Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black dropped, the dramedy about a New York State federal women’s prison, has become America’s newest binge-watching obsession. And while the show is centered on Piper Chapman, an incarcerated upper middle class White woman, it’s the supporting female characters, especially those of color, that suck you in episode after episode.
One of those complex characters is Sofia Burset, a Black transgender lesbian who struggles with staying connected to her family, getting access to her much-needed hormones and warding off unwanted advances from a corrections officer. Cox plays the role with grace, humor and humanity and given the fact that she is one of few transgender actress of color in television, it’s no surprise that she is garnering tons of attention and praise.
We had the chance to sit down with Cox to talk about her love for acting, being directed by Jodie Foster and the important conversations about transphobia that our community needs to have.
EBONY: Many of us know you as either a reality star on I Want to Work for Diddy or TRANSform Me and as an activist. How long have you been acting?
Laverne Cox: When the reality shows came along, it was about getting my name out there and advocating for the issues that were really important to me. Yet, acting is my number one passion. Even though I have been dancing since I was a kid and majored in it in college, I always felt as if I was an actor who danced. So for the past three years, I’ve studied with Brad Calcaterra. My work on Orange wouldn't be possible without him. Before that, I worked with Susan Batson, who coaches Nicole Kidman and has worked with Oprah. And I have done some out Law and Orders and over a dozen indie films.
But to play Sofia is amazing because she has so many dimensions. It’s been a long time coming and I got to show my chops. On one hand, Sofia can be serious, but you also get to see her devious and scheming side when she tries to scam Sister Ingalis of her hormones.
EBONY: Jodie Foster directed the episode “Lesbian Request Denied,” where we get to see Sofia’s backstory and her physical transition from male to female.That must have been amazing.
LC: It really was a dream, but also intimidating because she is Jodie Foster. But when I got on set, she was so normal and chill and not intimidating. She works so well with actors and gives them such great tips to get them where they need to be.
I had my “OMG” moment where I was like I am not worthy, and she helped me through that that to get me where I needed to be for that scene. It was such an honor/
EBONY: You’ve gotten so much well-deserved media attention and praise since the show debuted. How do you stay grounded?
LC: First, I am so grateful for all of this and I try to enjoy the attention as much as I can. But staying grounded is a process because all of this can be really overwhelming.
My therapist reminds me to not let the praise define me, because if I do, I’ll take the negative things that people say and allow that to define me as well. If I touch just one person, than I have done something good.
EBONY: Let's switch gears. While media representation is one half of educating society about transgender Americans, it’s only one half of the work. Policy is the other half part of it. What are some of the major policy changes that need to be made in order to protect the trans community better?
LC: There is so much work to do. We need some fierce education in this country to create a society that doesn’t criminalize trans community. There’s health care, safety and violence, stop and frisk, which happens to transgender women of color all the time, because we are not believed to be who we say we are.
And of course employment is huge. Unemployment in the trans community is twice the national average and in trans communities of color, it's four times the national average. That’s because in many states, you can be fired or not hired because you are transgender. On a federal level, the ENDA bill, legislation that would protect the trans community against this type of discrimination, needs to be signed.
EBONY: When it comes to doing the work to address homophobia and transphobia in the Black community, what’s missing?
LC: I think what we need to have more conversations about addressing gender non-conforming people in our community in relation to our own collective trauma around masculinity and being emasculated. Often times, I have been called a disgrace against my race and how all of our Black men are becoming gay or women. Being LGBT isn’t a consequence of White supremacy.
So we need to deal with that and try to heal, because when we are attacking each other, racism wins.
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning Chicago-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Her articles and interviews have been featured in Essence, The Advocate, The Root, Glamour, Al Jazeera, The Body and The Huffington Post.
*A previous verson of this article misidentified Brad Calcaterra as Nicole Kidman's acting coach and stated incorrect figures about unemployment in trans communities. We regret the error.