Exclusive: Laverne Cox on the Not-So-Politically-Correct Frank-N-Furter

Laverne Cox

Steve Wilkie / Fox (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)

When news broke that Laverne Cox had been cast as the iconic Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Fox’s reimagining of the 1975 madcap musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it seemed both surprising and inevitable. “Initially I was like, Should I do this?” she says. “Rocky Horror is so legendary.” Judging by the short promos released on Twitter, featuring Cox in a tight sequin dress and applying a whole lot of magenta lipstick, she made the right call. In anticipation of its premiere on October 20, we talked to Cox about the politics of the film, owning her sexuality on screen, and one particularly memorable pool orgy on set.

Out: When did you first see The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

Laverne Cox: I discovered it when I was a college freshman. When Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter came onto the screen, I was transfixed. I was like, What is this? This is fantastic. At the time, I had a shaved head, I wore makeup almost every day, and I definitely wore lashes every day. I was a dance major, and one of my ballet teachers would comment on my false eyelashes during pliés in class. I was in this very androgynous state, and there was this character who embodied a lot of where I was at the time. It was extremely transformative for me.

Did you have concerns about taking on such a big role?

I’ve never been one to suggest an actor shouldn’t play a role because of their gender or race. All actors are trained to use their own experiences and techniques to become other people. Frank-N-Furter is an alien from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. This is not vérité. It’s a fantasy. 

Some people worry that the gender politics of the film, especially the use of the word “transvestite,” are outdated.

A lot of people have been critical of a transgender woman playing a character who refers to herself as a “transvestite.” But it’s really important to note that in 1975, our understanding of the term transvestite was not the same as today. [Activist] Sylvia Rivera is one of my favorite examples of someone who referred to herself as a “transvestite” in the ’70s. She famously started S.T.A.R. — Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries — with Marsha P. Johnson. These pioneers used the term to further themselves, but we also need to note that, yes, transvestite is an antiquated term. I think it’s possible to have a conversation about how language evolves. We can do that, and we can also enjoy Rocky Horror in 2016. 

Any moments from filming that stand out to you?

In the original film, there’s a pool scene during “Don’t Dream It, Be It.” When we were rehearsing for that, one of the actors — I won’t say who — was like, “Can we make out? Can we go there?” Others were like, “It’s broadcast TV! We can’t be too crazy.” And [director] Kenny Ortega was like, “Let’s do it and see what happens.” So we’re all in a pool, and it was really hot in the room, and everyone’s making out and grabbing and touching. It’s what’s so beautiful about this cast: There was such trust, and everyone was just fearless. I was also pleasantly surprised how well our cast kisses. 

Is this the most sexual role you’ve played?

You know... Yes! Except for the sex workers I played. Before Orange Is the New Black, I played them probably seven different times. But I haven’t had a sex scene until this. We don’t actually see Frank-N-Furter and Rocky consummate, so it’s more of a seduction scene. As a recognizable trans person, it’s a very touchy thing for me, because trans people are often over-sexualized. So many people know them through the sex industry, through pornography. But it was wonderful for me as a trans woman to be so fully and completely in my sexuality. Frank-N-Furter uses sexuality and flirtation as power in a way that’s not always healthy and politically correct, but it’s a great thing to play as an actor. 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show will premiere October 20.

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