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By B. Root
Photo by Nathan Fitch
Mya Taylor, a transgender actress best known for her role in director Sean Baker’s Tangerine, is making Hollywood history. The 2015 independent film was a hit at Sundance, and Taylor has received many accolades for her portrayal of Alexandra. Taylor became the first trans actor to win a Gotham Award, she won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress, and she is a Best Supporting Actress nominee for the Film Independent Spirit Awards ceremony on February 27.
I had the opportunity to speak with Taylor about Tangerine, issues facing the trans community, and her role in the new film Happy Birthday, Marsha! as Marsha P. Johnson, one of the self-proclaimed “street queens” who ignited the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
B. Root: You’re originally from Houston. What was your experience like growing up in the city?
Mya Taylor: To be quite honest, I was always sheltered by my grandparents. They were pretty abusive. I could never go out with friends or have money to do anything. I was always in the house. When I finally moved out, I didn’t know how to place an order at McDonald’s. That’s how sheltered I was. So my experience growing up within the city? I had no experience. I just knew that I hated it there, and I wanted something different for myself.
Then you relocated to Los Angeles, correct?
Yeah, with another family member. There’s a whole story behind that too, but that family member was no good for me. They used me, and I ended up in the streets selling my body to support myself and that family member. Later on, that family member moved on, and I still ended up in the streets.
So your breakout role in Tangerine has garnered both you and the film many awards and nominations.
Isn’t that exciting? That’s a thing!
That is so exciting! What was it like working on such a breakthrough film like this?
I have to say it was a lot of fun because we were all learning. [Directors Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch] were so willing to learn. They wanted to learn about the transgender experience, and they were so open to everything. That’s what made the chemistry so much easier.
That’s great. I know so many trans films and television series focus on the process of transitioning. How was it portraying a character whose gender identity is not the focus of the film?
I love that because . . . okay, let’s use me for example. I am Mya Taylor, the actress who happens to be a transgender woman. I am not a transgender woman who happens to be the actress Mya Taylor. I loved that they didn’t focus on the fact that we were trans. The wonderful script that Chris and Sean put together focused on us being best friends, and the power of friendship and love.
You will be portraying Marsha P. Johnson in the upcoming film Happy Birthday, Marsha! How does it feel to portray a character whose role in the Stonewall Riots is so often ignored or minimized?
It makes me so proud. The reason why I took on the role is because—it’s going to make me emotional—I’m just like Marsha. She’s so sweet and caring about everybody. She puts everybody else before herself. She’s very respectful of everybody. And that’s just how I am. She was a really sweet soul. There was one thing that stood out to me—she would go buy a box of cookies, and before she got home, they would all be gone, because she would hand them out to all of the people who were less fortunate than her. That’s all she could afford, but she would go without eating just to feed other people. That’s so touching to me. I love that.
The challenge for this role was the fact that I am playing a real-life person, and I wanted to make sure that I got her spot-on. I had this opera teacher who helped me do vocal exercises to try to sound exactly like her. Marsha had some friends who came on set, and who actually make appearances within the short film. They said it was so eerie because I looked and sounded exactly like her. I have a deep connection with this role, because she is somebody who is overlooked. She helped to start the Stonewall Riots. She helped make us history.
She died in 1992, but I think that she was killed. Police want to say that it was probably suicide, but remember back then, they didn’t care about gay and trans people. If there was a death, it was like, “Oh, it’s just another faggot off the street.” So there wasn’t really an investigation, and nobody really knows exactly how she died. She was found in the Hudson River in New York. It’s really sad.
What can we expect from Happy Birthday, Marsha!?
You can expect for it to be very authentic, because I did a lot of research on this, and I know directors Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel worked very hard on their research. They really put their heart and soul into this, so I know that it is very accurate. I loved the script when I saw it. Expect a lot of love, fun, and humor—it’s wildly entertaining, but very heartwarming. It really is. I’m so happy for this film.
Despite the increasing trans visibility, trans women—especially trans women of color—are being disproportionately targeted in hate crimes. Laverne Cox said in a Los Angeles Times interview, “I was on the cover of Time magazine in June, and that same month four trans women of color were murdered in the United States.” What are the issues still facing trans women?
It’s just hateful people. That’s where all the murders are coming from. Why would you want to do this to somebody—to anybody, no matter who they are? It’s just horrible.
One issue I want to be resolved is employment in the trans community, because I applied for 186 jobs in one month, and I did not get a job. I did 26 interviews in that one month, and I had proof that a few of those jobs were discriminating against me. It’s already hard to get a job in America being a cisgender person. Even my husband—when he lived in Atlanta, he had to move back home to North Dakota because he couldn’t get a job. Some people will be like, “Oh, it’s hard when you’re black and you can’t get a job” or “It’s hard when you’re trans and you can’t get a job.” Okay. Well, my man is white. He couldn’t get a job there. It’s hard to get a job—period. But it makes it even harder when you’re being discriminated against because you’re trans. I was doing nothing but applying for jobs. I wasn’t going out to clubs or parties. I was so determined. I kept saying, “I’m going to get a job this month.” But I kept getting turned down. Eventually, you lose that confidence. It got so depressing, I would just cry, and my nerves were really bad because I wanted to live a normal life just like everybody else. Sitting at the bus stop, I would see people passing in their Jags and their Mercedes and Audis and BMWs. And I’m like, “It’s either they’re going to work or they’re going home to their family.” I wanted to be able to do that. I got tired of asking the bus driver, “Can I have a ride?” or having to walk so far because I couldn’t afford to get on the bus—a dollar and f–king fifty cents—sleeping on somebody’s floor in their apartment with a comforter and a flat-ass pillow. You get tired of that, you know? At that particular point, I actually had a place to live, which was sleeping on someone’s floor. But think about all the people who don’t have anybody, who have to sleep outside.
I often see people walk past homeless people like, “Ew,” or “Get a job,” and it’s like, you don’t know what this person’s been through. There was one day that all I had was four dollars. And there was this person that was homeless, and they were sitting on the sidewalk, and it just broke my heart because their health didn’t look that good. He kept asking people for money, and people just walked past him or walked far around him as if he was disgusting. I only had four dollars. I went up to him and gave him three because I know it can’t feel good to feel alone and people are just ignoring you. How dare these people do this! People are just horrible. I know what it’s like to struggle, and I know what it’s like to live a glamorous lifestyle. You know, at least I can say I’ve experienced it all. That’s what keeps me humble.
Tangerine is now streaming on Netflix. Happy Birthday, Marsha! is set to release later this year. For more information, visit happybirthdaymarsha.com.
B. Root is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.