There's something really special happening in television right now. Jenji Kohan's Orange Is the New Black not only features a nearly all-female cast depicting a diverse spectrum of race, sexuality and body types, but it also includes a trans woman of color actually playing a trans woman of color — a first on mainstream television.
Former reality star and producer Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset, a firefighter whose wife Crystal is less disturbed by her transition than her decision to steal credit cards. Though trans actors often fall victim to typecasting as sex workers, Cox felt no qualms about playing another kind of deviant: an incarcerated thief. "For me, the fact that she was in jail, that's not a deterrent. I thought, What an opportunity to tell stories that aren't really told a lot about trans folks in prison,'" Cox tellsTVGuide.com.
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With the debut of Orange, Cox likely became the first trans person many viewers had seen either on TV or in real life and the actress is well aware of the role's potential benefits to the trans community. By portraying Sophia as a multi-dimensional character — a loving parent, devoted spouse, compassionate friend and determined entrepreneur — Cox hopes the show will help alleviate some of the stigma imposed on trans people. "What I've always believed is that if you get to know someone as a human being that everything — all the preconceptions and stereotypes you might have had about them — will fade away. And I think what our writers and the show have done such a great job of is humanizing Sophia so we really understand her as a complicated, flawed human being just like anyone else," she says.
In Episode 3, we get our first glimpse at Sophia pre-prison and pre-transition, as a husband and father who hides her true identity (and women's underwear) under the mask of a firefighter uniform. Cox explained that, "There's a lot of trans women who before they transition they overcompensate in these very sort of hyper-masculine kinds of jobs and Sophia did that. I never did that. I could never be a firefighter. It's just not a part of my reality." Neither, Cox said, is dating women, though Sophia remains madly in love with Crystal. In one flashback, Crystal helps Sophia dress in women's clothing for the first time with such tenderness it's easy for Crystal's heartbreak to become your own. "So many people have responded in these incredible ways to that scene," Cox said, noting that even Jodie Foster, who directed the episode, had tears in her eyes on set. "I literally just got goose bumps now thinking about it because it was such a powerful moment for us as actors shooting it and then for people to be responding to it like that is really what I dream about as an actor," Cox says.
Though Crystal has accepted Sophia's transition, her son Michael struggles with the change. To make matters worse, he hasn't spoken to her since Sophia was arrested — something many assume Michael was behind. "I think she questions it and wonders," Cox says, getting choked up. "She wants to talk to him just to find out. She desperately wants to find out what his take on it is and because she hasn't talked to him she doesn't know." While even Cox wasn't told whether or not Michael turned Sophia in, she shares many viewers' suspicions, but says we'll have to wait until Season 2 for confirmation.
Sophia is also faced with a distressing physical threat while imprisoned: lack of hormones. Because Sophia is not producing testosterone naturally after she had her testes removed, she needs to receive hormones from an outside source. When the prison system refuses to give her the needed dose, Sophia fights back, swallowing a bobble head in the process. But Sophia doesn't take such drastic actions simply to keep her feminine figure and avoid a few stray hairs. Being denied hormone replace therapy (HRT) is very serious and an issue faced by many trans inmates daily. "Folks will often think that getting hormones or getting gender appropriate care is 'elective,' [that] it isn't really necessary for trans folks' survival in prison and in general," Cox says. "The body needs testosterone and estrogen in similar ways and if you don't get estrogen then your bones start to deteriorate, osteoporosis can start to set in, you get hot flashes. The hot flashes are really crazy, feverish hot flashes. And then the mood swings start to happen. It's really bad for the health."
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For Cox, playing Sophia has been cathartic. "I think a lot times people assume that because I'm on a TV show or that I'm an actor that I don't have to deal with the realities of what it means to be a trans person of color in a public space on a daily basis. So for me I was excited to tell the reality of that story." she says. On the show, Sophia is subjected to misgendering, public mockery and threats, all issues Cox has openly discussed experiencing herself. But through her character, Cox found a way to channel these painful memories and transform them into a positive experience. "It's really, really painful and when I'm on the street I don't have time or energy. I have to be in defensive, protective mode, so there's something very therapeutic for me as an actor to be able to feel the feelings that I don't allow myself to feel when I'm on the street because I'm trying to stay safe."
Even though she's one of the show's breakout stars, when Cox discusses the series she sounds like any other Orange super-fan, gushing over the wealth of talented actresses on screen. "I'm gagging over everyone's performance. It's so rare to have this many characters in a show written with such depth," Cox says. The actress recalls shooting the rap battle from Episode 6 with particular awe. "We were all in the cafeteria and I looked around [and thought] I've never seen this on television before. I've never seen this kind of diversity of women — ages, body types, races — I've never seen this before. It was so powerful to be in that space that day. It was really hot as well," she says with a laugh.
When asked why she believes Orange is the New Black has connected so strongly with Netflix subscribers, Cox says it's the show's diversity and female focus. "I really think it's going to change the industry. I hope it does anyways," Cox says. "Conventional wisdom is no one wants to see women of different body types and different races on television and I think this show that people really do want to see that, need this and are craving it." It seems Cox is right. According to All Things D, Orange is the New Black outperformed Netflix's other original series in its first week, including the star-powered House of Cards and the much-hyped return of Arrested Development.
A lot of the buzz around Orange has been centered on the fact that a trans actress is actually playing a trans character. Though Cox admits it's hard for anyone to be an actor, she explains that a unique obstacle for trans actors is there simply aren't a lot of roles written for them and the few trans characters that do exist often end up being played by cisgender actors (Transamerica, Degrassi, Boys Don't Cry), those who identify with the genders they were assigned at birth. Before Cox, the only other trans actress to land a recurring role on mainstream television show was Dirty Sexy Money's Candis Cayne, whose role on the short-lived series inspired a newfound determination in Cox to pursue acting.
Cox hopes her role on Orange Is the New Black will similarly inspire others to go after their dreams, but she admits she's struggled with the responsibility of being a role model. "I'm trying to put less pressure on myself and just be myself and trust that I'm enough. And also remember that I do represent a community that isn't represented much in mainstream media, but also I'm just representing myself and I have to allow myself to be imperfect. I have to allow myself to go outside today with no makeup and that's okay," Cox says.
The entire first season of Orange is the New Black is available for streaming on Netflix.