Laverne Cox carries a powerful presence. Tall, long flowing hair, pouting lips, and a gaze that looks both daunting and welcoming at the same time.
But don’t her looks fool you, Alabama born, this girl is a sweet-southerner at heart — and, Laverne is transgender.
Cox has been in the spot light for some time, starting her acting career in 2000 with smaller roles. Being a trans-woman of color, she was type cast early in her career, including playing a sex worker in several movies and in episodes of Law and Order.
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She broke the type for a few smaller roles, and in 2010, she became the first African-American trans-woman to produce and star in a reality TV show, “TRANSform Me,” a show that gave cisgendered women make-overs by three trans-women stylists. She also participated in the VH1 reality show “I Wanna Work for Diddy,” which gave people the chance to compete to work for rapper Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs.
Recently, Cox has made headlines in her role as Sophia Burset in the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black.”
Sophia is an incarcerated trans-woman who suffers hardships similar to real life incarcerated trans-women such as being denied hormone treatments, and being referred to with male pronouns, and generally bullied for being trans. “Orange” has a number of lesbian sub-plots as well, and though a comedy, the shows tone by the end of season one is quite dark.
Cox plays the role of Sophia elegantly, but with a strength that is usually reserved for more experienced actresses. But beyond her performance, its exciting to see Hollywood reach out to hire an actual trans-person to play a trans-character, something shows like Hit & Miss and the movie Trans-America failed to do.
Cox spoke with GayRVA’s Editor Brad Kutner over the phone and discussed trans-issues, her role as Sophia, and her experience working with the likes of Jodie Foster. You can watch all of Orange is the New Black on Netflix now.
BK: We are absolutely in love with the show and were super taken back by your performance. We’ve done a decent amount of Trans-incarnated women stories. We’ve got a case here in Virginia that’s been fairly chaotic (Ophellia Delonta), so it’s a topic I’ve always been interested in and I was really excited to see that, when I first saw you on the show, I wasn’t sure if you were Trans or not and when I found out that you were, I was absolutely blown away and super pleased to see Netflix step up and use someone trans for the role of a trans person. It’s incredibly exciting.
LC: Thank you, it’s a credit to Netflix and Jenji Kohan, the series’ creator. I understood that during the casting process, they were looking for someone Trans, who they wanted someone Trans to play the character and it’s exciting.
That’s one of the first things that really surprised me about your character and about the show in general. I’m kind of curious, I had read some of your background and how you play some more stereotypical transgender roles. So when they approached you about playing a transgender women in this role, did that kind of surprise you or did it seem to make sense?
I was excited! At the time I was doing a lot of prison research anyway, because I was planning to interview this woman, Cece McDonald, for this show called In The Life. That show lost it’s funding so the interview never happened, but I had been doing a lot of research and I first discovered Ophellia (De’lanta) in Cruel and Unusual. I had seen that and was reading a lot about trans-women and different issues such as getting active hormones and getting health care in general and being housed and all those sorts of things.
It’s interesting to see what people are writing about (the show), ‘the biggest thing as a trans-person playing a trans-character,’ it’s a bit of a shame to me that people are so shocked and still thinking it’s so new. There’s also people talking about how this doesn’t happen to women in prison, and I’m like “it does happen, but essentially it’s rare.” I was at a reading with this law project yesterday and we were being told by their attorneys there, that even when a trans woman has had a surgery sometimes a prison ward will still house them based on their birth gender. So having trans-women being housed in prisons is still a huge, huge issue.
It’s something we’re sadly familiar with here.
I had heard and read some stuff about you growing up in the south. Do you feel your story is similar to a lot of trans women in the south or trans women of color in dealing with either how your parents interacted or with how you grew up in that area?
I love going back to the south now, I’ve lived in New York City for a well over a decade now, but I do love going back. But when I did grow up in Alabama it was very important for me to get out. I felt I couldn’t really be who I wanted to be in Alabama. I had always wanted to be an actress or a performer, so I needed to be in New York.
So for me, in high school, It was all about getting to New York. I was bullied big time, growing up there, going to school and stuff, but there were values that I got living in the south, going to church every Sunday, and having people to be very supportive of me at the time. They are values that I take with me to this day, so I’m thankful for having grown up in the south, but I’m also grateful that I live in New York now.
Cox’s character, Sophia, was denied hormone treatment for a short while. Photo credit: Paul Shiraldi for Netflix
I was really curious about the episode with your back story, when your character had to present as a man in pre-transition, what was your thought process? Were you comfortable in that position? There’s that part where you’re looking in the mirror, was that kind of shudder?
