Laverne Cox: Transgender Actress On The Challenges Of Her 'New Black' Role
The Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black has won over critics and viewers alike this summer. The original series follows a diverse cast of characters in a women's prison in upstate New York. One of the breakout stars is Laverne Cox. Her character, Sophia, is a transgender woman who stands up for herself among prison officials and other inmates.
Cox spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about the show and her experience as a transgender woman and actress.
On Cox's gender transformation
Cox brings insight from her own experience to the role. "My third-grade teacher, Ms. Ridgeway, called my mom and said, 'Your son will end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don't get him into therapy right away.' " Cox said she only met other transgender people after she moved to New York for college.
And although her transition was not an easy process, she says she comes more into her own every day. "Through all the things — the difficulties of what it means to be who I am, I love myself. And I am so grateful that I get to live authentically now."
On the role of Sophia
"When it came along, I thought, what a wonderful opportunity to talk about and highlight issues of trans women in prison. Certainly, Sophia has been one of the most complicated characters I've gotten to play as an actress, and I'm really grateful she's come into my life."
On acting while black and transgender
"It's hard. The issue of not just being trans, but also being a woman, and it's being black. And the industry historically doesn't think that we are marketable, or they want to cast us in very limited ways. But I think that the wonderful lessons that Orange Is the New Black is teaching us is that it shows our industry — the entertainment industry — that you can cast women of different races, you can cast different ages and body types, and folks will tune in and be interested. And the public is craving that."
On prostitute roles
"When folks want to write a trans character, the first thing that they think of is sex work. And part of the reason is that the most visibility, really, that trans folk get is through sex work. And then there is also crazy unemployment rates among transgender people; it's like twice the national average. If you're a trans person of color, it's four times the national average. So, so often the only job opportunities presented for trans folks are in street economies, including sex work. Obviously there are lots of trans women who don't do sex work, who have all kinds of professions."
On transforming the image of transgender people
"A beautiful blog [post] was written by this woman who said that she didn't really approve of the transgender thing and had all these misconceptions about trans people, and Sophia's storyline changed that for her."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Every new TV show has somebody somewhere willing to tout it as the next big thing. But every now and again a new show comes along that grabs critics and the public alike and they can't stop talking about it. This year, that show is called "Orange Is the New Black." It's a Netflix original series that premiered last month. It follows a diverse cast of characters at a women's prison in upstate New York. And one of the breakout stars is Laverne Cox. She plays Sophia, a transgender inmate, in this scene, she's complaining to a prison official about losing an important prescription.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")
MICHAEL HARNEY: (As Sam Healy) The bottom line is that the prison can no longer provide high-end hormones.
LAVERNE COX: (As Sophia Burset) If I don't get my medication, I'm going through withdrawal, hot flashes, night sweats. My face will sag, my body hair will start to go back.
HARNEY: (As Sam Healy) OK. We don't need to get into that.
COX: (As Sophia Burset) Let me explain this for you.
MARTIN: And Laverne Cox is with us now to talk about this groundbreaking role and her other work, we hope, as a transgender actress and activist. Welcome. Congratulations.
COX: Thank you so much, Michel. It's a pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: I understand that you were actually researching the experience of trans women in prisons when your agent told you about this role. Do I have that right?
COX: That is correct, yes. There is a woman named CeCe McDonald who's in prison. She's serving a 41 month sentence in Minnesota for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack.
MARTIN: And why were you doing that research?
COX: For a show called "In the Life," which it's a PBS show called - that existed for about 25 years, and last year, they lost their funding. So I was producing a segment where I was planning to go to Minnesota to interview CeCe McDonald. So I was doing a lot of research about her case and specifically about trans women in prison and the issues that affect us.
MARTIN: Yeah, so how interesting that then this role comes along.
COX: I really don't believe there are any accidents. When it came along, I thought, what a wonderful opportunity to talk about and highlight issues of trans women in prison. Certainly, Sophia has been one of the most complicated characters I've gotten to play as an actress and I'm really grateful she's come into my life.
MARTIN: It's only fair to mention that everybody might not know what it means to be transgender. So would you please explain for people who don't know what we're talking about.
COX: Someone who's transgender is someone whose gender that they're assigned at birth does not match their gender identity, how they see themselves. Just because someone will determine that you're a female at birth based on, you know, your genitalia, but you might not necessarily identify as female and so that just means that you're transgender.
MARTIN: And so you were born a biological male. At what point in your life did you embrace a feminine identity and to begin to live as a woman? And were you already in your profession at that point?
COX: When I was in third grade, my third grade teacher Mrs. Ridgway (ph) called my mom and said that your son will end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don't get him into therapy right away. So I was always very feminine. And so it's something that, after those therapy sessions and throughout my adolescence, I tried to suppress. When I finally moved to New York - I grew up in Mobile, Alabama - but when I finally moved to New York and I got to meet other transgender people through the club scene and just sort of, you know, living, it was really late in college that I decided that, you know, I couldn't repress who I was anymore.
MARTIN: And how has it been?
COX: It's been a lot of things. I mean, I think the lives of women, in general, are complicated. It's been challenging on a lot of different levels. I've written and spoken a lot about street harassment, it's been one of the, probably, the more difficult parts of my experience. Violence against trans women is a very real part of the lives of so many trans women, particularly trans women of color. So, it's something that I often live in fear of. But through all the things, the difficulties of what it means to be who I am, I love myself and I'm so grateful that I get to live authentically now.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask, though, acting is a hard profession. It's the business of no. And then you add any other element - being a person of color, being a large-sized person, you know, whatever, that it's, OK, how am I going to find my role? How am I going to get parts. How did you start putting that together?
