Respect not “accept”: interview with the maker of mould-breaking Tangerine and one of his fantastic leads

Corrina Antrobus of Bechdel Test Fest talks to director Sean Baker and Mya Taylor who plays Alexandra in his 2015 film Tangerine

, 15 March 2016

Sean Baker’s Tangerine is revolutionary in both its technical execution (the movie was shot entirely on a souped-up iPhone) and its refreshing portrayal of trans sex workers on the LA streets. Mya Taylor (Alexandra), was spotted hanging out at the local LGBT centre by Sean who had an inkling there would be some interesting stories to be told within his local trans community. After a brief introduction, Sean signed up the non-professional actor to be in his first feature and after meeting her fellow trans friend Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee), Tangerine had its sparkling leads.

Mya is a magnetic presence, all the more electrifying in the glorious flesh despite being jet-lagged and clearly weary of the conveyor belt of prying journos. Seizing my slot in the 2015 London Film Festival PR cloud, I discover more about the director Sean Baker’s intentions on presenting trans stories, Mya’s Oscar hopes and the future plans of these bombastic new stars of the big screen.

Tangerine

Firstly, let’s get this question out the way. What’s the one question you’re most tired of answering by now?
Mya (wearily, in an LA drawl): “How did you guys meet” and the iPhone question.

I can get the iPhone question out the way pretty quickly. Sean, I’ve read that you really wanted to shoot on film but due to cost restraints it wasn’t feasible so got busy with the iPhone. With the success of the result (it looks beautiful), will you continue to use the phone?
Sean: Hopefully I get the budget to shoot my next movie on film. I think at this time, when celluloid is going away so quickly, if you have the means to do it, do it. It comes down to the individual project; If we were talking about TV or a music video then 100% I would stick to the iPhone. It has a very unique look and most people watch that stuff on small screens anyway. Also, the technological advancements in the last year and a half are already so extensive that I’m jealous of whoever is shooting right now as this thing (points to his upgraded iPhone) wouldn’t need a stabiliser the way I would have needed one a year and a half ago so why not?

How has the reception been for you? Do you feel like a movie star?
Mya: (hesitates, with nervous laughter): Yeah…yeah…I guess you could say that. It’s been great and there’s a lot of work now and it’s what I love to do.

You think about all the cisgender people that be like, “Oh well, I don’t accept”…bitch! I don’t need you to accept it! Nobody’s asking for permission!

Refreshingly, the film never addresses how the characters define their gender. Was this a conscious thing? Did it ever come up in the writing?
Sean: We never came up with any rules or discussed it particularly, we just wanted to tell a story with universal themes so audiences could connect to it anywhere in the world, so why be so specific? I mean isn’t it already a little bit trite? Already the trans movement has been the focus of a lot of attention but it’s already tried to focus on that transition so we decided to tell a story that has layers and a subtext that you could look at and see that there was other stuff to look into within the stories of trans people.

I enjoyed the fact that it’s not part of the plot. How do you feel about the recent welcoming of trans characters on screen? I sometimes feel we have these bursts of celebration and then things go quiet. Do you think it’s a fad? How do we keep these conversations going?
Sean: Until now, I’d been saying that hopefully this time of visibility and awareness will help us learn to accept, but then Mya said that it doesn’t have to be about “accept”, it’s about “respect”.

Mya: That’s all it is. Because you think about all the cisgender people that be like: “Oh well, I don’t accept”…bitch! I don’t need you to accept it! But what makes them feel like they have the right to feel like they need to accept it? Nobody’s asking for permission!

We’re looking at unemployment rate being through the roof for trans people, so if there are roles out there, doesn’t it feel like common sense to give those who are having a hard time finding employment a chance to fulfil those roles?

You’ve provided an alternative mainstream portrayal of a trans story to The Danish Girl. What are your thoughts about Eddie Redmayne playing the role?
Sean: This is the thing. As Kiki said, when it comes down to it hopefully we get to a point where no matter who you are or what background you’re coming from – you’re an actor, you’re a thespian. You’re supposed to embody a role even if it’s not from your experience or background. It’s up to your acting ability to embrace this character. But, at the same time, it’s 2015 and you have to take where we are in history into consideration. We’re looking at unemployment rates being through the roof for trans people and into the stratosphere for trans women of colour, so if there are roles out there that those individuals can play, doesn’t it feel like common sense, and on a human decency level, to give those who are having a hard time finding employment a chance to fulfil those roles? Hopefully we get to a point where that’s not necessary but for now that’s the way I see it.

Mya: I guess I agree because of that, but for me if a trans story is being told – as long as that story is being told truthfully – I don’t care who plays it. But I understand that trans people are not really hired for anything so where those opportunities are – hire a trans person!

