This interview contains spoilers for Orange Is the New Black season three.
Season three of Orange Is the New Black was rough on many inmates (not even Bennett could stick around to watch), but no one's life unraveled more than Sophia Burset's. Just as she's figuring out how to be a parent to a son headed down the wrong path, she's forced to confront her own problems first. In a scene that seals Sophia's fate this season, her showdown with Gloria ends with Sophia smashing Gloria's head into a bathroom wall. Or at least that's where Sophia hoped it had ended. Thanks to some nasty rumors spread by Aleida, all of Litchfield retaliated; some by not defending Sophia, and others by brutally assaulting her in her only sanctuary: the salon. But just when we thought Caputo would make sure Sophia got justice, the powers that be tossed her in the SHU for speaking out. Vulture spoke to Laverne Cox about Sophia's difficult season, the realities of being a trans woman of color in prison, and what she thinks about Ruby Rose's gender-fluid crusade.
We’ve seen a few Litchfield inmates sent to the SHU for reasons that aren’t always clear or legal. But we hadn’t seen someone sent there for her “own protection” until Sophia this season. What was your reaction to the way she was treated?
What I think is so brilliant about Sophia’s story line and that particular moment — and what Jenji Kohan and our writers came up with — is that it shows the truth of the experience that a lot of transgender folks have in prison every single day. Far too often, trans people who are incarcerated are placed in solitary confinement allegedly for “our protection.” And sometimes trans women are placed in men’s prisons, where they put us in solitary confinement, which is cruel and unusual punishment allegedly for our protection. So when the writers came up with this, it’s from reality. This is what happens to so many transgender people who are incarcerated every single day. I’m executive-producing a documentary called Free CeCe about CeCe McDonald, who’s an African-American transgender woman who spent 19 months of a 41-month prison sentence in a men’s prison for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack. And three different times when she was incarcerated, she experienced being placed in solitary confinement allegedly for her protection. She fought to get herself taken out of solitary, but this is just the reality for a lot of transgender people all over the country today.
It’s an issue you’ve been very vocal about in the past. Did you speak to Jenji about specifically inserting that into the show via Sophia’s story arc, or did it just happen organically?
It happened organically. I never spoke to Jenji about this, but our writers are very astute and aware of what’s going on in the criminal-justice system. And in addition to entertaining the public, they’re interested in shedding a light on the corrupt nature of this system. I don’t know if other actors on the show are able to speak to Jenji ... she has a very clear vision, and she’s not steered us wrong yet. So I trust that vision and our writers. This is just the reality of what it means to be a trans person incarcerated.
After Sophia’s jumped, we see her bruised, beaten, and without a wig for the first time in prison. It felt very reminiscent of Viola Davis’s moment where she takes off her wig on How to Get Away With Murder, only that was about feeling empowered whereas this was about humiliation. What was it like filming that powerful scene in Caputo’s office after the attack?
When I read this episode, I was just in tears. I bawled reading it because it was deeply triggering for me. Violence against trans people is something I talk a lot about; it’s an issue that cuts me to my core. This is my own history. And the scene in Caputo’s office, there were so many takes where I just sort of left my body. Obviously, I knew what I was going to say, but there were reactions that I had in the moment that I didn’t anticipate having, ways that the dialogue came out that I felt like I wasn’t in control of. I felt like something just sort of took over my body ... in a way, it was a gift, but it was also very intense. That whole episode was for me. I knew immediately when I read it that it was bigger than me, and I knew I needed to draw on something that was bigger than me. I was deeply guided by some other force that I can’t really describe. Some actors call it being "in the zone," but something else just took over. And I think something else needed to take over because, for me, Laverne, it was probably too difficult.
It was really hard to be in those circumstances knowing that so many trans people are fighting for their lives. Even speaking about the moment where Sophia is attacked and she’s fighting for her life, I can’t help but think of all the trans people all over the world who on a daily basis are fighting for our lives, to have a sense of dignity, and to survive. And the trauma associated with that is very real for me, and I can’t help but think about the collective trauma of our community as trans people and trans people of color. I was also raised in the AME church and [can't help but think about] what just happened in South Carolina, and the collective trauma we have as a nation around these incidents that consistently happen where we’ve created violence as a culture. As trans people of color, there’s so many different layers of that. So the trauma of that was just very real and raw for me.
