“She’s a survivor”

Laverne Cox on her "Orange Is the New Black" character and the need for more portrayals of trans women on TV

Topics: laverne cox, orange is the new black, TV, transgender rights, Trans rights,

"She's a survivor"Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset in "Orange Is the New Black" (Credit: Netflix)

With the possible exceptions of Jennifer Hudson, or the girl from the first season of “Survivor” who once played the love interest in a Rob Schneider movie, former reality TV stars are not renowned for their acting chops. Laverne Cox, however, is not your typical reality star. An actor, writer and transgender advocate, Cox became the first African American transgender woman to appear on a reality TV show when she starred on the first season of VH1’s “I Want To Work For Diddy” in 2008. In 2010, she became the first trans woman to produce and star in her own television show, the VH1 makeover series “TRANSform Me,” earning a GLAAD Media Award nomination in the process.

Now Cox is making television history again, delivering a stirring, nuanced performance as transgender inmate Sophia Burset on Netflix’s highly acclaimed “Orange Is The New Black.” Unlike most non-gender-normative characters in the media, who tend to be portrayed as sex workers, glitzy camp queens, or “Crying Game”-esque con artists, Sophia is a former New York City firefighter with a wife and son who was arrested for credit card fraud while trying to fund her transition. During her time in prison, Sophia grapples with harassment from prison guards and misgendering by her fellow inmates, jumping each hurdle of prison life with flair and dignity. Salon got in touch with Cox to discuss her performance on the show, her role as a trans activist and the pleasures of Netflix binge-watching.

Is there anything about Sophia’s storyline that resonated with you and your own experience, or anything you felt like you really had in common with her? 

I think, honestly, the biggest piece was her family. The biggest piece was this fear of letting down the people in your life. That’s the piece that really spoke to me, because I think there’s something so profoundly human about – there’s the struggle with being true to who you are, and knowing that you have to do what you have to do to be your authentic self, and then the possibility of that letting down people in your life and disappointing people who you love. That sort of conflict that Sophia has is really what touched me the most in terms of her as a character, and her resilience as well. She’s a survivor. A lot of trans women of color who are dealing with all kinds of crazy circumstances are survivors like Sophia. They’re figuring out how to make it work.

So tell me a little bit about how you got hooked up with the show. I know you’ve had a few film and TV roles before, but you’re primarily known as a reality TV star. Did they seek you out, or did you just audition?

Yeah, I just auditioned. The interesting thing is that before I ended up doing the reality TV thing, I’d been acting. I made my first movie – I don’t wanna date myself, but it was over a decade ago (laughs). So I’ve been acting – I have a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance, and I started acting in college. I was in Marymount Manhattan College here in New York. So I’d been acting prior to the reality thing, and the reality stuff just was happening and the opportunity to do reality came along in my acting career. I’d done a lot of off-Broadway theater, a lot of independent films and stuff. So I just auditioned. I have a fantastic agent and about a month before I got the audition he told me he was talking to some folks about a Netflix show set in a federal women’s prison and there was a role for me.

How much of a role did you have in crafting Sophia’s storyline, if any?

I didn’t, really – I didn’t have any part in it at all! (Laughs) I just got the script. I was very nervous, like, what are they gonna do to Sophia? I didn’t know what kinds of depths they would go into in terms of why she was in prison, et cetera. And so I thought – I got the script and I was like, “Oh my God, this is really deep and it’s really real. How do they know all this?” (Laughs) And I talked to Sian Heder, who wrote episode 3, which really features Sophia, and she did a lot of research. She talked to a lot of different folks in LA in the trans community. So I didn’t – I worked things on the set with Sian, you know. We had conversations about a few lines, line changes, but the story was all our writers.

Did you do any independent research on transgender prisoners, or talk to any of them?

I talked to a few, and I actually did some pretty good research on this trans woman in Minnesota named CeCe McDonald, who made the national news around the same time Trayvon Martin did. She was going to trial around the same time the Trayvon Martin shooting happened, about a year and a half ago, and she was sent to prison basically for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack on June 5, 2011. And I’d been preparing to interview her for a show called “In The Life,” a PBS show that lost its money and is now canceled. So that interview never happened, but I’d been doing a lot of research on CeCe. I also watched this documentary called “Cruel and Unusual” that deals with the issues of trans people in prison, and I did a lot of reading, so that was most of my prep.

