“I hate the term role model,” announces Laverne Cox shortly after entering the swish Paris hotel room where our interview takes place. “It’s presumptuous to think that anyone should model their life after you, but I do like the term possibility model.” Almost two months after the very public unveiling of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, Laverne Cox may not be the best-known transgender trailblazer in the world, but she remains the most famous transgender actress.
The breakout star of Netflix’s cult hit Orange is the New Black, Cox plays Sophia, a transgender woman in prison for committing credit-card fraud to fund her gender-reassignment surgery. “It’s just changed my life completely,” she says of the show. “When I booked the job [in late 2012], I was in rent arrears. I’d got an eviction notice earlier that year and had to go to housing court for the second time in my life to keep from being evicted from my apartment. I was basically nine months behind on rent.”
The role has changed more than just Cox’s life. When, a year before Jenner’s shoot for Vanity Fair, Cox became the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy Award, Time magazine put her on its cover alongside the headline, “The Transgender Tipping Point”.
Newspapers and magazines have since devoted countless column inches to transgender issues while TV and film appears equally fascinated, from the Emmy buzz surrounding Transparent, Amazon’s series about a father (played by Jeffrey Tambor) coming out as trans to his three adult children, to the announcement that Eddie Redmayne’s next role would be as transgender painter Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl (released later this year). And in a very British twist, Frank Maloney, the gravel-voiced boxing promoter who guided Lennox Lewis to his 1993 world heavyweight title, disclosed that he was undergoing gender-reassignment surgery and would now live as a woman called Kellie before going on to appear on Celebrity Big Brother.
But, as the Time cover implied, if any one person was responsible for triggering this shift in popular culture’s understanding of the transgender community, it was Cox.
Orange is the New Black, set in a women’s prison, was one of Netflix’s first forays into original productions. Cox’s character is particularly nuanced. The actress says she feels a kinship with Sophia, who has been through some of the same struggles as her. “Her emotions are my emotions,” she says. Sophia’s walk, the way she talks, “Those are character things, but the emotional life has to be my own, it has to be deeply personal.”
Cox has certainly come a long way from her childhood in Mobile, Alabama, where she was bullied for being overly feminine. “The gender thing was just something that I was really defiant with as a kid. I knew I wasn’t like everybody else and I needed to assert that.”
She found her niche by being an “intelligent, articulate, smart kid”. Vice-president of her student council, she had a knack for public speaking that’s carried her into adulthood and she now tours the US making passionate speeches in support of trans equality.
She finally came out when she moved to New York to pursue acting. “My hopes and dreams are what kept me going as a kid. I would say, ‘I’m going to be rich and famous and show you all.’ It was kind of a childish thing to say, and now as an adult I’m not quite rich, but things have turned out pretty well so far.”
Pretty well is something of an understatement. These days Cox is as much an activist as she is an actress. “When I asked my brother [M Lamar, who co-stars in OITNB as Sophia pre-transition] if I should be political as an actress, he said, ‘What’s the point of being famous if you can’t use it for something that matters?’ That’s the approach I’ve tried to take with it.”