It's hard to say which is rarer: meaty, star-making roles for trans actors or careers that cross over from reality TV to acting. Laverne Cox has both. She competed on VH1's I Want to Work for Diddy, developed/starred in that network's makeover show TRANSform Me, and now she steals scenes as Sophia on Netflix's phenomenal women's prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black. In case you are behind, OITNB is so compulsively captivating that it feels less like a show and more like a life event: I didn't so much watch it as I felt it happening.
There's no blueprint for Cox's life, no precedent for current or future success. And yet she is in the somewhat paradoxical position of representing the entire trans community in pop culture. She does this almost single-handedly given the dearth of trans stars. I talked to her about this, her insecurities, her role, and her dating life last week at the Gawker office (or more specifically, on the Gawker office's roof). Full disclosure: I've known Laverne for about five years and interviewed her several times when I worked at VH1. She is a friend. Fuller disclosure: I couldn't be prouder of her success.
An edited transcription of our conversation is below.
RJ: We've talked about you being sensitive about the way you are represented. Do you think being trans fuels that sensitivity?
LC: I think any actress should be. I don't know if it's about me being trans, but maybe. Everyone is insecure. I think really it comes from like a desire to want to be in control of how you're represented.
What are you insecure about now?
I'm insecure about how I look...
In terms of presentation?
Everything. I was looking at some stills from the show that are up online. [In the past] I was like, "When I am successful, I'm going to look differently. I will have had more surgery, I will be thinner. And that will equal me being successful." And then I was looking at myself with all the imperfections that I see, and still people are relating to this character, people are connecting to her. On social media people love Sophia. So I'm on this show that is kind of a hit now and I don't look like Beyoncé. I haven't had the extreme makeover to look like that, so maybe I can just be authentically myself. Maybe that's enough.
What a wonderful thing to be able to do.
I've been doing a lot of work around dealing with shame. Brené Brown defines shame as this intense feeling like we're unworthy of love and belonging. I link that shame to internalized transphobia, internalized racism. She doesn't necessarily.
How does your internalized transphobia manifest itself?
A lot of it is just about me wanting to beat myself up because I'm not pretty enough. I've had this thing where people are writing all sort of articles, "Laverne Cox has broken the trans glass ceiling." People are writing all this crazy stuff that I'm this groundbreaking whatever. I have moments where I'm like, I'm not pretty enough or passable enough to be that girl. I'm not pretty enough to really represent the community in this way. Sometimes I sound like a man and all that kind of stuff where I feel like I'm not feminine enough, I'm not enough authentically. Also, I've noticed the biggest way that internalized homophobia, racism, or transphobia manifests itself is in how we treat each other.
Alexis Arquette said something really awesome about being identifiably trans, not wanting to pass really, and forcing people to deal with that.
Everyone is different. I'm very easily Googled as a trans person, so that ship has sailed for me in terms of people not knowing. It's so weird, this guy picked me up at Kinkos the other day and I wondered, "Do I tell him?" I told him the title of the show I was on and I didn't hear from him after that, and I'm just like, did he Google me? He probably Googled me. When people find out you're an actress they Google you.
How is dating for you?
When you're on TV it actually makes it harder, because most men that are into transgender women don't want anyone to know about it. A lot of the, "Am I passable enough?" stuff comes up in dating. A lot of men want to date their fantasy, and their fantasy is a trans woman that no one would ever know was trans. Once a lot of guys find out I have a high profile, they know they can't deal with this. It scares them off. I'm allegedly intimidating anyway.
I think what's troubling about dating as a trans woman is that a lot of men have realized they're into trans woman through pornography. So they'll approach me in sort of pornographic ways. Maybe because they haven't met someone trans they don't realize that's not OK. Or because of their own internationalized stigma or shame around being attracted to trans women, they project that onto us. I see that a lot. I've dated a lot of guys who have projected their shame onto me.
Besides the trans ceiling, you broke the reality ceiling. Your public narrative has never been written. Nobody has lived your life. It's a feat to go from reality TV to a working actress, who is also trans.
