The pizza joint Shakey's in Hollywood is packed when transgender actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana 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 cellphone — takes stock of the Katy Perry on the speakers and makes a quick, firm decision.
“Let's get some chicken, bitch,” she says to Rodriguez, the bubbly kook, who scampers behind Taylor to the buffet in a coral jumpsuit and beaded yellow necklace, blond hair swinging. Baker stays behind and observes the bustle. An alert, almost boyishly curious filmmaker with five features under his belt, his strength is in sizing up his surroundings. He's made naturalistic critical hits about Chinese delivery men (Take Out), Ghanaian garment-hawkers (Prince of Broadway) and Valley porn actresses (Starlet). Tangerine ripened when Baker moved just south of Santa Monica Boulevard near Highland and became fascinated with the transgender women, often sex workers, who were the unofficial mascots of the strip.
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,” Taylor says with a stern smile, returning with two slices of Hawaiian pizza.
Eventually, Baker befriended Taylor around the corner at the L.A. 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 can't do nothing!'” Rodriguez says. But she came up with Tangerine's plot: Rodriguez plays Sin-Dee, a prostitute just released from jail, who spends Christmas Eve vengefully hunting her pimp-boyfriend's new girl (Mickey O'Hagan), while her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) tries, and fails, to keep the peace. After picking their brains, Baker cast them as the leads. “He was taking a chance,” Rodriguez nods. “It was like him going to Pearl Harbor and not being ready for the Chopins.” Wait, an attack from clones of the Polish composer? Rodriguez bursts out laughing. “I meant the Japanese!”
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 due 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 finding legitimate work. After Tangerine wrapped, Taylor applied for 462 jobs in one three-month stretch — “All jobs, whatever was available” — and got only one nibble, from a Volvo dealership, which strung her along for two months and then announced the position was filled. “Mya knows cars better than anyone,” Baker insists.
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,” Baker says. “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,” Taylor says. “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 preproduction, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have greatly increased the public's transgender awareness.
However, the national conversation can't stop there — Jenner's story isn't their story. “Me and Mya come from a different generation,” Rodriguez says. For one, Jenner is nearly three times their age. That's like asking a Gen X–er to let Barbara Bush write their biography.
“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,” Rodriguez says. 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 traffic. Did locals notice that they spent three weeks in costume walking up and down the block? Taylor snorts, “Them 'hos out there wear the same clothes every day!” Their biggest glitch was forgetting their mics were on when they'd slink off to gossip.
“We'd just turn and be like, 'Oh my gosh,'” Rodriguez laughs. Taylor stays coolly straight-faced. “Well, a lot of times I knew what we were talking about,” she says. “I just wanted to be heard.”