A show about women in prison could have easily devolved into mindless titillation or stereotypical boredom. But Netflix’s breakout hit “Orange Is The New Black” has skillfully avoided either trapping. Instead, viewers are treated to a show with well-thought-out story lines, sharp social commentary, diverse, multi-faceted characters with compelling backgrounds, and stellar performances. One of these standouts is actress Laverne Cox, who captures audiences with her portrayal of transgender prison inmate, Sophia Burset.
Looking at her career thus far, it’s easy to see why some have deemed Laverne a trailblazer in many ways. Not only has she made the enviable leap from reality star (appearing on VH1’s “I Want to Work For Diddy”) to skilled actress, but she’s also a producer and transgender advocate. Laverne’s visibility as a trans actress of color is breaking barriers on many levels, and hopefully will pave the way for more rich roles created for trans actors.
I had the chance to speak with Cox and learned more about working with Jodie Foster, her relationship to her activism and her art, and the future of trans actors.
The Frisky: Rich, multifaceted roles for women are so sparse in television, and even more so for women of color and trans women. Do you think with the success of this series we’ll start seeing more complex roles for all types of women?
Laverne Cox: I hope so. I hope so. You know, it was funny because I think about “Sex in the City,” which was this huge breakthrough moment and one of my favorite shows of all-time and how different our show is from that show, first of all, but then how they were sort of copycats after that. And that [the copycats] weren’t necessarily as good. What I think is important about our show is that yes, there are women of different races, ages, body types in the show, but they’re really well-written characters with really smart story lines. Really, it’s a really smart show. So if there are copycats, they need to, you know, bring it.
They need to step it up!
With the intelligence that we’re doing. I hope so. I hope for more trans representation on television, and that the industry starts to see that it’s OK to have, you know, a trans woman integrated into our [show and] cast with other women. And, like, it’s fine. Like, the world won’t explode, you know, if there’s a trans person on television. Quite the contrary actually.
How is it working with such a strong ensemble cast?
It’s so inspiring. … I feel like these actors have just been waiting for something like this. I know I have, right? I know I’ve been waiting to have something this juicy and this fantastic to play for a really long time and a lot of the actors on the show … have been waiting to play such deep, rich, fantastic women characters.
Can you share with us one of your favorite moments from on set?
Kate Mulgrew [who plays the prison chef, Red] and I had a scene together in episode three of season one and I just was, like — I wasn’t even ready for, like, everything that she was giving me. It was, like, a master class watching her negotiate chopping cucumbers and throwing yams at me and also hurling all this attention and action and emotional life at me.
And it was just so … it just … it was – I was definitely thrown off. And Jodie [Foster, who directed episode three] sensed it after the rehearsal and I was just, like, Oh, my God. This woman’s amazing. Like, I don’t deserve to, like, share space with her.
Jodie came to me and [we had] a conversation in my dressing room, and she was, like, “It’s going to be OK.” She’s, like, “It’s fine. Just stay,” you know? She gave me wonderful notes.
And the scene ended up being amazing. Kate is incredible. She’s going to upstage me. It’s fine. And there’s actually been a few moments when I’ve just had to give in to being upstaged because the other actors in the scene were just so amazing.
And that’s a wonderful feeling, just sort of being in awe of the people you’re working with. I take mental notes a lot about what they’re doing and how they’re researching scenes, how they’re constructing the work. So it makes you better.
Here are some more questions from other interviewers on the conference call with Laverne Cox. More on working with Jodie Foster.
Jodie was incredible. She’s such an actor’s director for obvious reasons. She’s a brilliant actor herself and she was really generous and it was really like a master class working with her. She was incredible and it was a dream come true to get to work with someone of that caliber. It made me raise my game. I hope I did.
On the past and future of trans actors:
[...] About six years [ago[, Candis Cayne had, for me, a watershed moment on “Dirty, Sexy, Money." She became the first trans woman to have a recurring role in a primetime series and that moment was such a huge inspiration for me. I really believe I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her and for that show just deciding to cast a trans woman to play that part.
So that moment inspired me to get an agent. I had been working, trying to have a substantial career as an actor for a long time and I began to believe it was possible six years ago because of Candis Cayne.
So, you know, six years later, we’re talking, you know, glass ceilings and watershed moments again. So I’m a little bit leery about, you know, having those conversations until I see some real proof of that, but what I’m excited about is how people are connecting with Sophia and really being moved by her story and moved by the show.
I think the industry has to change and I think their ideas have to begin to change about who trans people are and what it means to have trans folks, you know, playing ourselves and playing characters that are written as trans on television.
On being an actress/activist and the possibility of being pigeon-holed:
It’s weird because ... I like to ideally separate them because as an artist, I feel l like I just have to be true to the work and true to the character and I can’t feel encumbered by, you know, "oh, that’s not politically correct" or "oh, I might piss off people if I, you know, take this role or if the character says something like this." ... [A]s an artist, I feel like the work has to be unencumbered by politics. It has to be unencumbered by agenda in a way. It has to be about humanity and telling human stories, and that’s why I love being an artist because I think ultimately telling human stories is what gets us somewhere politically when we can tell different stories and humanize people that actually does, you know, advance the politics. … It’s, like, for me, I’m not interested in putting myself in any boxes. I am just going to be as complicated and as Laverne as I can be and I go where the passion leads me.
On gender & LGBT issues:
I’m talking to a lot of LGBT press. [Trans people's] issues [are] being more foregrounded in LGBT circles, which I think is really important and essential that I think that it’s really about gender more than anything and gender expectations that oppress LGBT people in general.
I mean, sometimes it’s about who you’re having sex with, but a lot of times as we enter culture, it’s about gender and it’s about expectations. I can’t think of how many gay male friends of mine who have been told that they’re not masculine enough by other gay men, right?
And so there’s this whole sort of gender expectation thing. So these are things I would want to say to LGBT press. And since I’m saying it now that I have the opportunity … I want to talk about things that are important in terms of issues that affect my people, trans women of color, you know? Our unemployment rate is, like, four times that of the national average. The homicide rate among LGBTQ people, the highest homicide rate is among trans women for the past several years in a row. So, you know, our people, trans women, are dying on the streets and we need support, we need help, we need a focus in terms of the movement on our issues.
On the power of storytelling:
I think it’s important for trans folks specifically, but for anyone really who’s not really seeing their stories told on television to see their stories told up there and see people like them on TV. The wonderful thing about our show is that it provides a platform for a lot of different women who we don’t get to see and hear from a lot to be able to, you know, tell their stories through these characters.
All 13 episodes of the first season of “Orange is the New Black” are now available on Netflix.
[Photo credit: Hao Zeng]