The pizza joint Shakey's in Hollywood is packed when transgender actresses Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez slide into a booth with their director Sean Baker, whose shot-on-location-and-on-iPhone comedy Tangerine was the most talked-about surprise of this year's Sundance Film Festival. Taylor, the quieter and more glamorously aloof of the pair — think Garbo with a
"Let's get some chicken, bitch," she says to Rodriguez, the bubbly
Baker and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, spent days at the nearby Donut Time trying to earn the community's trust. No luck. "They thought we were either cops or johns," he shrugs, and even if they weren't, the women had no patience for time-suckers who weren't paying. Showing off his IMDb page didn't help.
"They don't know what the fuck IMDb is," says Taylor with a stern smile, returning with two slices of Hawaiian pizza.
Eventually, Baker befriended Taylor around the corner at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. "I liked her aura," he says. Taylor jokingly preens, "I mean, look at me." And then Taylor recalls that her friend Rodriguez had wanted to be an actress in high school and dragged her to meet Sean.
"I told Sean when we sat down, 'I never acted, I don't know how to sing, I can't dance, I
Like Rodriguez, Tangerine is loud, ferocious, and tremendously funny. Imagine a crass and unrepentant All About Eve, all machine-gunned catfight zingers blurted while the ladies pace Santa Monica Boulevard. Baker taped his interviews with Taylor and Rodriguez, worked their slang into the script, and asked them to tweak whatever lines didn't ring true. Thanks in part to the furtive iPhone shooting, but mostly to the actresses' fully alive performances, Tangerine feels so real, so authentically L.A., that in interviews since, Rodriguez and Taylor keep getting asked if they're actual hookers.
"Do I look like a sex worker?" groans Taylor, flipping her hair off her white summer blouse. Still, the silver lining of that insulting assumption is that it gives Taylor an opening to talk about the struggles trans women have
One day during the shoot, the ladies joined him at the restaurant where he'd eaten every day. The owners refused to serve his stars. "They tried to twist it, but I could tell it was direct discrimination," says Baker. "They said, 'No, no, it's not that — we just don't want you using our bathroom.'" While he recalls the insult, Taylor and Rodriguez barely react, as though the slight was so common as to be unremarkable.
After Tangerine wrapped, Baker spent seven months editing, long enough for Taylor's finances to force her to temporarily move back to Texas, and for Rodriguez to get paranoid. "I had this theory that, 'Girl, this ain't no director!'" she giggles. But then Sundance was huge. ("My mom's seen it," says Taylor. "She's asking me for money all the fucking time.") And the timing of the July release couldn't be better: In the two years since Baker started pre-production, Laverne
"They say they're ready for the new trans girls to come out and be a part of the entertainment thing?" floats Rodriguez. Says Taylor, "I don't think they're ready." Rodriguez agrees. They feel the "more seasoned" trans celebrities are trying harder to project a proper image. "I love and respect them for it," says Rodriguez. But she and Taylor don't want to blend in as women — in fact, compliment Rodriguez on "passing" and she'll throw the stuffing out of her bra. They want to be themselves, and if you can't be cool with that, stay out of their way. The last time a dude tried to heckle Rodriguez on the street by calling her a man, she simply gave him more material: "I also got crooked teeth. I can't spell that good," she yelled. He shut up. "I turned back around and was like, 'Come back when you can make a joke, dumbass.'"
The ladies hope Tangerine will lead to other parts. Taylor, for one, loves horror films.
"I already played a whore in a movie," Rodriguez interjects. Baker cracks up. "Not whore — horror!" Rodriguez grins and continues. "I want to play, like, in a Resident Evil. I'm waiting for a zombie outbreak. That's why I'm beauty-obsessed, because when the outbreak happens, you have to be able to run from the zombies." She shakes her head. "If you fall down and I have to defend you and I get bit?"
Taylor and Rodriguez gaze out at the
"We'd just turn and be like, 'Oh my gosh,' " Rodriguez laughs. Taylor remains coolly straight-faced. "Well, a lot of times I knew what we were talking about," she says. "I just wanted to be heard."