Next week on Fox, a cult classic is reimagined for the 21st century. After 40 years of midnight screenings The Rocky Horror Picture Show gets a television reboot with transgender actress Laverne Cox starring as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the hyper-sexed gender-bending extraterrestrial first made famous by Tim Curry in 1975.
In this candid conversation, pioneering trans actress and activist Shakina Nayfack speaks with Cox about the film, the iconic role, and the changing nature of transgender representation on and off screen.
Shakina Nayfack: Ok, Laverne, for me Rocky Horror was such a root film. What role did the film play for you growing up?
Laverne Cox: Well, I discovered Rocky Horror my freshman year of college—and it was a period in my life when I was in a gender nonconforming, kind of androgynous place, and Frank-N-Furter came into my life through this movie when I was figuring out who I was. “Don’t Dream It, Be It” became a personal mantra for me. It gave me permission to be who I always thought that I was.
What gender pronoun do you think Dr. Frank-N-Furter prefers?
LC: Well, in our version, Frank-N-Furter is a She. That was something we had talked to Kenny [Ortega] about, that it would be appropriate since I’m playing Frank-N-Furter that her pronouns would be she.
We were at the New York City premiere for Her Story last year, right around when the announcement broke that you’d be playing Dr. Frank. After the screening there was a discussion about transgender representation in Hollywood, and someone in the audience—another trans person—raised concern over the words “transvestite” and “transsexual.”
LC: We had conversations—me and Kenny—about the term “transvestite,” because people in the LGBT community have issues with me playing this part, because I’m a trans woman. It was really important for us to make sure that the film would still fit in 1975, and in 1975 the word “transvestite” was not used the same way that it is today.
Yes, today we think of it as derogatory, or as an outdated term for a dude who likes to wear panties.
LC: Well at the time Sylvia Rivera, herself, one of the pioneers of the modern LGBT Civil Rights Movement, used the term Transvestite. And we understand that Sylvia Rivera was a transgender woman, but when she started she was a transvestite revolutionary.
So the lyrics haven’t been changed in this new version?
LC: They have not, and I did a lot of soul-searching. But the music is so iconic, and you don’t change the words to iconic songs, I think. But I also want to tell people that you should not refer to a transgender person in 2016 as a transvestite, you should not refer to Laverne Cox as a transvestite, but the character that she plays in The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a transvestite in very historically specific ways.
Tell me more about working with Kenny Ortega.
LC: Honestly, if you ever meet Kenny Ortega or just have a phone conversation with him, you just want to work with him. He is absolutely the very best. His depth of knowledge about every single aspect of filmmaking is startling. He knows everything from hair and makeup, to lighting, to lenses – there was a moment when the drummer was by the piano, and he was like, “The drums would never be by the piano,” because he’s worked in Rock ‘n’ roll, so he knows. All these little nuances that he knows would just blow your mind, and he’s just absolutely the perfect person to make this movie.
I saw you in Broadway Bares a couple of years ago, and you were just tearing it up. Are we going to see some of your killer dance moves in Rocky Horror?
LC: Interestingly enough, Kenny apparently saw my performance in Broadway Bares and showed it to our producers, and that’s what inspired him to call me in to screen test. In my screen test I danced my ass off. I was doing splits and kicks and turns, and Kenny is a dancer too, and a choreographer, and he was really excited about making this Frank-N-Furter move a lot more. There were moments when I was like, “Ok! I can do a triple pirouette here…” and he was like, “No, that’s not quite Frank-N-Furter.”
So what you’re saying is Kenny wanted a clean double?
Ok, I know this gets beaten into the ground a lot, but given Jeffrey Tambor’s recent comments at the Emmys and the news of Matt Bomer playing a trans woman in his upcoming film, what do you have to say about the importance of authentic trans casting in theatre, film, and television?
LC: What I’ve said historically, is that as an actor, I would never want to tell another actor that they shouldn’t play a part simply because of their gender, and that goes for cisgender people playing trans characters. But I’ve also said that as a trans woman who’s gone on to play a trans character on Orange Is the New Black. I’ve seen how that can make such an impact on changing peoples’ hearts and minds about trans people. I can’t tell you how many trans people I’ve met who said that they were inspired to transition because of the character I play on Orange Is the New Black. ... To pursue their dreams of acting, to come out to friends and family because of that—and I don’t think it’s because there’s a trans character on TV, but they’re identifying with the trans actor who plays those characters.
LC: I’d like to think it’s opened up opportunities for other trans people and that’s the impact it can have. And also when we tell trans stories, trans people need to be involved, not just in front of the camera, but behind the scenes too.
I totally agree! Julie Klausner and Scott King brought me on to Difficult People as a consultant to help develop Lola, the character I play. I don’t think that would have happened if you didn’t make headway first with Sophia, so thanks, Laverne!
LC: Is your season of Difficult People out yet?
Oh, it’s out. It’s on Hulu and Season 2 is streaming!
LC: Ok, so I need to go and watch your show!
Have a good time! It’s ridiculous. One final question: What advice could you share for the early-career trans actor who might be reading this interview?
LC: If you want to act, I think you have to train. I continued to train for Rocky Horror. I train exorbitantly—singing, dancing, acting. Train. Learn the business. If you can’t get an agent, try to get into a casting director workshop. Develop relationships with casting directors and learn the business part of it as much as the craft part of it, and take the craft seriously. And don’t ever, ever give up.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show airs on Fox, Thursday October 20 at 8 PM/7 PM Central.