The Guest Actress in a Drama Series nominee talks to Joey Moser about her nomination, her love of Pose, and how she hopes more trans actors will be recognized in the future.
When Laverne Cox was nominated for Guest Actress in a Comedy Series back in 2014, she became the first trans actress nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Five years later, she is still the only trans performer to be nominated—a mind-boggling fact considering how many performers the Television Academy could’ve nominated from FX’s Pose this season. Cox remains positive, though, that in a time when trans women of color are being constantly attacked that her nomination will serve as a symbolic gesture of change.
Cox’s Sophia Burset isn’t featured a lot on Orange‘s sixth season, but when she appears on screen, you realize how much you missed her the entire time. As Nick Sandow’s Caputo scrambles to help Taystee, he takes a meeting with Sophia to see if she will testify against the prison. There is dark history between the two, and their small scene is an example of what Orange does really well: pit two people against one another where you question what they will do next. Cox also has a great scene with Beth Dover’s Linda Ferguson that changes Sophia’s life forever.
Even though her category is packed with legendary actresses, Cox is an icon herself, and she deserves to win a Primetime Emmy. She is a thoughtful and generous performer, and Sophia’s journey throughout the final two seasons of Orange is the New Black comes to a deserving and satisfactory ending.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your third Emmy nomination. Are you ready to get back into the fray?
LC: It’s interesting this time around. I’ve been very reflective this time—not that I wasn’t the other times. The other two nominations were unexpected, but this one was really unexpected. I’ve been thinking if there was a bigger reason as to why I was nominated this time around. I haven’t won an acting Emmy yet, and I might not win again. The competition is fierce this season. There’s a reason I was nominated this time, so I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I’ve been thinking a lot about still being the only trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy—I thought that might change.
AD: Yes. I think we all thought that would happen.
LC: There are a lot of beautiful actors on Pose. There are a lot of wonderful trans actors working right now. That’s beautiful. I don’t know the answer for the bigger reason why this nomination happened. I’ve been thinking what that could be about. Maybe it’s about trying to elevate some of the other talent that’s on television right now. Maybe more trans actors will be considered next time. These categories are insanely competitive this year, so this humbles me even more.
AD: I know a lot of us on our site were hoping that trans actors and actresses would have been more represented this season. I think your nomination is a testament to how much people still love Orange is the New Black. I watched seasons 5, 6, and 7 in a span of about 4 days?
LC: Oh my god…
AD: It was a very dark few days, I will admit.
AD: I think a lot of people still really love what Sophia represents.
LC: That makes me so happy to hear.
AD: I was always really happy to see you pop up on screen—especially in these last few seasons. You’ve had smaller amounts of screen time these last few years, but that makes us take notice of you even more. Springboarding off what you were saying, there wasn’t a lot of trans representation when Orange is the New Black started. Do you feel encouraged by where we are now since Orange has just come to an end?
LC: Orange in the New Black played a huge role in changing the landscape of trans representation. Without Orange, we wouldn’t have Transparent, we wouldn’t have Pose, we wouldn’t have Hari Neff playing a nontrans character on You, we wouldn’t have Asia Kate Dillon playing a nonbinary character on Billions. I get very excited because there’s always a conversation of what more we can be doing. I always think about the showrunners, the writers, the producers who want to tell trans stories who are casting trans actors in both trans roles and nontrans roles. I always believe in artists who keep pushing the envelope around who is not being represented. I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing.
How do these stories affect the ways in which we treat each other in the real world? In this country, we are being attacked on a political level by this administration. They want to legalize discrimination with things like homeless shelters and healthcare. There is a case going to the Supreme Court involving Aimee Stephens and two other cases that will determine whether or not LGBT people will be covered by Title VII, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex and employment. Will the conservative majority of the Supreme Court side with the LGBT community and say that it’s not acceptable or will they say it’s permissible to discriminate against us. These are fundamental questions going on in terms of policy in the culture of trans people. It’s a really interesting time.