Audiences that are less accepting have latched on to Razmik as perhaps their ‘normal’ character and then they feel betrayed by his character and his reaction

Razmik (the family man cab driver with a fancy for trans women played by Karren Karagulian) added an interesting dynamic to the plot of Tangerine. What were you trying to achieve with this role? [WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!]
Sean: We knew there would be a character struggling down a road, who is unable to express his desires, and we thought that would be the appropriate approach to his character. He’s based on the stories that we had heard and it’s accurate that ‘tricks’ or ‘Johns’ come from everywhere and sometimes they are stuck in situations where they can’t express their interests.

Mya: It tells the truth because there are many guys who fantasise about having sexual experiences with trans women as a fetishized thing but won’t be with us. I’m lucky – I have a man who loves me and despite being passable as a girl, or even if [I] wasn’t, he would still love me the same. Even his family knows about me and they don’t care. His kids, they call me ‘Mom’ and he has three of them.

Sean: Oh I didn’t know that!

Mya: Yeah. They’ll live with us next year.

Mya_Kiki_sunset

Sean: The other things about Razmik’s character is that he’s from Armenia where transphobia is extreme so he’s dealing with that – he could never express his like for trans women even if he didn’t have a family.

The guy who plays Karo in the film is Arsen Grigoryan – he’s the biggest celebrity in the film and he does the voiceover in Armenia. During Sundance he told me if this film was played in Armenia, his character would be the hero [Karo foils Razmik which leads to him being caught with trans prostitutes]. That was a subconscious thing but it was also very telling and profound, the way he said it.

When we have walk-outs – as we often have walk-outs – they’re most often at the scene where he’s with the cisgender girl and we were wondering, why does it always happen at this scene? Then we started to analyse it and I thought – of course! – audiences that are less accepting have latched on to Razmik as perhaps their ‘normal’ character and then they feel betrayed by his character and his reaction. The fact that he’s appalled that she’s cisgender acts as a betrayal to those kind of audiences. [He is] their only anchor of what they perhaps consider normal and suddenly they feel betrayed when he’s not looking for a cisgender [woman].

The only criticism of the film I have come across came from suggestions that there was too much violence towards Dinah (Mikey O’Hagan), a cisgender white sex worker who is accused of dating Kiki’s boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) while Kiki was in jail. Do you feel you would have achieved what you had wanted with showing less physical violence between the characters?
Sean: I understand that but, to tell you the truth, we based this on what would be realistic. There is only one strike against her, and that’s by no means condoning it, but if this was written in the way it could have really been; it would have been way more violent because just the actual logistics of a women who would fight back would result in more physicality. However, we pulled that stuff out as we didn’t think it was necessary. I mean, it’s a street fight and it’s trying to get one person against their will from one place to another. It’s something that all of us decided from early on, that there would be scenes that will rub people the wrong way and wouldn’t be PC, but Mya was the one that said: “Let’s just go all out if it’s based on realism” and unfortunately yes – it will have those moments.Tangerine

Mya: If people feel like they don’t like what they see then get the fuck out.

Sean: The people who get off on that stuff? That’s disgusting. It becomes a kinda sociological experiment – those people who say: “Oh I’m glad Dinah’s ass got beaten downtown!”…

Mya: It’s not good that she got beaten up, as she didn’t know Kiki and Chester were together. But if she knew, then she needs to get her ass kicked.

Sean: People have said her whole mission is rooted in jealousy but that’s not it – it’s not as shallow as that. You got to take into account what she’s been put through. She has been sent to jail for 28 days taking the rap for her boyfriend Chester and then been betrayed.

What have you got lined up next?
Sean: There’s been a few opportunities but I wanna make this one film that I’m pretty set on in the same wheelhouse in terms of social realism. It’s about children living and dealing with poverty and living outside of the magic kingdom – it’s about children for children.

Mya’s going on to her third film, the next one is [a short] Happy Birthday Marsha [a film about the legendary transgender artist Marsha ‘Pay No Mind’ Johnson and her life in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City].

Considering Mya is playing a role in a film that may be offering a broader picture to the forthcoming Stonewall (directed by Roland Emmerich) that has been blasted for its dismissal of trans people of colour, I’d like to know your thoughts on how this important political movement was being portrayed in cinema.
Mya: I don’t have an opinion on it because I feel like that is somebody’s work of art right there and they may not want it to be exactly the same as the Stonewall thing so I’m not going to criticise it. I got asked that in an interview and I give them the same answer – I just feel like it’s being judgemental to someone‘s work when we really don’t know what their intentions are.

Tangerine is showing at London BFI Flare festival this week and next. If you’re lucky, you may be able to secure one of the few remaining tickets.

