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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Laverne Cox on the importance of compassion and the legacy of <i>Orange Is The New Black</i>

Laverne Cox on the importance of compassion and the legacy of Orange Is The New Black

Photo: Timothy Norris (Getty Images), Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Laverne Cox’s time on Orange Is The New Black has been all about firsts—one of the first shows of the binge-watching era, first Emmy nomination for an openly trans actor. Those culture-shifting moments were quickly followed by a flood of original streaming content for Netflix, and second and third Emmy nominations for Cox, who could very well garner a fourth nomination next year after shining in her final appearance as OITNB’s Sophia Burset. But though Cox recognizes the strides made in trans representation in recent years, she’s also very aware of the long road that still lies ahead. The A.V. Club spoke to the Emmy nominee about her first and final moments on Orange Is The New Black, wanting to be of service as an advocate and actor, her favorite binge-watching shows, and why compassion doesn’t equal forgiveness.

The A.V. Club I hope this isn’t too big a question to start with, but what do you think the legacy of Orange Is The New Black will be, if we look back in three, five, or even 20 years?

Laverne Cox: [Laughs.] That is a lot. Well, since the show began, I’ve talked about diversity and trans representation on television; I’ve said things about the criminal justice system and mass incarceration and how the show started new conversations around those topics. I just did a podcast for Variety, I think it was, about your favorite episode of television ever and I picked an episode of Sex And The City. And 20 years after that show premiered, we’re having very different conversations about it. So you can’t really predict what the legacy of the show will be, and I look forward to seeing what think pieces and critics and what intellectuals will have to say about Orange in 10 years or even 20 years or so. What I do know for sure is that Netflix is the revolution that allowed me, a very unlikely person to have a career as an actor, a mainstream career as an actor. Netflix and Orange, which was one of the first original series that Netflix streamed, were revolutionary in giving me space to have a career, and in giving space to a lot of people to have a career.

AVC: Looking backward instead of forward, do you remember what your first day on Orange Is The New Black was like? Is there anything in particular you remember from when you first stepped on to the set?

LC: Absolutely. My very first day on the job, I went to craft services to see what the food was like. [Laughs.] And while we were shooting the pilot, I was at craft services and this very short woman came up to me—and I’m very tall—but she says “I’m Jodie, I’m directing episode three.” And it was Jodie Foster. I was honestly kind of in shock and dumbfounded. I tried to stay calm; I don’t know if I successfully did that. I wasn’t calm but I tried to appear calm. [She] then commences to give me a tour of the set and I was like, “Why is this woman wanting to give me a tour and wanting to talk to me? I love her, but what is going on?” [Laughs.] It was just sort of—honestly, looking back seven years later, it was just prophetic for a lot of my life. A lot of my life over the past seven years has been, “How is this happening? What the fuck?” [Laughs.] But I was so freaked out and starstruck. Jodie Foster is one of those actors who I had spent time not only watching her films but pausing scenes and trying to sort of break down what exactly she was doing in terms of the work, as an actor. She’s someone who I literally had studied. I got to my dressing room, and I called my brother. I was freaking out—I was in a panic, a full panic. I was like, I don’t know if I can do this. But my brother encouraged me to calm down, told me to breathe. He talked me off a ledge.

So that was my first day on Orange: I had to be kind of talked off a ledge because I had just met Jodie Foster and I thought I was going to spontaneously combust and just not be able to do the scene that I was there to do.

AVC: When we see Sophia Burset again in season seven, she’s thriving—she’s got her salon, the wonderfully named Vanity Hair. It feels like she’s been spared the reintegration storyline, which we see more of in Piper’s journey. How did you feel about that as a conclusion to Sophia’s story?

LC: Oh, I loved it, thought it was really beautiful to see, because in the last several seasons of Orange, we saw Sophia go through hell and back: solitary confinement, violence, and a lot of just really awful things happened to this woman. So it was beautiful for me to visit her and see her in control of how she looked. After being in solitary and going to Max, she had no control over her aesthetic—it’s something very basic but was really important to her, just having a beautifully coiffed hairstyle. That she looked really cute and got to live the life she wanted. The reason she was in prison in the first place is because she was fighting to live the life that she deserved to live as the woman she always had been. So it was beautiful for me to see her as a business owner and fully embracing who she is as a woman, as a human being. Yeah, I frickin’ love it.

AVC: You were a part of the show that helped usher in the era of the binge watch, but has that become your primary way of watching shows? Are there shows you binge? 

LC: I think that’s kind of what we do now. [Laughs.] I often don’t start a show until I have five hours straight, or seven hours or eight. That’s why I haven’t binged anything in a while. Actually, when I flew from London recently, I watched the entire new season of Dear White People. I’m also in the new season of Dear White People, but I am a ginormous fan of that show and I would watch it whether or not I was on it. It’s one of my favorite shows on television. Then when I got back, I was three episodes behind on Euphoria and I think I missed the last two episodes of Big Little Lies, and yeah, there’s lots that I watch. I watched You on Netflix—I watched that in two days. Fleabag, I watched in a day.

AVC: You’ve spoken before on the difference between being nominated and winning. How does it feel to be on your third nomination and possibly on the verge of a fourth—because this final season of Orange will be in consideration next year—and still be the only openly trans actor to be nominated?

