Nava Mau Is Playing Her Own Game — And Changing the World Along the Way

The first time I saw Nava Mau on-screen, she was introducing herself. The lines she said were her own, the gaze was her own. This short film Waking Hour — written, directed, produced, and starring Nava — presented a multi-talented artist with a clear perspective.

Every time, I’ve seen Nava on-screen since, it’s reaffirmed that perspective. Even when not performing her own words under her own direction, each project feels part of the same consistent mission. Whether playing a supportive aunt on the tragically short-lived teen dramedy Genera+ion or deepening what could’ve been a one-note trans love interest on the complex recent Netflix hit Baby Reindeer, Nava approaches her work with a purity of purpose.

I asked Nava about that purpose and the community work that inspired how she navigates the industry.

Drew: I feel like a lot of trans actors and artists are thrust into activist and advocacy work. But that’s where you started. Where’d you grow up and what led you to that political and community work?

Nava: I grew up in Mexico City and then when I was eight, I moved to San Antonio, Texas — both very family-oriented, community-oriented places. I credit my foundation for how I value community and how I value a mindset of interconnectedness as opposed to individualism. I think I’ve always met people on a heart level. So when my life took me to other places, I carried that with me. Since middle school, I’ve felt a need to belong to community and to be an active participant and contributor in community.

I did a program with Mujeres Unidas Contra El Sida which is a community organization in San Antonio that provides sex education and works in the HIV awareness space. They had this political theatre component, where we would go and put on skits about consent for high school students. In the 2000s! In Texas! We talked about consent and sexual health and even though I was a participant and an actor, I learned so much from that. So I’ve always felt this deep connection between artistry and community.

I think I ran away from pursuing artistry with my full chest because it just didn’t seem feasible. I mean, I didn’t know anybody who could claim that they had a career as an artist. It never even occurred to me to try and pursue any kind of creative work in a professional sense. So I did other things. I studied linguistics. I started working at the Queer Resource Center, at the Draper Center for Community Partnerships. I did ESL tutoring. I found fulfillment in that kind of work.

There’s nothing like working one-on-one with somebody. Feeling like you’re creating a change together, you know? Because there’s so much in our world that’s worth changing. And it’s worth working on together. So I have always felt that power and it’s later I realized artistry can do that too. I could build a bridge between those worlds.

Drew: Was acting in the sex education skits your first introduction to acting or had you acted before?

Nava: I had done a play in Mexico. I did a kids production of Cats. (laughs) And I had a solo—

Drew: Oh my God! Who were you?

Nava: I don’t remember!

Drew: (laughs)

Nava: Maybe like a rockstar cat? I don’t know. So I had done that. And I would always make these little home videos with my sisters. We played this thing called The Game (laughs) where we created adult versions of ourselves and acted out soap opera lives. We would play that for hours and hours and hours. This adult life we were acting out went on for like five years.

Drew: Wow.

Nava: I genuinely credit The Game as my foundation for acting.

Drew: I have so many questions about this. What was your future? How different is your actual adult life vs. the adult life you imagined as part of The Game?

Nava: Oh my God. So the tea is that, of course, like, I was male assigned at birth and had not come into my trans identity so originally the adult character I was playing was a man. Who was already divorced.

Drew: (laughs)

Nava: But then the storyline was that I remarried to Christina Escalante, an aspiring fashion designer. Then I had to play Christina too. New character! And it was not long before playing The Game meant I was playing Christina Escalante.

Drew: Incredible.

Nava: And then Christina had her own reality show and was trying to hire an assistant. (laughs) There was a whole life that I lived as Christina Escalante. (laughs)

Drew: I’m obsessed. That’s amazing.

Nava: That is egg behavior right there.

Drew: (laughs)

Okay so then what led to Waking Hour? How did you go from The Game to community work to deciding to write, direct, and star in your own film?

Nava: So I realized I wanted to be a showrunner. I wanted to do TV writing. I took some classes in college and that was the vision, so I started getting my scripts together. And then I saw my friend Nana Duffuor do a GoFundMe for a short film project and she had me play a small role in it and I was like— Well, first of all I didn’t know what a short film was at the time. (laughs) When I say that I ran from artistry, I really mean it. I really did not allow myself to dream in that way. So I didn’t know about film festivals or any of that. I didn’t even really know what a director was. I just saw her do it. It was a story about sexual assault and I saw the power in that. It really inspired me to tell my story and that’s where the short film Waking Hour came from.