When I get to be interviewed by wonderful people like you, I get to talk about some of these issues and have them be written about. With Orange, it’s about things going on in the world. With Season 7, we dealt with immigration detention centers, and we talked about the prison industrial complex. The wonderful thing about being part of Orange is that the artistic world has so much to do with the world around us. You just watched three seasons in a row, was there a big takeaway for you about what’s going on in the world right now and how that pertains to our show?
AD: Yes. I feel like sometimes when we watch shows that “deal with issues of today” there’s always a bit of distance. Like some time has passed. But with Orange, especially in the final season, it feels like it could’ve been filmed last week. Every episode really hit my heart—it really tore me up. It reminded me that while I try to be as socially conscious as possibly, I realized that I need to delve deeper into these issues. We all need to. Educating ourselves is very important so we aren’t just being shocked by the headlines and the pictures.
On another level, I got really sad because of what Orange represents and now I’m sad it’s over. The cast is about 90% women and the majority of those women are people of color. We don’t have a show like this on television now that Orange has finished. And we don’t know when it will come back again. I’m not sure if I answered you question?
LC: Thank you for that. That’s so beautiful—Jenji [Kohan] would love to hear that. The thing about this show is that I am the only person from our show that’s nominated. As a lot of people are watching the final season, I feel a responsibility—and this is in terms of Emmys—to carry the torch of our show. There is something so special and magical that didn’t exist before us and still doesn’t exist. We are still the most watched show on Netflix. Over 100 million people have watched at least one episode.
AD: Wow! I didn’t know that.
LC: That’s a statistic, right?
AD: Orange was at the streaming age. Do you feel that shift in television since you were there at the beginning?
LC: It’s a revolution. Netflix is a revolution. I spent many years struggling in New York and I always said that the only way for someone who looks like me to have a career, a revolution would have to happen. ‘Netflix and Chill’ wasn’t a thing that was around when the show first started. It just wasn’t. We have changed the culture in so many ways, and I feel so blessed to be part of that. I claim that. I’ve been thinking a lot about being the only trans person ever nominated for an acting Emmy. In 2014, I got my first Emmy nomination, and I starred in an interview with Sidney Poitier in a documentary as I was trying to grapple with my emotions of being nominated. He said that after he won his Oscar in 1965 for Lilies of the Field, he said, ‘I feel like we’ve overcome when I’m not the only one.’ That stuck with me over the years. Being the only one—especially in a year with Pose—feels really bizarre. We’ve still not had a trans person win an acting award. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, in a time when trans people are under attack and being murdered, we can make a little history. Awards history, but history nonetheless.
AD: I just got chills thinking about that. I think that would be a really awesome statement in response to the shitstorm we are living in on a daily basis.
LC: Yeah. I think so, too. It would be symbolic. We would obviously need real change, but symbols are important. Symbolism can sometimes inspire people to make change in their real lives. When we think glass ceilings, how do you break them? How we break different glass ceilings in different industries? I’m nominated alongside incredible women. If you think about Phylicia Rashad or Cicely Tyson or Jessica Lange. Are you kidding me?
AD: It’s stacked!
LC: Yes, it’s insane. I’m very grateful to be back to the party. If there’s nothing bigger attached to this nomination because of the history then let’s do it. I’m excited to be back this year! On a side note, one of my makeup artists, Deja Smith, has been my main artist since about 2013. She was nominated this year for Pose, and she’s another openly trans black woman, thank you very much.
AD: That’s so great. I didn’t know that.
LC: I was just having lunch with Our Lady J and her and Janet Mock are both nominated as producers of Pose. That is also history. Yes, there has only been one performer nominated for an Emmy, but two trans artists are nominated for one of the Drama Series nominees.
AD: Sometimes the Television Academy takes a bit to catch up. Hopefully, you will be nominated alongside Mj Rodriguez and Indya Moore next year. We need to get them in there.
LC: The talent is so incredible. And Angelica Ross and Hailie Sahar!
AD: Yes! I love them.
