Laverne Cox Is Searching for the “Bigger Reason” Behind Her Emmy Nomination

Laverne Cox—the only transgender person nominated for an acting Emmy—is still waiting for the rest of the culture to catch up.

25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards Nominations Announcement
Emma McIntyre

Laverne Cox has been blazing trails ever since she first appeared on the small screen. In 2014 she made history as the first-ever transgender person to be nominated for an acting Emmy, for her performance as Sophia Burset on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Two years later, she was nominated again, and, now, she’s been tapped once more—and hoping the third time is the charm.

While Cox’s nominations—and fact that transgender actors are now starring on hit series like Pose and Euphoria—suggests progress when it comes to securing equality for the gender non-conforming, Cox makes clear that there’s still plenty of work to be done. The television world might might be on board with the non-binary, but the rest of the culture (and the political administration) needs to catch up, she says. Doing her part to make that happen is, in her words, both “a responsibility and a burden.”

Here, Cox spoke to W about her Emmy hopes, Hollywood hurdles, and defying easy classification when it comes to both gender and politics.

Hi Laverne, how are you?

How am I? That’s a good question. Well, Toni Morrison has just passed away so I’ve been thinking about her and her work. I’ve been kind of numb to the latest mass shooting thing. It’s so intense, I don’t know how to make sense of that. So that’s swirling around in my head. And then my own personal stuff. But we’re here to talk about the Emmys! [Laughs.]

You represent a lot as a pop culture figure. The first time you were nominated for an Emmy was in 2014, then again in 2016. After the first season, the Academy shifted Orange is the New Black from being considered a comedy to being considered a drama. How do you think that affected your chances of being nominated each time?

What is so beautiful is that I’ve been nominated. I think Orange defies categorization. Everybody calls it a dramedy, but it’s just its own thing. I think what I do on Orange has tended to be more dramatic work, but then there are certain characters that are more comedic, and some that toe the line between the two. I’m just grateful. Three Emmy nominations is insane to me, and I haven’t fully been able to process that. When it happened, I was shooting a movie and I thought, it’s the sixth season of our show, the final season just dropped, I’m grateful to the Academy but is there a bigger reason why I would get a nomination for a third time? Because I think that there’s always a bigger reason for things happening. I believe that. There’s a bigger lesson, bigger calls to action. I’ve been thinking a lot about what the bigger reason might be and I wish I had an answer.

You are still the only transgender person to be nominated for an acting Emmy. What does that feel like?

In a year of a show like Pose being nominated in other categories, none of the trans actors from that show have been nominated, so I felt like maybe I’m supposed to talk about that. I don’t know. There’s so much incredible talent there. There’s so much incredible trans talent on television right now in general, so part of me was thinking maybe it’s my job to encourage academy voters to consider that talent as well. The first time I was nominated in 2014 it was historic because I was the first trans person nominated for an acting Emmy. Now, for my third nomination I’m like, maybe the Academy needs to vote for me and we can make more history. [Laughs.]

I saw your comments on Watch What Happens Live about expecting Mj Rodriguez to join the ranks with you when the nominations were revealed, and then her work on Pose didn’t receive a nomination. Are you disappointed in the Academy?

I’m grateful and appreciative that there are trans people on television. Trans people playing trans parts, trans people playing non trans roles. Hari Nef plays a wonderful character on You, and I don’t think the character is trans at all or it’s not mentioned. That’s exciting. When Orange is the New Black premiered in 2013, there were no trans actors with recurring roles on television, and according to GLAAD’s latest statistic, there are about 17 of us. That’s pretty dope.

What other changes in terms of trans representation on screen have you witnessed since your first Emmy nomination?

When I got the first nomination, I was trying to grapple with the history of it. Whenever I try to grapple with being a “first” I look to my history as a black person in entertainment, and I found an interview with Sidney Poitier. There’s a documentary on him and he was talking about when he won an Oscar in 1964 for Lilies of the Field. He said he would feel like we’ve overcome if he’s not the only one. The next black actor to win a lead acting Oscar was Denzel Washington for Training Day in 2002. So, that was a big stretch of time. If we talk about lead acting Oscars, I’m interested in this history. Dorothy Dandridge was nominated in 1955 for a Best Actress Oscar, it wasn’t until I think 2002 that Halle Berry finally won one. That was a long time. Is it going to be a long time between a trans person being nominated for an Emmy and a trans person winning one? And how do we begin to get other trans folks nominated?

What do you think needs to be done to get more trans people nominated for acting roles?

I think part of it is that we have to have the parts. When Viola Davis won her Emmy for How to Get Away with Murder she said, we can’t win awards for parts that don’t exist, so it’s exciting that a show like Pose exists, and that there are meaty, juicy incredible stories being told with amazing actors who are brilliant. For years, people said that there are no trans actors or that we couldn’t find any trans people to play these parts. You can’t say that anymore. And that makes me really excited.

