Since it’s set in a women’s prison, Orange is the New Black has a large, revolving roster of actresses playing inmates. But Laverne Cox is a standout, and not just for her nearly six-foot height. Her portrayal of Sophia Burset, incarcerated for credit card fraud, earned her a 2014 Emmy nomination, the first for a transgender person. On June 17, she returns in the fourth season of the hit Netflix series, which picks up with Sophia, a recent convert to Judaism, in solitary confinement.
Cox has a lot going on outside the prison too: This October, she’ll play Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Fox’s remake of the 1975 camp classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and she’ll play a lawyer in the CBS midseason legal drama Doubt, opposite Katherine Heigl and Elliott Gould.
When we caught up with her, Cox had plenty to say about OITNB, being transgender and getting to fill Tim Curry’s “Sweet Transvestite” bondage wear.
“I’m a black transgender woman from Mobile, Alabama. I always feel like I have to prove myself!”
What do you love about Sophia?
I love that she’s so complicated; there’s just something really unexpected about her. In Season 4 we get to go to places that we’d never gone to with Sophia. I love how multi-dimensional she is. I get to bring all of myself to her and that’s wonderful.
What’s ahead for her in Season 4?
In Season 4 all of what she is remains but her circumstances change a little bit so she has to react differently. I feel like I was pushed in ways that I didn’t anticipate. It was really challenging, and that is always wonderful as an actress. And that’s all I can say really, but I had a really good time.
What has OINTB meant to you?
This job has changed my life. I’m just really, really grateful. And what has been so incredible about being on this show is that I honestly think we get better every season. In Season 3 there were so many amazing things that I got to do and layers of Sophia that I got to explore. The episode where we find Sophia in solitary was so emotional for me because it’s the reality for so many trans women who are incarcerated. Most trans women who are incarcerated spend their time in solitary confinement. And usually trans women are in a men’s prison. So bringing that to the attention of the public is really exciting to be a part of. To have a show that prioritizes the experiences and stories of women of color, of queer women, of older women, of this diverse group of women, and can give each story such care and such humanity is unprecedented in TV. The support that we’ve gotten over the past several years is unbelievable, from Netflix, our fans, our critics. I’m just really aware that a lot of shows don’t get this kind of love, and I’m really grateful.
You’re playing Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Fox’s Rocky Horror remake. Were you a fan of the original?
Yes! I fell in love with it in college, watching it in my dorm room with friends. I got the soundtrack and learned all the songs. I was obsessed with it, particularly “Don’t Dream It, Be it”—it became a mantra for me. My youth was shaped by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, so to be able to do it feels like a full-circle moment.
What was it like to learn you got the role?
Amazing. My screen test was the day after the Emmys and I found out that I booked it five days later so I didn’t have a lot of time to freak out about it. I didn’t get my hopes up but I was thrilled that I get to do this, especially because Tim Curry is part of it.
How did you prepare?
With intense voice lessons and dance lessons and acting coaching. I’ve had consultations with the director Kenny Ortega about the wardrobe. I met the president of the Rocky Horror fan club, and he said I was the perfect person to play Dr. Frank-N-Furter. That meant everything because not everyone is excited about me playing the part. Rocky Horror fans are so hardcore. But having the president of the fan club approve meant a lot.
Are you determined to change the doubters’ minds?
I’m a black transgender woman from Mobile, Alabama. I always feel like I have to prove myself! People being critical is something that I’ve had to deal with, but it’s about the work for me. It’s a really wonderful thing to have to prove yourself. I have to work really hard and at the end of the day I have to bring my take on it. It’s a collaboration between me and my director and the other actors and I want to be in that process. One of the best things about acting is the process, being in rehearsals, being on set, getting direction, and going places that I didn’t expect to go. I want to be open and submit to the process.
How do you feel about Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner bringing attention to transgender issues?
Trans people having increased visibility is what it’s all about—multiple stories, not one or two trans narratives. What’s so great is people can see—because of the increased visibility—how very different trans people and our experiences are. We’re really diverse. We have different views on a plethora of different issues and I always celebrate that diversity. It’s about multiplying our stories.