The prestigious Cannes Film Festival will host the premiere of the film Port Authority this year as a part of its Un Certain Regard competition. The Martin Scorsese-backed project, which stars Leyna Bloom in her first major acting role, will mark the first time that a film with a trans woman of color as lead actress premieres at the event in the festival’s 72-year history.
“For me this is really like that Halle Berry moment when she won that Oscar for Monster’s Ball — I know that it’s a moment that should have happened a long time ago,” Bloom told Out. “When I first heard that we were premiering at Cannes, I really had to think about all of the women that paved the way that should have also gone, all the women who could have been in a movie and could have played a role like this.”
“This is a moment that so many people dream of,” she said.
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Danielle Lessovitz, Port Authority is ultimately a love story set in New York City. Produced by Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions and RT Features, which also produced Call Me By Your Name, the film follows Paul, played by Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk, who arrives at Port Authority bus station from the Midwest. On arrival he runs into Wye, played by Bloom, who is voguing on the street with friends, and according to Deadline “is forced to confront his desire for her and the deep-seated violence of those around him.”
“It’s really a love story about two different cultures, and different scenes clashing together,” Damian Bao, who co-casted the project with Kate Antognini, said. “We chose Leyna because we wanted to do the most authentic casting possible, and we wanted to honor ballroom culture. There’s nothing more authentic to pay tribute than to cast someone from that community and she embodies the spirit of the character.”
Wye, is a member of the kiki scene in the film, a subcommunity in ballroom chronicled in the 2016-documentary Kiki, that is comprised of its own houses and members, many times that overlap with the mainstream scene, but focuses on younger queer people. Port Authority features scenes at balls, as well as during rehearsals and of Wye’s chosen family. According to Bao, almost every character that plays a role of significance in the ballroom scenes including competitors, judges, and house members, are members of the kiki scene today.
“It was important to Danielle, Kate, and me very early on that we put money back in the community if we were going to do this project,” he said.
Bloom, who walked her first ball in Chicago at 16. was scouted at Philadelphia's Dorian Corey Awards Ball in 2017. A model with a long list of accomplishments including becoming the first trans woman to appear in Vogue India, in addition to appearing in ads for Moschino’s H&M collaboration and a landmark Candy Magazine cover story alongside women like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, she became one of over 1,000 trans women around the world to be considered for the role, discovered through online open calls, email submissions, social media research, as well as street casting at over 50 balls, according to Bao.
“She’s very talented,” Bao says. “She doesn’t play a prostitute, she doesn’t play a sex worker, she doesn’t get murdered,” he continued, referencing tropes that trans women have been historically relegated to. “She plays a girl who just falls in love and I think the world will get to see how beautiful and magnetic and charismatic she is on screen.”
“I’ve done some acting projects here and there for practice but nothing too serious,” Bloom said of the transition from modeling to acting. “Ever since I was a young kid I always wanted to be an actress and have a respectable role that would be respected by the whole entertainment industry but I didn’t see any trans women of color in media or in TV.”
In place of that representation, Bloom points to the likes of Carmen Xtravaganza, Tanay Pendavis, Onjenae Milan, Octavia Saint Laurent, and Venus Xtravaganza, all of the ballroom scene, as points of inspiration. And she points out feeling connected to various aspects of the script, not only in her character, but in Whitehead’s as she arrived in New York City via a Greyhound bus from Chicago, in pursuit of being a success.
“The reality is I was born in a world where [society] didn’t want to recognize me, they didn’t want to give me the opportunities, they didn’t want to give me healthcare, they didn’t want to see me in certain spaces or working in here and there,” Bloom said, referencing the status of trans rights in America. “They didn’t want me to live in certain places. So I had to push through all that.”
The film also put a focus on authenticity on the back end, casting members of the kiki scene in a variety of roles behind the camera. Lawrence Taylor, known as Snookie in the kiki community, functions as an executive producer and script consultant on the project in addition to playing a role as an onscreen emcee. Christopher Quarles, known as Afrika, also performed as a script consultant as did Aisha Diori who is credited as being one of the founders of the kiki community.
“Going into this project, you always have this idea of like are they going to do this right or are they telling it from their point of view or are they telling it from something really authentic?” Bloom said. “From the beginning to the end, to the casting, to meeting people, you know, it was a lot of people of color, specifically from ballroom that were on set.” Bloom, who is currently the New York City mother of the house of Miyake-Mugler in the mainstream scene, and is known in the community as the “Polynesian Princess,” having made an international name for herself walking the category of face, brought a few of her own house members into the project like Yusef Williams, overall father, who is also Rihanna’s hair stylist.
The film joins a wave of ballroom-centric projects like Viceland’s My House, which was a docu-series about the New York City scene that aired in 2018, as well as FX’s Pose which will debut its second season in June. That same month, Paris is Burning will re-enter theaters, newly-restored by director Jennie Livingston. This will all coincide with major balls like the third Love Ball, which will make its return for WorldPride and the annual Latex Ball.
“Right now, it’s this moment with WorldPride and everything that’s happening everywhere else in pop culture like all of these black women that are on television right now,” Bloom said. “It feels like the universe is saying, ‘It’s your turn girl,’ and I feel like I got to do this for us, and that’s what I’m doing.”
“That’s what I feel like this moment is about, and what I’m trying to do.”