Mya Taylor has had a banner fall season as a first-time actress. Her Sundance indie “Tangerine,” where she plays a transgender prostitute roaming through the streets of Los Angeles on Christmas with her pal Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), earned her a Gotham Award on Monday. A few days before, she picked up an Independent Spirit Awards nomination, and Magnolia Pictures previously announced it’s backing the critic’s darling for an awards season push, the first time in Hollywood history that a distributor has launched an Oscar campaign for transgender actresses. Then came the surreal moment where Taylor came face-to-face with her longtime idol, Laverne Cox.
Cox, a star of “Orange is the New Black,” stopped by a midtown Manhattan theater on Tuesday night to lobby for “Tangerine” to a room full of Oscars voters, because she was impressed by the dramatic comedy directed by Sean Baker. “I often imagine,” Cox said in her remarks, “what it would be like for trans people all over this country and world if a trans woman is nominated for an Academy Award. You have a chance to make that happen.”
Taylor hugged Cox in the theater’s green room, where she started grilling her for beauty tips. Cox offered her some career advice too. As the movie played, both women huddled with Variety backstage to talk about the lack of transgender actresses in film, why cisgender actors often take their roles and more.
This is the first time that a distributor is backing a transgender performance for the Oscars. Isn’t it surprising that hasn’t happened sooner?
Taylor: I can go so deep in this, and I know you can too.
Cox: I am reminded of what Viola Davis said when she won the Emmy. We have to have opportunities. So often, trans roles don’t even go to trans actors. Most of the fabulous trans roles that have won people Oscars, we didn’t get to play. A lot of folks have said we’re not trained enough and that we’re not prepared to do whatever. It becomes a catch-22. You need names to get the movie made. But then we never get parts. How do we become names? What’s exciting about this moment now, I see so many amazing talents having opportunities and bring it — like Mya and Kiki did.
Taylor: I always wanted to be an actor. I never really pursued it, because I knew you have to take baby steps. I needed to get a regular job first to get into the right acting classes and to get some nice wigs.
Cox: How did this role happen?
Taylor: I was outside in a courtyard [of a LGBT center in Los Angeles], and Sean Baker came up to me and said I’m looking for information about this area. In the midst of that, he fell in love with my personality. I was blessed to be discovered. [To Cox]: You are so gorgeous. I know you’re going to tell me your beauty secrets later.
Laverne, what did you think of “Tangerine” when you first saw it?
Cox: It was over the summer. I’m always skeptical about representations of trans people, especially when trans people are not making the work. I was disarmed by your performance, by Kiki’s performance. It’s really funny. And it was real and gritty. That taxi cab moment—where the character thinks that a non-trans woman is trans and then rejects her when he finds out that she was not trans. I think what’s so exciting about that scene, we often see trans women being rejected. So there’s very rarely a narrative in film where we understand men want us.
Mya was involved with developing the story with Sean.
Taylor: A lot of the events that happened in the movie, I’ve seen and experienced myself. Like the car wash scene. Or being rejected. Also, the piss being throw at her. That didn’t happen to me, but I’ve seen it happen to somebody.
Did you improvise?
Taylor: All the funny stuff, that was me. That was not in the script.
Cox: I think that’s what’s brilliant about it. It manages to be real and raw and not depressing. You two are there in your authenticity, telling your story.
Many cisgender actors have been Oscar nominated for playing transgender roles—from John Lithgow in “The World According to Garp,” Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica” and Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Is it frustrating to see non-transgender actors get these parts?
Taylor: It is. Let me speak from my own experience. Let’s go back to regular employment. A few years ago, I had applied for 186 jobs in one month. I did 26 interviews in one month. People asked me why I didn’t sue when I found out that they were discriminating against me. I just wanted a job.
Cox: Did you have proof?
Taylor: I did, and I had a witness. There was a telemarketing job that I was going to work for. When I passed over my ID, it said “Jeremiah” on it. The guy said, “Someone is going to give you a call.” I never got that call, so I went back, and he was like, “Oh, we’re having a hiring freeze.” I pulled the ad up, and I called and said, “This is Jessica Miller, are you guys hiring?” The woman who answered said, “Sure—come in tomorrow.” I did, and I told her, this person discriminated against me because I’m transgender. The boss gave me a job, but he didn’t fire that person, and that person was the head of my department, so I quit. This was in LA. That should be the most open place, but it’s not.
Mya, you were recently at the White House for Transgender Remembrance Day.
Why are you rolling your eyes?
Taylor: It was a nice experience to be invited to the White House. But I was saddened because my publicist really worked hard on getting me on the panel, so I could actually talk. But they wouldn’t put me on the panel. They had “The Danish Girl” and “Transparent” there. There was an extra seat. Why leave me out?
What did you both think of “The Danish Girl?”
Taylor: I loved it.
Cox: I met Eddie the night I saw the film. He’s just delightful. I thought the performances are beautiful. But I was hoping for more context about Denmark at the time and more cultural context about what the trans community was like. I knew a lot about Lili Elbe. Her first surgery was with Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the institute of sexuality in Berlin. I would have been really excited to see her in Berlin at the time, and to see what Berlin was like pre-Hitler.
As the first transgender actress to be nominated for an Emmy, do you have any advice for Mya?
Taylor: She’s like, “Fix your hair, girl.”
Cox: No, it’s not about how you look. I’ve always understood that this is bigger than me. It’s about a moment in history. I just re-watched “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.” She was the first black actress to be nominated for the Academy Award for lead actress. A lot of black people didn’t want her to do “Carmine Jones.” They contended this role was a whore, but she did it anyway. She couldn’t have the bathroom. When she put her toe in the water of the pool, they drained the pool because black people weren’t allowed. That history is huge for me. All these decades later, I can look at Dorothy’s story and see my own struggles there. A lot of actors don’t get these moments. I’ve worked a long time to have this. Enjoy it, but also understand it provides an opportunity of inspiration and possibility for other girls too.
“Tangerine” is now streaming on Netflix.