Born and raised in Brooklyn, singer-songwriter, actress, and essayist Nomi Ruiz has blazed a trail as the first Latinx trans woman to perform at major international music events like the Montreax Jazz Festival, Glastonbury, and Lovebox. In 2005 she released her debut album, Lost In Lust, a gritty blend of 90s hip-hop, R&B and soul, before going on to appear on Hercules & Love Affair’s self-titled 2008 album and fronting the live band on tour. Her ventures into electronic music continued under the name Jessica 6, realising See The Light in 2011 featuring Mercury Prize-winner ANOHNI, and most recently 2018’s The Eliot Sessions. Following a role on the Sons Of Anarchy spinoff series Mayans MC, Ruiz is now starring in her first feature film, the romantic drama Haymaker, portraying a successful musician opposite the movie’s writer and director, Nick Sasso, who plays a retired Muay Thai fighter hired as her bodyguard.
Ahead of the release of Haymaker this Friday January 29th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Nomi Ruiz about her reaction when reading the script for the first time, wanting to be part of creating progressive trans narratives on screen, getting acting tips from her friend, award-winning A Fantastic Woman actress, Daniela Vega, and why she loves the TV series Veneno.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Something that you’ve spoken about and written about is toxic masculinity, and before I watched Haymaker I had expected that a film with a martial arts fighter at its centre might be a celebration of some of the elements of toxic masculinity but it’s very different from that and I wondered what were some of the things that made you want to be involved?
Nomi Ruiz: “Yeah, that was a big part of it actually. Nick Sasso and I were passionate about doing something really progressive and pushing the needle forward not only with the trans narrative, but also with cis men who are trans amorous as well. In this whole world of toxic masculinity we wanted young boys to see themselves in a film and for the first time not feel shameful about their desires or just being free to love who they want. It was a really important part of why I accepted the role. At the same time it was important to us to have a trans narrative that’s progressive, where it’s more than a before and after story, one that gets to some of the stuff that we actually deal with in real life. That’s what I really loved about the film.”
You’ve said that you only want to do roles where you know the trans narrative isn’t the main focus of the character’s life and how they interact with the other characters, so did you see this film as something that gave you that?
“Yeah, very much so. It’s important for me to have my image attached to that stuff and I’m constantly, with all the work that I do, trying to push forward while still maintaining my trans experience and being proud of it. I think my trans experience is so much more than just the before and after; it’s in my career; it’s in the way that I love and the way that I sometimes don’t feel worthy of love. I think once we get past the before and after of it all we can then get to the real guts of it, which for my character we see that she’s constantly triggered by things and that stuff comes from a real place that’s more representative of the trans experience than the other narratives that have been out there.”
Although you share the same name, the role itself wasn’t actually written specifically for you by Nick Sasso, but how far you can identify with her and what particularly resonated with you about her?
“When I read the script I was like, ‘Am I reading my diary?!’ I was so pleasantly surprised because when a cis white male is handing me a script sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh here we go, let’s see where I’m going to get offended’. So it was so refreshing and it was so exciting to read it. It was interesting because there was so much of myself in there, especially from when I was first getting into the music industry and becoming successful and I was sort of starting to believe the hype and leading with my ego and sort of using the glamour of the lifestyle of being a musician on the road to cover up what was really going on underneath. So I had to revisit some of that stuff for this role and it was interesting to look at myself from another angle.”
When you were rehearsing scenes with Nick were there any rewrites that resulted from that to make the character of Nomi a little more like you or did the script pretty much stays it was?
“It stayed pretty much as it was. There was a moment where I thought we could amp up the drama a little and I felt like the character would be a little more triggered at a certain point, but for the most part Nick really nailed it. To this day I’m still very impressed by Nick’s screenplay and I felt really seen, it was awesome.”
Narratively, what did you make of the way that Nick sees the childhood photograph of your character and doesn’t appear to be phased by learning that she’s trans, and also how accepting her grandmother and her mother both are? Kathryn Kates was great as Nomi’s mother I thought.
“Oh my God yes! I love her.”
I liked how undramatic that aspect of the film is, we see that acceptance and it’s something that’s dealt with briefly.