Do you have a sense from your research of how closely Sophia’s storyline hews to the transgender prisoner experience in general? Like, the episode where Sophia is fighting for her hormone medication – that was super heartbreaking, and I was wondering if you get the sense that that’s particularly rampant in prisons.

It is. It is something that happens a lot. In fact, I was just at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project last week, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project does advocacy work for trans people in prisons, and court denial of hormones is a major, major issue. This blog did a wonderful piece on – I think it’s something like 30 percent of incarcerated trans people, black people specifically, I would check that statistic, but I think about 30 percent of incarcerated trans people [of color] have been denied hormones [24 percent, according to a joint report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality]. It’s actually a huge, huge issue. Health care for trans people in prison in general is a huge issue, so our writers really got it right there.

The really interesting thing, though, is that Sophia is in a women’s prison. Piper Kerman, who wrote the source material for “Orange is the New Black” — there was a trans woman in the prison that she was in, so that was real to her experience, but so often we find that trans women are misgendered and end up in men’s prisons. And so [trans women in women’s prisons] is still unusual and it’s something that we’re still fighting for. It’s a complicated issue, and some trans women choose to — because they feel more comfortable navigating male prisons, there’s a history of that, and there’s a way to navigate it. Some women choose to be in a men’s prison. Actually, CeCe McDonald chose to be in a men’s prison. That’s been a new concept around trans folk in prison: women’s prisons versus men’s prisons, it’s an ongoing thing.

Did you ever meet the inspiration for your character, the woman who went to prison with the real-life Piper? Because there’s much more life and nuance to the character onscreen than the way she’s described in the book.

Thank you. I have not met Vanessa – Vanessa’s her name in the book, and that name was changed. Piper says lots of names were changed in the book. I would love to meet her. Piper says she has this story about her – I was dying to find out more about her. I just sorta filled in a lot of the blanks based on what goes on in the script.

Sophia’s definitely marked by her resilience, and she’s also got kind of a complex moral code. She’s a sympathetic character, but she’ll still stoop to subterfuge if need be — like, where she tries to manipulate Sister Ingalls [a nun and fellow inmate] to get her hormones. But then you see her turning down [prison guard] Pornstache when he tries to coerce sexual favors out of her in exchange for her medication, so there’s clearly stuff she will and won’t do. I wanted to ask you what you think about her sense of ethics, and where you think she draws the line, in terms of what she’s willing to do to get what she needs.

I love that question. That’s a really good question. It gets complicated in prison. Morality is something that’s very complicated in prison, because when one is doing what one needs to do to survive, morality becomes very complicated. I think Sophia is infamous ’cause she’s broken the law to be true to who she is. So what’s fascinating to me about the reality of that is that there are so many real trans women like Sophia out there, and there’s lots of trans people who will engage in survival sex work, or survival street economy of different sorts, to not only survive, but to get the life-saving medication and medical treatment that we need. So there’s this whole piece of, “I have to do what I have to do to be true to myself.”

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And the thing with Sophia and Pornstache is, she’s not letting things with her wife go. She’s madly in love with this girl. And Sophia is only – as far as I know, in terms of what the writers built, she’s only attracted to women and she’s really only attracted to Crystal, she’s only in love with her wife. So the idea of her being involved sexually with Pornstache — it would never happen. That’s something she would never do. I think the important piece, too, is that Sophia was a firefighter. Sian reminded me, while we were shooting the scene with Pornstache and I deny him, that I’m a hero. I was a New York City firefighter. I saved people’s lives. So that part of my history and the dignity of being a hero is so ingrained in me. Even though there’s a lot of degradation that trans women experience, there’s still a sense of dignity that she still has. So there is that sense of “I do what I have to do,” but she does have limits.

From the perspective of a trans advocate, do you think the fact that your character is getting so much attention reflects something about where the trans rights movement is in relation to the mainstream? Like, that people are readily embracing a nuanced, complex trans woman character?

I think it’s really a testament to our writers, who built such a human, complicated story. As an actor, I live to play characters who have moral complexity, characters who are deeply flawed, but who people can also relate to. And there’s something about Sophia’s story that’s connecting to people. That’s what I’m seeing from people who’ve been messaging me on Twitter, is that people are connecting, people are crying, over this woman’s story. I think there’s something so profoundly human about the way this story is told, and we don’t see enough of that in the media. We don’t see enough multidimensional portrayals of trans women and women in jail who are of different races, ages, body types. We don’t see enough multidimensional portrayals of women in general, that show the diversity of womanhood. I think that’s why people are responding so much to the show. Even though Sophia is trans and not everyone is trans, I think people are probably seeing themselves a little bit in Sophia’s struggle.

