Trans Actress-Activist Laverne Cox Talks "OITNB," Dream Roles and Starting a Casting Revolution on Stage and Screen

By Whitney Spaner
15 Jun 2014

Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox
Joseph Marzullo/WENN

As part of Playbill.com's 30 Days of Pride, "Orange is the New Black" star and recent Time Magazine cover girl Laverne Cox talks about her personal and professional journey.

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"I'm honestly not even in my body right now," said Laverne Cox. It's her birthday (May 29) and she's just received the best present a girl could ask for: a preview of Time magazine's cover featuring the actress looking fierce in a navy blue Herve Leger cocktail dress ("It took a village to get me in that dress…") standing next to the headline "The Transgender Tipping Point." And — as if being the flawless face of the modern transgender movement weren't enough cause for celebration — the day before, Cox scored a Critics' Choice Television Award nomination for her portrayal of the transgender prisoner Sophia Burset on Netflix's dangerously addictive women's prison drama "Orange is the New Black."

"The Time magazine cover is incredible," said Cox, "but being honored by the TV critics because of my acting is deeply validating. I did my first movie 16 years ago and I'd been told that I probably won't be able to have a career as an actor because I'm trans."

Thankfully, Cox didn't listen and kept working towards her goal, opening the door for more transgender stories and performers to be heard and recognized. A week after her Time cover hit stands, Hedwig and the Angry InchJohn Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's show about Hedwig, the transgendered "internationally ignored" pop star which became a cult hit when it debuted Off-Broadway in 1998 — won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

Considering herself to be an "inheritor" of of the legacies left behind by trans activists and Stonewall Inn rioters Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, Cox takes her place as the Grand Marshall of this year's Pride Parade in New York alongside fellow Marshalls Jonathan Groff and Rea Carey, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"I'm particularly honored to be Grand Marshall this year. It's the 45th anniversary of Stonewall, which happened because a group of street queens, transvestites and trans women said, 'We are sick of being harassed by the police we don't deserve this,'" explained Cox. "Then in the early '70s trans women and queens were told that they did not represent the LGBT movement — they were sort of banished, but women like Sylvia Rivera and Marcia P. Johnson, said, 'This is not acceptable.'"

To escape the harassment and bullying Cox faced growing up in Mobile, Alabama and the pain of being born a boy when she knew she was meant to be a girl, Cox begged her mother to take dance classes. She then became very involved with theatre in college at Marymount Manhattan College. Before transitioning, Cox was cast in Hair and Pippin and played the incarcerated drag queen, Queenie, in a production of John Herbert's 1967 play Fortune and Men's Eyes. But after she began her medical transition, Cox started to worry about the lack of professional acting opportunities for trans women, so she decided to enroll at FIT.

"I was like, 'Oh I'm trans — people can kind of deal with trans people in the fashion industry and I like clothes.'" She lasted only a few semesters before she dropped out and found a mentor in Susan Baston, the legendary acting coach who has worked with Jamie Foxx, Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Connelly. Despite her superior training, Cox still found it very difficult to book parts as a trans woman. She played a witch in an Off-Off Broadway production of the Scottish play called Mistress Macbeth in which both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth were women, and in 2006 she starred as a flirtatious flight attendant named Barbara in a play called Alex and the Girls. It was one of the first parts she'd been offered that was not written for a trans woman, but her last part on stage. Cox went on to either play herself on MTV reality shows like "I Want to Work for Diddy" and "TransFORM Me" or characters on "Law and Order SVU" and HBO's "Bored to Death," listed as "hooker" or "transexual prostitute" on her IMDB page. "It's taken a really long time to become an overnight sensation," laughed Cox.



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