LC: I’ve been talking a lot about that lately, and what’s shifted since I got the first nomination. I still think it’s a shame that I’m still the only one. I’ve been thinking a lot about the burden of being the only one, and I’ve talked a lot about Halle Berry and her journey of being the only black actress to win a Best Actress Oscar and how she grappled with that. And what’s really wonderful is all the messages I’ve gotten in the last couple of weeks from people who are really rooting for me. I’ve just been so overwhelmed by all the love I’ve received and how many people are rooting for me and how many people understand that a win for me would be a win for so many people. I just think about how much it meant when I was nominated for the first time and I think there’s simultaneously the energy that it was a big deal when I was nominated in 2014, it’s less of a big deal this year. So that feels like some sort of progress.

AVC: Something else that often comes up with actors from underrepresented groups is the notion of extending your hand backward as you make your way up the ladder. You have to be prepared to look out for others, to be a mentor.

LC: I guess people do ask that of me, but with the platform that I have, I feel like I have a responsibility. I think part of the reason that I get to enjoy any success, quote unquote, is because I understand this success is really about being of service—that the purpose of being an artist, the purpose of all the advocacy and activism that I do, is to be of service. And so that’s all I’m really trying to do. I’m also aware that part of my job is to encourage folks to think differently about the conversations we’re having. I think back on the past six years since Orange premiered, and the conversation about trans people in the media was very different six years ago than it is now. I’d like to think maybe I was a part of helping to change that conversation, along with a lot of activists who’ve come before me, a lot of contemporaries and other trans folks in the media. I’d like to think we are engaged in changing the conversation, and when we can change the conversation, maybe we can act differently as well. I believe language is action, but I’m just trying to be of service.

AVC: That felt like one of the themes in your appearance on Dear White People season three—you’re playing this established filmmaker, who Logan Browning’s character Sam looks up to and wants as a mentor.

LC: My character, Cynthia, was a tremendous amount of fun to play because she’s someone who’s not so generous, who’s sort of resentful. I can say this about her now, but I think ultimately when I was preparing Cynthia, where I landed was that she has a very, very high standard for her art and she holds a high standard for everyone else as well. I watched the season and I thought, “oh my gosh, this woman is really mean.” But where I was coming from when I was doing it, it’s that there’s a very high standard for the work that this young student who is copying me. I think there’s a little shade underneath it as well, just to be real. This girl thinks she’s going to be me, she wants to be me—she can never be me. [Laughs.] I’m telling you all my backstory now: This woman is really famous for this one movie, and hasn’t really had a success in a while, and she’s kind of resentful about that. She’s resentful of other folks who are making more money and doing well. So she’s not really happy with her life, and when you’re not really happy with your life, you want to make everybody else miserable too and that’s kind of what’s going on in that scene ultimately.

AVC: Back in April, I attended a conversation you hosted with author and research professor Brené Brown, which was in part about her Netflix special, The Call To Courage. Something that struck me in hearing you both talk about compassion and empathy is the need to set aside shade and humiliation when trying to educate people with opposing viewpoints. How do you practice that in your everyday life?

LC: It’s funny, just literally before I got on the phone with you, I posted an excerpt from a conversation that Brené Brown had with Russell Brand on my Instagram, where she talks about boundaries and how the most compassionate people she’s found in her research are the most “boundaried” people, or have the best boundaries. Part of what she talks about it in the clip that that I posted to IGTV, is about people doing the best that they can. You do the work of assuming people are doing the best that they can, and when we assume that people are doing the best that they can, we tend to feel better. But what if the person is doing something that makes us uncomfortable? Well, she did this really beautiful study where she asked a room full of people if the person you have the biggest issue with and you think is not doing the best that they can, if God came down and told you that this person was doing the best that they can, how would you react? What would be your response? One couple, they had relatives whose children were repeatedly taken away by department of children and families because the children were mistreated and basically malnourished. They were asked, if God came down and told them that these people who were treating their children in this way were doing the best that they could, what would they [the couple] need to do? The couple broke down in tears, but then they realized the answer was to create boundaries around the interactions they had with [their relatives]—that while assuming those people were doing the best they could, they couldn’t have a relationship with them. But then in setting those boundaries, they were able to have more compassion.

I think it starts with boundaries, but also assuming people are doing the very best that they can. That’s the human piece, too. As an actor—and I talked about this with Brené Brown, too—my work is to always have empathy for everyone, and to always be in a space of non-judgment. I cannot judge the characters I play and I ultimately I cannot judge other people. I don’t know what other folks’ situations are. So I have to assume people are doing the very best that they can and there’s an empathetic story around what someone might be doing. Even someone like our president, who I find deeply deeply troubling on so many levels. I didn’t vote for him, I find there’s a lot of fascistic stuff going on—a lot of corrupt things and illegal things are going on with this president. But if I assume this person is doing the very best that they can; even though I want him to be impeached, I still see him as a human being. For me, I think about how he had this father who maybe didn’t know how to love him, and whose corruption has been documented. So he didn’t know anything else—his father was a criminal who fought to discriminate against black people in housing and then had all these abuses in his properties. So he grew up in this insanely corrupt environment because of his father. Obviously, we can make different choices, and we’re not always victims to what our parents do. But then the compassionate response is that this person is doing what they know: They saw criminal behavior growing up, and they’re repeating criminal behavior and gaslighting and all of the sorts of things that are happening. I can have compassion for this person but that doesn’t mean I believe they should be the president of our country. Just because I can have compassion doesn’t mean I don’t think that they should be impeached or held accountable in some substantial way for the criminal activities that they’re doing. [Laughs.] I can’t believe I started talking about that person, but I think that’s a good example of how we can have that compassion.