It’s Christmas Eve in Tinseltown and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is back on the streets. Upon hearing that her pimp boyfriend (James Ransone) hasn’t been faithful during the 28 days she was locked up, the sex worker and her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), embark on a mission to get to the bottom of the rumor. Their odyssey leads them through various subcultures of Los Angeles, including an Armenian family dealing with their own repercussions of infidelity. Director Sean Baker’s prior films (Starlet, Prince of Broadway) brought rich texture and intimate detail to worlds seldom seen on film. Tangerine follows suit, as it focuses on the lives of transgender prostitutes on the streets of Los Angeles. This gritty but charming buddy movie features wonderful performances by newcomers Rodriguez and Taylor and an excellent performance by James Ransone who was featured in Baker’s previous movies and made a big impact in his unique roles on TV series such as The Wire, Generation Kill, How to Make it in America, and Treme. Tangerine was a big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and received a lot of attention both for its content and the fact that it was made entirely on iPhones. I sat down with James Ransone not far from the Donut Time location at Highland and Santa Monica where much of this gritty but ultimately heartwarming film was shot.
Danny Miller: That was such a great performance. Do you do a lot of research to play someone like Chester or do you mostly rely on what’s on the page?
James Ransome: There wasn’t a ton on the page about this guy, to be honest, but Sean is like a great social investigator. He had me meet some people from that area. Every character that I’ve done with Sean so far has been based on real people — Chester is actually an amalgam of a couple of dudes. It was the same for Starlet.
Chester has a lot of issues, God knows, but he was pretty funny and endearing in many ways.
I have to say that my thing as a performer — and it’s probably a really bad habit — is that I always try to play the funny of everything. I always think that’s more interesting. I’m like an idiot — I’ll kill myself for a laugh, even if it’s not necessarily appropriate for that moment!
To the point where you’ve had directors asking you to dial that down?
Oh God, yeah! Tons of times! But sometimes it works out in weird ways like when I was playing Ziggy Sobotka on The Wire. I thought it was funny that they gave me a pet duck and that I kept taking my dick out. I couldn’t help myself but to go for laughs. I think that somehow grounded the character in a reality that really weirded people out!
Did you reach for the humor when you did Shakespeare?
Oh, fuck, making Cymbeline with Michael Almereyda just made me realize how ill-equipped I am as an actor! I didn’t even have that much to do in that and immediately my respect for Pacino shot up about eight million percent — the way he combs over that language in the perfect way. My analytical mind couldn’t stop thinking about how many different ways every verse could be interpreted and then I’d make no choices at all and just blurt those lines out as fast as I could!
You’ve played a lot of dark characters really well. Do you ever think about wanting to play an entirely different kind of role, like the lead in a rom-com or something?
Listen, I think most actors just like new experiences. I guess there have been times when I’ve felt a little offended that people see me as some dirtbag schmuck. (Laughs.) One thing that I would really like to do is play somebody who kind of sits back deeper in the frame and is more subdued. I’d like to try to do parts where I say less and act more with just my face. That seems like it would be an interesting challenge. Not even a lead role, it would just be nice to do somebody who’s quiet!
It could have gone much darker with Chester. Should I be worried about myself that I really liked him?
A lot of people have said that and I think it’s very flattering!
Great work you’re doing for the Pimp Anti-Defamation League!
(Laughs.) I think Sean and I work so well together because we both have the same impulse to finding the comedy in situations. That’s what I noticed about working on things like Generation Kill. Humanity comes from the ability to relate and laugh with someone who is in the worst possible situation — like gallows humor. Whatever situation you’re in, being a human being and being alive is not easy. If you can’t figure out a way to laugh, you’re fucked, your trip on this planet is going to be a bummer. That’s where Sean’s sensibility and mine line up.
I love that Sean’s movies always give people an inside view of these worlds that we’re around but never think about much.
Sean makes labor movies — movies about vocations. Take Out was a movie about a Chinese delivery guy, Prince of Broadway was about an African immigrant who was selling bootleg DVDs on Canal Street, Starlet was about a porn star—
All vocations that are marginalized.
Exactly! These are people that our culture just dismisses. “Oh, my Chinese food is here.” “Oh, another movie to masturbate to.” But Sean looks at these people and says, “Wait, hang on a second.” And once we can demystify the vocation and you recognize that all of these people have lives that are just like yours and mine, I think that’s what’s so unique about his movies. All Sean is doing is saying that our vocation doesn’t define who we are. We’re not our jobs — who we are as people is not rooted in how we make a living. That’s the coolest part of his films.
Do you feel like you’re part of the Sean Baker Stock Company at this point?
