from an early age that I was different.

Then I moved from Texas to L.A. at the age of 18, and that’s when a family member introduced me to the street life.  Now she’s a multimillionaire; whereas I was left homeless on the streets.  So there’s a lot that informed my character, but we’re not here to discuss all of it [chuckles].

Has your relationship with those family members or people from your past changed as a result of the awareness surrounding the film, including the fame and attention it has brought you?

Well I directly keep in touch with my real mom now. She loves me, and was actually the one who gave me the name Mya. We took it from my former name [which I’d like to remain off the record].

This movie was famously shot on an iPhone.  Speaking on your own behalf and on the behalf of the other actors in the film, how did you relate to this device being turned into this means of capturing this experience in a movie – not only because you have these more intimate scenes – but because I imagine it would have an impact on how you relate to each other, or how comfortable you were filming in terms of not feeling as though an intrusive camera was always there?

You know, at first I was like ‘Child, this is so ghetto,’ but it turned into something really great. People ask me if the iPhone was distracting, or if it made it easier since this is my first time being in a movie.Even though I’ve never acted before, I’ve been singing my whole life, which is harder but also comes more naturally to me – and it wasn’t either of those things. It felt the same. I mean it’s obvious: Don’t stare at the fucking camera.

Speaking of singing, you showed off some impressive vocal chops during your character’s rendition of Doris Day’s Toyland. Do you enjoy singing classical music in real life?

I do love classical music, but I don’t know too much about it.  Though having been trained in opera, I did have an opera coach who taught me correct breathing and supporting techniques, and how to project my notes.  So my voice is more classically trained, but I mostly enjoy singing R&B.

When you’re doing a dramatic scene, are you thinking about, and tapping into, something sad that happened in your life, or are you just in the moment?

I get in the moment because when I’m looking at a script, I read every line – even lines that aren’t mine of course – because you want to know where the emotion is going to come from. The more I go over it, the more it starts to develop. And having other actors around helps the emotion develop more naturally of course, or at least it does for me. I mean, it may take me like one or two times – maybe even three – to get something right that’s a little more challenging than the rest of the script, but for the most part it’s pretty simple because I really just focus on what I’m doing.

 The film’s dialogue stands out for its incredible realism; not only in terms of its natural rhythm of banter, but the way it drops us right into the middle of conversations at random moments, allowing us to catch snippets here and there, or the way multiple characters will frantically and unintelligibly talk over one another during a dispute. Were there any scenes in which you and the other actors were told to loosely follow the script and improvise the rest?

That’s exactly what he [Baker] said. Sometimes we’d have to shoot a certain scene two or three times because I wanted it to be more natural.

So strict line memorization wasn’t necessarily a priority on set?

Right. The hardest part about acting is memorizing lines and that’s not even hard.

Did any of the other nonprofessional supporting actors, such as those real-life sex workers, find it difficult at first to adjust to the camera’s presence without getting distracted or looking at it directly?

They largely improvised. I think some of them did have issues with looking at the camera, so there were times when we had to shoot multiple takes.

What was your dynamic like on set with Kiki [who plays your best friend Sin Dee]?  How did you feed off one another on screen?

Kiki is an equally amazing actor, she really is. For example, we would start a scene by asking the other ‘So bitch how was your day?’ or ‘What did you do today girl?’ and we’d go off of that as a way of getting warmed up through laughter, and from there it just started to come together.

Had you known each other before working together on this film?

Yeah, we actually lived together at the time we shot Tangerine, but you know, she’s had more acting experience than me.

What was your initial reaction when you found out you had won the Gotham Award?

I was really excited! There was a lady sitting next to me on the plane and she knew who I was, and here I am saying ‘I won! I won!’, and it was pretty exciting, but I was more sad because I couldn’t be there to actually give my speech since I knew I would’ve given an amazing one. I didn’t have to write anything down, because that kind of public speaking comes natural for me.

Something tells me there will be many more opportunities to deliver your speech.

Yeah, hopefully my plane doesn’t break down again.  At least it didn’t while we were in the air!

With your success, do you feel a certain responsibility to serve as the poster child for the trans community? Do you feel pressured by that responsibility?

No, not at all. You know, I actually like it, because right now I have so much going for me in my life. I’m getting married next year, I have a lovely home and I’m always eating everything. But I think about the people who are less fortunate who can’t just as easily get out of the situation they’re in. In that sense, I was lucky and truly blessed to have gotten out of my situation by being discovered. So I look at myself as having to fulfill an obligation to be the voice for these people. The main concern is trying to get them employment, because I heavily struggled with that, and it was very, very frustrating because I would honestly do about 40 applications a day: everything from security work, to cleaning to being a car salesperson.

Yet despite being so focused on trying to get a job, I just could not land one. I was putting my all into it, so it was very discouraging to me.

Did that ordeal break you?

It didn’t break me, but month after month, I would do anywhere from 120 to 186 applications back to back. And I kept saying to myself, ‘You know, I think I’m going to get it this time. I know I’m gonna get me a job, I know I’m gonna get me a job.’ And then I would go to my interview all pretty and prepared, determined to get the position. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting any offers; and it finally started to register that the reason was because I’m trans and they know it.

