Laverne Cox addresses the attendees the GLAAD Media Awards at the Hilton San Francisco on May 11, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by John Medina/WireImage, via Flickr.)
In her groundbreaking role on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox portrays Sophia Burset, a nuanced and empathetic transgender character in prison for credit card fraud. For those of you who still haven’t seen the show—shame on you, since it’s all available on Netflix—I won’t spoil the fun. But Burset’s backstory is more complicated than you might think. Her predicament in prison, as well as her relationship with her wife and son on the outside, both offer a few unexpected plot twists.
Cox signs her emails with “Stay in the love.” I asked her why. About a decade ago, one of her colleagues in acting class asked: If your only option was doing dinner theater in Podunk, Idaho, would you do it? “If the answer is no, you should not be an actor, and that’s true,” said Cox. “So, I started signing emails to my other actor friends who were struggling with ‘stay in the love.’ It started out being written to my colleagues and friends to remind them to stay in the love.”
Despite the outpouring of mainstream praise for Orange Is the New Black, commentary has not been universally positive. Critics have called attention to racist tropes, pointing out that the show’s protagonist, Piper Chapman (a fictionalized Piper Kerman, author of a memoir on which the show is based) is a white woman relaying the stories of incarcerated women of color. And the show often forgoes a strong critique of the prison-industrial system, referring instead to the “bad choices” landing women behind bars.
Nevertheless, Cox’s specific performance has a depth and realism that shines through. As one of the first transgender actors to play a transgender character in a regular series, Cox recognizes the spotlight that’s shining on her. Sophia Burset is not portrayed as a victim of her circumstances; she empowers fellow inmates with real talk or a sympathetic ear. Cox spoke with me recently about the role and the critical issues facing transgender people; and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
First, congratulations on this role. Have you received a positive reaction from the transgender community?
Thank you. I have, I really have! You never know how people will respond or what they will say. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been focusing on positive stuff. I don’t read comments anymore on interviews. If there are negative things, I’m shielding myself from that.
What role does pop culture play in opening minds? Is your character a new threshold for the portrayal of transgender people?
It’s great to receive blog posts and tweets from people saying they had negative ideas about transgender people, but because of this character, their views have changed. Just seeing that once is a moving thing, but I’ve seen it several times! It’s wonderful and powerful. It’s my hope that as minds begin to change because of this character—that we begin to see other trans characters played by trans actors on television and in films. There were no major trans characters in any films released by the big studios in 2012. Obviously, there were independent films—Musical Chairs is one, I just won Best Supporting Actress for that role at the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival. How do we tell stories that reflect the full tapestry of the American experience in terms of different races, gender identities and sexual orientations?