On the red carpet, there’s an unspoken hierarchy that becomes glaringly obvious upon hearing the decibel level that photographers reach while shrieking for an actor to “look here!” or serve up an “over the shoulder!” At Elle’s Women in Television event on Jan. 22, the most hollered-for woman on the red carpet turned out to be none other than Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox.
Given the popularity of the Netflix prison drama, where she plays transgender inmate Sophia Burset, and her recent headline prominence — an inappropriate line of questioning about the transgender community from Katie Couric led Cox and Carmen Carrera to deliver a series of the classiest and most intelligent verbal shutdowns ever — it’s understandable that a photo of Cox is suddenly in demand.
The importance of this cultural shift should not be taken lightly. In fact, Cox believes it’s very tangible proof of societal evolution. “I’ve always dreamed that, through my work, I would be able to change the culture in how trans people are seen and talked about,” Cox told BuzzFeed after the screaming subsided. “We still have a long way to go, but it’s a dream come true for me to see change actually happening before my eyes.”
And while Couric’s widely criticized interview may have seemed like a very public setback, Cox insists it was anything but: “After that aired, the response was amazing. I realized there had never been a conversation like that on daytime TV despite how often trans people appear on daytime TV. It felt really special, and it was very exciting to see the community respond so well to the moment.”
Cox’s impact is particularly noticeable in what’s traditionally considered the mainstream, as she notes that people of every ilk have started approaching her regularly. “About a month or so after the show, I started being recognized a lot and that shifted things,” she said.
“I’m a New Yorker; I walk down the street with my New York armor on, so when people recognize me and touch me, it feels overwhelming because I’m not used to it. Normally, when people touch you on the streets of New York, the reaction is, ‘Do I have to call the police? Are we gonna fight?’ The idea of being able to fully receive love is very difficult, honestly. It’s an adjustment, but I’m so grateful for everything.”
If Cox had even any inkling that OITNB could bring her this level of popularity, we might not be here today. “I’d have totally freaked out and blown the audition,” she said, chuckling.
With her Season 2 role already wrapped (the show concludes filming on Jan. 24), Cox began to vibrate with excitement when teasing what’s to come for Sophia this season. “I got to do things as an actor I’ve never done before, I got to do things with character I never got to do before, and there are some wonderful moments that I was hoping I would get to do that I did happen.”
Cox — perhaps adhering to the strict prison code of “snitches get stitches” — is understandably wary of actually revealing storylines, so we won’t know for some time if she’s referring to an elaborate flashback focusing on Sophia’s transition or a deeper look at Sophia’s relationship with her estranged son. (Although both are likely.)
One of the developments Cox could talk about was the addition of Lorraine Toussaint as new inmate Vee, an incarcerated kingpin who used children as drug runners. “Everything about that storyline is so good,” said Cox.
“It’s just so juicy and delicious and unexpected. I was in ADR [a post-production process where actors re-record their lines] on Monday and saw some scenes that made me gag. Honestly, you’re going to be gagging! Everything is shifting this season, and alliances are changing, and it’s going to be interesting to see if the characters you fell in love with during Season 1 are still the characters you love at the end of Season 2.”