Part of the magic of Laverne Cox is in the way that she champions the people around her. During our conversation – which she has entered full of energy, having just stepped out of a hip-hop/jazz-ballet fusion workout – she’s almost moved to tears as she recounts the news of fellow actor MJ Rodriguez winning a major award for her phenomenal performance in hit Netflix series Pose. “We have history being made with MJ winning her Golden Globe,” Cox says. “The first openly trans actress to win a Golden Globe – it’s just like, [let’s] celebrate, let’s scream from the rooftop.”
The actor, producer and activist exudes empathy and warmth for others. There is a force field of love and fortitude that surrounds her. There is also a deep compassion that she has learned to extend to herself. A stan of the researcher and author Brené Brown, Cox embraces the power of vulnerability – just like her mentor. “Historically, we have associated [vulnerability] with weakness, but [Brown] has found in her research that it is our biggest measure of courage,” Cox tells me. “With the traumatic childhood [I experienced], it felt like weakness, and I couldn’t show any vulnerability for a very long time because it felt life-threatening.”
It was Cox’s determination to become a “serious actor”, as she puts it, that left her no choice but to open herself up in ways that terrified her. And she recognizes that her ability to unmask encourages others to do the same. “[It was a] process of cracking open my instrument and dealing with [the] trauma that I had pushed down,” she shares. “I think allowing myself to be vulnerable is a gift for other people to be vulnerable. It’s a better way to live than being armored up.”
Cox’s embodiment of the characters she plays never fails to deliver – from her brilliant performance in Orange Is The New Black (in which she was the first Black trans woman to be cast as a lead in a mainstream TV show) to the award-winning Promising Young Woman and Shonda Rhimes’ upcoming Inventing Anna. It is evident this comes from the research, investment and care that Cox pours into the roles she takes on.
I often think about how many Black women who created things, started things, [but] don’t have the same money and fame that other people do”
In Inventing Anna – which tells the story of Anna Delvey (previously known as Sorokin), the socialite who managed to penetrate the upper echelons of New York society and fabricate the identity she felt she deserved – Cox plays Kacy Duke, a fitness instructor hired by the con artist. Duke accompanied Delvey on a now-infamous trip to Morocco (where Delvey could not foot their $62,000 luxury stay) and tried to stage an intervention, as it became apparent that Delvey’s claims were not gospel. As part of preparing for the role, Cox spent time with the real Duke and she can practically recount her life story, determined that this be a moment for Duke’s achievements to be revered.
“She’s trained Denzel Washington and other celebrities, like Lenny Kravitz.” Cox’s respect is palpable. “As I listened to her story, I was just thinking about this woman who [is] a pioneer,” she shares of the high-profile trainer, who co-opened the first three Equinox gyms in the US but didn’t benefit when it sold for more than $100 million. “I often think about how many Black women who created things, started things, [but] don’t have the same money and fame that other people do.” We don’t meet Duke until episode five of Inventing Anna, but Cox is hopeful that the show will bring her experiences to a broader audience. “Part of this thing for me, with Kacy, is just saying that out loud – and acknowledging that she is a pioneer and a barrier-breaker in the fitness business, who is still here and still training people and deserves her flowers.”
She isn’t shy to let me know that her reason for taking on the role in the first place was that if Shonda Rhimes calls, you answer! “If Shonda Rhimes wants you for something, you’ve got to say ‘yeah’,” she laughs, as she recounts being offered the role. “If I’m being really real, why would I say no?” Duke is 17 years Cox’s senior. “She looks half her age. And she’s obviously in impeccable shape.” Cox paints a comical picture of her physical preparation for the role. “People were picking up my bags like, ‘What’s in here?!’ I had, like, five- and 10-pound weights that [I] traveled with.”
I think the most important thing for me to do as an activist is to be in a space of love for myself, for my community and, again, [to] lead by example”
Aside from her respect for both Rhimes and Duke, something in the complexity of the Anna Delvey case sparked a more profound interest in how Cox views the power structures that dictate the US social and political systems. She considers Delvey’s con-artistry and what it speaks to. “I think about certain powerful people who come from wealth and there aren’t consequences. I [find] that fascinating – the whole thing of what constitutes the American Dream. The criminality that Anna engaged in is not unlike the fraudulent [behavior] that folks on Wall Street engaged in and crashed the economy in 2008 – and none of them went to jail.”
Cox’s analysis of political structures, and the campaigning work around the implementation of anti-trans legislation, underpins her activist work. When I ask if she feels pressure to ‘get it right’ while the world is watching, she tells me that for her communities, yes, she does – but the way she advocates in her activism is shifting. “I think the most important thing for me to do as an activist is to be in a space of love for myself, for my community and, again, [to] lead by example. How do I highlight my humanity, and the humanity of other trans people and people of color, and not engage in the sort of political back-and-forth that isn’t productive?”
With a focus on the fortification of marginalized people across spiritual, emotional and psychological lines, Cox looks to history – in particular, the “spiritual history [of African Americans] that literally is in resilience” – as a way to pull on the strength of those who have come before her. “When all the onslaughts happen – even though we may be broken, in terms of material access to things, our spirits aren’t.”
While the world can be a heavy and hostile place, Cox stresses the importance of tapping into joy – whether that’s in celebrating Rodriguez’s recent accolade or in the small, precious moments she shares with her boyfriend. “The fact that I’m 49 years old and madly in love, that gives me a tremendous amount of hope. It feels like a miracle to be able to [be a] Black transgender woman who is going to be 50 in May, who is thriving. I’m just in such gratitude to the universe for choosing me to live this life.”
Inventing Anna is out on Netflix on February 11