In 2014, Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to be nominated for a primetime acting Emmy for her work on Orange Is the New Black. Cox was not only the face of the transgender tipping point, she helped humanize trans folks through her dynamic performance as Sophia Burset.
In the final season of Orange, which premiered this summer, Sophia was largely absent — something Cox said was mostly due to a scheduling issue — but did make a final, triumphant appearance as the new owner of her own salon (thanks to a prison settlement). While many of Orange Is the New Black’s characters had tragic endings, something the creators felt was necessary to illustrate the many ways the correctional system ruins lives rather than rehabilitating them, Sophia was one of the few who was gifted with a happy ending, something all too rare for trans women of color in the real world.
Out spoke with Cox about her most recent Emmy nomination (she’s had three total), the end of Orange, and what it means that this year’s Emmys are the queerest ever.
Congratulations on your nomination! What’s the significance of it coinciding with the final season of Orange Is the New Black?
It just feels so special, and it feels like a celebration I think we've all been — me and my castmates on Orange — have just been in this celebration mode. It's a little bit of mourning, but it's just such a celebration of what we've accomplished over the seven seasons … what our show has been and meant to so many of us, how it's changed all of our lives.
When I booked Orange Is the New Black, I wanted to give up acting. I turned 40 and I was in debt. I had back rent. I was in danger of losing my apartment. I was like, "I need to go to grad school and make some money and get a real career. This acting thing is ridiculous, I need to let it go" And then Orange happened and my life is completely different than it was. I've been very reflective about the seven years and it just feels ... I'm so honored, as the only nominee from our show this year to just carry the banner. Over a hundred million people have seen at least one episode of Orange Is The New Black. Cindy Holland told us that statistic at the premier of Orange.
How do you feel about the way Sophia's story ended?
When I read it, I thought after everything that she's been through, after just the hell, if felt very beautiful and hopeful. A lot of fans have been tweeting and DMing and commenting saying that they love seeing her in this last season and everyone seems happy. For most of what I've seen, everyone seems happy with her story line and with the way the show is ending, or has ended and that just feels really great. I think it was really great that folks could see something happy and positive for Sophia after the hell hole, the hell that she went through while incarcerated.
Right, not every character got a happy ending, which is a reflection of the way the prison system actually works. But, I do think there was something powerful in your character ending on a positive note. Was important for that to be the way her story wrapped up?
For me it's always been bigger than a show because we deal with so many issues that are pertinent to the political landscape, the social landscape beyond our show. It was really just about being true to the story. We know that Sophia was released early from prison, got this settlement and that's that. Then I guess she could have blown all the money on something weird. What I love about Sophia is how deeply flawed she is. But, ultimately when she finally had a chance to do something for her family, particularly her son, that's what she was going to do. The only reason she was in prison is because she needed to finance her transition, and she wanted to be true to who she was. So, once she got an opportunity, it felt true to her character that she would do what she had to do to be true to who she was and to be there for her family. It just made sense in terms of Sophia's character beyond a bigger political message around her trans identity.
What has been the most challenging part of playing Sophia and what's been the most rewarding part of it?
The rewarding part is so easy. My life is so different now that we've gone on to touch people all over the world, that trans folks have transitioned and come out to friends and family as trans, and pursue careers as an actress when they didn't think it was possible before. Just beautiful, beautiful stuff of folks who have just been so inspired by Sophia, by our show.
But on an emotional level. When Sophia was in solitary, I remember just being like, "I need help on this." I almost always work with my acting coaches — I have Brad Calcaterra and I'm working with Kimberly Harrity in Los Angeles now — but for most of Orange I prepped on my own. Except for season four. I called Brad and I think he was in New York and I was like, "I need help on this." I'd been doing all this research on folks in solitary and the psychological and emotional effects of solitary confinement on people. And I was like, “I want to honor this story." Because I believe solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, which is a violation of the eighth amendment. So I was like, "We gotta get this right." We worked very meticulously and specifically on finding behavior that would reflect the inner interior life that Sophia had. The loss of time that happens when you don't have contact with any other human beings.
It was really challenging to try to not go too far, to not overdo it and not under do it and just to get the right kind of tone for all of that. So Brad was so great in helping me find that, and it was so validating that we got our second Emmy nomination for that.
What did playing Sophia teach you about yourself? What did you learn from her?
