Laverne Cox, Superstar: The Autostraddle “Orange Is The New Black” Interview

Feature image via Netflix

If you’re anything like us, you can’t get enough of Netflix’s new show “Orange is the New Black.” The show is filled with so many amazing queer characters and women of color that it’s hard to pick a favorite. But one person who stands out is actress Laverne Cox. On the show she plays transgender inmate Sophia Burset. Not only is Sophia’s story one of the most heart-wrenching and her character one of the best, but Cox herself is a remarkable and wonderful person. I recently had the absolute honor and pleasure of taking part in an interview with her and she was every bit as interesting and charming as one would expect.

Laverne on the Melissa Harris Perry Show

Laverne on the Melissa Harris Perry Show

Cox has been involved in tv for about five years, but this is her biggest role as an actress. She talked about what inspired her to go out for jobs like this and why trans* actresses playing trans* women’s roles is important.

“About six years ago, Candis Cayne had, for me, what was a watershed moment on “Dirty Sexy Money,” when 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.

Also it validates my experience. It makes me feel like I am not alone. I think everyone needs to feel a sense of connection, a sense of belonging. And that happens interpersonally, but I think it also needs to happen in our representations in mainstream media so that when we see ourselves up on the screen and we see our stories, we feel less alone, we feel less invisible. I think for trans* folks so often we are sort of overseen, but underrepresented, you know, in a lot of ways that we hear about trans* folks as victims of violence or as criminals and we don’t really get to see the reality and the humanity and the diversity of trans* experience.

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 tell their stories through these characters. So as a trans* actor, I know that’s important. I know that visibility matters. I know it’s all really important. So I’m super grateful for the opportunity and I take it all very seriously.”

I asked when she realized the impact that her character was having on how people viewed trans* women.

“Just now. Just kidding! When I started receiving so many messages on Twitter and Facebook from trans* and nontrans* folks alike, when I started reading that people’s ideas about trans* people were actually changing because of Sophia. Being an artist is a difficult path to choose but moments like this definitely make all the rejection and sacrifice worth it.”

via Netflix

via Netflix

She also believes that “Orange is the New Black” is helping to bring about changes in both the tv and film industry and in society as a whole.

“I think [constraints] come from the industry that has in their mind the idea that trans* women can’t play cisgender women, that people aren’t going to connect to trans* characters or that shows aren’t going have good ratings if there’s a trans* character on it. So 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 playing ourselves and playing characters that are written as trans* on television. Hopefully “Orange is the New Black” will change the game of it in those terms.”

“I think representation is really, really important. Joe Biden, our Vice President, talked about how Will and Grace was his watershed moment in terms of shifting how folks saw gay folks in America. And so we see that the majority of Americans believe that gays and lesbians should be able to get married and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell happened. I think the majority of Americans were changed through media representation. I think it’s important that as we change hearts and minds that public policy follows.”

I also asked if she related to some of the more difficult moments in the show as a trans* woman, being rejected by family, bumping into old friends or having difficulty getting hormones.

“I just wanted to tell the story as truthfully as possible. I believe what artist do is take pain and turn it into art. Some of those moments which are similar to moments I’ve had in real life I got to make art out of and I’m so grateful for that.

I relate to Sophia’s feelings of guilt. She sacrificed everything: her family, her freedom, to be true to who she is and to live as her authentic self. And she’s paid an awful price for that in terms of her family and there’s some guilt around that and she hasn’t been able to resolve fully, particularly her relationship with her son (Michael). And so I can certainly relate to the conflict between being true to myself and that potentially being difficult for the people in my life around me. And this is a piece of the discrimination that she experiences in prison being sort of taken off her hormones is something that – unfortunately I’ve had some moments in my adult life where I’ve been denied some health care because I’m trans* and that was really difficult for me. I was able to advocate for myself and Sophia advocates for herself as well in prison.”

While she does relate to some parts of Sophia’s experience, she also says that there are a lot of differences between her and the character.

“I’ve said often that Sophia is very different from me in that she chose this job (as a firefighter) and she tried to sort of overcompensate, pre-transition, and a lot of trans* women do that. They get into these very sort of masculine jobs and do all these traditionally very masculine things to try to sort of not be trans* anymore. I never did that. I was very feminine and I grew up studying classical ballet, which is, you know, not necessarily considered this big masculine thing. I mean, she’s attracted to women. The only time I’ve kissed women has been on TV and for movies where I’ve been working.”

When asked about what it’s like to be a trans* actress working in Hollywood, she talked about how it can sometimes be difficult dealing with people who haven’t worked with trans* people before.

