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Interview with James Ransone of Tangerine

James Ransone is incredibly self-deprecating. When asked what it was like to work with Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, his co-stars in Tangerine who had not acted before, he immediately said he remembered that other actors “had to carry my stupid ass” when starting out.

The actor is perhaps best known as Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire or as Person from Generation Kill, two roles we discuss only tangentially, and plays Chester in Tangerine, his second collaboration with Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch after 2012’s revelation Starlet. Their film Tangerine opened to wild applause at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which Ransone attended, and which opens Friday at the Carlton Theatre as well as playing Montreal’s Fantasia Fest. Ransone, as honest as he is self-depreciating, speaks extremely highly of Tangerine, but for reasons that we may not suspect.

Ransone starts by saying “I’m really proud of this film”, and reveals that he would help the actresses in subtle ways, which is not something that every actor would think to do instinctively. When pushed to hear what these things were, Ransone mentions “Doing off camera line readings, and cues and helping them to understand the small things in film”.

There are times when Ransone bristles throughout the interview, but at no point does he waver from his beliefs, and despite his dismissal of certain blanket statements, he still remains engaged in a discussion of the narrative of Tangerine. The idea for Ransone is that Tangerine is removed from reality, and that once the removal comes, (he stresses that too many art films focus on trying to mirror or reality), that finally the film is allowed to breathe, stating that “the important thing is doing cinema and trying to escape from reality and instead do what is interesting”. The understanding was that since Tangerine is so surreal, especially for an artier film, that it becomes more interesting and perhaps even more representative of truth, and most importantly, as Ransone states, that its removal from reality allows the narrative arc of leads Alexandra and SinDee Rella to function.

Did we mention yet that the leads of Tangerine are played by two transgender actresses? When asked why the film is being released at this juncture, Ransone’s answer takes a surprising turn, “The thinking is that the film is of the zeitgeist, with Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, but that the film goes beyond that kind of thought, into something much greater”. Ransone often mentions the socioeconomic considerations of the characters in the film, going beyond the idea of a “seedy underbelly”, and considering that there are factors very much beyond their means, and economic hardships that may have led them to these roles.

Ransone also stresses that there are many more reasons to see Tangerine than the fact that the film was shot using GoPro cameras mounted onto iPhones, “If you told me a few years ago that I would be doing a movie filmed on two iPhones…”

Despite repeated claims he struggles with the idea of doing press for the film, Ransone sells the film in an unexpected way:

“The thing that I like about Tangerine is that it’s funny, and I have really deep deep appreciation for standup comedians and the real street philosophers like Bill Hicks or George Carlin, Dave Chapelle and Lenny Bruce, and the older Eddie Murphy stuff. And it’s that when you break down cultural differences, shared human emotions, where someone who might have once otherwise thought that trans work was something…that they were other than people, then if we’ve broken down a barrier, for anyone to go, ‘Oh my God, I never thought I’d empathize with someone whose life experience was so seemingly different than mine, I mean, that’s huge, you know, that’s worth more than box office, you know, that someone says ‘oh yeah’ I feel pain and jealously, and all those exact same things as these people, who prior to this moment, I didn’t really think about so much”.

Ultimately, Ransone enjoys working with auteurs that are telling a good story, stating emphatically, “Dude, you absolutely should do the thing that for the artist that you really admire”.

He also hopes that an audience finds its way to a dramatically different project, Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence, a western shot on 35 mm film. Another standout role for Ransone comes in August, when he is taking over the Sinister franchise.

He discusses the idea of being a white man in Tangerine, and how it compares to being, say, an “Asian scientist in another movie” and how this kind of role required him to be almost like a device, but to be there for someone else’s story, that the story belongs to Mya and Kiki.

Though Ransone’s essential to the film, “this is ultimately a story about a friendship between two girls”.