There are two distinct titles Laverne Cox wears at all times -- actress and advocate. And more often than not, she embodies both as one of the most prominent transgender figures in pop culture today.
“There are certain days where I just want to have fun and be an actress,” Cox says during a conversation with ETonline at the Warwick New York Hotel to promote her supporting role in the new Oscar-bait drama, Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin. “I've certainly had those moments.”
“I’m just very aware,” Cox adds, mindful of the platform she now has as an Emmy-nominated actress on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
At the center of what Time dubbed in 2014 as “the transgender tipping point” -- with Cox on the cover -- the actress feels a responsibility to talk about the issues affecting her community. But seven years ago, this would-be trailblazer may have been happy to talk about anything when she lived life on the fringe as a struggling actress who turned to reality TV for exposure.
“It was an opportunity for visibility,” Cox says of the 2008 VH1 reality competition, I Want to Work for Diddy, which saw her compete for a coveted job as Sean Combs’ assistant. However, having studied acting and dancing at Marymount Manhattan College and appearing in two independent short films, not everyone thought it was a smart move. “My brother -- I love him so much -- was like, ‘You’re a serious actress, you shouldn’t do reality -- no one will take you seriously.’”
Despite the reservations of her twin brother and performer, M. Lamar, Cox knew it would open doors for her. What she didn’t expect was to think about the big picture. “If I just stayed in the realm of acting, I wouldn't have thought about myself as a brand,” she says. “I'm now aware and cognizant of myself outside of that.”
While the reality show didn’t catapult her to the top, it did lead to more opportunities, including the little-watched VH1 reality show, TRANSform Me (“It was a flop”), which coincided with small acting gigs on the Law & Order franchise and HBO’s Bored to Death. However, it wasn’t until 2010 when she found acting coach Brad Calcaterra, who founded Act Out for LGBT actors, did her career take shape. “The work was so transformative,” Cox says of the weekly acting class, which also included fellow actress Jamie Clayton (Netflix’s Sense8).
Bolstered by confidence, Cox picked up more work with roles in a number of independent films -- including Musical Chairs, which later aired on HBO -- and her most prominent role as Sophia Burset on OITNB.
Sophia, a transgender woman and mother who keeps her place in the prison’s delicate ecosystem by running a hair salon, earned her a Primetime Emmy nomination -- the first for a transgender actor -- in season one. Season three, which premiered on June 11, saw Cox showcase a more vulnerable side as her character was brutally attacked by other prisoners. It was a tragic moment that became larger than her acting.
“It was my job to surrender to that as much as I could,” Cox says, citing Free CeCe -- a documentary about an incarcerated transgender woman, CeCe McDonald -- that the actress was also shooting at the time. “Lately, I've been thinking of acting as channeling, allowing myself to be a vessel for human experience, emotion, flaws, and circumstance. I wanted to be a vessel for the experiences so many women have in prison and with violence.”
It’s too early to tell if the performance will garner Cox more Emmy attention, but her role of Sophia has gone a long way to further TV’s portrayals of transgender characters, which has prominently included sex workers, which Cox has also played. Her part will find a place in pop culture history as the second major TV role for a transgender character following Candis Cayne’s breakout role on ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money in 2007.
As she’s earned her place in Hollywood with a pantheon of roles, including guest appearances on MTV’s Faking It and The Mindy Project, Cox has become one of the most reliable voices for transgender issues. “I don't feel like I always need to have that hat on, but there are moments where it just comes up,” she says. In addition to her scripted roles, her most other notable TV appearance was swiftly shutting down Katie Couric’s invasive (and misinformed) questions about transgender people.
Cox has expanded her reach off-screen by walking the runway during New York Fashion Week for the American Heart Association, appearing on the covers for Essence and Entertainment Weekly, and being named one of Time’s Most Influential People of 2015. She’s also earned accolades from the LGBT community, with honors from Logo’s Trailblazers, the Out 100, and GLAAD Media Awards.
Over the past six months, Cox has become increasingly vocal about the spike in murders of transgender women of color -- and its lack of mainstream media attention. She even used her appearance on Good Morning America -- one day after our conversation -- to declare a transgender state of emergency. “Your life should not be in danger simply for being who you are,” Cox firmly told Robin Roberts. (She also asked us to link to her Instagram posts.)
Cox has handled the mantle with strength and grace -- apparently unburdened by the responsibility that so many actors aren’t forced to shoulder. Unlike activists Janet Mock and Jennifer Finney Boylan, or Clayton, who refuses to be labeled a transgender actress, Cox sits at the epicenter of the transgender zeitgeist. Not even Caitlyn Jenner -- who, despite her prominence after coming out as a transgender woman, has seen ratings slip for her docu-series, I Am Cait -- can eclipse her.
“This is who I am and this is what I want to focus on,” she says. For now, the platform of trans icon belongs solely to Cox.
Grandma is now in theaters and Orange Is the New Black is streaming on Netflix.