The moment Orange Is the New Black really clicked for me was its third episode, which examines the situation of the prison’s sole trans woman inmate, Sophia Burset. In part that’s because the performer who plays her, Laverne Cox, has a wonderfully subtle presence in what, in less skilled hands, might have seemed a character that would be too on the nose. Flavorwire immediately reached out to her to see if she’d talk to us about her role, and she kindly got on the phone with us.
Flavorwire: I really love the show, and I really love your character. Why don’t you tell me a bit about the casting process? How did you get this role?
Laverne Cox: Well, I did it the old-fashioned way: I auditioned for it about a year ago, last August. I was with my agent and he told me about this show that was set in prison and that there was a role for me, and I was like, “Oh!”
I read that you were in the midst of doing a lot of research about prison conditions at the time. Was it for a role, for writing, for advocacy?
I was trying to go to interview this trans woman, CeCe McDonald, who was in a men’s prison, actually, in Minnesota. She was in prison because she was defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack. There’s a beautiful documentary called Cruel and Unusual, which deals with trans folks in prison and health care issues… Trans folks are often placed in men’s facilities, and it’s actually illegal, according to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was implemented about a year ago. So I did some research around the Prison Rape Elimination Act and new conditions for trans women in prison and new issues of safety.
So it was a real stroke of luck that this all came together at the time that you’d been doing this research. I understand that you’ve been involved with trans issues and advocacy for quite awhile. Do you think this specific research played into the way that you formulated the character?
Absolutely. I really don’t believe that there are any accidents in this world.
What’s your take on the politics of casting a trans role? There was a recent debate about this British show, Hit & Miss, that cast Chloë Sevigny as a trans person and she made a few controversial comments afterward. One of the great things about your show is that they actually cast a trans person in the role instead of having a cis actress do the role.
Yeah, you know, that’s a complicated issue, because it’s an actor, and I love other actors and I love being an actor. As an actor, we want to play everything. We want to play a wide range of things, so I understand why actors will want to play trans characters. But as a viewer, as a viewer who’s trans, it is so powerful for me when I see someone trans playing a trans role. When I saw Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money, when I saw Harmony Santana in Gun Hill Road, it was so powerful for me, and it really made me feel like I was still myself. I have a major suspension of disbelief when I see a non-trans actor playing a trans character, and that’s fine having that as a viewer, but it’s so much more fulfilling for me to see a trans person playing a trans character, as an audience member. And I understand the politics of it from the producer’s perspective, too. There’s all kinds of politics in terms of getting projects made. It’s a business. It’s all these intricacies in the business part of it, but I do understand that it’s really powerful for people in the audience to see people like themselves up on the screen, and I’ve gotten so many messages from trans people all over the country who are so moved and excited by seeing someone like them in the show.
And it seems you’re pretty happy about how the portrayal came out. I saw you told another interviewer that you felt like it was the most human portrayal of a trans person that you were aware of. Do you want to elaborate a little on that?
I’ve never seen a trans character played by a trans actor written with this much depth and humanity on television before. I just have never seen it personally, and that’s not to diss anyone. I’ve just never seen — because a lot of times, I think, a trans person is seen with this much depth and humanity, they hire a cis person to play it. So this is really the first time that I’ve seen something that’s played by a trans person written with this much depth and humanity.
I think the flashbacks help a lot. It helps that the character has already transitioned, and when we’re going back into flashbacks, that deepens our understanding of her. Most trans stories seem to go in at the point of transition and then drop the character after.
Oftentimes, you see the surgery narrative in nonfiction representations. And you see it in fiction, too — the surgery narrative, the transition narrative becomes the sum total of who the trans person is. There are exceptions to that — there also is this new tradition of the trans person as sort of tragic and pathetic versus the deceiver. So giving other shades of humanity and depth [to trans people] is something that we don’t often see in fiction. Some movies have done it and there’s some TV shows that have done it, but we don’t see it enough. But I think what most people think of when they think of someone who is transgender, they think of surgery and they think of transition and they don’t think of what our day-to-day lives are like.
Can you talk about what the set was like? I can just imagine all these great actresses partying together on the set.
It was so cool. Everything was just… I don’t know, I feel like all this crazy positive stuff. It really was so unbelievably positive, and there was such great energy and such great love and excitement. Everyone was so professional, and I just felt really fortunate to do the work, because we got to go to some really intense and deep places on the show and we got to also have some levity around it.
I feel like it really comes through in the show. For such heavy subject matter, it seems like you guys are having a good time. Not to say that you’re flippant about the subject matter — you can just sense the cohesiveness of it.
It comes from the top. I believe it comes from Jenji. It comes from the person in charge, so Jenji just set this great tone for everyone. It’s just this great, feel-good environment, and just to have this set and crew filled with women.
Have you been talking to Jenji yet about next season?
I have not spoken to her about next season. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the characters in the second season. This is a show I would definitely be watching if I weren’t in it, and that makes me super excited to be in it, because I’m like, I love us. I really love our show. I can’t wait to find out what they have in store in the second season, because I have no idea.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.