Laverne Cox is on a roll as an actress and transgender activist, and 2012 has been very good to her.
This year, Cox earned rave reviews for her supporting role of Chantelle in director Susan Seidelman’s latest film, “Musical Chairs,” playing a vivacious transgender woman who is paraplegic but refuses to let life keep her down.
“Musical Chairs,” which opened in select cities in the spring, will be screened on Thursday, Nov. 15, at The International Film Festival of Manhattan at the Quad Cinemas. The feel-good movie is inspirational, too, showing how the competitive world of ballroom dancing has embraced the worldwide phenomenon of wheelchair ballroom dancing.
As a transgender woman, Cox says she had no difficulty playing a transgender woman, but that she had to learn how to be convincing as Chantelle, a disabled person who uses a wheelchair. Cox eats up her scenes, creating a colorful and rich character who is strong, funny, resilient, charming and upbeat despite the harsh realities of her situation.
Cox burst into the public limelight when she appeared on VH1’s “I Want To Work For Diddy,” which won her a GLAAD Media Award. She went on to star in her own VH1 reality show, “TRANSform Me.” Since then she has guest starred on other TV shows and become an outspoken advocate for the transgender community.
SDGLN media partner Huffpost Gay Voices selected Cox as its LGBT History Month Icon Of The Day on Friday, Oct. 26. Cox is also a frequent blogger on Huffpost.
Cox speaks exclusively with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about her work in “Musical Chairs,” her blossoming career, her transgender activism and much more.
SDGLN: Laverne, did you have to audition for the part of Chantelle in “Musical Chairs,” or was the character written specifically for you?
Laverne: I had to audition. I was at the Sundance Film Festival a few days before my call back. This was 2011 when they had that big snowstorm in January. I got stranded in Chicago and there were no flights to New York City the day of my call back. I had to fly to Baltimore and take a train to New York. My luggage, of course, got lost. I made it there 15 minutes before the director Susan Seidelman was leaving for the day but I got the part. So it was all worth it.
SDGLN: What was it like playing a voluptuous transgender woman who was also paraplegic? How did you prepare for such a role, and make it believable?
Laverne: Voluptuous? Why thank you. The script didn’t say voluptuous. I think that’s my own unique quality that I brought to the role. But with the wheelchair element, I got really lucky. We had about four weeks of rehearsal to learn to ballroom dance in wheelchairs. Those rehearsals and getting to spend time with a few of the disabled actors in the film mainly Auti Angel and going out into the streets of New York City in a wheelchair were immensely helpful for me to understand what life might be like for me if I didn’t have the use of my legs. It was a very emotional process. I developed a new respect and admiration for the disabled people I got to meet on this journey.
SDGLN: Did you have any input into creating your character? Did director Susan Seidelman allow you much freedom as an actress?
Laverne: Building a character is always a collaboration between my director and me. So I always value that guidance. But Susan definitely trusted my impulses about the character and let me play.
SDGLN: What attracted you to this role?
Laverne: Chantelle is just a lot of fun. She’s black, trans and disabled but she doesn’t allow herself to be defined by those things. She has a great sense of humor about her circumstances. And she always insists on being sexy. I also grew up studying dance, mostly classical ballet. So the dance element felt like a great fit for me and ballroom dancing in a wheelchair was a great challenge that I was very excited about.
SDGLN: You made history in 2008 when you became the first African-American transgender woman to appear on reality TV, and accepted the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Reality Program for “I Want to Work for Diddy.” How did that experience transform your life?
Laverne: That was quite a year for me. That whole experience made me believe that anything is possible. A black trans woman from Mobile, Alabama, a single mother and a working class background could be on a reality show on VH1 nonetheless and be professional, fun, have dignity and be respected. Folks still remember me and recognize me on the street from that show and still say I should have won. It’s mostly black women. That feels truly amazing.
SDGLN: You also produced and starred in your own reality show, “TRANSform Me,” on VH1. What was the most important thing you learned from that series?
Laverne: Gosh I learned so much. That show was the first time I starred in my own show. A black trans woman starring in her own show on VH1. That’s crazy, when I think about it in retrospect. I learned how I respond to a tremendous amount of pressure and that I really need to take care of myself physically and emotionally in high pressure situations. I was majorly bullied as a kid. I always had this fantasy that one day I will be on TV and successful, and I will show all those bullies and all that pain would be wiped away. Starring in my own TV show -- the pain of my childhood didn’t melt away. I learned that career success doesn’t heal childhood trauma. That work has to be done separately.
SDGLN: You have become a highly visible activist for the transgender community. What is your mission and goals?
Laverne: I want to see more trans folks in the media represented in authentic ways. It is my hope that diverse, authentic representations of trans identities in the media will encourage everyone whether they are trans or not to define what it means to be a man, woman or neither on their own terms.
SDGLN: When and how old were you when you began to identify as transgender, and what was the reaction of your family and friends?
Laverne: I feel like it was late for me, actually, embracing the label transsexual. I was in college. I always felt like a girl but I had internalized so much transphobia. I had to move to New York City and meet trans folks to get over my preconceptions about trans people and to accept that that was me. I was always very feminine growing up. And in high school, I started wearing makeup and was very androgynous for years. So anyone who would have a problem with gender nonconformity wouldn’t have been my friend anyway. So my friends were like, yeah, that makes sense. My family has been the same way. My mom freaked out about the medical part of it, hormone replacement therapy and surgeries. But she’s my mom. She’s concerned about my health. My brother is so educated about trans issues and has many trans friends. So he’s super cool. I have been very lucky.
SDGLN: Mitt Romney or Barack Obama? And what could the election results mean for transgender Americans?
Laverne: Obama, hello! Obama has been the most pro trans president ever. He has appointed trans folks to various positions. His administration changed surgical requirements for changing gender markers on passports. Huge for trans folks traveling internationally. On his watch earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that trans folks are protected under title VII, which bans job discrimination based on sex. This is just to name a few advances for trans folks during his term. I hear there are also many trans folks working at the White House. Forward.
SDGLN: What’s next on the horizon for you?
Laverne: I have a recurring role on a new original series for Netflix called “Orange is the New Black.” It’s created by Jenji Kohan who created “Weeds.” I just finished the third episode which was directed by Jodie Foster. It should be out on Netflix in the spring.
SDGLN: Single or taken?
Laverne: Completely single, dating though and hopeful.
SDGLN: What’s playing on your MP3 player?
Laverne: Christina Aguilera’s “Your Body” and Bruno Mars “Grenade” the acoustic version. I love his voice.
SDGLN: If you could have the ultimate dinner party and invite three guests (living or dead), who would be there and why?
Laverne: Leontyne Price, Eartha Kitt and James Baldwin would be the guests. Leontyne Price is my ultimate idol. She changed the opera world through the power of her art. Eartha Kitt, another idol. She was political and sexy, and she and I seem to have similar sort of tragic love lives. James Baldwin. Baldwin’s life and work I find endlessly fascinating. These are all black folks who made a space for themselves through their art at a time when there weren’t spaces really carved out for black artists. They made their own spaces to thrive creatively. This is what I hope to do with my work.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.
Top left: Laverne Cox as Chantelle (sewing costume) and Morgan Spector as Kenny in "Musical Chairs."
Middle left: Laverne Cox on the red carpet at the Miami International Film Festival.
Bottom left: Movie poster