Yeah. We talk all the time and we’ve already discussed what I’m going to do in his next movie next year. It’s weird because we met in such a bizarre way. My dog got hit by a car in New York and I was at the 24-hour emergency vet in Chelsea with my girlfriend. We really thought our dog was going to die and Sean was there with Boonie, the chihuahua from Starlet because the dog had an eye infection. I was sitting there waiting to go in and Sean said, “Hey, I know this is a really inappropriate time, but I really liked your part on The Wire. I made this movie called Prince of Broadway,” and I was like, “Oh, cool.”
Were you thinkng at first, “Oh fuck, I’m here with my dying dog, leave me alone?”
No, because he was so cool about it. And then what ended up happening is that we both worked out at Crunch and I would see him there and he was like, “Hey, I’m going to make this movie about the porn industry,” and I said, “Okay, just call me and we’ll do it” just because I thought he was such a cool person.
This film got a lot of attention because it was shot entirely on iPhones. Was that different for you as an actor in any way?
Not really. To me it just speaks to the level of Sean’s abilities. The phone is the least interesting thing to me. It’s more like, “Oh God, that guy is a brilliant director!” Like playing a beautiful song on a guitar made out of a cardboard box and a bunch of shoelaces. What matters is that it’s a great song, not how the guitar is made. What was cool about using the iPhones is that the Steadicam rigs we had was so light it was like floating in space. You could run with it in a way that you could never do with a full rig. Believe me, I’ve worn a regular Steadicam rig and had to take it off in about 15 seconds!
And I guess using such portable cameras meant you could go into places that would be harder with normal equipment.
Yeah, but that was sometimes a double-edged sword. While we had permits for all our locations, they weren’t locked off so if someone walked into the shot, you had to cut.
Really? Why weren’t they locked off?
Budget. It costs more if you tell someone you’re going to buy their business out for the day. We had the permits to shoot at Donut Time, but business there continued as usual. So I’d be filming a scene and some person would just enter and buy donuts and we’d have to cut! But all this stuff about using the iPhones — it’s great if people want to make movies that way, it’s new and interesting, but I worry that what gets lost is that a director needs to watch about a thousand great movies before they ever go out with their friends and try to make something. They need to understand the language of film no matter how they’re shooting a movie. That’s why I think these kids from The Wolfpack documentary might end up making really good movies because their understanding of that language is so intimate. So yeah, you can go out and make a movie with your phone, but if you know movies you’ll be inspired by the things like the tracking shot from The Godfather, Part 2 which is my favorite shot in cinema history! You have to watch enough movies so that they seep into your consciousness. Sean is the perfect example of that. He is a total cinephile who watches everything. Then he thinks, “How do we meet that bar with our limited resources?”
I thought the two main actresses in the film were just great — amazing that neither had made a feature film before. Is it any different for you when you’re working with less experienced actors?
I don’t even think about that. It’s more that they’re prepared and know how to act when we’re not shooting, when we’re just following our day-to-day vocation. I thought their performances were great. I remember that final showdown scene with me and Mya and Kiki. I kept trying to say really mean things to Kiki to see if I get her really mad or sad to provoke a reaction, but I would have done that with anyone.
Do you have a game plan for your career — like people you’d really like to work with?
I just had this conversation with somebody who told me to make a wish list of the directors I want to work with but I think that’s kind of a dangerous idea for an artist in any creative profession. I think it inevitably makes you put blinders on and you end up limiting yourself.
So how do you choose what you want to work on?
Is this a new experience? Am I scared to do it? Is there a risk that I might fall disastrously on my face? Those are the things I will probably go towards. I will say that the one person I would really like to work with is David Fincher. The way he makes actors do 60 takes of a single scene — I’m really interested to know what that process would be like and how it would test my patience. I want to know if my ego would finally give out and maybe I’d stop thinking and the words would just come out of my mouth in a different way. I think that’s what Fincher does. It’s how Kubrick worked, too. Kind of like Zen Buddhism’s, “Beginner’s Mind” — every time you try something, try it as if you’ve never done it before, go back to the beginning.
Do you think much about fame and celebrity?
I don’t know, man. I have four movies coming out in a row this year and yet I can’t get a movie to save my life — I’ve been auditioning since November! But that’s pretty normal for an actor. I’ve been in a lot of interesting stuff but I’m not famous. I think in my 20s I resented that a little, but now that I’ve dealt with a lot of my shit, I don’t really care. Not that fame is good or bad, and if it happens, that’s great, but for me it’s more about financial security. Can I buy a house? Can I pay for college for any kids I might have? I do think that fame at a certain level can be like an industrial disease of creativity. If you start to believe your own hype, you’re probably done making anything good. I’m lucky that I know a lot of people who are doing very creative things — I can’t ask for anything more than that.