On the flip side, have you heard any criticism of the character or your portrayal of her from within the trans community?

That’s a good question. I mean, no, because to be perfectly honest — I’ve been waiting to see if someone’s gonna write to me and be really critical, [but] I haven’t seen it yet. I also made a pact with myself that I would focus on the positive when this whole experience started, as people started writing about their own experiences with the show. This beautiful trans woman named Diamond Stylz, she’s this YouTube sensation. She did a YouTube review of the show and she spoke very highly of Sophia and my performance and it was really moving. I’ve gotten messages from trans women all over the country who’ve been inspired by Sophia’s story, and honestly the positive feedback has been so amazing. It reminds me that it’s bigger than me, this character and her moment of trans representation is so much bigger than me. Because trans folks are able to look at this character and see themselves and then begin to believe that having a moment like this is possible.

You’ve talked about stereotyping and the dearth of complex roles for trans actresses, and I read an interview on BuzzFeed where you said that you’d played a sex worker like, seven times.

Yeah.

Are you still getting those scripts? Or are you starting to get scripts with characters that are more in the Sophia vein?

I think now, with this show — I am imagining that folks will be inspired to write more complicated trans characters, [but] the reality is that most of those characters haven’t been written yet. I mean, I got a script earlier this year that was so offensive on so many levels. This actor had written it for a webseries, and I don’t think he even knew it was offensive. So I wrote him a long, thoughtful e-mail explaining in a loving way why this character was problematic, and he wrote back to me, “Thank you so much for that. I didn’t know this was a problem, and I’m gonna rewrite this script now and I’m gonna reconsider it.” So I think people haven’t even really thought about how offensive some of the stuff they’ve written or proposed about trans people really is. They don’t know. There’s an intense education process that has to happen, and I’m perfectly happy to engage in those conversations, and I’m hoping Sophia’s portrayal will begin to ignite those conversations and inspire directors and writers to say, “Oh, you can tell trans stories in really any way. You can have a trans character on a show that isn’t even necessarily about somebody trans.”

What was problematic about that specific role?

When I have played sex workers in the past — this was another sex worker [role] — I’ve done it in a way, there has been a way for me to buy some kind of humanity, or infuse some kind of humanity into the character. I’ll play it in a complicated way. If her trans identity is not a joke, if it’s not presented as, like, a gag. [Trans activist] Julia Serano has talked brilliantly about this sort of paradigm in narrative film and TV, where trans women have often been portrayed as deceivers, where we have sort of a post-”Crying Game” moment where’s this reveal. This script had sort of a “Crying Game” moment, where the main character doesn’t know the character was trans and all of a sudden realizes they’re trans.

I try not to do work that plays into that kind of mythology around trans identity. Because the reality is that there are trans women in the sex industry, and globally. I was at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference this year, and globally trans women doing sex work – it’s almost as if they’re being trafficked into doing sex work. In India, for example, sex work is your only option. And so many people don’t want to hire trans women. Then there’s this huge pornographic industry that is growing…it’s complicated when we talk about trans sex workers, because we have this society that says “We don’t want to hire you to work in our offices,” or even Starbucks or McDonald’s sometimes, but then they will pay you hundreds of dollars to have sex or to be in pornographic films. What is someone going to do? We’re often trapped into these communities where sex work is the only option. So the reality of that needs to be explored in stories, and when I can find that reality and humanity in the script, then I’ll take that role.

Have you seen all 13 episodes of the show? Do you binge-watch, like a lot of the Netflix viewers do, or have you sort of parsed out?

Well, when the show premiered July 11, I’d only seen the pilot. I was in Vegas with my mom for her birthday, so I stayed in a hotel with her. And honey, I stayed up all night long! (Laughs) I watched, like, six episodes, and then I had to check out of the hotel. So yeah, I’ve pretty much seen all 13 episodes by now. And I binge-watched “House of Cards” as well, so I’m all about the binge-watching.

I assume you can’t tell me what’s lying in store for Sophia, but what would you like to see happen with her next season?

I’m curious about whether my son will come around, whether he’ll come visit me, whether that relationship will be repaired. I’m curious about my relationship with Crystal, and what develops from that. I’m also curious about how Sophia’s interactions with the other inmates will flow and will change. I’m very curious. I feel like a viewer. I watch the show very much like a viewer.

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