By Vic Gerami
With various “firsts” in her already impressive career, the Emmy-nominated actress, documentary film producer and prominent equal rights advocate, Laverne Cox, continues to make history in her career and significant strides in her activism. Debuting on the scene in the groundbreaking role of Sophia Burset in the critically acclaimed Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, Laverne is the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted television show.
Laverne has earned numerous honors and award nominations for her work and advocacy, from being featured on the cover of Time magazine, to an Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series,” to a SAG Award for “Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series.”
An advocate with an empowering message of moving beyond gender expectations to live more authentically, she was also named as one of Glamour magazine’s 2014 Women of the Year; one of The Grio’s 100 Most Influential African Americans; one of the Top 50 Trans Icons by the Huffington Post; and honored with the Courage Award from the Anti-Violence Project, and the Reader’s Choice Award from Out magazine, among other accolades.
Recently, Laverne has partnered with the BAND-AID® Brand, Johnson & Johnson, and (RED) to #BandTogether in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Every purchase of (BAND-AID®) RED bandages is enough to provide a day’s worth of life-saving medication to someone living with HIV.
I interviewed Laverne at West Hollywood Andaz Hotel’s red suite. She exuded confidence, friendliness, and authenticity, and that made the interview even more special. She made me feel very comfortable, so we chatted for about an hour and took pictures together. She is beautiful but modest, on top of her game but in gratitude, and glowing with star power.
VIC GERAMI: My first one I ask everyone, it’s the same, and you can interpret it as you wish. Modesty aside, how would you describe yourself?
LAVERNE COX: Oh wow! It depends on the day. Today? Oh my God, I guess I don’t think about this much. I like to call myself an artist. There was a moment I went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Alabama, and I started studying dance when I was in third grade, but I didn’t study ballet until high school. So when I auditioned for the Alabama School of Fine Arts, I needed to get a scholarship and I didn’t think I would be able to get the scholarship if I hadn’t ever studied ballet before because it was a ballet-only dance program. So I had been writing a lot, and so I submitted myself as a creative writing major, and got in, and got a scholarship. The very first piece I wrote at the Alabama School of Fine Arts had the recurring line, “I would like to call myself an artist,” and I think that has been the through-line of my life, that at every point when I feel a drift or unsure, uncertain of myself for my direction, something artistic gets me back on track. And even now, at this point in my life, I am so blessed; this year has been so transitional in so many ways with Orange (is the New Black) ending. I started the year feeling like this is a transitional year. I don’t know where I am transitioning to and where I am at now, is the art.
Where I am at now is like I have always gone to acting classes, or singing voice lessons or dance classes, and just being in process. It is the process of getting better that I feel most connected to myself, as in a voice lesson yesterday, and I was like, “Yeah, this is right.” (I) communicated with my acting coach I had some stuff coming up, but it’s not even about the job. It’s about refining my process as an artist, so that it really goes back to the craft.
I remember — it’s a long answer — I remember one time I co-hosted The View and Lady Gaga was on with Tony Bennett; you know, (it was Lady Gaga’s) singing-with-Tony-Bennett phase. It was probably a year into me being famous — I think it was end of 2014. And I asked her, as I asked so many people, I was like, “You know, I am kind of famous now. How do you deal?” And she is, like, “It is about coming back to your craft, always about coming back to the craft.” And you see her doing that, and that feels like the truth to me as I navigate multiple aspects of the brand that I have, that it’s about me being an artist in the work of sussing out a character, of making artistic choices that will get me better. Long answer.
VG: You seem to be on top of the world, with your career, coming off Orange is the New Black, all your other projects, a film coming up, covers of Cosmopolitan, Time, and British Vogue.
LC: The interesting thing about perception is that it is complicated. This means, you said, that it seems like I am on top of the world and there are so many things that are quite wonderful about my life and my work, so many dreams have come true. I am really living the dream in so many ways. But at the moment, I mean, I am being quite honest: I broke up with my boyfriend — or, he broke up with me, I should say — at the end of June. We were dating for almost two years, and I was madly in love, and I am still heartbroken. So, my career is kind of wonderful right now in so many ways, but I am also heartbroken, so it is complicated. So, yes, I am living a dream that a lot of people I think would like to live.
VG: Well, you just humanized it, because the public sees the outside for the most part but might not realize that you have your own challenges.