And then it really came down to a budget consideration. Because who was going to direct it? I didn’t have money to hire somebody. So I just decided to do it. And then who was going to be the actor? How could we find an actor and pay an actor? So I was like okay I’ll do that too.

Drew: Did you do a GoFundMe? Is that how you raised the money to make it?

Nava: I did. We raised $6,000.

Drew: That’s great.

Nava: Yeah.

Drew: Your IMDb page right now is like all… great. (laughs) I think Genera+ion is such a great show, I think Baby Reindeer is so good. Your film is great. April Maxey’s film Work is great. I was on the Outfest shorts jury the year it won so obviously I’m a fan.

And that’s not super common! Especially with trans actors, but even cis actors, you look at their IMDb pages and it’s a real mix. I’m wondering how you approach the industry. How does the other work you’ve done and do impact your approach to what you’re willing to do, what you want to do, and what you maybe say no to?

Nava: Well, first of all shoutout to April Maxey, my bestie, my wifey. She is fantastic and has taught me so much as a filmmaker and as a storyteller. I was so, so blessed to be able to work with her. And it’s something she and I talk about a lot and that I talk about a lot with other people. How do you approach the industry? It does feel like this nebulous, daunting scary thing to figure out. How can we be artists while placing ourselves within an industry?

I always have to return to the art, I have to return to the heart, and I’m lucky that I have a mission. I didn’t come to the industry just to be in front of a camera. I didn’t come to the industry to be famous or even for money. (laughs) There’s times where I’m like, oh Nava you really should think about money a little bit more.

Drew: (laughs)

Nava: But I just didn’t come for any of that. I came into the industry from a short film that I wrote, directed, produced, and starred in off of a GoFundMe budget. And I’ve never felt more alive than on that set. I always want to try to return to that purity.

There are so many layers that get packed onto us in the industry, so I try to use that initial feeling as my guiding light. I don’t want to do work that doesn’t feel good for me, let alone for other people. So I say no. I say no to things that come my way that don’t speak to me. It’s about being honest with yourself. Is this actually meant for me? Do I have something to offer to this part and this story? Be honest with yourself, and have a standard for how you want to be treated. I think there are times when I can tell in the writing. If the character doesn’t feel respected, then I’m not going to be respected as an actor.

Drew: Were you able to find reps who are cool with that approach?

Nava: Yeah, you know, I was very upfront with them. I was like I’m going to say no to things, so y’all are gonna have to deal with that. There is not a world where I am ever going to say yes simply for the sake of opportunity. There has to be meaning involved.

Drew: I admire that so much. I think we’d have a better industry if more people took that approach, while at the same time understanding why people don’t. I mean, money is real. Our capitalist world is real. But I also think people are often encouraged to make certain choices in the industry with the promise that if we do something that doesn’t align with our values it can lead to better things. And I think, especially with trans actors, there are a lot of false promises. Even if they’re hard to resist.

Are you able to take your approach because you come from these other careers? Do you have the attitude that you can always do other things alongside or instead of creative work?

Nava: I’ve been very fortunate to be able to focus only on creative work over the past four years. But for the first time with the strikes, I had to take stock of the reality that I maybe needed to return to other kinds of employment and figure out the vision for my life because of where the industry is at. And so yeah I’ve been working a few things this year. (laughs) And honestly I’ve felt so blessed to have that new perspective and to be reconnecting with community-based work. There’s no departure for me. It’s all just a continuation.

I will say there is something to the idea of one for them, one for me. I’m not going to sit here and say I’m never going to say yes to a check. (laughs) But I think it’s about evaluating in that moment where your integrity lies and if it makes sense to maybe do a commercial or just a movie that’s really fun. Because it’s okay to just have fun!

Drew: Oh, of course!

Nava: I do want to be clear about that. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that I’m trying to do a comedy.

Drew: I want that for you.

Nava: I did two very heavy, very intense emotional projects back to back — Baby Reindeer and my next short — and I’m good. I have gone through that creative process and gotten what I needed from it. And now I’m feeling that what I need is lightness and sharing joy. And, hey, maybe that comes with a check!

Drew: (laughs)

Nava: There’s a way for it to make sense.

Nava Mau’s Waking Hour can be viewed here and Baby Reindeer is streaming on Netflix

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 538 articles for us.


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