Laverne Cox is possibly the most radiant human being I have ever seen. We meet at the Warwick Hotel, in midtown Manhattan, on a Monday morning, and immediately she makes me feel like a superstar worthy of sitting in her presence. She compliments my outfit, even though I pale in comparison to how flawless she looks, and she's wholeheartedly tuned into our conversation even though I'm just one of the many journalists clamoring to talk to her. Laverne is here promoting a new movie called Grandma, in which she briefly—yet, as always, memorably—graces the screen as a tattoo artist who gives the film's titular grandma, Elle (Lily Tomlin), a tattoo.
Grandma is a heartfelt, ticking-time indie buddy comedy in which Elle and her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) try to scrape up money to pay for Sage's abortion, scheduled for later that afternoon. Along the way, they run into relationship troubles (with grandma's girlfriend Olivia, played by Judy Greer, and her ex-fiancé Karl, played by Sam Elliott), Sage's strict mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), and Sage's asshole teen boyfriend Cam (a hilariously different role for resident YA heartthrob Nat Wolff). Laverne's character Deathy is one of the many faces we meet along the way, when Elle stops by her tattoo parlor hoping to get back the money Deathy owes her (for a boob job years ago). Deathy, having no money, instead gives her a tattoo. It's an oddly intimate moment brought to life by Laverne Cox's funny and earnest performance.
While trying to deflect her natural glow, I sat down with Cox to discuss Deathy, the rising visibility of trans individuals in pop culture, and her upcoming project, Free CeCe. (Oh, and some Orange Is the New Black stuff too, of course.)
I really liked Grandma. You’re such a good actor.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
I love movies with strong female characters, and this whole cast is great.
Who’s stronger than Lily Tomlin? That is the grandma you want in your corner.
She’s hysterical. How did you come to this role?
[Writer/director] Paul Weitz reached out to us—to my agent, Paul [Hilepo]. He sent us a script and said, “There’s this role we’d love for Laverne to play.” Loved the script. Big fan of Paul’s work and met with him and the rest is history.
Seems like it was a lot of fun to shoot also.
Absolutely. It’s so funny being a New York actor going to L.A. It was the first time I’d gone to L.A. to shoot something. I’ve mostly worked in New York, and everyone was so chill and Paul has such a calming energy. Sometimes people can be stressful, but he’s really awesome to work with, and Lily was just delightful and did not disappoint. She’s a really amazing woman. I want to be Lily Tomlin when I grow up.
I love that Lily plays a queer character. How do you feel about—especially since you’re very involved with LGBTQ activism—the current visibility of trans characters or actors in pop culture recently? In light of your breakout role on Orange Is the New Black, and Caitlyn Jenner, and... I don’t know if you’ve seen Tangerine?
I saw Tangerine. I loved Tangerine. I had a phone conversation with Mya Taylor, who plays Alexandra. She’s delightful. I should call her back. She’s smart and so talented. I thought it was a beautiful film. I though it was raw and real. I thought it went some places—straight-identified, cisgender men who date trans women are invisible, and they’re not invisible in Tangerine. That was real. That was really, really real. I love Sense8—this lovely Netflix original series starring Jamie Clayton. It’s such a beautiful show, and it’s a groundbreaking role for a trans character that Jamie plays. And Transparent is just a revelation. It’s a very exciting time. I can’t wait to see [Eddie Redmayne's film] The Danish Girl. It’s a wonderful time.
And also About Ray!
I don’t know About Ray. Educate me.
Elle Fanning plays a trans teen.
Oh yeah, and Susan Sarandon’s in it. Yeah, I met Susan last year. She was telling me she was about to go film that. Yes.
How do you feel about non-trans actors playing trans roles?
Being a trans actress who plays a trans character in Orange Is the New Black, what has been so wonderful about this moment is not only that a trans actress got the job—since we need to work it too—but this show has been life-changing for me, and for our audiences who are not transgender. They’ve been able to connect and have empathy. Not only for the character I play, but also for the actress who plays her. Trans folks out there are, and so many of them see themselves in this character I play. A lot of trans people say they don’t relate to Sophia, which is completely valid as well. But a lot of trans folks see themselves in this character, so it’s really powerful and affirming to have a firm representation of you in the media. I think it validates your existence. I don’t think that same thing happens when a non-trans actor plays roles, but as an actor myself, I certainly want play a range of characters, so that I would never suggest an actor should not play a role.
Do you feel like it’s time for trans actors to play non-trans roles?
As a black woman, I always say, the second I play any role, whether it’s written for me or not, the character becomes black. I wonder if when I play a role because I'm a trans woman, the character becomes trans when I play her. I’m not sure. I don’t know that answer to that. I did a guest spot on the TV show Faking It last year. The character was not written as trans, and there was no mention of her being trans. She’s a high school drama teacher. I don’t know if the character became trans when I played her. That’s something I’m not sure about, but what I do know is that people who are right for roles should play them—whether trans or not.
In Grandma, you’re a dope tattoo artist.