LC: It almost feels like this, you know, I had a moment, especially after my Emmy (award) nomination. I was like, I have an Emmy nomination, and then the British Vogue came out, and it was my first Vogue cover. And I am like, “I am on the cover of Vogue and this Emmy nomination and I am like heartbroken. I end up waking up crying, you now, because I miss him. I mean, I miss us. I think it is for the best. You know, the spiritual part of me knows that things happen for a reason and there is a plan bigger than my understanding. But the grief process is the grief process, you know, that when you have been in a relationship with someone for two years and have healed so much trauma and shame in that relationship and, all of a sudden, it’s over, it’s devastating. So, yeah! It just sobers the whole experience of what it means to be on top of the world.
VG: Your immense success is notable and impressive, but it’s even more significant when one factors in that you are a transgender woman of color. How would you reflect on your career when noting all the glass ceilings that you have broken?
LC: I think we have to because there is a case going to the Supreme Court, where the question is just (if) Title 7 covers the LGBTQ+ community. A woman, a trans woman named Amy Stevens…was fired from her job for being transgender. Her employer concedes that is why he fired her, and the Supreme Court may decide that is legal to do. We have to keep talking about it because transgender people are banned from serving openly in the military, we have to keep talking about it, because this current administration wants to discriminate against us in homeless shelters and in health care. We have to keep talking about it because trans people are being murdered in record numbers, and 78 percent of trans youth are bullied in schools. That is why we have to keep talking about it.
VG: So, when one doesn’t even know you are a trans and assesses your career, it’s like, wow. But when we factor that in, it’s incredible. So, how do you reflect on that?
LC: I just think it feels like a miracle. I think because I have always dreamed of having this kind of career, but I never saw someone openly trans have this kind of career before me. I (was) wondering if I was crazy, wondering if it was actually even possible right before I moved towards Orange is the New Black, I was going to stop acting and go to graduate school and get a job. It feels just remarkable, but also, what I am very clear about is that I believe this happened to me when it happened to me because I was ready to be of service and I could be of service. I have tried to take care of myself and not have my whole life to be of service and, you know, to fill up my cup first, and have the overflow be for everyone else.
But I think it’s really about being of service and that is why I partnered with Band-Aid and RED on this incredible campaign that is really about continuing the work RED has been doing since 2006 of making sure that folks in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to medication to prevent the spread of HIV, medication to keep their viral load un-detectible if they are HIV positive, to keep mothers from transmitting the virus to their babies if they are HIV positive, condoms, all the incredible work that RED has been doing. And I often feel powerless in a lot of my work as an advocate, particularly, when it comes to violence against trans people, I feel like I have been talking about that for years and years and it keeps getting worse, and I am, like. “What can we do?” With this partnership with Band Aid and RED, there is something we can do to end HIV and AIDS: We can just buy this, and this one box can contribute and make possible for a day’s worth of life saving medication for someone living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa.
We can actually end AIDS and HIV in our lifetime. It is possible. There is no reason why people should be dying of HIV and AIDS still in 2019. So that piece of getting to be of service, I believe, I really believe in my spirit, that it’s partly why I have been given the opportunities by the world, by the universe, by those I partner with, so I can be of service. And I think that is why — I know that is why — I get to enjoy this wonderful life.
VG: In addition to your remarkable achievements as an actress, you are often esteemed as the pinnacle of success in the trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming communities. How does that part feel? Is it too much pressure to live up to that?
LC: As things shift for me, and I rethink the advocacy work that I am doing and where I want to focus my energy, and there is so much work that needs to be done, I get guilty. I feel like I can’t be everywhere and I can’t do everything. It’s just not possible and continue to try to build a career as an artist, it’s not possible.
And so, where I am at now, I just saw my dear friend, Angelica Ross, on Black Women OWN The Conversation on the OWN network. And she just was so brilliant in the way in which she had the conversation, with the black women in the black community about trans lives. I was just so, I mean, I could cry. I was so inspired and moved by everything that she said. And she said it so much better, and I was, like, “Oh, this is wonderful. Angelica got that, she’s got it, and I don’t have to do that.”
And then I saw India Morse’s insanely moving speech at the Fashion Media Awards a few weeks ago and she wore these beautiful earrings that had a picture of a different trans woman who had been murdered this year. And she made this incredibly moving speech that was just dead-on, and smart, and nuanced. I should use “they” pronouns because India identifies as non-binary. So, India was just so brilliant, and I was like, “Oh, yes; India’s got this. I don’t have to do that.” I see my trans siblings out there with platforms as big as mine doing the work.