Do you feel the burden of representation weighing on you as you are still the only trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy?

It’s complicated. It comes with a responsibility to be the only one at this point. There’s a big responsibility and a burden, so I’m trying to wrestle with that, and trying to use this Emmy platform in a way to elevate the other amazing talent. Hunter Schafer on Euphoria, I just watched the season finale last night. What’s happening on that show is really revolutionary. And Asia Kate Dillon on Billions, there’s this nonbinary character who is an Orange is the New Black alum. I want to lift up the trans talent that’s on television right now who are doing really brilliant work.

Would you ever want to guest star on Pose, or any of the other shows you’re a fan of?

I mean, I love Pose. I love Euphoria. I don’t know if I fit, or if my energy fits into those worlds. I would be honored if the writers saw something for me there. I’m so blessed that I’m on hiatus, shooting a movie, Jolt, in London and then going to Bulgaria in a few weeks to finish. I’m blessed to be very busy with my own projects. So, I’m game if any of these shows think that my talent and my energy might be a fit there, but I’m also very excited about some of the work that I’m developing for myself.

You also had a cameo on the premiere of A Black Lady Sketch Show. What was it like to work on a project that was comprised of all black women?

I love doing both comedy and drama. I really do. I had so much fun on A Black Lady Sketch Show! Just to do a scene with the legendary Angela Bassett was a dream come true. And Robin Thede, the creator of the show, is such a genius. To be on a set that is completely run by black women, I’ve never been on a set like that before. It was so epic and so beautiful. I love doing comedy and I love getting to create characters like that, but I love drama as well. I love being able to combine them. I think in so many ways Orange Is the New Black has been perfect for me because there have been moments in my life very recently, crying and laughing at the same time. Sometimes when things are so hard you have to find ways to laugh and have levity.

Do you feel that you’ve had to force yourself into some of these entertainment spaces where you’re not part of the majority?

As a producer, I’ve been thinking a lot about, as I try to get projects made, what are my sets going to look like when I finally get to develop something? I’m working on a documentary now called Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen. We’re looking for funding to finish the film. It looks at the history of how trans people have been represented on screen over the past hundred years. My director Sam Feder has a model where we have a mostly transgender crew, and in the case where we couldn’t find someone transgender to fill a role, we have a non trans person train a trans person. The idea is that we build up trans folks so that they can work behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. That has been very inspiring to me, thinking about what kinds of sets I want to create in terms of diversity. Who do we hire? I’m thinking about that, when I have more say and more power over who is hired. It’s kind of heavy.

Orange is the New Black’s final season was just released, but it stands the chance of receiving nominations next fall for the 2020 Emmy Awards. We’ve talked about how change takes a long time to take effect, but what do you think could change by this time next year?

I think the Screen Actors Guild has a chance to nominate Pose as an ensemble, and they have a chance to nominate Pose for individual acting awards, and that would be lovely. It’s so competitive. It really should be about the talent, and how good folks are. It’s just so utterly subjective when you’re judging art, but we have opportunities to continue the conversation. We have opportunities to look at the talent and celebrate the talent. There is a young trans actor on the new season of Dear White People, Quei Tann. There’s just so much talent, and I’m so excited. I want them to consider talent, at the very least, in the awards division.

And then in the world, in general, we just had another mass shooting. What is it going to take? Folks need to get engaged and get involved. I’m a registered independent; I don’t like binaries in terms of gender or politics. If we want to get something done, we need a Democrat in the White House that’s not bought and paid for by corporations, and a Senate that is Democratic and not bought and paid for by corporations, so we can get things done for the people, for the environment. It’s ridiculous what’s going on. We are at a crossroads. It’s so hard not to get angry and depressed. Like, we’re running out of water, we’re not doing anything about climate change. And corporations are so greedy that they just care about profit, and we’re going to deplete the planet? Greed. So much of it is greed. Oh, you got me all worked up. I got myself riled up. People will say, “She’s this liberal actress in Hollywood we shouldn’t listen to her.” All of this us versus them tribalism is killing us. Can we stop?

So, what do you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world? How do you ground yourself?

Well, I have therapy later. I meditate. I journal. And then, I try to recenter myself so that the anger, the outburst, I can find a way to temper that into some kind of action. I have to do so many things to balance. I’m trying to find out what service I can be in this whole thing because I talk a lot, which is part of what I do, but what actions can I take and how can I use my platform? I’m always asking myself that. I want to try to do it from a centered place because I think so many of us are acting from “fight, flight, or freeze.” Our nervous systems, we’re not in that prefrontal cortex part where we can have a more reasoned, measured, resilient response to things. I try to, as much as possible, try to not be in the survival response mode because when we are operating from there we’re not using our full resources as human beings. Maybe we can begin to work collectively from a place of resilience and abundance and not the scarcity that is keeping us in peril.

Related: Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Carmen Carrera, and More Express Outrage at Reported Removal of Transgender Civil Rights Protections