You play a transgender character, Sophia, on Orange Is the New Black. Were they specifically looking for a transgender person to play the role?
I’ve heard that they were looking for someone trans. Jenji Kohan [the show’s creator] says they had a joke in the writers’ room that they ideally wanted to hire a trans woman who had an identical twin brother.
That’s true for you. On the show, he plays your character in pretransition flashbacks.
That is true. It was a joke, but you just have to put it out into the universe, and it happens.
What did he think of all this?
To be perfectly honest, he was like, “How much does it pay?” He’s a musician, and he’s struggling financially, so it was about the money for him.
Besides also being a trans person, what else do you have in common with Sophia?
I think there’s a whole piece of guilt and shame about some of the things that she’s done, particularly in her relationship with her family, that really made me connect with her.
Your character was married with a kid before she made her transition. You discovered your gender identity a little earlier in life, right?
Absolutely. I don’t have children, and I don’t want children. I’ve never dated a woman ever. But I think there’s something in Sophia that we all can relate to as human beings, about not wanting to disappoint family. Her shame about the things she’s done really made me connect to her.
Were your parents immediately accepting of your identity?
What took time for my mom was getting the pronouns right and calling me by a different name. Laverne was my middle name before I transitioned. It took a lot of difficult conversations. She never said “I don’t want to see you” or “I don’t want you around.” I was an adult when I told her. It was her decision whether she wanted to accept me or not, and she did.
Was it a complete surprise for her, or had she known for awhile? As a kid, were there clues of who you really were?
I’m writing a book now, so I interviewed my mom about what she knew and what she didn’t, and she was in crazy denial. I thought I was gay initially and I thought this wouldn’t be a surprise to her, considering. I mean, she knew that I was bullied, like the kids called me sissy and the F word throughout school. But then she was really shocked when I told her. It was just a crazy amount of denial.
Was it hard to objectively report on your own life?
It’s funny, my mother and I remember things completely differently. In certain instances, I’ll say my mother remembers it this way — but this is my book. What’s difficult is remembering details; it’s intensely painful. I’ll write for a couple of hours and then start crying for like half an hour.
You grew up in Alabama, and you were very involved in your church. That doesn’t strike me as an environment open to the concept of gender fluidity.
It does seem there’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of policy in my church. There were gay men in my church who we all knew were gay. But no one talked about it. I’ve talked to other black folks in the South, and there’s a lot of those sort of policies.
So you didn’t feel like your fellow churchgoers were judging your sexuality?
Oh no, they absolutely did. There was constant policing of my gender as a child. “You’re not supposed to act like this and this is what a man is supposed to do.” I can’t say that I felt comfortable not being myself. You were supposed to act the way someone else thinks you’re supposed to act.
When you got the role on Orange, were you at all concerned with the context? Sophia is the first transgender person a lot of audiences will be exposed to, and she’s in prison. Do you worry that’s sending the wrong message?
I think our show really makes it explicit that just because someone is incarcerated does not mean they are no longer a human being. It does not mean that they are no longer valuable people. We can’t talk about America without talking about this. We incarcerate more people than anybody else in the world. What’s going on with that?
You’ve played a few prostitutes in your career. How many exactly?
Seven and counting. I’m not opposed to playing sex workers. I know trans women who do sex work, and I know they’re deeply interesting and human people so I’m not opposed to that, obviously since I’ve done it seven times.
But as an actress who wants to keep working, can you say no to a role even if it might be a harmful stereotype?
I’ve turned down some things that are just deeply problematic. But I don’t find sex work offensive. I’m not interested in this false dichotomy around positive versus negative representation. It does not allow for the complexity and the nuance and the full breadth of humanity, and particularly with trans women, the full breadth of who we are as people. There are a lot of us who do sex work but then a lot of us who don’t, and I think we need to see that as well.
You’ve said that Sophia has helped people come out.
Earlier this year, a woman in Canada was in tears as she met me. She said that watching the show allowed her to be able to have a conversation with her wife about her desire to transition. She’s almost done now, and she’s still in the relationship.
Does it get tiring to always be the spokesperson for the trans community? Nobody just asks about your acting career. It always veers into a discussion about trans issues. Does it sometimes feel like a weight to bear?
Well yes, it does feel like a weight to bear, absolutely. I like talking about these issues, but sometimes it’s deeply painful. I mean, we’re talking about injustice. It’s exhausting. But I think it’s important. I have the platform that I have and I’m using it to elevate some of the issues that are important to me and amplify some of the voices of trans folks who don’t have the platform that I have. I went to acting class last night and my acting coach Brad Calcaterra reminded me that my job really is just to tell the truth. I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to elevate the conversation and to say things that haven’t been said before and it’s exhausting. But Brad reminded me that my job is to tell the truth and to tell my truth.
Would you rather be known as just an actress, without the trans modifier?
Yeah, but at the same time I think it’s important to empower being trans. I think it’s important to say that being trans is beautiful and that being black is beautiful. In the 60’s and 70’s—I wasn’t alive then but I know my history—there was this mantra “Black is Beautiful.” It’s about moving away from these white supremacist ideals of who black folks were, because black folks are so deeply colonized and some of them still are. I think trans folks have been deeply colonized too. Most of the narrative around trans identity has been about transitioning. You blend in, and that is the goal, but blending in was never an option for me. Some people are going to know that we’re trans. And what’s wrong with that? There’s nothing wrong with that. Being trans is beautiful and for me this work is about empowering being trans. That’s where I’m at now. Maybe in 20 years I’ll be like “I’m just an actress,” but now I’m like “Being trans is beautiful.”
There was some criticism of Jared Leto getting an Oscar for playing a transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club, on the grounds that he wasn’t transgender himself. Was that fair?
As an actor I never ever, ever would say that another actor should not play a role. Our job as actors is to humanize the parts that we play. (Jared’s role) was an undeniable, brilliant performance, so I think there is something that Jared understands about that particular character that was deeply human and profound. What I would say is that a trans actress playing a trans character can be very powerful. I have heard beautiful stories from trans folks about how Sophia has allowed them to have conversations about who they are with their friends and family. A trans kid told me “Now when I tell people I’m trans they say, ‘Oh, like Sophia from Orange is the New Black,’ and then we just move on.”
And that wouldn’t happen if your character was played by a cissexual?
I’m not saying that non-trans actors shouldn’t play trans, but there’s a real cultural change that can happen when we see trans people in these roles and the public is finding themselves identifying and connecting with real trans people. I believe when we connect with human beings as human beings, that’s when the change happened.
What’s your dream role? Who would you love to play, if being trans or not trans wasn’t a factor?
There’s a lot of things. My brother wants me to play an attorney and a lot of folks think I would be a good attorney in real life. I still want a guest spot on Suits or The Good Wife. Those are two attorney dramas I live for. I also love Lady Macbeth. All the scheming and conniving. And then the fact that it drives her crazy is a really interesting commentary on the pursuit of power for powers sake.
Will we live to see a day when there’s a transgender crime-scene investigator on a C.S.I. spinoff?
This is my dream! This is my dream! In a lot of ways that’s the dream in terms of representation, to have this proliferation of trans characters on television the way we have with gay and lesbian characters, and black folks playing a variety of different characters on television. That is the dream! I actually believe it is possible.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June 1, 2014 issue of the New York Times Magazine.)