The Oscar Speech I Wanted This Year: Mya Taylor from “Tangerine”

*This article first appeared in The Huffington Post

“I have a dream”
–Martin Luther King Jr.

“I should have been a great many things”
–Louisa May Alcott

“I want to play a superhero. I want to be a Bond girl. I want to play a man. I want to play a white woman.” —Taraji P. Henson

Mya Taylor. Photo courtesy of Mya Taylor.

I love the Oscars. Yes, the telecast is long and superficial, but the speeches (occasionally) remind us that movies are our dreams.
Actors talk about being transformed–both onscreen and in life–by the characters they play. (Hilary Swank’s acceptance speech for playing Brandon Teena–a transgender man who was brutally murdered–comes to mind, after which Swank became a spokesperson for the queer youth organization, The Hetrick-Martin Institute). And sometimes, actors whose bodies, or skin colors, or identities, we don’t often see in the limelight, take the stage. (Watch Hattie McDaniels accept the first Oscar ever won by a person of color–in 1939!–presented by actress Fay Bainter, who described the award as,”more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America – an America that we love, an America that almost alone in the world today, recognizes and pays tribute to those who give her their best, regardless of creed, race, or color,” followed by McDaniels herself calling it “a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future.”)

If movies are our collective dreams, they should inspire us to have the greatest American dream of all: the opportunity to be a great many things.

This is why so many of us are disheartened that, once again, the faces celebrated at the Oscars are all white; the nominated directors are all men (and Todd Haynes, the gay director of one of the year’s best films, Carol, which makes a great case for movies about women, is not one of them); and the passionate cries for diversity on screen over the years (e.g., hereherehere, and here) have not shaken Hollywood up enough to create or to cast more roles for actors who are not straight white men.

So I’ve chosen to celebrate what should be rather than complain about what is–77 years after Hattie McDaniels’ historic win. And to that end I commissioned a speech from the performer who moved me the most in 2015: Mya Taylor, from the critically acclaimed indie film, Tangerine.

Tangerine is an off-beat comedy that follows two transgender sex workers as they work a downtrodden Los Angeles intersection on Christmas Eve. It is a collaboration of director Sean Baker, and the two leading trans actresses, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Ms. Taylor, whom Mr. Baker met at an LGBT center near the film’s location. Mr. Baker was inspired to make a movie about this part of L.A., which is very different from the one we often see in movies. He says,”I thought there must be some incredible stories that take place on that corner.” And he was right.

The palpable chemistry between the leads at once references and transcends classic buddy films, transporting us beyond the limitations of gender or race. As Alexandra, Taylor effectively conveys a fierce survivor who is driven by her dreams. We get a glimpse of the life she could be living as she sings “Toyland” at a local club, bathed in a soft, glamorous, light that contrasts the gritty, sweaty, tangerine, hue of the streets she calls home. Scenes like this are what I love most about movies: the chance to be embodied by people whose stories are unsung.

2016-02-24-1456337832-1131255-1.jpgMya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 At the same time I love seeing the same actors get to play a variety of stories and dreams. Hollywood at its best–beyond the crappy movies, discrimination, and damaging stereotypes–provides both a spotlight on marginalized people and the chance to see those same people inhabit a spectrum of roles. It’s fantastic to think that Viola Davis has not only played women severely restricted by their race–as in the two parts for which she was nominated for Oscars, Doubt and The Help–but that she has also portrayed lives that those characters could only dream of living. (Such as, Annalise Keating on the show, How to Get Away With Murder, for which Davis won an Emmy–a role of gravitas, charisma, and complexity that we typically associate with straight white men, e.g., James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, etc.)
That’s why I’m celebrating Mya Taylor during this year’s Oscars. Performances like hers open doors and move back walls and enable us all to embrace the whole of an America that we love. I hope to see her be a great many things in the future. And with that, I give you, Mya Taylor:

[The following “speech” is based on my interview with Ms. Taylor. If she delivered this on a stage, she’d be wearing, “something amazing, with my tits pushed up to the ceiling.” So please imagine this as you read.]

 When I was a kid I loved watching the Grammys (I was always a singer), and when someone I admired won, it was amazing. Because I thought, if that was me up there, I’d know that I worked hard for it and that it came from the heart.

“Tangerine” has changed my life.

I was nervous to play this part because I had just started my transition. I felt so unpretty. I didn’t look the way I wanted to. But I had to come out of those shades and present myself to the world. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a few things to get something better. I found it within myself to do it. I thought: “Ok, this is an opportunity to do something with your life for once. Make the best out of the experience. Make the most of it.”

