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Sitting Down With Orange is the New Black Star Laverne Cox

Michelle Douvris  and Sara Chaffee ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff

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Laverne Cox, star of the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black and advocate for the transgender community, recently traveled to Boston to kick off Emerson College’s first Transgender Awareness Week. Emertainment Monthly had the privilege of sitting down with her before her presentation for a roundtable interview where she discussed being a Trans actress, the ways that Orange is the New Black is refining television, her favorite on-set moment, and more.

Can you talk a little bit about the hybridity of fiction and nonfiction on Orange is the New Black and how it has affected your experience on the show?

Well I didn’t write the show so obviously Jenji [Kohan] can speak better to the fiction/non-fiction thing. But, the show is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir and there are some things that Jenji draws directly from it. However, she says that we’re more inspired by the memoir rather than strictly following it. My character is Sophia on the show but she’s Vanessa in the book, and she is a Trans woman who is also African-American and she’s incarcerated with Piper. Piper has told me a little bit about their interactions; apparently she had a lot of suitors, male suitors actually, that she would often talk about and that’s very different from Sophia. Sophia is in a relationship with a woman and she has this firefighter background. So I can’t necessarily speak to this truth vs. fiction stuff except for the fact that some of it is taken from Piper Kerman’s real-life experiences and some of it comes from the writers’ imaginations.

What are some things that you experienced in your own life that you brought into the series?

For me as an actor it’s always my emotional life that I bring to the character. For Sophia, she has a lot of feelings of guilt around leaving her family, and some shame and a sense of obligation. There’s also the piece when Sophia decided that she needed to transition and did whatever it took to get there. Obviously, the credit card fraud thing was not legal. I never broke the law to finance my transition. But we do have in common the fact that once we decided this is who we are, we did whatever we needed to do to make that happen. And she’s just a good listener. I’d like to think I’m a good listener, too. And I think a part of being a hair stylist is listening to people’s problems and sort of counseling them, and that’s an element of Sophia’s character that we see in the first season.

Why do you think it’s important to have an actual Trans woman playing a Trans character?

You know, I’ve gotten that question a lot, and I think the biggest piece is for the audience. If the character is written like the way Sophia is written, as a multi-dimensional character who the audience can really empathize with, all of the sudden they’re empathizing with a real Trans person. And for Trans folks out there, who need to see representations of people who are like them and of their experiences, that’s when it becomes really important. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten from Trans folks on social media and through my website saying how validating it is for them to see themselves on television represented in ways that they can really relate to.

As you know, Orange is the New Black is really leading the path for queer representation on television right now. What does it mean for you to be a part of a show that is changing the landscape?

It’s crazy. It’s crazy, and it’s an honor, and I’m really just excited to be a vessel for Sophia’s story. Our show is groundbreaking on so many different levels. I’ve been acting for a really long time and this is sort of my breakout acting moment, and I needed to have a show that was on Netflix, that was completely changing the way that people are watching TV, and basically ushering in a new system… I always sort of felt that the system needed to change in order to make room for me and Orange is the New Black in many ways is changing the system of how to watch TV and who’s on television. There’s never really been a show that has so many different kinds of women, so many races, backgrounds, and body types, and ages. So that kind of diversity, too, is really exciting to be a part of, and to have these stories being told in ways that let us really connect with these characters. It’s really cool and it’s a great job to have as an actor. I didn’t know it was going to be this successful. When I was doing it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is really cool!’ And the fact that folks have just responded so beautifully to it has been such a treat.

Struggling in her relationships with her wife and son, Sophia doesn’t have much family support. How do you feel or relate to her as a Trans woman when you came out to your family and friends?

What I love most about Sophia’s story is her family story. I think that it is so profoundly human, and I love working with Tanya Wright who plays my wife. All the scenes I’ve done with her have been such a joy as an actor. For me, I’ve trained to have these really connected, intimate moments with other actors and the writers have written so much of that. And my son Michael, he’s such a great young actor–he was in The Butler, too–and for me the family piece is so complicated. Families are so layered and our writers don’t shy away from how complicated Sophia’s family life is and how she sort of longs to repair that. For me, it’s an honor to play in all of those scenes and to work with Tanya. She’s a goddess.

What made you want to become an actress?

Well, I’ve always performed. I’ve always been a person who has needed to perform. I started as a dancer, and I’ve always loved to express character through movement, so acting is something that I knew I would transition into later. It’s just something I’ve always done, something I’ve always wanted to do, and the thing I love to do most. It’s a rough road, being an actor, for anyone- and particularly for a Trans woman. For many years I’ve wondered if I would be able to have a sustainable career as an actress. I think actors at every level though wonder if they’re ever going to work again. (laughs) But we are shooting Season 2 so I am currently working!

I’ve read that all of you go on a lot of cast outings together. Can you talk a little about that?

I missed a lot of them. There was a haunted house that everybody did, but I couldn’t do it. I would probably have a heart attack. So I missed that one. But everyone is so great. We’re all so grateful and I love that we have some young actors who are fresh out of school–Danielle Brooks (Taystee) just graduated from Juilliard two years ago, and now she’s a series regular on a hit show. And we have Kate Mulgrew (Red), who is this veteran… It’s a really amazing group and I’ve learned a lot working with them.

Do you have any fun stories that you can share from the set?

Oh gosh, I don’t want to give stuff away. Is there anything not plot-related? Well the biggest behind-the-scenes moment for me happened on my first day on the show. I showed up on set and was like, ‘I wonder what they have at Craft Services’ and this woman comes up to me and says, ‘Hi, I’m Jodie! I’m directing Episode 3.’ It was Jodie Foster and I had no idea that she would be there. I shook her hand and she goes, ‘It’s your first day, right? Let me show you around.’ And Jodie Foster begins to show me around the set. I was completely freaking out but trying my best to stay calm. And then she started asking me all these questions about myself, and she gave me her headphones so I could listen to what was going on, and it felt like this completely surreal thing. I told her I was going to go get ready and as soon as I got back to my dressing room I realized I was shaking. I love her, and I’ve admired her work for a really long time. So that moment on set for me was just completely unexpected and it’s going to be hard for me to top that. It really was surreal. I hate saying that word because it’s so misused… It was a Salvador Dali painting. (laughs) This is what actors dream about.

Is there anything you can tell us about Season 2?

Nope! (laughs) Sorry. I’m having a really good time. I’m having a blast and I think there’s some really juicy stuff that happens. I’ll be reading the scripts and I’m like ‘Ooooh!’ It’s going to be really, really good. I can’t wait for everybody to see it.

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