Haymaker may be the first post-transgender romance movie, and that’s exactly why musician Nomi Ruiz — whose musical output includes electro-pop outfit Jessica 6, solo albums, and guest vocals for Hercules & Love Affair — was happy to star in it. Tapped directly by writer-director Nick Sasso, the feature follows a trans music star who hires, antagonizes, and then falls for her bodyguard (Sasso), a tough yet sensitive former Muay Thai fighter.
Refreshingly, the gender identity of Ruiz’s character is simply a given in the globetrotting film, which takes place in Los Angeles, Greece, Thailand, and New York City, and not remotely an issue for Sasso’s bodyguard-turned-love interest. Taking more than a few pages literally from Ruiz and Sasso’s real lives (their characters are named Nomi and Nick, respectively) with appearances by familiar faces like queer icon Udo Kier, Haymaker also features some new tracks from Ruiz, including a smooth, catchy 1990s R&B-influenced collaboration with Sam Sparro, “Like A Ghost.”
First bitten by the acting bug thanks to a role in the Sons of Anarchy spinoff, FX’s Mayans M.C., a couple of years ago (she played Gracie, who “ran an underground detox center for gangsters”), Ruiz dished with NewNowNext about her new career balancing act, making Haymaker, and setting hotel rooms on fire.
As your first interview of the Biden era — and end of the transphobic Trump nightmare — what would you like to say to Joe and his trans-inclusive administration?
I would like to say welcome, and I hope you can do your duty. It’s great to just be acknowledged, and when I hear the POTUS address trans people, it already feels so refreshing because we’d been under an administration that didn’t even want us to exist. Now it’s great to feel seen, and I look forward to what work gets done.
How did you get involved with Haymaker?
I got contacted by Nick through some mutual musician friends, and I was at a point in my career when I wanted to expand and do things outside of music. We met and he pitched me his vision for the film, and I was immediately captivated. I could tell this was a passion project for him, and it’s really impressive to speak to a cis male who was passionate about doing something progressive that incorporated trans narratives. It sounded like something I wanted to see, and to think I could be a part of it was exciting.
You and Nick use your own first names for your characters. Is there some biography at play?
Yes, we both brought aspects of our real lives into this film. He was training in Muay Thai for a long time, and I’ve been in the music industry, so we wanted to use that to up the production value and film real fights and real performances. He thought that if the crowd was screaming my name, he wanted to capture it live so it had this documentary aspect. It toys with this idea of fantasy and reality and giving life to our personas.
Nomi is very passive-aggressive and even mean spirited with Nick at first. Can you be like that, too?
[Laughs] I’m not like that now! When I was getting into the character I thought, “This is like me 10 years ago when my career was first taking off and I didn’t really expect it to, and I was using the surface of it all to mask what was going on in my heart and my insecurities.” This industry can be very egocentric, and you can get lost in that. It did take me a little while to be a little more humble when it came to success. So it was therapeutic to see myself from the outside from a different time.
From left: Nomi Ruiz and Nick Sasso in Haymaker.
Was it always Sasso’s vision for Nomi to be transgender and it be a given?
Yeah, and when I first met him and he pitched me the film, he definitely put that out there and I said that would be the only way I could be involved with the film. To take a progressive approach to the trans narrative and just let it be — let her be successful and loved for who she is and not let it be such an issue. Once we get past that, we can see the way it’s in the choices she makes, the way she’s guarded when being vulnerable with love, and the stuff she’s gone through with her career. It’s time to move past the reveal factor and just let it be and get into the deeper stuff of the trans experience.
Udo Kier appears during an almost David Lynch-ian scene involving some shady people from Nomi’s past who helped her get where she is, and we learn that Nomi may have set his house on fire. Have you ever set someone’s house on fire?
I did set a hotel on fire once by mistake. In Istanbul. That does come back to haunt me, and that scene was a reference to that. It was by mistake. I forgot to snuff out some candles. That was a bit intense!
You mentioned in an Instagram post that Mykonos, Greece, is a place you’ve had memorable career moments, and returning to shoot there was special. Can you elaborate?
Yes. Greece has been really super supportive of my career. I don’t know why Jessica 6 music took off in Greece — it wasn’t even released there officially — but people really related to it and embraced me, and I made TV history. I was the first trans person to perform with one of their cis male hetero superstars, Sakis Rouvas, on the 2012 Madwalk Awards, and there was a big controversy the next day. All the talk shows discussed it, and people didn’t approve. I didn’t realize it would make that much of an impact, but it was great. It started a conversation, and I built a great fan base and a lot of friends I consider family there, too.
How did the Haymaker track with Sam Sparro come about?
I’d planned on working with Sam in L.A. for a while, and we wrote the song before there was a plan for the film. But once I spoke to Nick and said, “I think we need original music for this, and I think it’s important for her to sing a song about what she’s going through.” The song “Like A Ghost” is about your past still haunting you and her past comes to haunt her in that scene where she performs it, so it made perfect sense. It’s a golden-era R&B track, and Sam and I have a love for R&B soul music. It’s sexy, sultry, and emotional, and it gets me everytime I hear it. There was so much emotion that day.
You have two songs in a new Grand Theft Auto online game, the “Cayo Perico Heist”. What else is in the works?
More music, a solo record. I’m actually working on a Jessica 6 album right now. It’s a beautiful, more acoustic record. We’ve been working on it during quarantine, and although Jessica 6 used to be this electronic-dance project, it didn’t make sense to do that now while we’re not even in the clubs. All these songs were written on guitar, and that should be out sometime this year. I’m also writing and developing my own TV series, which incorporates music and acting. It’s sort of my life story, like Eminem’s 8 Mile.
Who would you want to co-star as people from your life, like your boyfriend?
Who would play some of my crazy boyfriends?! Oh, Brian Marc from White Girl. He doesn’t have to audition. Straight offer! But I’m single right now and enjoying that at the moment, fresh off dating someone for almost two years. I think I’m ready for another level of evolution and need to be clear in my mind and space for that. Thankfully we didn’t have to quarantine together, but that’s when things came to the surface. I realized I need someone with emotional intelligence. That’s one of my new requirements: emotional intelligence.
Speaking of quarantining, have you been binging any shows or movies during the pandemic? Any recommendations?
Oh my god, Veneno on HBO Max, about a trans character in Spain. It’s so beautifully done, and I cried my eyes out. I wasn’t prepared for how emotionally triggering it is, but it was a river of tears. And I’ve been revisiting all these weird reality shows I never watched from last decade, like Rock of Love and Charm School. I’m obsessed with Charm School, like, “How did I miss this before?”
What’s the first thing you’re going to do when normalcy is restored?
I’ll probably book a flight to Greece, and I want to dance. I want to feel people’s energy, and I can’t wait to perform again and feel that connection with people. It’s been nice to not travel and set roots for a while, but now I have a new relationship with traveling. It’s not escapism. I‘m going to have experiences with other people.
Will you be more judicious with your use of candles in hotels?
I definitely have been since that incident! People know to keep me away from candelabras. “Keep her away.”
Haymaker is out now in select theaters and on Apple TV+.