“I’ve literally played a prostitute about seven times,” actress Laverne Cox says, and her reel confirms it. From Law & Order to Bored to Death, it’s easy to see that Cox, a black transsexual woman, has come up against some disturbing typecasting, a fact she’s quick to point out. “In reality, yes, trans women do sex work, but the problem is that we don’t all do sex work. There are trans women who are doctors, and lawyers, and nurses, and mothers, and sisters, and convicts.”
That last mention isn’t happenstance. Cox, a former reality star (I Want to Work for Diddy), has a breakout role in the new original Nexflix dramedy Orange Is the New Black, from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. The highly anticipated show, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, is set in a women’s prison and was renewed for a second season before it even premiered.
Cox, who shares an acting coach with Nicole Kidman, plays Sophia, a trans woman who, pre-transition, was a firefighter. In the third episode, guest-directed by Jodie Foster, we learn about her complicated relationship with her wife and son. “I don’t know of a trans character on television played by a trans person that has as much humanity as this character,” Cox says. It’s true. Generally, trans folks are portrayed as tragic or heroic, but Sophia is multidimensional and complex, part hard-won confidence, part sweet underbelly.
In one flashback scene, we see Sophia’s wife help her into a dress early on in her transition, and the pained tenderness when they kiss is palpable (Cox says Foster was so moved by the scene that she came out behind the camera with tears in her eyes). Later, when Sophia is cut off estrogen in prison for bullshit bureaucratic reasons, her panic — over not only the hair appearing on her chin, but also the serious medical issue of not having any hormone production in her body — is a nuanced portrayal of a pretty universal fear for trans people who take hormones, but one rarely discussed outside our communities.
We also see Sophia get misgendered — a lot, sometimes pointedly by the inmates, and sometimes by confused salesclerks in the flashback scenes. Cox put a lot of heart into those moments. “It’s not unusual for me to walk down the street and have someone yell, ‘That’s a man,’” she says. “I transitioned 15 years ago, I’ve gotten a pretty thick skin, but there’s a part that just hurts. If someone looks at me and doesn’t see me, it’s hurtful. As an actor I can actually experience the hurt of it, that’s why acting is so healing for me.”
Still, Cox knew that Orange could go either way when she heard that the role was for a trans inmate. Choosing parts can be a minefield for any working actor, but add racism and transphobia to the mix, and there’s a lot to navigate. Cox’s policy is to “read with skepticism,” always looking for roles that allow her to express a woman’s humanity, not be a cardboard stand-in for society’s worst projections. Though she’s not a doctor or lawyer on Orange, she is a mother, a wife, and a friend — and her struggles are depicted with the same compassionate light as the rest of the cast, including the WASP-y main character, who’s juggling her imprisoned ex-girlfriend and frustrated fiancée; the soured mother/daughter relationship between inmates Dayanara and Aleida; and the heartbreaking truth behind former human trafficker Miss Claudette’s murder rap.
Cox, who is also an activist, knows trans women, especially trans women of color, are targeted for imprisonment and face a myriad of dangers and barriers once incarcerated. She got the script for Orange in the middle of researching the trans female prison experience and amidst plans to meet with CeCe McDonald, the trans woman in prison (many feel unjustly) in Minnesota for stabbing a man who attacked her (the meeting was for a show that lost funding, so it never took place). “I was just like, it feels right,” she says of her choice to take the role. “I’m really happy with where it went.”
Still, she says, it can be hard to be one woman representing an entire community, especially when since the array of roles humanizing trans lives on television are limited, at least currently, to the one she’s playing. “It’s really about having more writers, and directors, and producers having the courage to tell trans stories,” she says. “I went to L.A. Trans Pride last weekend and I talked a lot about the pressure, because there’s not a lot of trans women on TV acting and not a lot trans women of color,” she says. “I know I’m going to disappoint people, that people are going to want more from me, and I have to do the best that I can.”
But Orange has also positioned Cox to be the nation’s very first famous trans actress, beamed into living rooms across the country. For some viewers, she’ll be the first trans person they see, and for others, her very presence will resonate as profound. “I met a woman on Saturday who said, ‘Because of trans women like you, [model] Isis King, and [advocate] Janet Mock, I decided not to do sex work and I’m in school, and have a job now, and I’m living my dream,’” she says. “There’s going to be criticism of me, but if that can happen, if I can change one person’s life because of the work that I do, then that’s something.”