Whether she garners any wins this coming awards season, Mya Taylor has already made history. Earlier this month, studio heads at Magnolia Pictures and Duplass Brothers Productions began campaigning for Taylor and fellow actress Kitana Kiki Rodriguez to receive Oscar nominations for their roles in Tangerine—the first time a Hollywood studio has ever launched an Academy Awards campaign in support of a transgender actress.
But there's a woman behind this Great Moment in Trans History, and I kinda sorta got to meet her over the phone last week. The Mya Taylor I spoke with sounded extremely focused on her work and fully aware, and proud, of how much she's accomplished in her short time in the business. But the 24-year-old, who lives in cold-ass North Dakota when she's not working, is also a huge Tamar Braxton fan. She's also got a soft spot for HGTV, even if she's too busy at the moment to kick back and watch. She recently wrapped a short, non-whitewashed film about the Stonewall riots called Happy Birthday, Marsha!, and she just started shooting another short, Diane from the Moon, earlier this week.
Taylor said that she works this hard and this often so that she can keep working this hard and this often for years to come. Hollywood does not present trans actors and actresses with many opportunities on which to build their careers, but Taylor is determined to come out on top. "I'm not going to be that person Hollywood forgets," she told me. "I'm just not."
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hi, Mya, how're you doing?
So, I heard you were just cast in the title role of this short film called Diane from the Moon. Can you tell me about the movie?
I'm so excited about this role. I play Diane, a pagan priestess who is being stalked by this other character, Tex, after going through a breakup. I, like a lot of transgender people, have been saying that we want more transgender stories out there, you know? I'm hoping this movie really shows how mean people can be to trans people.
Is Tex one of those "mean" people?
He's not kind at all. I know a lot of trans people who have had people be really mean to them. I've experienced it myself, and it's not fun. I'm hoping that this movie sends the message that people need to start treating us like human beings. Just because they don't understand the trans concept, that doesn't mean they can't treat us like people.
You also just wrapped shooting another short film in which you play the title role: Happy Birthday, Marsha! What was it like playing Stonewall revolutionary Marsha P. Johnson?
That was so important to me. The movie starts with Marsha throwing a birthday party for herself. She wants all of her friends to come, but none of them show up. So, she goes to Stonewall to have a good time, even though she's down. The police come and raid the bar, and they're disrespectful to her and mean and—I don't want to tell you how it ends, but basically Marsha helps start the riots.
So, this is your first time playing an actual historical figure and not a fictional character, right? How was playing Marsha different than, like, playing Alexandra in Tangerine?
Acting comes naturally to me, so I don't usually have to do much practice. But since I was playing a real life person, I wanted to make sure it was perfect. I did a whole bunch of research to get this character perfectly on point—I even took voice lessons to sound like Marsha. Some of her friends got to be in the movie, too. They said I sounded just like her, which made me so happy.
Some of the criticism I saw about Tangerine focused on the fact that the director, Sean Baker, and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, are straight, white, cisgender men telling a story centered on trans characters. What was your experience shooting with Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel, Happy Birthday, Marsha!'s co-writers and co-directors, like? Was it any different, considering they're both queer women and Gossett is a trans woman of color?
Working with these directors on both of these movies was really no different. Reina and Sasha made sure their movie was done truthfully, and so did Sean. I wouldn't have done the movie if he wasn't going to do it right, and I collaborated with him on it to make sure he told it truthfully. He did so much research on the part of L.A. where the movie takes place, and he asked me so many questions about the area because I know it personally. I had done sex work in the area. I'd been in fights. I've been shot at. I've seen people get stabbed. But I also didn't want people to leave the theater being sad, because that wouldn't have been telling that story truthfully.
While we're talking about how trans stories are told onscreen, how do you feel about cisgender actors playing transgender roles?
Of course I'd like to see trans people playing trans roles, but it's not an issue to me if a cisgender person plays a trans role as long as they play it truthfully. Just be honest about the role and make sure that the story's being told correctly and truthfully. At the same time, I feel like trans people should get to play trans roles so that more trans people can come into the industry and get work. We're not given that many opportunities because we're always being discriminated against.
When you mentioned "opportunities," that reminded me of Viola Davis' speech at the Emmys: "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity."
Oh yeah, I saw that same speech. She is correct—it's just about opportunity.
So, I've been hearing a lot of Oscar buzz for you and your Tangerine co-star, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. How would that feel to win?
It is pretty amazing. It would actually be a really big accomplishment because no trans person has won an Academy Award before. To even get nominated for an Oscar—that's unheard of for a trans person. I'm very, very proud, but I'm still focused on pushing forward with my career. I make sure I'm always busy doing something. As soon as you get lazy, Hollywood forgets about you, and I'm not going to be that person Hollywood forgets. I'm just not.
How has your life changed since this time last year? Do you get recognized a lot?
When I'm in Hollywood or New York or Utah—because my film went to Sundance—it happens. It's fun and very flattering. But I don't choose to live in Hollywood. I don't choose to live in New York. I choose to live in North Dakota, where it's very cold and quiet. I live with my husband, James, who stays there when I'm working. He says he actually sleeps on the couch when I'm gone because the bed doesn't feel the same. It's hard on both of us, but we do a lot of FaceTime and fall asleep on the phone…
Oh my god, your phone bill.
No! It's unlimited. I love living far away from the Hollywood life because here, in North Dakota, nobody knows who Mya Taylor is. I can stay humble. I feel like moving to Hollywood would have me falling into that trap of being superficial. I always want to be the same person I was before I got into the business. Plus, my home here in North Dakota is so well put together and lavish. If I tried to do all that in L.A., I'd be broke as fuck.
Wait. You wouldn't happen to be into HGTV would you…?
I used to watch HGTV all the time! Color Splash with David Bromstad or Divine Design with Candice Olson. Oh my god, yes! Candice Olson! I would love to meet her, even though, honestly, I haven't watched her TV show in years. Now, I personally don't watch TV anymore. I do Netflix, Smart TV, YouTube—all that kind of stuff.
Has anything on Netflix sucked you in lately?
I love dramas. And scary movies, because they give you that "What's going to happen next?" "Bitch, don't open that door!" "Bitch, don't go down those stairs!"
Switching to music, who are some of your favorite artists?
Toni and Tamar Braxton. My dying wish is to meet Tamar Braxton. On the low end of her voice she sounds like her older sister, Toni, and on the high end she sounds like Mariah—a five-octave range. I'm jamming to her new album. My favorite song on there is either "Makin' Love" or "Love it."
Oh, wait, what's the song with the video where Tamar's, like, in front of a waterfall? I liked that one.
"Angels & Demons." Toni and Tamar are both my inspirations as far as singing go. I actually have the same vocal coach, Terrence Lee Jones. He helped me work on the song I sing in Tangerine.
That's right! I totally forgot you sing in that movie. I saw it so long ago. Are you thinking of getting into music at all?
I do have a song planned for next year.
You're really serious about not getting "lazy." But if you could take, like, a whole month off with all your expenses paid for, what would you do?
I'd still be working. I say that because of Céline Dion and Beyoncé. Céline Dion is the ultimate legend, and she never really quits working. And Beyoncé has been on top of everything for years and years and years. She knows that singers have their moment and then they fade into the background, but she made sure she was always in the front. Beyoncé never falls back.
An earlier version of this interview incorrectly stated that Tex is the character that Mya Taylor's character in Diane from the Moon breaks up with. He is not.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.