You know, I heard many people say ‘You don’t get a job when you’re trans,’ but I’d always tell myself, ‘Don’t use that as an excuse, you can get a job if you put your mind to it,’ and that’s what I was doing.  But I kind of proved myself wrong, so that was really, really discouraging.

You felt helpless in that situation.

Yes.  You know, that’s like someone coming out of prison with six felonies and trying to get a job – it’s almost impossible, because the odds are automatically stacked against you.

In light of the pushback to the social progress being achieved by the representation, inclusivity, awareness and activism surrounding the trans experience – pushback that most notably includes the thinly veiled prejudice fueling the controversy over bathroom use in recent months – do you think that we as a society have the ability to significantly evolve past such a hatefully ignorant and desperately bigoted climate in the near future? Or do you see this progress as being but a small, incremental step forward in what will ultimately be a long road to trans equality?

I think there is progress. I say this because many people – I’m talking about cisgender, heterosexual folks – have come to me and said how I really helped them to understand the trans community, so I do see progress. But then there are people who just want to be hateful, for no reason. I don’t believe in transphobia, because why the fuck would you be scared of trans people? People choose to be evil. We wouldn’t have to go to Congress and talk about our issues, we wouldn’t have to have any campaigns or petitions or anything like that if people just respected one another, that’s all there is. And then these very people want to use the Bible to tell me what God ‘says’. I know what the Bible says because I lived it, you know, I read it all the time growing up; I had no choice, and I’m glad I did. God is my faith, and I know I was put here to mind my fucking business and to live life the best way that I can, and love and respect each person. Like if you told me that today you felt like a daisy, then I would tell you to just be the best flower you can be and blossom.

What is your opinion of cisgender actors playing trans roles?  Can cisgender casting be forgiven if there’s a story that heavily explores a character’s origin story prior to transitioning, or tracks that character’s transformation, as is done with Jeffrey Tambor’s character Maura Pfefferman in Transparent?

I think such casting can be forgiven, though it’s not necessary. Okay, here’s an example that I think sums it all up: if there was a Chihuahua who wanted to play you, and this Chihuahua can dress itself up to look as good as you, then let him play that part. You know?  If this Chihuahua can find some hair that looks like yours, and some clothes, and if he can put himself in your shoes, your life and play that role correctly, then let him do it.

You know, I don’t want to be pigeonholed into just playing trans roles—I feel like I am pretty enough and feminine enough to play a cisgender woman—so I hate how people see labels and see race because people should just be able to do what they want to do.

Aside from Laverne Cox’s character Sophia on Orange is the New Black, is there any other fictional trans character that you think realistically captures and embodies the community’s experiences, idiosyncrasies, issues and struggles in a way that defies stereotype or exploitation?

T.S. Madison, I love T.S. Madison.  I was actually just watching a video of T.S. [nee Madison Hinton] the other day.  She’s a trans ex-porn star—“The Big Dick Bitch”—who’s really gorgeous and really famous on social media—everything she posts goes viral—and she’s amazing because she speaks the truth.  My two idols are Laverne Cox and T.S. Madison.  They’re very opposite, and they represent different sides of me.

When you did sex work, was it difficult to balance playing up a fetishized persona for your [mostly cis male] clientele, with having them see you as a human being rather than merely an erotic object of desire?

There was no balance whenever I was in a car with my clients.  It was all about getting paid, that’s it.

Can you talk a little bit about your upcoming project(s)?

Well right now I’m developing my own series, and working on a short film titled Diane From The Moon which is about a pagan priestess who is trying to find her way to self-acceptance, despite there being a guy who is constantly tormenting her, calling her ‘Bitch’, etc. He really wants her, but she’s not interested, and that’s when he turns against her. I like this story because it happens in real life. I remember there’ll be times when I’ll be walking down the street and some guy will try to talk to me, and when I express my disinterest he’ll start getting nasty and calling me a bitch.  It’s so annoying. Why do guys fucking do that?!

I also just shot another film called Happy Birthday Marsha, which is about the life of Marsha P. Johnson, an icon who helped start the Stonewall Riots.

How does acting compare with being behind the camera?  Is it more difficult to wear the hat of showrunner or writer as opposed to performer?

It is more difficult. In creating my own TV show, I sat down with the writer and we brainstormed many ideas. He’s amazing (I won’t yet disclose his name). He just listened to my whole life story, and we turned that into creative material for the show. But at the same time it couldn’t be super depressing, so we definitely had to strike a balance. So whoever will end up playing the younger version of me will have a completely different name, and will have to bring it when it comes to improv, acting and being funny.

The story is already depressing since my life has been pretty depressing and dramatic–but because there’s growth from all these different stages, it’s also educational for a lot of people since it documents the very personal journey of someone who transitioned from being a little boy in high school, and went on to become a star.

Follow Mya Taylor on Twitter

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Demitra Kampakis
Demitra Kampakis Film Editor

Film Editor / neurotic film fiend

Posture Magazine

Posture is a queer-run art and fashion magazine that brings LGBTQ+, women, and POC creators to the front.