So much of it has been about my acting process. It's been interesting going and having some success, going and doing other things and then just not being successful. Or you know, famously having [2017 CBS show Doubt] be canceled after two episodes, which was pretty devastating honestly. Having Sophia to come back to, which is such a gift from Netflix and from Orange that they always want to have me back, was really beautiful. That just means so much to me, because a career as an actor is not ever really guaranteed. I think I've just been aware of that over and over again.
So getting to come back to this woman who is just so resilient and has been broken, but has been able to build herself back up, and is able to find ways to be resilient when she's just lost everything. And she's always able to find a little something to make herself feel better or to reaffirm her own humanity. So many of the characters on Orange have done that. We have historically deeply dehumanized people who are incarcerated, and Orange Is the New Black has fully humanized people who are incarcerated. And I think that is certainly the case with Sophia. That's what she teaches me and reminds me of. No matter how low you have been pushed, you can still maintain a sense of your own dignity and humanity.
Since your first Emmy nomination, the landscape of TV has changed so much. This year queer and trans people are arguably the most represented we've ever been at the Emmys with Pose’s nominations. What does it feel like to be in that moment and to have led that charge? What do you hope for the future of queer and trans representation in TV?
I'm so proud of all of my friends on Pose, I've been friends with Mj Rodriguez for what feels like 10 years. I've known Our Lady J for 10 years. I've known Janet for nine years. I’ve known Anjelica Ross for years. It's so freaking beautiful to see dear friends of mine making this incredible television that it's so groundbreaking on so many levels and I'm just so happy for them.
They're changing the game in a way that it's the next step right through. This feels like progress. On Orange we had one trans character. Pose has [multiple] series regulars who are trans, but then all the trans folks who are day players and guest stars and who are working behind the scenes. My dear makeup artists, my friend and makeup artist, Dasia Smith is nominated for an Emmy. She is an openly trans black woman who was nominated for an Emmy for her beautiful makeup, along with the rest of the makeup department on Pose. It's just so beautiful. I'm very disappointed that I'm still the only trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy. I thought sure that with some breakout performances on Pose that I would no longer be the only one.
But I'm just so proud of them, I'm proud of Hari Nef, who plays a character that's not trans on You. I'm proud of Asia Kate Dillon, and that brilliant work that they do on Billions. I'm proud of my friend Brian Michael, who's going to be on the new season of the L Word. And oh my God, Hunter Shafer on Euphoria. The way in which her transness is handled, it's groundbreaking and it's new. I'm very excited that I've gotten to live this long to see this representation on television. Is there more representation that needs to be had and more stories that need to be told? Absolutely. But I think we can celebrate the progress we've made also, like pushing for more change, for more stories, for more representation at the same time.
I was in London a few weeks ago and had brunch with Our Lady J. And I was like, "We are both Emmy nominated." It's so awesome. And I was like, "There are going to be so many trans people at the Emmys this year." Even though I'm disappointed that I'm still the only trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy, we are going to storm the red carpet. It's going to be epic and amazing and I'm just so excited about that.
I do wanna say though, what is it gonna take for the glass ceiling of a trans person to win an acting Emmy? And then for us to be nominated in other categories. And lead actress in a drama, what's that going to look like? Especially when there's so much great work being done on television right now. Will it be a Hunter Shaffer or will it be Mj Rodriguez, or Indya Moore, or Angelica Ross, who are all brilliant performers. This year, Emmy voters could give me an Emmy and break the glass ceiling, that would be amazing. Then it’s not only opening the door, but keeping it open so that more of us can come through and do this thing.
And before we go, when are we getting another iconic TMZ video of you and Angelica Ross?
[Laughs] I don't know. It was so random. We were just leaving the club. I was like, "Hey, let's go out." And the TMZ’s there, and I don't always talk to them. I don't know. If Nick and Angelica are in town and we hang out and TMZ are there, who knows? I have no idea.
Y’all need a show. That was so major.
I would love to work with Angelica. Oh my God, that would be so great. How brilliant is she? We've been friends forever, but it's just the wonderful seeing your friends who are insanely talented, have these moments on television. And she's got two shows now like work gir,l work. I just adore her and she is so talented. I would love to do something with Angelica, for sure. That TMZ video, lord. I don't know. I love that you love that.