As transgender prisoner Sophia Burset on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox has helped paved the way for a widerspread conversation about LGBT issues–so much so, that Caitlyn Jenner recently tweeted, “@LaverneCox, you are fierce and fabulous! Your support means the world. Thank you for all that you do for the community. #TransIsBeautiful.”
Cox, whose character on Orange endures bullying and beating in the current third season, and who this year won a SAG award for her role, is also a prominent LGBT advocate. Aside from her work on the Netflix show, in August, audiences will see her in the film Grandma, in which she plays a tattoo artist who inks costar Lily Tomlin, an experience Cox calls, “a dream come true.”
In the latest season 3, we learned a lot more about Sophia’s family and her backstory–what do you love about your character’s story?
I am so proud to be a part of this show in general, but this season, I think we just raised the game. I just think all the actors, all the stories this season–I think this was a really, really strong season. And Jenji (creator Jenji Kohan)–there’s so much heart and so much love for these women, and it’s so much fun. The issue of violence against trans people is something that I talk about a lot in my work outside the show–it’s a huge issue for trans people who are incarcerated–and Jenji and the writers didn’t want to shy away from that this season. And they went there. Sophia had maybe found a place where she was kind of protected and all of that becomes jeopardized, not only by her relationship with Gloria, but also, by the new administration.
Have you talked to Caitlyn Jenner or offered advice about being a trans person in the public eye?
We’ve spoken in the past. We haven’t spoken recently, I’ve just been so busy. I’ve been meaning to call her. We’ve spoken in the past before, and I’ve gone on record about the nature of those conversations. I don’t think I need to reveal everything, but I’m certainly not giving her advice about being in the public eye–Caitlyn knows how to do that really well, better than a lot of us!. We’ve just talked in general, very general terms about it. And really, I’ve just offered support around her journey, that’s all.
TV seems like a vital platform for LGBT issues right now– Shonda Rhimes has said she’s normalizing television with her LGBT characters.
What I love about it is recently, the Feminist Majority honored Jenji Kohan and Shonda Rhimes on the same program. And what was so powerful about being in the room with both Shonda and Jenji, and having getting to work with Jenji on Orange Is the New Black, are the showrunners, writers, creatives, who want to tell human stories at the end of the day and want to tell stories that reflect the world that they know. A lot of folks, not everybody in America, lives in communities that are really diverse. At the end of the day, when we get to know people as people–and this is why it can happen on television–people can become more than their gender identity, their race, their sexual orientation. Not to suggest that these things don’t matter. Culturally, historically, race, gender, class matters, but people are human beings. The wonderful thing about Orange Is the New Black is that despite what these women are incarcerated for, despite their race, age, sexual orientation, gender, these women are human beings. And the job of the artist, really, is to reflect this humanity. And I think that is what Jenji, our showrunner does and Shonda Rhimes does so beautifully.
Season 4 is already in the works–any hints for what we might see from Sophia coming up?
In Season 4? You know I can’t tell you that! Season 3 just came out. Can we slow the roll a little bit?
When you made the cover of TIME Magazine, what did that mean to you?
I have a big poster of it above my bed–wouldn’t you if you were on TIME Magazine? It was a wonderful moment for our community, and we’ve been on several magazine covers, so we’re grateful we’ve gotten on several magazine covers since the TIME Magazine cover. This visibility that’s happened this past year is amazing for trans folks. And that’s my hope that this visibility translates into the day-to-day life of regular trans folks’ lives being made better and being changed in terms of public policy as well. When you think about Sophia’s storyline this third season–there’s a moment when (prison guard) Sikowitz comes, and Sophia’s being assaulted. And Sikowitz is not trained properly. This, unfortunately is far too often the reality in prisons all over the country And Jenji Kohan illustrates that in such a brilliant and human and complicated way. I’m so honored to be part of a show that complicates these issues and doesn’t demonize anyone. Everyone is a human being, profoundly human.
You recently said that a man in the public eye who dates transgender women needs to come forward.
It came up for me because a lot of my girlfriends are trans and date men. And navigating dating as a trans woman, particularly a trans woman who dates men, is really, really tricky and challenging. And I’ve often said that loving a transgender person is a revolutionary act. And that so often, the men who date us are deeply stigmatized, and that is something that is misunderstood and mis-recognized. At the end of the day, what does it mean to love, to really love someone and to be there for them? And for me, I have a quote that Cornel West says, is that, “justice is what love looks like in public.” How do we have love for each other?
You have the film Grandma coming up–how much fun was it to work with Lily Tomlin?
I just love Lily Tomlin. I’ve loved her forever and getting to work with her was a dream come true. I’ve had a lot of dreams come true over the past couple of years. And I think she deserves an Oscar for this amazing performance she gave in the film.
What about wielding that tattoo gun?
It was a lot of fun. We actually shot in a real tattoo parlor, so I watched YouTube videos to teach myself how to give tattoos. Obviously, when you do something that specific, it needs to look real. I love Lily’s character so much, and I loved playing Deathy. It was incredible.