COX: It's been a very difficult road being an actor and being openly trans. It's been very, very difficult. And actually, for a while after I graduated, I thought, OK, I'm not going to be able to be an actor. But then I decided that acting is my passion and it's what I love most in the world. I've done a lot of independent films that folks haven't seen. I've done a lot of off-Broadway theater. So it's been a really rough and hard road. I think that is the case, as you said, for any actor - being trans, the roles that are written for us are very limited.
MARTIN: Well, yeah. To that point, I mean, just for people who have seen you in Netflix but they will have seen you before. You've played characters on "Law and Order," you were on the reality TV show "I Want to Work for Diddy," then you produced your own show on VH1, "TRANSform Me." You've mentioned that you played a prostitute seven times.
MARTIN: I wonder why that is?
COX: That is sort of the stereotype. That's the stereotype that when folks want to write a trans character, the first thing that they think of is sex work. And part of the reason is that the most visibility, really, that trans folk get is through sex work. And then there's also crazy unemployment rate among transgender people, it's like twice the national average. If you're a trans person of color, it's four times the national average. So, so often the only job opportunities presented for trans folks are in street economies including sex work. Obviously, there's lots of trans women who don't do sex work who have all kinds of professions.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Laverne Cox, a transgender actress who plays Sophia, a transgender inmate on the Netflix original series "Orange Is the New Black." With that background, then I think you can understand why this role as Sophia is a really important role for you. Sophia has a complicated family life. Years before she made her transition, she was a married man with a son. And I just want to play a short clip. In this scene, Sophia's wife is helping her choose some clothes. Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")
TANYA WRIGHT: (As Crystal Burset) Oh, my God.
COX: (As Sophia Burset) Good or bad?
WRIGHT: (As Crystal Burset) Not good. You look like Hannah Montana. That skirt is...
COX: (As Sophia Burset) I thought it was so cute. That's what happens when I shop for myself. It's 'cause I never got to be a teenage girl.
WRIGHT: (As Crystal Burset) And you never will be. You should be dressing like a classy, grown-up lady.
COX: (As Sophia Burset) You think I'm classy?
WRIGHT: (As Crystal Burset) I can't have my husband walking around like a $2 hooker.
MARTIN: That's a very beautiful scene, though. Don't you think?
COX: I love that scene, too, because it really illustrates how much these two people love each other. You know, I've said this before, that there's not a lot of black families on television like the Bursets, like Sophia and Crystal. And I love that we get to see this untraditional kind of black family on television.
MARTIN: And you have a twin brother, right?
COX: In real life, I have a twin brother.
MARTIN: In real life, who plays your character before the transition.
MARTIN: How handy is that? I mean, was that always envisioned that, I mean...
COX: ...Of course, when they cast me they didn't know that I had a twin brother, it's not something I, you know, say when I go to auditions. I initially wanted to play Sophia pre-transition, but Jodie Foster, who directed the episode, thought I looked too feminine to play the masculine firefighter that Marcus Burset was. They held auditions and my agent mentioned to the casting that I have a twin brother and he auditioned and the rest is history.
MARTIN: Isn't that something? What kind of reaction are you getting to Sophia?
COX: Different folks from the trans community have written me and said that they're so proud of this portrayal and they've been so profoundly moved. A beautiful blog was written about - by this woman who said that she didn't really, you know, approve of the trans gender thing and had all these misconceptions about trans people, and Sophia's storyline changed that for her.
MARTIN: Well, you know, it's interesting too, but the series also deals with the repulsion that some people have toward trans people. There's a scene, for example, in Season One where one of the other inmates is a...
COX: ...She's a sort of religious zealot.
MARTIN: She continues to refer to your character as, it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")
TARYN MANNING: (As Tiffany 'Pennsatucky' Doggett) I don't want it here.
COX: (As Sophia Burset) Oh, please.
MANNING: (As Tiffany 'Pennsatucky' Doggett) That's why this whole thing happened. God's angry that there's an abomination in the church and if you don't get rid of it, it's just going to keep on happening.
PABLO SCHREIBER: (As George Mendez) All right. You listen to me...
MARTIN: You're an actor, so I'm not going to try to make you the spokes person for all people, but I have to say there are people who really believe that that is true. And I just want to ask how you deal with that.
COX: I think it's important, in terms of religion. I grew up religious. I was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal church and I still believe in God and I believe that God is about love. And I believe that it's not any of our jobs, as human beings, to judge other human beings. So I think whenever someone is having a problem with what another person is doing with their body or with their life, then it's usually because they have a problem with themselves.
MARTIN: Well, what's next?
COX: We're shooting Season 2 and we are - there's scripts and things coming in so we're looking at scripts and I have some speaking engagements coming up as well. I have a lot to say about a lot of things. So folks can, you know, find, you know, follow me on Twitter @LaverneCox.com
MARTIN: Maybe it's because social media, people have outlets to express their ideas in a way that they perhaps had not before. And recently, a number of actresses of color have expressed, you know, some unhappiness about the way they feel that they're limited in their choices.
COX: It's hard. I mean, I'm also a black actor, as well. So the issue of it's not just being trans, but it's being a woman, and it's being black. And the industry, historically, doesn't think that we're marketable or they want to cast us in very limited ways. But I think the wonderful lessons that "Orange Is the New Black" is teaching us is that it shows our industry, the entertainment industry, that you can cast women of different races, you can cast women of different ages and body types and folks will tune in and be interested and that the public is craving that.
MARTIN: Laverne Cox is featured on the Neflix original series "Orange Is the New Black." And she was kind enough to join us in our studios in New York. Laverne Cox, thank you so much for speaking with us.
COX: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.