A Minute With: Laverne Cox on 'Orange' and transgender activism

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 15, 2014 1:04 PM

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As sassy stylist Sophia Burset on Netflix's women's prison drama "Orange Is the New Black," actress Laverne Cox has marked a milestone in the portrayal of transgender characters and was the first transgender actress to land an acting Emmy nomination.

Now Cox is lending her voice to "The T Word," airing on Viacom Inc's youth-orientated MTV and Logo TV on Friday, a documentary profiling young transgender kids who transitioned in their teen years.

From 18-year-old Ari in New York and Kye, 24, the first transgender Division I basketball player, to 12-year-old Zoe in Los Angeles, each person discusses challenges encountered daily as a transgender teen.

Cox, 30, spoke to Reuters about lending her voice to "The T Word," what needs to change about portrayals of the transgender community in media and her dream role.

Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the transgender community in media?

A: The biggest obstacle is that when people assume that trans people are always and only the gender we were assigned at birth. Most of the arguments against us having equal rights in the law and having our gender identities acknowledged has to do with the point of view that we're not really who we say we are. So we see that reflected in public policy that won't allow us to change our name or recognize health insurance or deny us jobs ....

What I wanted to do with this documentary is move the representation of trans people away from transition and surgery and body. Certainly our bodies matter but we are more than our bodies, and I wanted to move away from the focus on what body parts trans people have and what surgeries we have and haven't had. I believe those narratives have objectified trans people and sensationalized their identities.

Q: How do shows like Netflix's "Orange" and Amazon's "Transparent" help audiences understand transgender people?

A: A lot of people didn't watch ("Orange") knowing there'd be a trans character, so they found themselves relating to this trans character as a human being in a human way.

Where our medium is powerful is the way that we can connect with people as people. So it becomes harder for us to say they don't deserve rights, that they don't deserve to have the same things that everybody else has, and that's the wonderful thing that my representation has connected in a human way. And I see that in "Transparent" as well.

Q: What has the biggest challenge been in your career and how have things changed after "Orange is the New Black"?

A: Pre-"Orange," I played a lot of sex workers. I don't dehumanize or stigmatize sex work, I believe people who do sex work are people too, and they deserve to have their stories told in a human way. The roles that I'd agreed to do that were about sex work was because I thought they had humanity in those characters.

Since (then), there's one independent film I've done that I can't talk about yet and I have a recurring role on MTV's "Faking It" where I play a high school drama teacher, and I've never done that before. She's very passionate about her work as a drama coach at a high school and she's really intense and she's really an homage to all of my fantastic ballet teachers growing up and acting teachers that I've had over the years.

Q: What do you love about portraying Sophia on "Orange"?

A: I love that she is really complicated, I love her relationship with her family, her wife and her son Michael. That's really where we find the heart of Sophia, and I love in Season 2 when she did the anatomy lesson, that was a lot of fun.

Q: Is there a dream role you'd love to play?

A: There's a few things I want to play, but I want to do Lady Macbeth at some point, probably on stage, although a film version of Lady Macbeth would be interesting too.

(Editing by Eric Kelsey and Richard Chang)