“Yeah, I love the subtlety of it. That’s very visceral for me because that’s how it’s been in my life when people process things on their own in different ways, so like in real life, we’re not necessarily sitting down and spelling it all out for the audience. I like that sort of introspective time and there’s also this immediate acceptance of it too, it’s like, Okay, that is what it is and then you sort of absorb it and process it over time. Maybe for Nick’s character it could be that him getting into the Muay Thai fighting again is a way to process things. I like that it leaves the audience to tell their own narrative too.”
There is nothing explicit in the film that shows us that Nick is feeling conflicted or questioning himself about falling in love with a trans woman is there?
“Yeah, that was something that we both were also fighting for. I wanted to be really careful with that and I was very clear with him about my own experiences and how I didn’t want that to be a part of this film. I think it’s more progressive to not show that. There are so many love stories out there with trans characters that are shrouded in shame and doubt and darkness and pain and that hasn’t really been how my life has been. I want people to see that you can be loved and love just by being who you are. Even that alone is complicated in itself.”
Let’s talk costumes. You wear some really fabulous outfits in this movie, I love the bejewelled number with the long sleeves and gloves, that’s really beautiful and very cool.
“Yes, me too! Oh my God, that was hard to give back! I was like, can I have one more day with this please?!”
Is there much of a difference between Nomi the character’s style and your own style?
“I actually brought a lot of my own style to it. I had my best friend, Ava Sanjurjo, who I’ve always worked with when it comes to clothes and styling and she worked closely with me. We sort of amped up my personal style and thought that this was my moment to wear all the things I want to wear and have them be iconic in their own way. So we picked clothes for each scene so that they could be memorable. Like for the studio scene, we sat down and we were like, ‘What would she wear to the studio while she’s also trying to impress this guy?’ It was really fun to express the character through the looks too.”
So it’s the heightened, movie version of your own style in a way?
“Yeah, that’s right. It’s like the Nomi I’ve created, my avatar. If the Instagram version of me could come to life this would be her!”
We see you perform several times in the film. When it comes to those musical sequences I imagine that most of them were staged specifically for the film, but I know one of them in Mexico was actually a real performance of yours that Nick shot for the film didn’t he?
“Yeah, that was awesome! We shot that in Mexico at my show there. I love Mexico and my fans in Mexico are really, really hardcore. Just to have that moment captured made me really happy because I want the fans to feel a part of the film. We do this global thing where Nomi performs where I have a lot of fans like in Greece, and in LA, and Mexico. So I feel like we’ve made the fans part of the film as well which is a really beautiful thing.”
Yes, there are so many international locations, it’s almost like a Bond movie isn’t it!
“Yeah! I love that about it.”
Do you have any new music coming out?
“Yeah, I actually have the song that I perform the film which was written specifically for the movie with Sam Sparro. It’s called Like a Ghost. That’s just been released, so people will get to hear that right before the movie comes out.”
I know that you performed with Daniela Vega in Chile, have you kept in touch with her?
“Yes! She’s a very close friend of mine, we’ve become super, super close, super tight. I love her and I miss her so much. We talk all the time and I keep trying to plan a trip to Chile but now it’s too difficult to travel of course. She’s given me so many acting tips, she really helps me out whenever I hit her up and go, ‘Girl, how do you do it? Tell me the secret!’ So she’s been a really big support.”
That’s good to have someone like that on speed dial!
“Yeah, why not contact your award-winning friend for acting advice?!”
Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+, someone or something that’s had an impact on you?
“Well, now it would have to be Veneno. Oh my God, it’s just shockingly good! I was blown away by it. It was just like seeing something for the first time in a way. I just thought, wow, I’ve never seen this on screen before; that story and those characters and those actors. It was super inspiring to watch and it made me feel really hopeful for the future of trans narratives on screen. I was like, who wrote this?! It’s just a masterclass in storytelling. There was so many fresh faces and you could feel the passion in the making of it in every aspect. It is really powerful and I feel like the show hasn’t fully hit here in the States yet.”
By James Kleinmann
Haymaker starring Nomi Ruiz and Nick Sasso, who also writes and directs, is in theaters, on demand and digital from Friday January 29th 2021. Pre-order on Apple.
Like a Ghost (From Haymaker) by Nomi Ruiz & Sam Sparro is available to stream and download now.