There’s a particularly striking scene where Sophia’s speaking to Sister Ingalls, and she tells her that no matter how much she feels like one of the girls, they’ll always regard her as “a freak.” It’s a feeling I’m sure a lot of trans women, particularly trans women of color, can relate to. Because even when Aleida spreads those rumors, the other black women who we think are supposed to have Sophia’s back aren’t there for her.
Taystee does defend her, but at the same time, she’s trying to look out for herself. And that’s the interesting thing: Sometimes it can be difficult to stand up for what is right because you might threaten your own livelihood and your own stability. And let’s keep it real, Sophia has certainly received a lot of injustice. But if Sophia had apologized to Gloria and said, “I was wrong and I’m sorry and I’ll let Benny come up for the visits,” then none of this would’ve happened. The Latinas would’ve had her back. But people don’t have your back in prison, that’s just the way the system goes. And when people don’t have your back, then you’re in trouble. In a lot of ways, Sophia created this because she didn’t apologize. But also she couldn’t deal with the fact that she felt responsible for not being there for Michael as he spins out of control and is becoming this juvenile delinquent ... and when you make a mistake, this system is really not set up for you, especially a trans woman of color, to thrive in these circumstances. And I think that moment with Sister Ingalls where she realizes that she probably doesn’t have any friends was a really hard scene. I loved that relationship so much. And even though it was hard, those are the things I live for as an actress. You have these really difficult moments to play that are really layered, none of it’s black and white. It’s a corrupt system that puts Sophia in the SHU, but at the end of the day, it’s a complicated thing.
This season we really get to see how Sophia acts as a parent behind bars. At one point she gives Michael some troubling advice about practicing on “insecure girls” as a way to learn about sex. That’s a complicated perspective for any woman, not just a trans woman, to have. What did you make of that?
It’s obviously deeply problematic. But I think in that moment when Michael asks, “Is this advice from my second mother or my used-to-be dad,” Michael is saying, I don’t need a second mother, I need a dad. And Sophia very imperfectly is trying to be a father figure, and she’s doesn't really know how. So she’s like, “Well, the advice I got from my dad is [to] pick the insecure girl and practice on her.” So she got this flawed advice, and for me, that’s a moment of how dysfunction can be carried on from generation to generation, right? If we haven’t really interrogated the messages that were passed on to us from [our] own parents, we will re-create these cycles. And that is Sophia in this moment, not knowing how to be a father figure, and she doesn’t really know how to be a mother either. She’s just trying to survive. And what’s so different about Sophia’s experiences [compared to] mine is that she transitioned in a relationship with a woman, and then soon after that she was incarcerated. So she doesn’t have the experiences as a woman to be dealing with men that I have and other trans women of color may have had. So she’s also coming from that perspective, too. It’s messed up. And for me, that’s one of the beautiful things about playing this character, is how beautifully flawed she is.
The big question on everyone’s mind now that Sophia’s in the SHU for who knows how long is: Will she back next season. What can you tell me?
[Laughs.] I can’t, I really can’t [say anything]. I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to say. So I’ll just say we’ll have to wait and see. [Laughs.]
You newest co-star, Ruby Rose, has been a longtime activist for gender-fluidity awareness, and she’s become the face of that community after her appearance on OITNB. What are your thoughts on her “Break Free” video and the new diversity she’s brought to the show?
I haven’t seen it yet. I’ll have to watch it, but I love that. What’s interesting for me around the genderfluid question and people who are on a gender spectrum, you know, I identify as female and there are lots of trans people who identify as either male or female. But there are so many trans people who identify as agender, bigender, genderqueer, or somewhere on the gender spectrum that’s not male or female. And I’m so excited. I haven’t seen what Ruby’s doing, exactly, but I’ve met so many people who identify as neither male or female, and I think it’s so important to highlight those stories and those voices. I’ll have to check it out!
Coming up next, you appear in the Sundance favorite Grandma. What was it like playing Lily Tomlin’s tattoo artist?
I love her. She’s a theater legend, and it was a dream come true to get to work with her. She is so funny and smart. When I’m in my 70s, I can only dream of being as quick-witted, smart, and astute as she remains. It was awesome getting to have fake tattoos and piercings and learn about the tattoo artistry. It was a delight getting to work on this film, and Lily is brilliant in it. I think she should get an Oscar for this performance — a long overdue Oscar.