I actually didn’t play that! Jenji approached me saying, “we’re developing your storyline in episode three and we’re looking for an actor to play you in pre-transition.” I was like, “who’s going to play me, I have to play myself of course,” and Jodie Foster, who directed that episode, thought I wouldn’t look masculine enough, so we did a hair and make-up test and I was trying to do it, and Jodie immediately said “we’re going to have to hire someone.” So they went through this process of looking for these actors to play this firefighter, Marcus, who is Sophia before transition, and I have a twin brother, and the casting director heard from my agent and they called my twin brother in to audition, he’s not an actor, he’s a performer, and he went in and killed the audition and got to play Sophia pre-transition.
So Jodie Foster directed your episode, what was it like working with her and do you know if she reached out specifically for this story line or did she just say give me an episode?
I am really not sure how she came about directing this episode, I do know that working with her was a dream come true and it was incredible. I’ve idolized her most of my life, she’s a film legend. I visually studied her performances in different films, because she won all these awards and she’s a brilliant actress. Just studying her and getting to work with her was, I hate the word surreal, but it was. She was just so generous and so smart and just loved this process of making films and making TV and she’s gifted. I could honestly just listen to her talk or listen to her tell us what to do. I just loved having Jodie Foster tell me what to do.
Overall, in the realm of trans women characters in shows, do you feel Sophia’s story is a positive or a negative one? Obviously, all the characters are in prison, but it’s a comedy and it seems to be an uplifting story, despite the show having a dark tone.
I would say we’re a drama with a comedic element. I’ve never been a person who describes the idea of positive versus negative representation. I’ve always been about three-dimensional/multi dimensional humanized representation. I think that it’s important to show the humanity of the characters, the humanity of people. I think that the people who’ve responded so well to Sophia are really responding to her humanity. I think she’s won with a lot of dimensionality, she is a flawed person, she’s not perfect, but I think those things help folks relate to her as a human being. That’s what I like to see as an artist and a viewer.
With the history of cisgender actresses playing transgender women, is the goal for a trans woman actor to play a cisgender female character?
The goal for me as an actor is to play interesting, complicated human beings, human beings who are fun, and challenging, that is my goal as an artist. I think the interesting thing is that there are so many transgender stories that have yet to be told and I am personally committed to doing what I can to help tell those stories. I want to be challenged as an artist, I don’t want to be limited as an artist, so my goal is to just work on many projects.
I think part of it too, is that it shouldn’t even matter. I’ve said this for years, with a show like Grey’s Anatomy, there can be trans characters that is a nurse or a doctor on Grey’s Anatomy as a recurring character. Trans people can be a part of the story line or they don’t have to be part of the story line, It can be this other thing, where not all trans characters have to be represented in the issue. There can be trans characters, but it doesn’t have to be a big issue. It can just be a woman among the other cast members.
There are trans folks who have jobs and people may know they’re trans, but it doesn’t come up on the job.
Laverne Cox in a scene from Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” Photo credit: Paul Shiraldi for Netflix
It’s interesting to look at it from a cinema and production stand point and when you select the actors and actresses for the roles that are being played, would you feel comfortable if you were offered a female cisgender role?
It’d just be another role. I was in this film called The Exhibitionist that came out on DVD earlier this year, where I played a character that was not written as trans, named Blithe Stargazer, and she was a really interesting character. She’s this pop singer who is trying to revitalize her career and she’s really smart. There’s a lot of interesting things in the dialogue and it’s really dialogue heavy. It was really fun and exciting for me as an actor and artist, so that’s why I did that.
A gender piece is kind of the candy part of it, but I want to play interesting characters and I am a woman and I deal with the realities of being a woman in the world and that doesn’t stop because I’m trans. Maybe it complicates the issue, but I’m still a woman.
What kind of feedback have you received for your character in Orange is the New Black? I know you’ve won numerous awards for the projects you’ve done. Have you heard anything from friends, family, or the activist community?
Gosh, I have to say it’s been unbelievably positive. If you look at my Twitter feed, the response there has been positive. I’ve been hearing people say that Sophia is their favorite character and that it’s the best portrayal of a trans character that they have seen on TV before. People have been saying they love her and want her to have more lines. People are just loving Sophia and it’s been so positive, I was just doing errands today and someone came up to me on the street and said “I love your character, can I get a hug?” It’s kind of a love fest and it’s so overwhelmingly positive, It’s so amazing. People are connecting and I think it’s a testament to our brilliant writers and the vision of Jenji Kohan. People are really connecting with her as a human being, on another level also. It’s incredible.
Do you know if Sophia will play a bigger role in season two? It’s just recently been confirmed that season two will exist.
Yes, but I have no idea what the writers have in mind for season two. I’m very excited and can’t wait to see what’s in store.
It’s great seeing a TV show that’s worth watching these days, but one that takes a good and healthy stance on community issues is even more amazing. It’s the folks at Netflix who have worked real hard to reach out to this audience in general that is really grateful all around. And I’m particularly grateful for you taking the time to speak to me!
Of course, no problem. Also, I’d like to give a shout out to my acting coach, Brad Calcaterra. Acting coaches don’t get enough credit, and he’s really shaped my work over the past two years.