The Binge Interview: Sean Baker on “Tangerine,” Beyoncé Complexes, and Trans Criticism

There are several reasons why director Sean Baker’s Sundance smash Tangerine has become one of the buzziest movies of the summer. For one, there’s the fact that it was filmed entirely with the iPhone 5S (thankfully not in portrait mode) yet looks like a million bucks, bursting with eye-popping colors and luminous L.A. landscapes. Secondly, it focuses on trans characters at a time when this long-disrespected community has been making whiplash-inducing progress in cultural visibility and acceptance. And not only does Tangerine feature trans heroines, they’re played by actual trans women—Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, who met Baker (who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch) at a Los Angeles LGBT Center two years ago.

But despite its coincidentally topical timing, Tangerine is not especially interested in respectability politics. In truth, its story and characters couldn’t exist further from the rarified stratospheres of the polished trans women who’ve remarkably appeared on glossy magazine covers over the last year. Baker was interested in a much different aspect of the trans experience, one that’s been an endless source of cheap jokes and sight gags for decades: the transgender sex workers of color in Hollywood, specifically at the corner of Santa Monica and Highland.

Tangerine is the story of Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor), best friends and working girls, and their wild Christmas Eve misadventures on the streets of Hollywood. Sin-Dee has just been released from jail, and is outraged to learn from Alexandra that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp, Chester (James Ransone, The Wire), has been hooking up with a biological female, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), while she’s been away. The volcanic Sin-Dee immediately sets out to track down Dinah and demand answers, while the more poised Alexandra looks for dates and spreads the word about a singing gig she’s “booked” at a small club later that night.

Combining the boldness and grit of the New Queer Cinema era with the virtuosic energy and vibrant humor of a classic screwball romp, Tangerine is a subversive delight, a one-of-a-kind independent movie experience that lets two women who’d usually be little more than stock characters become the stars of their own riotously entertaining story. Neither Rodriguez nor Taylor had acted before, yet each commands the screen with verve and star power. For director Sean Baker, this is yet another wonderfully observed tale of sex workers living on the margins, following his 2012 stunner Starlet, about a young porn actress (Dree Hemingway) and her unlikely friendship with a stubborn older woman. But whereas that was a hushed, poignant character study, Tangerine is as rollicking as they come. Below, I chat with Baker about allowing his leading ladies to shape his story, dealing with a Toni Braxton girl vs. a Beyoncé girl, and the inevitable criticism of his outsider handling of trans issues.

First of all, congratulations on finding your incredible leading ladies, Kiki and Mya. They’re both such naturals!

Yes they are. I was very lucky.

Since they’re both new to film acting, what gave you the confidence that they could carry a movie?

It did take time. I auditioned them, I didn’t just decide when I saw them that they would be our leads. I had met with others, too, but they were the ones that won me over. Mya Taylor was the first person that expressed true enthusiasm about working on the film, and she brought Kiki to it. We had a very collaborative research period where we spent about eight months just sitting down on a regular basis and telling stories. They would share anecdotes about what they know from that area [of Los Angeles]. They have friends who worked the streets, so they were able to give us a lot of real details that we wouldn’t have been able to just make up, like their vernacular and a lot of the terminology that you could only get from being immersed in that. They brought us into their world.

During that time, I noticed pretty early on that there was something special going on between them. They had very contrasting but complementary personalities, and were actually real friends, so I saw them as this dynamic comic duo and we started to model the script after that. We had no idea what the plot was going to be when we went in, and they helped us find it. We also did rehearsals and workshopping, but I was still blown away when we were actually shooting and they were delivering these wonderful lines of improvisation. Some of my favorite lines in the film were improvised by the girls. I remember at one point James Ransone, who is a seasoned actor working for 15 years now, leaned over to me and said—he’d only had a scene with Mya—he said “Mya is really good!” I was like “I know, I know!”

Their energy really feeds into the film’s madcap sensibilities. I love how it feels like a screwball farce, even down to the vintage music cues.

One hundred percent. We almost called this film Tinseltown Follies, but there’s a double definition of follies where it also means something along the lines of foolishness. Then people would’ve thought we were making a negative statement about trans culture, and that’s in no way what we wanted to do. We wanted to capture the feeling of the old Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang era of ensemble comedies. The Babes in Toyland song “Toyland” [which Mya performs in the film] was recommended by my producer Darren Dean based on the fact that he knew I was very influenced by that era. It just complemented the film perfectly, so I was very happy with that choice … and Mya wasn’t, by the way! She wanted to perform a Toni Braxton song or something like that. So when I told her that she would be performing “Toyland,” she rolled her eyes. I said, “I know you’re gonna hate it but let’s just make this work!” So she learned the song, but the whole time she was complaining about how old it sounded. We ended up working her complaints into the movie, except we let someone else be saying it about her character’s song choice. [laughs]

How did Mya feel about that?

She’s come to like it. She likes her performance a lot, but I think she’s also looking forward to the day when we can all karaoke together and she can do some Toni Braxton for everyone.