It's funny. I'm really grateful, I'm really blessed. I was an actress long before I was a reality TV person. The reality TV thing came along and I saw it as an opportunity to raise my profile and talk about some of the issues that are important to me. I made a decision after TRANSform Me: I was like, "I'm an actor." I didn't want to be in front of the camera in a reality context anymore. When I decided to do to I Want to Work for Diddy, my brother was like, "You're a serious actor, you should act, you shouldn't do this, people will never take you seriously as an actor." It was a risk, honestly, because again I had to give up all control over how I was going to be represented and it worked out. I went with my gut. My gut told me do this, mainly because, I've said this before but most of the harassment and street harassment I've experienced has been from other black people.
I thought what you recently wrote for The Advocate was really interesting: "When I was perceived as a black man I became a threat to public safety. When I was dressed as myself, it was my safety that was threatened."
I'm good with myself, it's just all this stuff I have to deal with externally. For so many trans folks, it's really not us, it's everyone else who loses their minds. Sophia's storyline really exemplifies a lot of that stuff. There are real trans women like Sophia who are denied hormones in prison, who are mis-gendered and have to deal with a lot of stuff. In a lot of ways, Sophia is privileged because she at least gets to serve in a women's facility.
This show also explores the difference between gender identity and sexuality — after her transition, Sophia stays with her wife. That distinction is rarely drawn in pop culture.
That's is very Trans 101. I've been saying this for years, that gender identity and sexual orientation are different but so many people don't know. I think that the reason for that is that we are in the LGBT community and we get lumped with gay and lesbian folks and bisexual folks, but [for us] it's not about sexual orientation, but gender identity. I also think that a lot of the issues that folks seem to have with gays and lesbians, particularly when kids are bullied, are about gender. It's about someone assigned male at birth not acting the way a boy should act. So much of it comes down to gender and this fear of femininity in our culture. Julia Serano talks about this so brilliantly, even in the history of feminist theory, femininity has been presented as something that's artificial and masculinity is something that's authentic, and even in a lot of feminist discourse until recently, femininity was seen as something that was artificial and fake. So there is this fear of feminine that we see in a lot of different aspects of culture that is punished. That's a part of patriarchy. In a lot of ways we can't talk about homophobia and transphobia, without talking about patriarchy.
I think people also latched onto your character because Sophia's biographical episode occurs so early in the season.
That episode had the extra layer of Jodie Foster directing it. I had a little bit of anxiety-slash-panic. Jodie's been a mega-star like her entire life basically, so she's really good at putting people at ease. We just got into the scene as actors and I disconnected from Jodie Foster, superstar, you know? [Imitates Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter] "Clarice." I never said that to her, but I wanted to. I was excited and I felt like I had been waiting, professionally, to have a role like this that gets to have this really complex, layered character. I wanted to kill it.
I think you did.
Thank you. I've been training, I've worked, I have had amazing teachers. Brad Calcaterra is my current acting coach. I've been with him for about three years and he's just opened me up in a different way. He teaches this class specifically for LGBT actors called Act Out. That class has really helped me deal with a lot of this internalized trans-phobia that I've been talking about, a lot about my internalized shame and stuff. And using it in a way to bring to the work. I'm just hoping I can get to keep working as an actor. I think there is always the question—can I transcend the trans thing?
Do you worry about being typecast?
There are other things to worry about. My worry is that I won't be working at all. The bar is set so high with this. I feel spoiled in a way. After Dorothy Dandridge did Carmen Jones, she was offered to play a slave in something, and she was not going to play a slave. She wasn't working for a while. Am I going to have to play a hooker again?
Depends on the hooker. I've always said that. The last hooker I played was in this independent film called Carla, and she was really interesting.
Was it challenging at all to be topless on screen in Orange?
It was weird. I talked to my agent, I talked to my acting coach and they were like, "Look at the quality." It's Jenji Kohan. Look at the context of it — it's not salacious.
As one of the few people who are trans in the public eye do you ever feel invaded? I've asked you very personal questions, and I love how open you are...
There are some things I don't talk about.
What don't you talk about? Can you talk about that?
I love you. [Laughter] There you go. I feel a lot of pressure sometimes. It's just feeling the pressure of, can I say this? Can I not say certain things because I'm representing an entire community? And I've felt that pressure from the beginning, since I Want To Work for Diddy. There are not a lot of us out there and I don't want to give the wrong impression about who we are as people. I just have to be myself. I'm not perfect and I'm going to make mistakes, I might say the wrong thing. I have to responsible to my community and I feel like I am, but then I have to not be so hard on myself. That's really where it comes from.