Meet the transgender women who inspired, star in "Tangerine"

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Donut Time doesn't look like much from the outside, but for "Tangerine" director Sean Baker, it was everything.

With bright yellow, bubble letters spelling out the humdrum name on two humdrum, sun-faded signs, the tiny, 24-hour, cash-only shop stands separately in front of a similarly unremarkable strip mall on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue in the middle of Hollywood. It's the type of spot that you might not even notice in the daytime.

At night, it's a different story.

The intersection is one of the most notorious in Hollywood — a haven for sex workers, drug dealers, their clients and others on the fringe. And it's this very real store and very real types that frequent it that provide the core for one of the year's most groundbreaking and unconventional films: "Tangerine," a rowdy odyssey of two transgender sex workers searching for their pimp one Christmas Eve.

Boasting two unknown, transgender leads and shot on an iPhone 5S, "Tangerine" became an unlikely breakout at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, sparking a modest bidding war between various distributors. Magnolia Pictures won out and the film hits theaters on Friday.

It would have never happened had Baker not met trans women and aspiring performers Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez at the Los Angeles LGBT Center a few years prior. It was their lives and their deep knowledge of the neighborhood that inspired and informed the film.

The plot, loosely, follows fresh-out-of-jail Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) on the hunt for her cheating boyfriend/pimp and his mistress, while best friend Alexandra (Taylor) works the street and readies for a performance that evening.

It's a world that few people know about, and even fewer experience.

"This is an extremely vulnerable group of people. They are the most marginalized. They are trans women of color who are also sex workers. You can't be more alienated and isolated by society than they are," said Baker seated with his stars and muses Taylor and Rodriguez in a bright booth at Shakey's Pizza Parlor, three blocks west of Donut Time.

On paper, the film couldn't sound bleaker, but the experience of watching it is something else. The film is alive with a pulsating energy and is often quite funny, even in depicting this awful day. That humor came directly from Rodriguez and Taylor. Baker describes their banter as a standup comedy routine come to life.

Bawdy and fast-talking, the two friends are the first to point out that their characters are basically them.

Taylor is the mellow one — talkative and thoughtful even at the tail end of a long day. Rodriguez is the sparkplug. Pretty and manic, she speaks quickly and playfully, peppering her speech with benign expletives followed by coy apologies for her "naughtiness."

In the film, Rodriguez had to up her energy a bit to be this woman scorned and she looked to Angelina Jolie in "Girl, Interrupted" for inspiration.

"I want to be that kind of crazy," she said.

Together, the two still even make Baker blush with their brash and occasionally off-the-rails commentary about anything from police raids on Donut Time to Ryan Gosling.

With such color and charisma jumping off the screen, it's almost incidental that the film was shot on an iPhone — a quirky detail that had audiences buzzing at Sundance. If anything, it allowed them to be more discreet when shooting. They would occasionally continue "rolling" when real customers would come into the shop. Once, the actress playing the cashier even sold someone a doughnut.

Authenticity was always the goal.

"It teaches people the reality of what's actually going on out there," said Taylor.

Baker hopes that people will remember the film for his actresses and not the iPhone.

"There's a lot of talent out there in areas where the industry isn't looking and this is just one more reason to be diverse in casting," he said. "The biggest success for this movie would be for the industry to embrace them that this is the first chapter hopefully in their long careers."

"Tangerine's" release coming now couldn't be more ideal. In the short time since the film was first conceived, transgender stories have trickled into the mainstream, whether in fiction, with shows like "Transparent" and "Orange is the New Black," or real life, as in the high profile "Vanity Fair" reveal of Caitlyn Jenner.

"It's in the zeitgeist. Something has been brewing in the past couple of years and the awareness is growing, which is a wonderful thing," said Baker.

"Our movie is literally about a micro subculture in the trans community. It's about a block in Los Angeles. It should hopefully be considered one of what will be a million stories."


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