Tangerine will be realised on DVD Region 2 (Europe) and as VOD on 28 March 2016.

All images courtesy of Premier agency. They’re stills from the film.

First picture is of two women sitting at a diner table next to the window, so a junction with some cars is visible behind the window. We see their profiles, a woman on the left has dark skin and long stright black hair, she’s wearing a burgundy top and long chains over it. A woman on the right has brown skin, animal-print top and her hair is shoulder length, blonde with darker highlights. They’re holding each other’s hands and one on the right is speaking, visibly agitated. The table top is yellow, there’s a black bag and a pastry on it, and a woman on the left is holding a small bottle of orange juice.

Second picture is a Los Angeles cityscape, a street view shot at sunset, with sharp silhouettes of low buildings, billboards, electricity lines and palm tress against the sky. To the right there are silhouettes of two people, both with long hair and wearing shorts. The figure on the left is resting a bag/backpack on their hip, the figure on the right has their hair in pony tails.

Third picture is of three people standing outside a Donut Time joint at night, with a big neon above them. On the left there’s a woman with shoulder-length blonde hair and animal-print top, bare midriff and a jumper wrapped around her arms. She’s looking at the man standing next to her, wearing a black t-shirt and a blue hoodie, with a hood over a baseball cap on his head, smoking a cigarette. On the right there’s a woman with long straight black hair, wearing a brown leather jacket and a big bag over her shoulder, she’s staring to the right, away from the couple, seeming a bit fed up.

Corrina Antrobus is director of the Bechdel Test Fest – an ongoing celebration of films that pass the Bechdel Test. A Hackney girl born and bred, she watches films, screens films, writes about films, loves films. Tweets at both @corrinacorrina and @bechdeltestfest

Comments From You

Joanna Whitehead // Posted 16 March 2016 at 6:22 pm

‘Tangerine’ was my favourite film of last year and I really enjoyed this interview, BUT:

Mya: It’s not good that she got beaten up, as she didn’t know Kiki and Chester were together. But if she knew, then she needs to get her ass kicked.

Sean: People have said her whole mission is rooted in jealousy but that’s not it – it’s not as shallow as that. You got to take into account what she’s been put through. She has been sent to jail for 28 days taking the rap for her boyfriend Chester and then been betrayed.

This depresses the shit out of me. I don’t/didn’t object to the violence against Dinah in shown in the film, as it was part of the story and a realistic response, but why are Mya and Sean defending this? Chester was the one needing his ass kicked, not Dinah, who has no loyalties whatsoever to Kiki. Kiki took the rap for Chester and was betrayed, so why didn’t she punish him? I really hate the tired “other woman” trope, that tends to dictate that the “other women” is punished and vilified, rather than the person doing the cheating (in this case, Chester).

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 17 March 2016 at 10:14 am

Jo, absolutely!
Couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying, it is indeed the old and tired “other woman” trope, punishing not the unfaithful lover but the woman he cheats on you with (as if she, not the lover, were a problem).

However, based on the quotes you provided, Sean&Mya seem to be suggesting that HAD Dinah known that Chester had a girlfriend who was, to boot, serving jail sentence for him, she SHOULD HAVE HAD some ‘solidarity’ with the imprisoned GF and not go with Chester (which disagrees with Dinah’s “no loyalties whatsoever to Kiki”). This is not to say I condone this logic :) I think many Dinahs, if in this situation, would still say, it’s Chester’s choice to decide, I won’t be protecting him from his desire (to fuck me).

Also, Sean says, asked about the depicted violence towards Dinah:
“I understand that but, to tell you the truth, we based this on what would be realistic. There is only one strike against her, and that’s by no means condoning it, but if this was written in the way it could have really been; it would have been way more violent because just the actual logistics of a women who would fight back would result in more physicality”

As with many films, the viewers who haven’t got first-hand experience of hustling on the LA streets (=most of us, I’d guess) need to decide how we feel about Dinah being dragged back and forth: either saying: “OK, I’m convinced, I can imagine one of this women would lash out against another in that situation” or being pissed off that the director presents the violence the way he does and/or defends it in the interview.

Joanna Whitehead // Posted 17 March 2016 at 2:43 pm

Hey Ania!

As I said in my first comment, it wasn’t the violence against Dinah that I disagreed with. I read what was written about this. It was that Mya and Sean seemed to be defending that violence on the basis that Dinah “should” have solidarity with Kiki. My point was that I don’t think Kiki – or anyone – should necessarily have “solidarity” with another person’s partner, regardless of whether they’re in jail or otherwise. The responsibility lies with the person who is already involved and who cheats, not the person they’re cheating with!

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