Entertainment

06.06.14

‘OITNB’ Transgender Star Laverne Cox’s Unbelievable Year

Litchfield Prison has been good to Laverne Cox. The unexpected breakout star of ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is collecting awards and covers as the face of the transgender movement.

It’s been a whirlwind year for Laverne Cox, the unexpected breakout star of the Netflix smash hit Orange Is the New Black. In case you’ve lived under a rock for the last 11 months, the show follows an ensemble of strong female characters living in a fictional prison in Litchfield, Connecticut, and Cox plays Sophia Burset, a transwoman in jail for credit card fraud. In the first season, we watched as Sophia used her people (and hair) skills to find a place for herself among the inmates, while simultaneously trying to save her relationship with her wife and young son on the outside.

With the second season premiering on Netflix Friday, Cox’s career shows no sign of slowing any time soon. In fact, she’s already won too many awards and accolades to list, though when asked to name a favorite, she responds instantly.

“Well, being on the cover of Time is pretty great,” she says, laughing. It’s only been 24 hours since the issue of Time with her face beaming next to the words “The Transgender Tipping Point” hit the newsstands, and in two hours she’s headed to her own birthday/magazine release party. Yet on the phone she is calm and confident, mentioning how she enjoyed our last interview (which was nearly a year ago) and complimenting me on another piece I’d written recently.

The social justice activist in Cox is excited to have Time as a platform from which to talk about the pressing issues facing transgender people, especially transwomen of color. But she’s also an actress who is serious about her craft, so the other award close to her heart, she says, is her recent nomination for a Critic’s Choice Award from the Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

Although she knew right away that Orange Is the New Black would be a fantastic show, Cox says that there was no one moment when she realized the huge success the show—or she herself—would become. “This is something I’ve been hoping for since I was a kid, so I’m not going to lie and say it was entirely unexpected,” she admits. “But you never really think it’ll happen. I’m still not prepared.”

Cox is quick to point out that many other transwomen are helping to break down the doors she’s walking through, and our conversation is peppered with their names: Janet Mock, Isis King, Carmen Carrera. “Transwomen taking care of each other is revolutionary,” she tells me. “We have to support each other.”

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Paul Schiraldi

Despite her sudden celebrity, Cox is still firmly rooted in her community, and she maintains a sense of humility about her own success. “I know this is not just me,” she says, “it’s something manifesting through me.”

That may be so, and Time may be right that we’re at a tipping point, a moment of inevitable change that will only speed up from here. Indeed, Cox tells me that just in the last week she’s heard from two other trans actors who have landed significant parts playing transgender characters, something that was virtually unheard of when I interviewed her last year. Yet even then, Cox predicted it was coming, telling me “I believe in the creatives. When the creatives begin to do it, the casting directors will come along.”

“This is something I’ve been hoping for since I was a kid, so I’m not going to lie and say it was entirely unexpected,” she admits. “But you never really think it’ll happen. I’m still not prepared.”

But it would be shortsighted to pin Cox’s success solely on societal change. It is her dedication, honesty, and skill that have made her one of the most prominent voices of today’s transgender movement. No matter how successful she becomes, Cox is determined to give back to the community that supports and nurtures her, and especially to help those for whom “the tipping point” still feels a lot like the status quo. She hopes to use her visibility to help young women like Jane Doe, the 16-year-old transgender girl who has been held in an adult prison in Connecticut without charges since April.

When she’s not filming Orange Is the New Black or prepping for one of her many speaking engagements, Cox is working on two exciting upcoming projects. The first, Free CeCe, is a feature-length documentary about CeCe McDonald, a transgender African-American woman from Minnesota who was sent to a men’s prison after suffering a racist, transphobic street attack. McDonald is now free, and the project is working to raise approximately $500,000 to support production. Cox hopes it will be released in early 2016.

Cox is also an executive producer on Trans Teen, a one-hour documentary co-created for Logo and MTV. The doc, which follows the lives of four transgender teenagers, will air simultaneously on both networks in the fall.

As for Orange Is the New Black, Cox promises we’re in for some excitement this season. “Power dynamics really shift and get shook up by Vee,” she says, a new character joining the cast, who has been sent to Litchfield for recruiting children to traffic drugs. But to find out what happens with Sophia, Cox says, we’ll just have to watch.