Was she jealous that Kiki got to sing a snippet of “Say My Name” during the climax?

It’s funny, because both girls have their iconic idols. For Mya it’s Toni Braxton, and for Kiki it’s Beyoncé. She always held herself like Beyoncé and would quote Beyoncé. Kiki singing “Say my name, say my name” was actually scripted, but then the next line where Dinah says, “You’re the bitch they threw out!”—that was 100% improvised, to the point that you can see me move the camera because I’m laughing. That’s why I was so lucky! Everybody in the film could improvise, even the adult film stars. Ana Foxx, who plays the [cis female] sex worker who gets in Razmik’s cab, is an adult film star. I made that scene longer because she could really act. I thought that was going to be a gag where she just got in and out in 30 seconds, but when I realized how good of an actor she is, I fleshed out the scene.

Sean Baker films a memorable scene between Sin-Dee and Dinah.

Sean Baker films a memorable scene between Sin-Dee and Dinah.

She was terrific. You mentioned earlier that you dropped your original title so it couldn’t be misconstrued as transphobic. On the subject of such sensitivities, how do you respond to those who’d say the subject matter of Tangerine is regressive at a time when the trans movement is making such immense strides?

We are quite aware of that criticism. I’ve been aware of it even before shooting this film. I had some individuals come up to me in what I felt was a very unfair way and say, “You shouldn’t make this movie.” I said, “You have no idea how we’re going to approach this film, and I hope you know from seeing my other films that I would never do anything that I think is inappropriate or in any way disrespectful.” But people didn’t want to hear that. It’s wonderful that the trans community is being strengthened and their visibility is expanding; acceptance is growing day by day, which is an absolutely fantastic thing. But people have to understand that this film is in no way meant to represent an entire group of people.

I am actually interested in sex work as a subject. My last film [Starlet] focused on it and explored it in a very different way, and I was drawn to the locale [in Tangerine] because it was an unofficial red light district of L.A. that happened to be frequented by trans sex workers. That was my initial draw to that area, and then it became about the trans aspect and how we would focus on that. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know where we were going in terms of our take on it. I thought it might be much more of a drama; I didn’t know there was going to be so much comedy in the film.

It was actually Mya who, very early on, said a very important thing that I think dictated the way we made this movie. She said, “I will make this film with you if you promise two things: number one, I want you to capture the reality of the streets, even if it’s brutal and un-P.C. I want you to show what happens out here because these girls go through hardships every day and they’re struggling to survive. And yet at the same time, I want you to make it funny. I don’t want you to just make it a ‘plight of…’ movie. I want you to make this film for us, an entertaining movie that we can laugh with.”

After hanging out with them for months, I could see how they used humor to get through their everyday hardships. They’re some of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life, and hanging out with them at the local Jack in the Box and hearing their stories—even though sometimes I was hearing such terribly tragic stories—we were laughing the entire time because they were cracking me up with their storytelling. They are very funny, very witty, very intelligent; they use humor to get by, like we all do, but they have to use it to an even greater extent. So that was our challenge, and that [criticism] is something we’re going to have to face. I know some people are not going to like our approach to this film, but they have to understand that we just don’t see the world the same way.

Well, one really valuable thing I think Tangerine does is contribute to a broader, more diverse representation of the trans community. So much of the cultural discussion around trans issues this past year has focused on well-to-do white trans women, such as Jeffrey Tambor’s character in Transparent or Caitlyn Jenner, or glamorous, media-trained trans women of color like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. There’s a lot more to the socioeconomic spectrum of the trans community than what we’ve been seeing.

Most definitely.

One of your producers was Jay Duplass, who works on Transparent. Were you able to connect with him about working with the trans community to get out ahead of criticism?

Jay was so busy that I was actually working more with [his brother] Mark on this one. They kinda take turns with how much presence they have on their projects. But yes, I did talk to Jay about how [Transparent creator] Jill Soloway approaches her show, and what I found very interesting is that they actually crew up with trans individuals, which I think is a wonderful thing. It’s not just this new wave of casting trans people in trans roles, but also just employing them in general. During our post-production, I saw how difficult it was for Mya just to land a job so she could stay in L.A. Ultimately she couldn’t because of prejudice and bias, and she had to move back to Houston. Hopefully she’ll be coming to L.A. for the premiere of the film and the industry will embrace her.

That’s my hope. I watched her trying to land a job for over six months and getting the runaround every day, and it was ridiculous. I’ve witnessed that kind of prejudice firsthand, so it’s wonderful what Jill is doing and what Transparent is doing. I really respect Jay for being a part of this project because as you know, it’s slightly risky. But for him to embrace this film and get behind it, I know we’re on the same page and have the same sensibility. He understands that I have empathy for these characters. Even if we’re laughing and having a fun time, sensitive audiences will be able to see the hardship behind the humor. It might be considered a popcorn movie, but it can still open eyes and bring people into a world that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Tangerine opens in San Francisco today.

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