“I’ve often been the only trans* person in a room and on the job. I’m just myself. The way I handle it is that I try to be as authentically myself as possible and I also try to set boundaries in terms of what can be talked about and not talked about. I like to be open, but I also try to set a tone where inappropriate questions are not allowed to be asked, you know? And I’ll put someone in their place if they overstep a boundary, you know, in a loving way. I feel like sometimes I become very aware that, like, a lot of what I do is to put people at ease. I learned early on – I don’t know if it was because I’m also black – I learned how to put people at ease around me that, like, I’m not a threat, okay.”

Cox said that she’s glad that through the show and through her role as Sophia, people are learning about and talking about issues that have been important to her as a trans* woman of color.

“I think it highlights some of the realities of the lives of trans* women of color. We’re often criminalized simply for being who we are and disproportionately affect poor and working trans* women of color. So race is crucial in telling this story.

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, 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”

Finally, she’s excited to see where her character will go next season.

“I mean, I really do trust and believe in our brilliant writing team. I’ve said that (I’m interested in) her relationship with her son, her relationship with the other inmates, and there’s so many different ways we can go. And so I don’t want to predict or say. I know that it’s going to be fantastic because I know that we have a brilliant writing team and I know it’s going to be amazing. I can’t wait.”

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Mey is a lesbian, Latina trans woman living in Idaho. Her areas of expertise include comic books, trans* issues and pop culture. She has an English Degree, a cat named Sawyer, a tumblr that she uses a lot and a twitter that she only uses occasionally. She's a selfie princess and Nerdy Bruja Femme.

Mey has written 93 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. Thumb up 22

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    Smart, thoughtful, kind, talented, AND gorgeous? I just love her and I’m excited to follow her character and also her career in general.

    Also this broke my heart a little: “I feel like sometimes I become very aware that, like, a lot of what I do is to put people at ease. I learned early on – I don’t know if it was because I’m also black – I learned how to put people at ease around me that, like, I’m not a threat, okay.”

    I know that that is a day-to-day experience of so many black folks in our culture, it’s not a new idea to me, but it’s heart-breaking and frustrating all the same.

    • Thumb up 3

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      Yes, that part was the saddest thing to read – how she as a trans* woman of color is really the most vulnerable to any kind of violence but how she still needs to calm down people who have the power to hurt her. It is absurd and I hate, that there is obviously a need for such twisted survival strategies.

      She is an amazing woman and I want to see her in everything.

    • Thumb up 2

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      Yeah, this interview was really fantastic, as is every interview I read/watch with her! I’m really glad to have found out about Laverne Cox through this show. The articles she’s written are amazing, too. I was going through her website after reading one of her articles a while back, and I love her and the things she does. Super excited to read an interview with her on here!

  2. Thumb up 4

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    AH this just made my entire day! Sophia is one of my favorite characters on OINTB and I’ve become such a Laverne Cox fangirl since watching the show. Her storyline is so so important for trans* visibility in a highly transphobic media environment, and besides that she’s just a really likable character. It shouldn’t be revolutionary that a trans* WOC is being represented as a multidimensional human being instead of a racist/transmisogynistic stereotype, but at this point in time it is.

    One thing that’s been on my mind, though, is the heavy use of transphobic slurs and insults against Cox’s character by the other characters in the show. On the one hand it’s an accurate representation of what trans* woman face on a daily basis, but on the other hand a lot of the transphobia is presented without commentary, which almost silently reinforces that the use of these slurs is acceptable? Then again perhaps the intended reaction is discomfort and the writers are assuming that the audience knows these slurs are wrong. Thoughts?

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      hmmm ive noticed that as well. it certainly does make me uncomfortable, but i think theyre trying to just accurately represent the trans’ experience in prison? at least i hope. i do remember one instance at least where someone uses a slur, and i think nichols jumps to defend sophia.

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        Yeah, I think it must be hard to find that careful balance between representing reality in a way that doesn’t actively reinforce negative sentiment/stereotypes, and not having the show become overtly preachy or moralistic (because there’s no faster way than that to turn off your audience). They’ve done a good job of writing Sophia as a sympathetic, humanized character, and I really think that’s the best way to handle it.

        When it comes to other sympathetic characters who have made transphobic comments (Bennett in particular), I think it does reflect the fact that in real life, “nice guys” can still do and say shitty things, and I’m glad the writers have avoided making any character entirely good or bad. But I hope in the next season to maybe see Bennett have the opportunity to interact more with Sophia and start to question his own prejudice. Because again, of course, that’s how it often works in real life.

