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Mya Taylor, whose turn in 2015 Sundance hit Tangerine garnered a win at the Independent Spirit Awards a year later, helped pave the way for the transgender community in film. But the Spirit win did not necessarily open doors for new roles.
“It felt like the Spirit Award was the end of my career. It felt like that was the biggest accomplishment that I could gain because you all do not know how many auditions I have put in and I’ve mailed,” Taylor tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I even had a casting office come back and say, you know, you were good, but you just don’t look masculine enough.”
The sharp turn in her career is unlike the success found with cisgender actors who have benefited from their depictions of transgender characters in a film — including Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Felicity Huffman in Transamerica or Hilary Swank’s breakthrough in Boys Don’t Cry.
Following the Spirit win, Taylor left behind Hollywood and New York for a more nondescript life in North Dakota, where a daily routine has become a balancing act of survival working two jobs, often 16 hours a day, only to return home and film auditions into the wee hours of the nights.
This past December, Taylor was cast in a recurring role on AMC’s new drama Dietland, which premiered June 4. In a conversation with THR, the performer describes a determination to find a new wave of success amid a revolution for trans representation in entertainment. “I don’t want to work for checks. I just want to work. I have everything, literally,” Taylor says.
How often do you feel like your prior success is being stripped away?
After the Spirit Award when I was doing interviews, they’d always introduce me: “Trans actress Mya Taylor is here with us today to talk about …” It’s so annoying because if I were anybody else, it would be, “Award-winning actress Mya Taylor is here today.” I feel like that is the way to present me. I’m just so tired of the labels and I’m just so tired of how hard it is. You know, you would think that after the Spirit Award people would be knocking my door down to give me roles. I’ve done so many auditions compared to when I first started. I was doing auditions, but I was doing a lot of auditions for trans roles that focused around this victimology and I just got tired of that. I didn’t want to be a prostitute again. I didn’t want to be a drug dealer or be drugged out or killed and stuff like that. I’ve turned all of that down because I don’t feel like those roles are a good way to represent the community, period. I want to play just regular female roles. I didn’t transition to be a trans woman. I transitioned to be a female and I feel like Hollywood has put it out there to be like, oh, well these are trans women and that’s what they are. No, we are females. My name and my gender are legally changed to Mya Jeanette Taylor and on my gender marker it says female.”
Looking back do you have any regrets on accepting a role as a sex-worker in Sean Baker’s Tangerine?
No, not at all. You know, maybe if Sean was a whole different person. But Sean, it’s interesting because as a director he struggled too. He had to bring his career up and we all did it together. We worked as a team, but Sean really loved us. He just really looked out for us and pushed for our careers. I’d never have had ICM if it wasn’t for him. And then my first manager, he hooked me up with him too, so that was good. I don’t feel exploited because everything was truthful. Do I feel like I wish that I could be working with him again? I wish that I could be moving up and be further along in my career, but I don’t feel like that’s Sean’s fault.
After the success of Tangerine, how hard has it been to land a role?
It’s really hard. For a while it made me stop and look at myself, like what’s wrong with me? I thought that I wasn’t getting roles because I had gained weight. I’ve also lost it, but I’m not as small as what I was in Tangerine. You got to think of it like this: When I did Tangerine I was still kind of doing sex work, so I was eating very minimal because I didn’t have the money that I have today. I didn’t have that money. It was ramen this, and ramen that and put some cheese in the bitch. I [finally] feel good about myself and I’m doing these auditions and I’m still not getting [any roles]. But, I did land one role and that was the role in Dietland. I love the show. I love the whole production. The reason why I love Dietland is that it focuses on the body. It lets you know that you don’t have to look like this or you don’t have to look like that. Just be yourself. You’re beautiful.
Dietland was the first time your character breakdown didn’t contain the specificity of transness on paper. Can you tell me what it was like heading to that set?
The first day I was nervous because I didn’t know anybody that was there and I felt like everybody here is cisgender. But no, the [cast and crew] treated me as if I was one of them. I loved that. I really did. It was a warming feeling. It started with the costume department. It wasn’t even about being transgender or anything, but I wanted to dress in things that were the most flattering to me and to leave wardrobe knowing that I had a choice. It immediately let me know I’m not going to go on looking like a clown or a hot mess.
How hard is it to balance financial security and auditioning for roles?
It’s very hard. My first manager would say that, well, you live in North Dakota and this and that, but if I lived in L.A., even if you are a cis white man with a college degree, it’s very, very difficult to get jobs in LA, period, for everybody. And I am not going to live less than what I feel like I deserve.
What shows you that any progress has been made in Hollywood?
Do you remember how I said I felt like the Spirit Award was the end of my career? Well, you know, at that particular time I felt like progress had been made. I was so new to this acting career, I didn’t know anything about [the significance of winning the Gotham Award and the Independent Spirit Award]. It just did not hit me the way that I felt like other actors would have been hit until after. I see it sitting here on my mantle and then I look at my Wikipedia and it’s saying I’m the first to do this. I’m the first to have an Oscar campaign. I’m the first to have the Gotham Award. I have all these accomplishments and that’s when I kind of felt like, OK, this is special. We have moved forward and I contributed to that. But, not getting roles in everything looking back at it, I kind of felt like, well, maybe that was the end of my career. Maybe that was the happy ending. You know everybody has their time period in which you’re not hot anymore. At least that’s what we’re told. But that’s not true. It’s not true. You are as good as your next project.
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