She is pretty dope. I just loved the tattoo element. I loved that it was very different from Sophia. They’re both very stylish chicks, though. And Lila—who is a bartender at this place I used to work at called Lucky Cheng's—has all of these beautiful tattoos. She’s tatted up in a beautiful way, and she has these great piercings, just a sort of rockabilly look. The second I found out I was playing a tattoo artist, I wanted to model the look after her. I sent pictures to Paul, our director, and he was like, “I love it, let’s do it.”
Your makeup was so on point in the movie.
Thank you. The tats were fake tats. It took several hours to get it all done. I was like, “I want a spider web on my neck.”
Do you have any?
I don’t have any tattoos in real life. As an actress, beyond the fact that it’s very painful to get tattoos, I like to have somewhat of a clean palette.
You’ve proven yourself to be a great comedic actress. Do you want to get into more serious roles?
The thing about Orange Is the New Black is that there’s a lot of drama.
Did you see that last season?
Your story got very dark.
It got very dramatic very quickly. So that is the wonderful thing about a show like ours. We defy classification, and so we get to have a lot of funny moments. We get into some funny terrain. I love doing both. When I did The Mindy Project, it was the first time I worked on a show where someone intentionally said, “This will be funny. Let’s try this.” Mindy Kaling is a genius. Getting to work with her and watching how her mind works was really amazing. As an actress, I try to think about who this person is, where they’re coming from, what they want, how they got there, what are their flaws. Certain things have rhythm and language. I try to honor that when it’s appropriate too. But I don’t try to look for the joke. I try to be true to the circumstances and who the character is.
Did you do this for your role as Deathy? What was the background you came up for her?
Absolutely. Working with Lila for so many years, I thought about choosing to have as many tattoos as Deathy had, but also choosing that as my job. What is the relationship to the task? I felt like with Lila, a lot of people who have a lot of tats, there’s a ritualistic element to getting tattoos. Tattoos are significant for very specific reasons. There’s something about the ritual of that that I found very interesting. I talked to Paul about what her backstory might be, what her relationship with Elle would be. Paul thought she was an art student of Elle’s [Lily Tomlin's character]. She has an artistic background so this is how she expresses that. There’s something ritualistic about this and a need for creative expression that I can very much relate to as an actress. She’s drawing on people’s bodies and there’s something very intimate about that relationship between a person and their tattoo artist. I wanted to have these intimate connections with people around this art of tattoos. It’s interesting to me that Deathy is the only character in the film that doesn’t have a contiguous relationship with Elle. She’s like, “I don’t have the money to loan you, but I can give you a tattoo.” It becomes this offering. It says a lot about this woman that she offers her trade.
Tell me about the documentary you've been working on, Free CeCe.
We’re in post-production now, editing. Hopefully it will be out early next year. It’s about CeCe McDonald, the black trans woman who spent 19 months in a man’s prison for defending herself against a racist and trans group attack. In some ways, she was incarcerated because she survived. The film looks at her story and the cultural imbalance against trans people. When we got the idea to do this film two years ago, Jacqueline Gares, my director, and I talked, and we were like, “We gotta do this.”
It's an important story to tell.
We went to St. Cloud prison (in Minnesota) to interview CeCe. There was no video footage of CeCe. We had heard and read a lot about CeCe and that she had this big, beautiful heart and she was an amazing person, but we didn’t know how she’d read on camera. We didn’t know any of that. But as much as she’s been through, she is charismatic and loving. We lucked out, because when you do a documentary on someone, ideally they should be compelling. And CeCe is more than compelling. She is a force of nature. She is brilliant, smart, soulful, loving. But we’re in a moment now where 16 transgender women have been murdered here in the United States so far in 2015. There’s a culture of violence against trans women as if we are disposable. So we’re trying to unpack it, get underneath that in this film. So we’re working on that, and there’s a couple of other film projects I can’t talk about yet. We’re shooting season four of Orange Is the new Black right now.
Is there a hint of a story arc you can give us there?
No. It’s intense and it’s very wonderful and I am very challenged by what they’re writing for me. We’re starting the fourth season. The fourth freaking season on the show. We’re three years in. It is still wonderful. What a blessing.
People still love it. Do you feel you are getting more respect in the entertainment industry now that you’re a big star?
I’ve been very moved by the love. And the love from the public, and I have some very enthusiastic fan pages on Instagram, like Laverne Hive. I have so many amazing fan sites. So much of the industry has been so supportive and so amazing. Just running into actors that I admire who’ve been “You’re doing amazing.” It’s really unbelievable and I’m so, so grateful. There’s certainly people who are haters and have issues, but I focus on the love. An actress who I admire just texted me out of the blue yesterday. I’m like, “Oh, my god.” It’s amazing.
How do you tune out the haters?
Practice. It’s practice and understanding that that’s part of what happens when you are more known. It just means that I’m probably becoming very successful. That’s a good thing. I think people in the public eye are always under attack. I think because of the ideas that I inhabit that I might be compounded in some ways to some people, but there’s so much love. Gotta focus on that.