I didn’t know how many people would see the film. It’s touching to attend screenings, to go on stage and catch all the energy of the fans. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how touching it is, the friendship. They like when I give my wig to Kiki. (And that part was acting, let me tell you, I’m not about to take off my 22-inch hair to put on another bitches head…) But I love to meet people who are moved by it. They like when I sing. My character wanted to sing so badly that she paid to sing. And who knows why the club manager made her pay. Does he make everybody pay? Maybe he felt she wouldn’t be good enough, or he didn’t like that she was trans. But whatever the case was, she paid, because she loved singing so much.

(And that part was acting too, because, they paid me to sing in this movie…) I’ve been training as a singer since I was a kid. I guess I was preparing for this my whole life, though I didn’t know it.

I don’t know if young people should see Tangerine, there’s a lot of sex in it, but if girls on the streets see it, I hope they know they’re not alone. I hope they see that I got out of sex work and it’s possible for them too.

I want to play lots of different roles now. I’d love to be in a scary movie. Or a drama, so I could be mean–like Monique in Precious–cuz I’m really nice in real life. Or maybe a lawyer, with a client who has a difficult case, and maybe someone’s trying to kill me because they know I’m gonna win.

In addition to acting, Tangerine has also given me the opportunity to produce my own T.V. show! It’s about how trans people go through life, and what I have gone through. There will be a variety of characters. And I won’t be the lead, we’ll hire a person who is transitioning to be the star. I’ve already had that opportunity, why not let someone else come in. That’s what it’s all about, right?

I feel very humble right now, and blessed. The people I work with really listen to me. And I’m so thankful for all of their support in helping me get here. Especially Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch for inviting me to be a collaborator and not just a performer. Mark and Jay Duplass, Magnolia Pictures. My manager, Allan Mandell. My agent, Joanne Wiles. My hair and makeup artist, Christina Cullinski. My very first singing instructor, Nick, who taught me to sing opera!, and to train my voice, which I do every day. God. And my man.

At the end of the day, I’m so lucky to come home to a quiet, normal, life.


Hollywood Diversity Awakens

This blog post first appeared on Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly.

Thank you, J.J. Abrams, for granting my holiday wish for a fantastic movie that (1) has a female protagonist, (2) passes the Bechdel test (i.e., at least two women characters talk to each other about something other than a man), and (3) has a diverse cast of superb actors in complex roles.

Over the past few holiday seasons I’ve expressed my disappointment and frustration with Hollywood casting in essays like “Into the White White Woods,” (2014), and “Calling All Hobbits of Color,” (2012). And after years of wishing, watching the cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a Christmas miracle for me.

But this wish granted was not just for me–and that’s the point. As I’ve written again and again, casting with diversity in mind is a gift for everyone.

Audiences of all ages, races, and gender expressions who go to the current Star Wars will find a fluid spectrum of characters with whom to identify, all of whom have agency and moments of ambivalence, a need to be rescued at times and do the rescuing at others, all of whom do bad things and good things, wear armor or tight leathery space fashions, fight and cry and love and use the force–no matter what their bodies look like, or what types of genitals, sizes of breasts, hairstyles, or skin colors they have.

Gone are the days when a young Star Wars fan was limited to the binary choice of good guy versus bad guy action figure. Now storm troopers can be on the dark side and the light, and also be women of high rank. And in other news, white guys like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are nolonger the only heroic subjects with whom kids can identify! In addition to the film’s main character, Rey, played by white actress Daisy Ridley, the cast is led by British-Nigerian actor John Boyega and Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac. All three characters take turns flying space crafts, wielding light sabers, hugging each other (in earnest, without bro-anxiety), being sexy (but not necessarily in gender conforming ways), giving orders, taking orders, and kicking butt.

Having a woman at the center of the whole thing is arguably the most revelatory choice of all, exploding our ingrained ideas about who is allowed to be a subject in a mainstream film, and who is subjugated to the role of object. As Meryl Streep has said:

“The absolute hardest thing in the whole world is to persuade a straight male viewing audience toidentify with a woman protagonist. To feel themselves embodied by her . . . There has always been a resistance to assume a persona if that persona is a she.”

By making the new Star Wars protagonist a woman and a tough yet emotionally accessible hero with whom all audiences (including men and boys) can identify, the filmmakers have blasted through the resistance Streep describes. They have also opened up the opportunity to cast a variety of minorities as characters who are active subjects, as opposed to objectified “others.”And it’s about time!

