Laverne Cox Opens Up About Cisgender Actors Playing Transgender Women

She also expounds on the racism baked into the Electoral College.
Brian Killian via Getty Images

With Season Five of “Orange Is The New Black” released earlier this month, Laverne Cox has a lot to say about her groundbreaking role in the Netflix hit, which earned her an Emmy nomination in 2014.

Always opinionated and wonderfully energetic, Cox, in an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress, opened up about so much else, too ― including trans actors like herself playing non-trans roles, and cisgender male actors playing transgender women.

“Prisons are working exactly the way they’re supposed to,” she first explained bluntly, in discussing how her character, Sophia Bursett, a transgender prison inmate, spent much of Season 4 in solitary confinement, a reality faced by so many transgender women of color in prison. “Prisons have existed, really, as this new Jim Crow. As a way to enslave black people. And that brutality is working exactly as it’s supposed to.”

Though someone like her could be a success today, Cox said, our institutions, including our electoral system ― as reflected by the 2016 presidential race ― are haunted by the history of slavery in America.

“I think when we look at America, a country we love, a country where ― I mean, my story is not possible, I think, anywhere else in the world, that a black trans woman from Mobile, Alabama, can be living this dream out loud on an international level,” she reflected. “It’s pretty remarkable. I love this country. But the truth of this country is that it was built on the backs of slaves. And even something like the Electoral College was designed to keep southern states from letting northern states get too much power, so they could keep slaves. The Electoral College is this antiquated thing that we need to let go of.”

And on the topic of what roles transgender actors should play and whether or not cisgender men ― like Matt Bomer, currently embroiled in controversy regarding his role in the new film “Anything” ― should play transgender women, Cox expounded a great deal.

“My experience as a trans woman playing a trans character is that I have found that audiences not only have empathy for the character that I play but they find themselves having empathy for the actor who plays that character,” she said. “And I think there’s a lot of evidence that this moment happening with me and ‘Orange’ has created an enormous amount of social change. Right? I mean, like just look at the resume! The proof is there.”

She then pointed to a recent essay by Emmy-nominated transgender writer, actress and producer Jen Richards, “Why Straight Men Kill The Trans Women They Love.”

“Jen Richards said that she believes that when cisgender men or non-transgender men play trans women it sends a message to people who don’t know trans folks that trans women are really men,” Cox explained. “And then, as brilliant as Jefffrey Tambor is, as brilliant as Jared Leto is, and all these actors who play trans women, when people who don’t know anything about trans folks and trans women see the very sexy Jared Leto and his beard accepting an Oscar for playing a trans woman, the message that it sends is that trans women are really men. So when men find themselves attracted to trans women they have anxiety about that because of their own internalized homophobia and transphobia and they’ve gotten this message that trans women are really men and then this leads to violence. [Jen Richards] contends that this leads to violence against trans women. And I think she makes a really strong argument.”

But Cox isn’t an absolutist ― “I would never want to tell another actor that they should or shouldn’t play a part” ― and would leave it to actors to make their own decisions. She simply wants them to think more about the outcome, the effect.

“Art is art,” she said. “And artists should have the freedom to do whatever we want. But there are consequences to that. There’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but there’s consequences to that speech. So Jen Richards’ arguments I think are worth considering when we think of casting trans folks. And I think that trans folks should not just be playing roles that are expressly trans. I just did a pilot for ABC and played a part that was not written as trans. But the producers, after looking at lot of different actors, thought that the qualities that I have as an actor would lend themselves to this character. And it didn’t get picked up but they loved what I did and I tested very well with audiences apparently, which is exciting to hear.”

All of these issues, very dear to her, are part the basis for Cox’s desire now to create her own scripted television show. It’s not something she’s ready to offer many details about, she said, but it’s been a “long-term goal” she’s currently working on.

“So that’s, hopefully, the future of trans folks acting,” she continued. “That we are cast as roles that we are right for. There a lot of trans stories to tell. We’ve only tapped the surface. And that’s why I want to create my own show.”

Which means much more of Laverne Cox to look forward to ― something we can all celebrate.

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48 Transgender Pioneers