Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, the television writers and maried power couple responsible for bringing countless of your favorite Grey’s Anatomy episodes to life, are looking forward to the premiere of their latest project — CBS courtroom drama series Doubt.
After leaving Shondaland for a two-year deal with CBS, Doubt will be their most personal creative endeavor yet. The series stars Katherine Heigl (in her first TV gig since NBC’s State of Affairs in 2014) as Sadie Ellis, a young attorney at a small firm who starts to fall for her client — a very handsome pediatric surgeon accused of murdering his teenage girlfriend.
Laverne Cox rounds out the cast as Cameron Wirth — an Ivy League-educated lawyer who also happens to be trans. This will make Cox the first trans actor to portray a trans character on a broadcast-network series. The decision to cast Cox was an easy one for the showrunners — she’s a talented and versatile actor. But, the decision to include a trans storyline came in part from their own personal life. Around the time Phelan and Rater were putting the show together, their own teenage son and actor, Tom Phelan (The Fosters) came out as trans.
BuzzFeed News spoke with Phelan and Rater about how their son’s coming out influenced their work, the surprising way in which Cox landed the role, and what we can all expect from her character in Season One. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Although the character of Cam was written with Cox in mind, the showrunners assumed she wouldn’t be available for the part because she would be busy filming the upcoming season of Orange Is the New Black.
“We wrote the character with Cox in mind; we were huge fans,” explained Rater. “But we also wrote it with the understanding that she was unavailable — she was on another show. So, we were prepared to do a search for another actor.”
“When CBS gave us the go-ahead to shoot the pilot, the script was sent out to all the agencies and Laverne’s manager called us within twenty-four hours,” said Phelan. “She said, ‘This is Laverne’s part. She wants to do it. She’s going to fly herself to LA and audition for you.”
2. Not only did Cox fly herself out to LA for the audition, she totally nailed it.
“She came in and the audition part was a page and a half of dialogue, court arguments,” said Rater. “She had it down cold. It was one of those auditions where you have to say, ‘OK, the part is yours.’
To their surprise, at the end of her audition Cox also asked about their son. “At the very end of the meeting, she’s walking out the door, and she turns and asks, ‘Are you guys Tom Phelan’s parents?’”
“Tom liked hearing about that,” said Rater.
3. The showrunners wanted Cox’s character to have her transition mostly behind her, so that her character’s storyline could go beyond her trans identity and reflect her full, multi-faceted life — something rarely afforded to most trans characters.
“Right around the time we were coming up with the show, maybe a year before that, our son — at age 16 — had come out as transgender. So gender and being transgender was very much on our minds and in our life. It just felt natural,” Rater said of including a trans character in the series.
“You start looking around — because it is in our lives — you ask yourself: ‘OK, how is this being represented in the mainstream media now?’ How do I want it to be represented in the mainstream media?’ That was really important in our decision to portray Cam, Laverne’s character, as this very successful, very well educated, incredibly smart, passionate woman whose transition is behind her and whose identity as a trans person is very important to her, but is not the thing that she leads with — especially in her work world. For her coworkers, it’s just accepted, it’s who she is. We feel like that’s something America hasn’t really seen.”
4. Working through the experience of understanding their own son’s experience made Phelan and Rater stronger parents, but also made them more conscious writers.
“Just having Tom in our lives has opened us up in ways that were uncomfortable at first, but it has made us happier and closer as a family,” she continued. “It has been a great thing for our family, made us closer because it was so hard at first. For both Tom and our family, grappling with having a young child who didn’t feel right about himself. There was something wrong and that was sad, it was hard for him.”
“But seeing someone start to live as themselves is pretty powerful,” added Phelan.
“He is trans and he had come out as trans, but he was still the same person and we didn’t sit around the house and talk about gender a lot. It sounds silly, but it was a little bit of a revelation for me,” admitted Rater. “How nothing really changed except that he was becoming more himself and more authentic. He was growing into the person he was.”
Rater went on to state that one of their big goals now is to simply get trans actors working. “Tom auditions for a lot of stuff. He auditions mostly for parts of trans guys and I feel like I want to be able to cast trans people as just people — I just want to get them working more,” she said. “There are so many incredible trans actors and they are seeing it’s a career they can aspire to.”
In a phone interview with BuzzFeed News, Tom said that his parents often ask for his feedback on their work and, in return, he will run lines with them.
“It’s the way we work. They’ll pitch stuff to me, try out a scene on me. I worked at the Doubt office over the summer as a production intern. I got to be in the writers room a little bit and it was incredible to see how they work. We’ve got this relationship where I trust them to be honest with me and they trust me to be 100% honest with them.”
5. By taking on the role, Cox is fulfilling a life-long dream of playing a lawyer on television.
Following her audition, Cox admitted to the showrunners that she’s always wanted to take on the role of a lawyer.
“I can see why. She comes across as really smart and empathetic and passionate,” said Rater. “It was this miracle to us, another casting piece that just made us pinch ourselves.”
6. The showrunners refer to Cox’s storyline this season as one of the “great love stories” of the series:
“Laverne’s story through the season is the great love story of the show. She falls in love with a cis guy who is a prosecutor,” said Phelan.
“Laverne is so charming and the guy, Ben Lawson, who we cast as the love interest— they have amazing chemistry. It was fun to watch their love story emerge. We get to play a lot of themes and conversations that I have not seen on TV,” Rater added.
“A little more of the nitty gritty with a trans woman and a cis guy coming together — as well as the fun, and the excitement, and sexiness.”
Cox described the nerves she felt while filming her very first onscreen love scene, telling Yahoo Style, “It was really scary. It was uncharted territory for me on camera. So much of what goes on with Cameron, I’ve lived. The writers wanted to know about my dating experiences. A lot of that ended up in the script. It felt honest and truthful.”
7. Also: Cox and co-star Dúle Hill (Psych) had a tap-off during filming and here is all the proof you need:
Doubt premieres Feb. 15 at 10 p.m. ET/9 CT on CBS.
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