Yes, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia in the original trilogy paved the way for characters like Rey. But even though Leia had agency – which was inspiring for many girls and nonconforming boys (like this one) – her fiercest moments always felt like false starts (Taking a stand against Darth Vader, but then needing to be rescued from him; or rescuing Han Solo from Jabba the Hut, only to be enslaved in a metal bikini; or hopping on a speed bike to catch an enemy in the woods – awesome! – but then getting pushed off and leaving Luke to finish the chase.) Now Leia is in command as a general, a role in the world of Star Wars that had only everbeen occupied by distinguished looking men–or amphibious male aliens.

Again, I’m not the only one excited by these character developments. The box office, the critical praise, and the unprecedented reports of audience satisfaction, prove that everyone is winning with this new Star Wars.

So how do we make sure Hollywood keeps up the good work?

Some might lazily think there’s nothing to be done, other than to cast “existing” roles with “appropriate” actors. But if creators want to turn the tide they have to make creative, active, subversive choices. And that’s exactly what director J.J. Abrams did with The

Force Awakens. In addition to believing that it’s important for everyone to “see themselves represented in film,” Abrams has also said, “I wanted a movie mothers could take their daughters to.” More specifically, and inspiringly, he explained how having a daughter himself motivated him to make sure the world of the film felt equal between women and men.

So, Hollywood filmmakers – who are often straight white men, like Abrams – may need to hold their daughters in mind if we want to see more movies like The Force Awakens. Men will need to be consciously invested in women, and in other minorities, as subjects with whom they can identify as opposed to marginal objects. And if filmmakers want a guidepost to such a transformation, they can look to renowned psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin’s analysis of a scene in the Oscar-winning film American Beauty. In the pivotal scene, Kevin Spacey’s character Lester (a privileged white guy) is about to have sex with his daughter’s nubile teen friend (Mena Suvari), about whom he has fantasized compulsively for the whole movie. Benjamin writes:

“[T]his irresistible stimulation shifts dramatically in the moment when [the girl] reveals that she is actually a virgin and a neglected child whose parents pay no attention to her. Suddenly, as if waking from the dream, Lester recognizes that this girl is a subject with her own center of feeling…The bright lights of overstimulation are shut off and feelings of abandonment and grief bring about an identificatory connection to the girl as person.”

Filmmakers of all backgrounds and perspectives would benefit from engaging in a similar process of reflection – concerning women as well as other minorities – in order to create and cast a wider range of characters who are relatable subjects.

The point is not to simply be politically correct, as folks sometimes say in defensive reaction to articles like this one. The point is to give everyone the opportunity to identify with various facets of human experience.

Giving Carrie Fisher the opportunity to play a general allows us to see more of the gravitas the actress possesses in her real life than we would ever see from her playing an objectified princess.In a recent interview with Good Morning America, for instance, you can see Fisher deploying a commanding wit that we typically associate with men – like Harrison Ford (at least playing Han Solo) – but is by no means limited to male experience.

And expanding our ideas about movie characters does not only advantage women and other minorities. The straight white men in Star Wars get to embody a greater range of emotional life than Hollywood usually affords leading men. As the new leader of the dark side, Adam Driver gets to have doubts and heartbreak while also simultaneously being powerful and sadistic. Similarly, Harrison Ford gives depth to Han Solo with moments of paternal tenderness that showcase some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from him.

Star Wars also features Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as a wise Yoda-like creature–a rare opportunity to see a young beautiful actress do wildly inventive character work in a mainstream movie. This also parallels another groundbreaking achievement for Nyong’o who will soon star in the play Eclipsed, the first Broadway production ever to have a writer, director, and cast entirely comprised of

women–and women of color at that. With Eclipsed, Broadway audiences will experience the riveting stories of resilient African women based on true events during the Second Liberian Civil War. The play is a window into lives that are very real and rich but which have rarely been subjects of mainstream entertainment until now. It is no surprise that the director is Liesl Tommy, whom I have praised for putting into practice her keen understanding ofhow telling stories with diversity in mind always expands the audience’s experience.

Maybe next Christmas there will be even more movies and plays directed by the Liesl Tommys and Ava Duvernays and Jill Soloways and Diane Pauluses of the world. And maybe more directors who are straight white men will take a page from these women, and from J.J. Abrams, as they create more characters and stories with women and other minorities in mind–as subjectsas opposed to marginalized objects.

In reaction to Donald Trump’s regressive hate speech, activist/filmmaker Michael Moore recently said, “We are all Muslim.” So too are we all women, and girls, and boys, and gay and trans, and black and Latino and Asian, and Jewish and Christian, and princesses and generals–insofar as we are all humans with imaginations in a vastly diverse and interconnected world.

The more we see ourselves represented on screen in all of our multifaceted-ness, the more we are reminded that we are all human and more alike than we are different.