“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.”
When we meet, Cox has just made headlines with her blog about Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover. Although she congratulated Jenner, she was also keen to emphasise that feminine beauty standards can be especially oppressive for trans women. It’s something Cox has struggled with herself.
“Even in good lighting I’m an obviously transgender person – I have a deep voice, I have broad shoulders, I have big hands, I have big feet. I don’t think any of those things make me less of a woman. I wrote that blog to encourage people to think critically about how we talk about trans identity. I’ve been very blessed. A lot of people have told me that I’m gorgeous and I love hearing that; I’m not going to lie. But I would like to think that I’m compelling not just because of the way I look. That I have something intelligent, smart, insightful, even moving to say. That I’m talented as an actress and that there’s something about the content of my character that is beautiful, beyond how I look. I’d like to think that.”
The blog also served as a reminder that not all trans people want sex-reassignment surgery, and that others cannot afford it or are refused treatment. The media’s focus on the transgender body frustrates her.
“Since Christine Jorgensen became the first internationally renowned transgender woman, in the 1950s, the narrative has been one of surgery, transitioning and bodies. Part of the reason it continues to be the story is that this before-and-after narrative reinforces the idea that the barriers between male and female are so vast and so broad that trans folks must do all this surgery to cross over. It also functions as a reminder that trans people are not really who they say they are – that we’re fake and artificial. It keeps us from humanising trans folks, objectifies us, reducing us to our bodies.”
The transgender cause, she says, still has much to achieve, from stopping transphobic violence and murder to pressing for anti-discrimination legislation. As a child she wanted to blaze a trail and, while she’s done that, she will continue to promote the cause. What about her acting? “I’ve been wanting to be a superhero for a very long time,” she says. Some would say she’s already there.
Orange is the New Black seasons one, two and three are available on Netflix