Mya Taylor, who is receiving this year’s Next Wave Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival, has a burgeoning career as a transgender performer in Hollywood. But before her breakthrough in the 2015 indie film Tangerine, she had no career at all.
When she met Tangerine director Sean Baker, she was vainly struggling to find work in Los Angeles.
“I was doing a lot of job searching,” Taylor says. “I was on Craigslist, Jobs.com, Indeed.com every single day, and I was applying for 40 to 50 jobs a day. I was doing three and four interviews a day by bus, starting early in the morning. And at that time, I had just started my transition.”
Potential employers were confused about her gender. At the ends of interviews, she’d give them her I.D. — a male I.D. — and then wouldn’t get a call back. In a story all too familiar among black trans women, she found herself doing sex work to pay the bills.
It was Taylor’s knowledge of the world of sex work that transformed Sean Baker’s script for Tangerine. Baker wanted to make a social realist film about the trans women who worked the streets of Los Angeles, particularly Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, and Taylor knew exactly how they would talk and act.
“I lived it,” she says. “I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. I didn’t want the wrong lingo to be used.”
Taylor helped Baker rewrite the dialogue, and she brought in her friend Kitana Kiki Rodriguez to play opposite her. The film follows a single day of jealousy, fighting, confrontation, and forgiveness between two trans women who are best friends (Taylor and Rodriguez) and their broader network of fellow sex workers, clients, pimps, and cops.
Shot entirely on three iPhone 5S phones, Tangerine premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, wowed audiences at the Provincetown festival, and got an art-house release, winning awards and critics’ raves along the way. For her performance, Taylor won a Gotham Award, a San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award, and an Independent Spirit Award — the first openly transgender actor to win one.
In Taylor’s latest film, Stage Mother, she plays Cherry, a trans woman who performs at a drag club that’s undergoing a change in management. The club’s owner dies of an overdose, and his mother — the conservative, Texan choir director Maybelline (Jacki Weaver) — takes over. Culture shock ensues, for everyone. Just as in Tangerine, Taylor gets to sing, and her voice is as lovely as ever.
Stage Mother will be streaming as part of the “reimagined” Provincetown festival, from Thursday, July 16, through Sunday, July 19.
“A lot of people think that trans women are drag queens and drag queens are trans women,” says Taylor, who had actually had very little contact with drag culture before working on the film. Many drag performers consider themselves cisgender and take on an opposite sex identity only as a theatrical character. The performative aspect of drag left an impression on Taylor.
“With all the extra makeup, the eyelashes, all those things — it was so much fun,” she says.
PIFF’s Next Wave Award, launched in 2017, honors risk-taking artists who are building a strong résumé. Past honorees were Aubrey Plaza, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Jillian Bell. As part of the reimagined festival, Taylor received the award and had a prerecorded conversation with filmmaker PJ Raval. The event can be streamed for free during the festival at provincetownfilm.org.
What’s next for Taylor? She’d love to try a horror film.
“I love scary movies,” she says. “They are my favorite. The Shining, Stephen King’s Rose Red — I would love to be in something like that. Just to switch it up a bit.”
She’s open both to roles in which her trans identity is emphasized and to roles in which it’s not relevant. For example, in the cable series Dietland, on AMC, Taylor played a character who isn’t identified as trans.
“I’m going to represent the trans community either way it goes,” she says. “I don’t care if I’m playing someone trans or not. I just want the opportunity to do something great.”
The event: Mya Taylor receives the Next Wave Award and has a conversation with filmmaker PJ Raval; Taylor also appears in the film Stage Mother
The time: Thursday, July 16, through Sunday, July 19: choose a day, stream online anytime
The place: Provincetown International Film Festival “Reimagined”: streaming at provincetownfilm.org/festival/
The cost: Next Wave Award: free; Stage Mother: $10 or pass to all films ($50)