Laverne Cox has wanted to perform for as long as she can remember.
“Before I knew I was trans, I knew I was a performer,” said the actress, now winning raves for her role in "Orange Is the New Black," the Netflix critical smash currently in its second season. She explained that while growing up in Alabama she would make speeches — winning a countywide competition in the 8th grade — performed in talent shows, and even choreographed dance routines. But when Cox came to realize she's transgender, she also realized her route to an acting career would follow a specific path, working in nightclubs, even up until a year ago.
“The gender stuff really started to come up strong for me,”she said, in an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress. “I thought, okay, I can perform in nightclubs. That was never really my milieu, never really something that took off for me. I did work at a place called Lucky Cheng’s [in Manhattan] till about a year ago. I hated it. I never talked about it. I didn’t want anyone to know I worked there. It’s a drag restaurant. I’m not a drag queen. But a lot of trans women who perform find work within the context of drag because we love performing. And there’s not spaces for us elsewhere to perform. Historically, trans women and drag queens co-mingled a lot. And they still do in many spaces. And I love my drag sisters. So, that’s part of my history that is important for me to own. The moments when I was onstage and I was making people laugh and I had everyone’s attention —I loved that. I wanted to act. And I wanted to do more serious work. And I think I grew as a performer working there.”
Cox is undoubtedly that rare person in the acting profession who rode the wave of success while simultaneously being outspoken as an activist as well. For several years she’s been passionate as a transgender activist and blogger, pointing to the violence and societal indifference trans people experience. All the while, she pursued an acting career that took her from appearances in" Law and Order" and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," to her own VH1 makeover series "TRANSform Me," to "Orange is the New Black," in which she plays Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate at a women’s correctional facility. Cox is also producing a documentary, “Free CeCe,” about CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman who spent 19 months in a men’s prison, convicted of manslaughter after she defended herself during an anti-trans attack. And last week Cox graced the cover of Time magazine, speaking as an advocate on behalf of transgender rights. She said she chooses the issues carefully about which she speaks out.
“I do make choices because I’m an actor first,” she said. “I make choices to speak in certain ways about certain issues. It means that I’m more measured and much more deliberate -- that I make sure that I speak out about things that I’m really passionate about. That I’m going to embrace an issue, that it means a lot to me. I’ve had a lot to say about a lot of things. I don’t stop being who I am because I’m an actor. I have thoughts and opinions. And I do believe that trans people need to have spaces where we are treated in just ways. That our lives are in danger because of who we are. That we shouldn’t be fired from our jobs because of who we are, denied health care, bullied in schools because of who we are. And I think we need to figure out ways to talk about that.”
Cox’s advocacy for transgender people obviously gains a bigger platform as she becomes more successful. And while magazine covers were certainly something she dreamed about, her main goal and passion, she said, has been to act.
“I dreamed about it,” she says of this kind of attention in a series. “And I manifested it but I didn’t know that 'Orange' would be the vehicle. When 'TRANSform Me' happened, I was starring in that show and I was hosting it and I was co-producing it. And I honestly thought, I’m going to be a huge star, which I feel kind of embarrassed about saying now in public. And then it was huge flop. No one really tuned in. A second season wasn’t ordered. So I had to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment and I reevaluated a lot of things in my life. I remember saying to my agent, 'I want to act. No more reality. I don’t want to be a celebrity. I just want to act.’ And I found a new acting coach and I recommitted to that process and it really just became about the work. So I was hoping I would just work. I’ve dreamed about being on the cover of magazines, but my goal was to be a working actor."