Just in time for this week’s season three premiere of Orange Is the New Black on Netflix, Rotten Tomatoes chatted with star Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia Burset — a transgender inmate who lands in prison after committing fraud to pay for her transition.
Since appearing on the show, Cox has become one of the major faces of the LGBTQ community, named a Glamour Magazine ‘Woman of the Year,” one of People’s “Most Beautiful People,” and one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.”
Cox talked about her surprising success and the new-found responsibilities it presents. (And some nice perks that come with it too.)
Sarah Ricard for Rotten Tomatoes: It’s been really nice to see a cast who is this enthusiastic about their show by the third season.
Laverne Cox: I think it’s the work. I really believe that it is. What the writers have presented us is so juicy and so full and it’s just so exciting. We’re all very grateful. It all feels like it’s just happened, honestly. It feels like we just started, but the third season is about to premiere. It’s crazy.
Rotten Tomatoes: When you started this project, did you have any inkling of the kind of impact that it would have culturally and socially?
Cox: No, absolutely not. There’s no way anyone can predict this. Literally, I said to myself, “This is a show about women in prison and we all look different. We don’t look like the traditional people on TV and it’s great. This is awesome, but is anybody going to watch it?” I was like, “I hope at least that casting directors will watch, so they can see that I’ve got some skills and I can get more work.” That was my narrative to myself. And I was really happy that I got to work with Jodie Foster and just to have all this great material, but I didn’t imagine [that].
Rotten Tomatoes: You certainly didn’t see that you were going to be a trailblazer, for example.
Cox: No, and on a Nexflix show at the time. Now, yes, and we can see. But on a Netflix show, absolutely not.
Rotten Tomatoes: How do you feel about your role in the culture now as such an important figure?
Cox: It’s bizarre. I’m in the TIME’s 100 [Most Influential People in the World] this year and so I was at the event. It was my second year going. I wasn’t on the list last year, but I’m on the list this year and I was there, very calm, and then they had the presentation of the honorees and I was like, “I’m on the list with all these amazing people. How did this happen?”
My agent is there with me, and I’m just like, “We’re on the list. What is going on?” It’s shocking. I’m wondering, “How did I get here? Am I doing enough to warrant staying here? What am I doing now?” I’m always asking myself that. What is my obligation to the communities that I represent? Then, what is my obligation to myself? How do I take care of myself first, so that I can be available for the other stuff? I don’t know.
I met the president again, and the first lady, who are just such delightful people, and he remembered meeting me for the first time. He’s like, “Good to see you again.” And I’m like, “He remembered me?”
A lot of amazing things have happened. I’ve met a lot of amazing people, but I don’t think I’ll ever not be giddy meeting the President of the United States and not being like, “Oooooh!” and shaking.
Rotten Tomatoes: Obviously you made an impression.
Cox: I think it’s the show. He said, “The last time I saw you, I was asking, ‘When is the next season premiering?’ — and I’m still asking you that.” The president is fiending for Orange just as much as anyone else, which is wonderful… Isn’t that amazing?
Rotten Tomatoes: It really is. It’s also amazing to me to see how television is changing, in part because of your show.
Cox: HBO did it in its day, and Showtime, but I think it took a systemic change, i.e., streaming. It’s literally a systemic change that shifted [television], so when we talk about various kinds of status quos and how they’re codified in a systemic sort of way, that system being dismantled is the way to create the change. That’s what has happened: that system has been re-imagined and dismantled. And it’s because of Netflix.