And then I see fans on the ground doing grass-root activism and handling that so beautifully, and so I want to lift up that work when I can, but then I am, like, “OK, I don’t have to bear the weight of all this.” And I never had to, but when there were fewer of us with this level of visibility, it was a different kind of weight. And so I don’t know if the weight is lighter, the load is lighter, but I just feel so lifted up by other trans folks who, because of visionaries and gatekeepers, that they have these wonderful platforms as well, and are even more articulate than I am on some of these issues. I mean, Janet Mock. Oh, God! How can I forget Janet Mock?
VG: Thank you for that. Let’s switch topics and talk about your film, Jolt, that you just shot. Tell me about that.
LC: Oh, my gosh! Jolt is an action-comedy starring Kate Beckinsale, who I just adore, and I have been a fan of hers for years. And they were like “You want to do a movie with Kate Beckinsale and Bobby Cannavale?” And I was like, “Yeah!” You sort of say yes even before you read the script, because it’s a dream for me to work with an actress of that caliber. I mean, that is the company I would like to be keeping.
So, Jolt is about, I forget what’s been in the press, so I am trying to, like, sort of not give things away and just sort of talk, you know talk press release about the film. This is a woman who sort of has impulse control and the therapist has given her this suit. When she feels a murderous urge, she presses the button (on the suit) and it kind of gives her an electric jolt. She has trouble meeting men, and she meets a guy, and then he ends up dead. So, it becomes her trying to figure out who killed him. My character, I play this police detective while I think she killed him. And so, it’s just a wonderful role that we had a blast shooting. I had a blast shooting in London and then Bulgaria. I’ve never been to Bulgaria before. We were in Sofia, Bulgaria, running around, and I got to chase Kate Beckinsale around.
VG: How is it when a fan recognizes you in public?
LC: It depends on a lot of things; it depends on if I am in the space to receive it. I think I have gotten very careful about where I go now, because I have been in situations often with fans, where I was not in the place to receive the love that they wanted to give me, because I have been distracted or just wanting to, sort of, not be “on.” I just wanted to go about my daily life as a normal person, whatever that means. And so I think it depends if I am in the space where I can receive it and I try not to be out in the world when I can’t receive it, which is a weird thing, honestly.
I try to go out, like, incognito if I am not able to receive that energy. But if I am and I meet — let me think of the last interaction — it was somewhere recently. I was out for lunch with a friend with some sort of business; he is a friend, but we were talking business as well and someone came up. She was quite lovely, and I would say, “Thank you so much.” I was able to receive it, I was. So, when I meet people at meet-and-greets, I can look them in the eye and I can hear them when they talk to me about whatever it is they need to say; I can be present for whatever they are saying. But being present sometimes means, if they are crying, I am crying with them. It means that I might hear a story about them thinking about committing suicide and shooting, and then deciding not to because the saw me on television. That is really intense and that is a lot to kind of take in.
VG: I have looked up at some of the charities and organizations that you have worked with. Just give me a few of the highlights, the ones that are close to your heart right now — obviously, the Band-Aid RED campaign.
LC: Yeah, so excited about this, just as I already said that it just feels like we can make a difference, and it’s just like, wow — that feels like such a weird thing. I don’t know if I mentioned it, but we are doing #BandTogether, that when those go to CVS and buy their RED Band-Aids, we are encouraging them to post photos of themselves on social media with their Band-Aids with #BandTogether. And what I am doing, I hope they are OK with it, is encouraging people to have conversations with their followers, with their friends and family about what they know about HIV and AIDS. There is still so much stigma and misconceptions about HIV and AIDS, and I think that needs to part of the process so that all my friends who are living with HIV and AIDS don’t have to continually deal with stigma around it, like this is not a death sentence. Like, you are not going to transmit the virus. All these things I feel that people should know, but they still don’t know and there is so much fear around…. So, band together, #BandTogether. I’m super excited about that.
VG: My last question is always this, tell me a secret, and make it a good one.
LC: I have so few secrets now, I am just spilling all my tongue. Gee! Oh, my goodness, a secret I feel if I haven’t talked about it publicly, I probably can’t or won’t. Oh, my gosh, a secret.
Actually, there is. This isn’t a secret but they wanted me to wear for the Savage X Fenty Fashion Show, they wanted me to have — I don’t own pink shoes and so like I brought my own shoes, because I wear a size 13. I have big-ass feet, that’s not a secret. And so, they dyed a pair of my custom Kenneth Cole shoes that I had in white. They dyed them pink and, like, put stones on them for the Savage X Fenty Show. That’s not a secret but I haven’t told anyone yet. You are the first person I am telling.For more information about Laverne Cox, please visit LaverneCox.com.