From the moment she appeared onscreen in “Tangerine,” it was clear that Mya Taylor was meant to be a star. The 2015 film made waves at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, first for having been shot entirely on iPhone and then for its candid and humanizing look at a day in the life of two transgender women of color as they navigate survival sex work in Los Angeles. An instant queer classic, Taylor won home Best Supporting Actress and Breakthrough Talent from Independent Spirit and Gotham award shows.
“I thought it was just gonna be some project that you get paid a few hundred dollars on. And it blew up,” Taylor said during a virtual interview during the Provincetown Film Festival, where she was honored with the queer-friendly festival’s Next Wave Award. “Especially when he said it was going to be filmed on iPhones. I did not see that at all.”
“Tangerine” is loosely based on her own experiences, and she had previously been without a stable housing situation and did survival sex work to stay afloat. The film’s success swept Taylor through a wave of publicity, flying 33 times that year and doing hours of hair and make-up in high-end hotels. She admits it was a whirlwind, especially since she’d barely begun her medical transition before production.
“A month before we filmed ‘Tangerine,’ I had just started taking hormones. Then after the film blew up, I still didn’t know who I was, here I am just turning into a woman,” she said. “So for a while I felt like I was losing my mind, because here I am flying all over the world and I didn’t even know who I was. I was still trying to get myself together; there was no chill time.”
Though indie film rarely provides a huge payday, Taylor was able to fund the rest of her medical transition. “It was a struggle before ‘Tangerine,’ it really was,” Taylor said in a follow-up phone interview. “Because of ‘Tangerine,’ I was able to afford to pay for all the hormones and things that I needed to be able to develop into a beautiful young lady! And it also afforded me to be able to get my name and gender changed.”
That freedom also allowed a total career change: For the last four years, she has been living in North Dakota and working as a nurse. She initially moved in with a partner, but that relationship has since ended. She rejects the word “closeted,” but admits that she is now “passable,” meaning the average person on the street would not be able to tell she is transgender. Because of that, Taylor has been able to live and work peacefully as a woman in North Dakota.
“Oh, hell no! If people knew that I was trans, I wouldn’t be getting a job in any hospital or any nursing home in North Dakota,” Taylor said. Her life in the midwest is easy and affordable, and she says North Dakota offers nurses the highest salaries of any state.
“I really miss Los Angeles, I really do, but I struggled there,” Taylor said. “I created a life for myself here, I’m comfortable, I’m happy, I’m content. It’s scary to think about moving back to LA, because the life that I live here, it just wouldn’t be able to transfer there. My apartment is much cheaper here, my car insurance is much cheaper here. Everything would just go up moving there, and I wouldn’t be able to live the life that I live here. Not in LA.”
Taylor has not given up acting. She auditions regularly, self-taping after her morning shift at the hospital. She was working double shifts during the first wave of the pandemic, pulling 16-hour days four days in a row for a harrowing total of 144 hours every two weeks. Thankfully, she is now on a more manageable 40-hour work week.
“I get up at 5:30, get to work, clock in at 6:25 — gotta get that extra little five minutes in there! — and I’m done by 3,” she said. “So I still have the rest of my day to come home and do auditions.”
An avid fan of “How to Get Away With Murder,” Taylor agrees with Viola Davis and Mo’Nique, who have both spoken out about the pay disparity for black women in Hollywood. “I’m not gonna lie,” she said. “In comparison to other artists. I’m not sitting up here saying that I am not grateful for what has been given to me, but if we’re gonna talk about this subject, let’s really put it out there,” Taylor said. “I feel like I have to work extra hard. How much more proving myself do I need to do?”
Through management, Taylor knows there have been roles she hasn’t booked because she was black. “Sometimes they totally change the character. They change it from maybe a trans person, or maybe the excuse is — ‘I don’t want black, I think we’re gonna go Latina for this, or we’re gonna go white for this.’ I’ve had that happen, yes! Oh, yes honey.”
And those are just the auditions she takes. There are plenty of job opportunities Taylor never sees, because her management knows not to send her roles with harmful stereotypes about trans women: Like sex work, drug dealing, or ending up dead in a ditch.
“I just don’t wanna do that. I feel like trans women should be getting out of that,” Taylor said. “I’m not a diva, not in the least bit, but when I say I don’t wanna do that, I think I’m doing the trans community a favor, because we’re trying to come out of that type of typecasting. We wanna be mainstream, we wanna be on TV dating the hot guy.”
One of the fastest ways to casting equity for trans talent is casting trans actors and actresses in roles that are not specifically written as trans. That’s how Taylor booked her first TV gig, Marti Noxon’s “Dietland” on AMC. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after one season.
Now that her nursing shift is more reasonable, Taylor has had time to catch up on her favorite shows. She’s very excited about Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and the Have Nots” on Hulu, which features a positive gay character with a supportive father. In addition to Perry’s “If Loving You Is Wrong,” she’s also caught up on “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Star,” and “Empire.” Of course, she’s also a huge fan of “Pose.”
“I love their show. I’m so proud of their production, I’m proud of all those girls that are on there. It takes me back to when I first came out in Hollywood and first got up in it as a trans woman,” said Taylor, who auditioned for the role of Dorian Corey when “Pose” was in the early stages of development. The character, a standout in “Paris Is Burning,” was eventually cut from the show.
“Even if they have other roles, I’d be thrilled,” she said. “I really, really adore them. It’ll probably be even easier to audition now that I know what the show is about. I’ve seen every episode.”