    • Thumb up 8

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      I think — and maybe I’m giving the Powers That Be a lot of credit — that we are meant to understand that the characters who use transphobic slurs are wrong. I feel uncomfortable, too, but we’re supposed to; it’s not right to call her those things. I dunno, like with All in the Family. Achie Bunker espoused some pretty bigoted things, but in that context the audience supposedly knows going in that he’s wrong. Every other character on the show was a foil for him (Gloria, Mike, Edith), and in the end he would usually get put in his place. Some of the worst things said about Sophia were from Doggett and Pornstache, who are pretty despicable in their own right. We’re pretty much lead to believe that everything comes out of their mouths are bullshit. The other characters who have said less egregious, but still unacceptable things about Sophia? Now there’s something we need to focus on. Those things come from a place of ignorance more so than hate, but ignorance is not an excuse.

      What I really like is the dynamic that Sophia has with Sister Ingalls, whom one might assume would be transphobic by virtue of the fact that she’s really religious. I’m interested to see where their friendship goes next season.

      Hokay, long comment is long. I have a lot of feelings today.

      • Thumb up 9

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        ^This.

        At first I was upset that everytime someone said something transphobic or ignorant Sophia just let it slide, but then I thought that if you’re trans and in prison you’re already in a fucked-up position and have to pick your battles, and directly pointing out to someone that they said something wrong about it would only single you out and make you an easier target (and in the case of the aggressively transphobic ones would only fuel their fire even more) – better to lay low and not make a fuss about it.

        But OTOH, when people like Piper seem friendly and open to being corrected and even ask “is it OK what I just said?”, why not do it? Viewers who aren’t as knowledgeable and sensitive to trans* issues won’t think “it was wrong but they let it slide”, they’ll think “so it’s OK to say that”, because *nothing* shows that Sophia isn’t cool with it and we’re just assuming that she isn’t because WE know it’s not ok.

        In the end Laverne Cox might be trans but her character and lines are still written by cis people, so until they prove that they do it on purpose and know it’s wrong I’ll reserve my judgment.

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      I was actually happy those things were included. For some environments, that type of talk is the norm. And for trans people in these environments, it means having to navigate this language, differentiating comments between ignorant and hateful. It’s a realistic way of showing how transphobia is normalized.

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      If anything i think OITNB hugely soft pedals most of what trans women go through in prison. Just the very fact that a trans woman is in a women’s prison at all (in the show and the book—where the trans inmate is only very briefly mentioned) isn’t typical. The vast majority of trans women prisoners are in men’s facilities. Most inmates are poor and they couldn’t afford bottom surgery even if they wanted it. Even for Sophia, who had SRS, there are states where she would still be placed in a men’s facility, and a large percentage of trans women get placed in prolonged solitary confinement for supposedly their own protection (which also makes them very easy targets for guards and staff). Many trans women prisoners describe scenes where they are repeatedly strip searched in front of guards who then comment about their bodies and identities. So, no, I don’t think the language is at all harsh… to make it any more respectful would be kind of absurd and even less connected to reality. Again, I highly recommend the documentary “Cruel and Unusual” (it’s on YouTube) about trans women prisoners… it’s a great start for finding out the reality about this subject.

      • Thumb up 2

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        Thank you for the recommendation, I’ll definitely be checking it out! I knew that Sophia’s experience in prison is uncommon for trans* women of color and definitely watered down for the show, but I also wanted to hear the thoughts of trans* readers in particular before making any judgments about the way OINTB handles Sophia’s storyline. Thanks for everyone’s input!

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      I do agree that it makes sense, as others said, that they use that sort of language as a reflection of the reality of prison. But, yeah, it is pretty uncomfortable to not have any commentary on it within the show. I think the one point in the first season I found to be actually troubling was when Boo casually used a slur in conversation with Sophia. I don’t think this is an unrealistic representation of reality, either, but it could easily send/reinforce a message to straight/cis folks and the many clueless cis people in the LGB part of the queer spectrum that, because a queer, cisgender character used it in the context of friendly conversation with a trans* person, it’s not that bad – or even that it’s acceptable language for cis people who are ‘down’ to use, which… yikes.

  3. Thumb up 5

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    Her interviews are always so amazing. I would love to meet her because she just seems so genuinely nice.

    P.S. If anyone else is a fan of Candis Cayne, like I am, she is in Elementary, and she plays a trans* character. She was only on their once, but I think she is supposed to be back next season because she was a fan favorite.

    Sorry for the derail!

  4. Thumb up 6

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    “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 tell their stories through these characters.” There has been so much discussion on this site about the show and we certainly haven’t all agreed with all aspects of it, but for me this quote kind of brings it all back to where it started, where my love for it started, and the reason I care enough to comment like a person whose wifi should be disconnected sometimes.

    Laverne Cox is such a talented performer and smart and well-spoken role model. TL;DR: I love her and this show because reasons.

  5. Thumb up 3

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    Heh what i brought home from this is the confirmation Sophia is a gayer, from the horse’s mouth no less. She’s cute and there’s lots of her, what’s there not to like – might start fangirling for her in the second season if she has a relatable, present tense storyline.

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