LC: I marvel at how great everyone is. Let me tell you, I’ve been around for a minute. For years, people would tell me, ‘There are no talented trans actors. Trans actors don’t exist.’ You can’t say that anymore.
LC: I’m very critical, and these young actors are killing it. Hari Heff on You, Asia Kate Dillon on Billions, Hunter Schafer on Euphoria. She’s so talented. The list goes on and on. It’s so beautiful.
AD: I just started Euphoria, and I think Hunter is great. I was wondering why I didn’t start it sooner.
LC: It’s so good. Very disturbing but very good.
AD: Talking specifically about your nominated episode, you have this moment with Beth Dover that I love. Her character, Linda, offers Sophia money to not testify against MCC, and you say, ‘Damn. You really are a good witch.’
Lc: We have such good writing on that show.
AD: Did Sophia ever think she would have someone be nice to her like that ever again?
Lc: No, of course not! She’s been through so much. She’s in max. Sophia is at the bottom of the bottom. She’s been stripped of everything. Laura Prepon directed that episode. With Caputo there’s such a history there, so to relive all of that hell again was hard in preparing for that episode. I got to live in those moments with Caputo. In my mind, Sophia had given up. Just biding her time until her sentence was up. To get this offer? Are you kidding me? I get to leave and get money? I go right back to when I read it. It’s so weird that way. It’s hard to watch my own work, but I do go back to the personalizations I had while preparing. Sophia is so personal with me. So much of what we do as actors is fill in the blanks with writing backstories and writing biographies and character history. There is history that I’ve lived as this woman. It’s so real for me. Something so funny with me is that my son on the show, Michael, is an actor on Power. Because I endeared him so much as my son, that it’s so weird for me to watch him and not think of him as my son. The reality gets very blurred for me.
AD: We get to see Sophia briefly in the last season. I’m always curious about actors’ feelings towards their character after the show has finished. We get to see her on screen with a huge smile on her face, and, I have to say, you look damn good.
LC: Well, thank you!
AD: You’re welcome. Do you think Sophia is happy at that moment when we see her?
LC: Absolutely. I felt when I read the script, and with living though the brief experiences of her post prison, she is really lucky to have gotten out alive. I feel really lucky to be alive. That I survived this thing that was harrowing and I came out with a little bit of money. I can start a business and really be there for my son. I feel very lucky to be alive every day and determine how I look. Sophia goes through this moment where she is in The SHU and she has no control over her appearance. Little things like that are huge for trans people. I haven’t fully let her go yet. Sophia wants to move on. I say to Piper, ‘You can’t live in the past,’ and I am moving on. I am stuck there. I’m not letting her to be stuck there. It’s a measured happiness when we see her. But, fuck yeah, she’s in control of her own life.
AD: It’s so nice to see her that way. When I saw the final episodes, I did automatically think of Sophia’s time in The SHU. I wasn’t sure why that immediately came back, but it comforted me knowing that she is at least in a better place now that she’s out. I recently saw you on The Black Lady Sketch Show, and I know you’re on this latest season of Dear White People. I was so excited to see you on Sketch Show, because I didn’t know you were on it. Are you looking to do more comedy or broad comedy now that Orange is the New Black is over?
LC: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m interested in doing things that I’m excited about. I want to work with artists that I’m excited to be around and work with. I sort of stalked Justin Simien, because I am obsessed with Dear White People. His voice is so distinct. I went in to read for Justin’s newest movie, Bad Hair, and when he cast me in that, I told him, ‘Well, now you have to cast me in Dear White People.’ He was so generous to cast me, and I met Robin Thede on Bad Hair. I love her, and she asked me if I wanted to come and play. I had so much fun on ‘Bad Bitch Support Group’ and I got to be with Angela Bassett. Come on!
I want to work with people who are like-minded and I want to tell fun stories. I want to stretch myself in terms of character work. I consider myself a character actor. The freedom of sketch comedy was so awesome, but I want to keep doing both. I want to do some more drama and some comedy because I think I’m funny and I think I can do drama!
AD: I think you can do it all.
All of Orange is the New Black is streaming on Netflix.