Trans Actress-Activist Laverne Cox Talks "OITNB," Dream Roles and Starting a Casting Revolution on Stage and Screen
By Whitney Spaner
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.
"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 Inch — John 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.
Although her days and nights are now filled up with promoting Season Two of "Orange is the New Black," the whole of which was unleashed on Netflix June 6, and educating audiences about the trans community with appearances on Katie Couric and Wendy Williams, as well as speaking engagements across the country, Cox said she's itching to get back on stage, especially since many of her "OITNB" costars like Kate Mulgrew, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Pablo Schreiber, Maria Dizzia, Emma Myles, Tracee Chimo, Lea DeLaria and Kimiko Glenn are theatre regulars. "I talk a lot about theatre with Emma, who plays Leanne, and Lea — she's a Broadway legend," said Cox. "And, oh my God, Uzo has a crazy voice. She studies opera. I'm a huge opera queen (if you will) and a hack opera singer. Uzo did it for real, but she won't sing opera for me. [When I ask,] she's like, 'How much are you payin' me?'"
Cox did mention that she's been in talks regarding a New York stage project, but it's currently in limbo because of scheduling conflicts. She won't give any more clues, except to say that we can pretty much rule out the Hedwig sequel. "I don't sing in public anymore," she said with conviction. "I like singing, it's therapeutic for me, but I shouldn't sing professionally — I have not always known that, but I know that now." Non-musical roles she would like to play include Lady Macbeth; "I love the sinister, ruthless pursuit of power in relationship to the patriarch," she said, adding, "I wonder if there's something for Raisin in the Sun for me? It's funny because it's not necessarily written for trans, but I just love that play."
For all the progress that has come with reaching "the transgender tipping point" Broadway — as well as Hollywood — has yet to publicly cast an openly trans actor in a non-trans role. And it's still very rare for a trans actor to be cast in a trans role. Cisgender actors Jefferson Mays and most recently Neil Patrick Harris earned Tony Awards for portraying transgender roles on Broadway and many people in the trans community were upset when the first trans teenage character to appear on Broadway — a high school cheerleader named La Cienega, in 2012's Bring It On: The Musical — was played by male actor Gregory Haney.
"As an artist I'm never one to say that another actor shouldn't play a role," said Cox. "I think we all want to play a wide range of characters — but I do know that when a trans person is playing a trans character it can be truly transformative for audiences. My life and career is a testament to that. They find themselves not only empathizing with a trans character but with a trans actor who's playing that character and it can change lives. I've been so blessed to hear of people who have transitioned because of my character on 'Orange is the New Black' and have been able to have more fulfilling conversations about their identities."
And, although it's unclear when a trans actor would be cast in a revival of A Raisin in the Sun, Cox feels that things are looking up for trans actors in the casting room. "Years ago I was at a workshop and I straight out asked a casting director if he would ever cast a trans actor in a role that didn't call for it to be trans," remembered Cox. "And he said, 'No.' It's a business, so I was like, 'OK, how do I not take this personally?' But I think that's going to change. I'm hearing about a lot of projects now where there are trans characters being written and they are looking for trans actors. I have a couple of girlfriends who are trans and are auditioning for these parts," she said. "It's happening in New York and it's happening in LA. I'm really excited about that."
As for Cox's own tipping point — it couldn't have happened on a better birthday. "I don't think I would have been ready for this 10 years ago," she admitted. "I believe that this is happening to me at a moment when I am somewhat prepared, but I don't know if you can ever be fully prepared."
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