“Orange Is The New Black,” Netflix’s drama about female prison inmates that became an unexpected but hugely gratifying hit when it debuted last year, returns today for its second season. The joyfully heralded arrival of these new episodes is to be followed on Monday by a related and significant event: the publication of an issue of Time magazine that features “Orange Is the New Black” star Laverne Cox on the cover as the face of “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.”
The show has been a platform for a great number of wildly talented actresses of color, including Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Dascha Polanco, Samira Wiley and veteran Michelle Hirst. But Cox feels like the most significant breakout star of “Orange Is the New Black,” thanks to the groundbreaking nature of her character, an incarcerated transgender woman named Sophia Burset, and Cox’s forceful, elegant advocacy for trans people’s rights.
There is no denying the significance of Cox’s influence on the debate over transgender issues and policy. Just as Ellen Degeneres, whose coming-out made the cover of Time in 1997, gave American audiences the sense that they were getting to know someone gay, Cox is helping viewers connect a set of issues that might have been abstract to them with the lived experience of someone they admire. The vituperative nature of some of the criticism aimed at Cox is a good measure of her impact.
It sometimes feels, though, as if in discussing Cox’s political work, we have neglected her work as an actress. So to mark the second season of “Orange Is the New Black,” I decided to take a look at Cox’s back catalog to try to determine the particular source of her star power.
Some of Cox’s earliest parts were as sex workers, and while it is a shame that she was slotted into these rather stereotypical roles, the fact that she played several of them gives us a chance to examine her range.
In the 2008 “Law & Order” episode “Sweetie,” Cox plays a prostitute named Minnie who works a truck stop. Cox has a great, lascivious smile, but when a detective (Jeremy Sisto) approaches her, trying to find a murder suspect, Cox nails the weariness of having to pitch client after client. Sisto turns her down, telling Minnie that he is looking for a man. “Honey, I’m more man than you can handle,” Minnie presses, trying to stay in the game. “A little whiter than you, and younger. No offense,” the detective tells her. “None taken,” Minnie says with the enormous dignity that shows up in so many of Cox’s roles. “The customer’s always right.”
A year later, Cox would play a similar role in the pilot episode of HBO’s “Bored to Death.” When aspiring detective Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) makes a racket in the hotel hallway outside the room where she is conducting business, Cox’s character ventures outside to examine the fuss. “What the hell is going on out here?” she asks, before switching into autopilot, but not without great irritation in her line readings. “You want a date, baby. Just had a client cancel on me.”
Cox tends to shine in her stillness, but there is a lovely little moment of physical comedy that follows her question. When Ames’s target suddenly bursts into the hallway, Cox ducks back without tripping over her high heels, sinuous in her surprise.
In a 2008 “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Cox plays Candace, a gym manager, who we meet when a pair of detectives ask for her and she stands up into the frame, resplendent in sparkling spandex and flipping her long hair. “Want to join my club, handsome?” Candace asks Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) with a wicked grin. In both “Bored to Death” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Cox uses her stature to her advantage, rather than letting herself be treated as a joke.
The gap between the body of work Cox was building even in these infuriatingly small parts and her stint on the short-lived reality show “I Want To Work For Diddy” in 2008 can be jarring. Even then, it is clear that Cox was aware that part of her appeal was political. “I’m so excited for the historic potential of someone like Mr. Combs saying to someone like me, a transgender woman, ‘I’d like for you to come and work for me,’ ” she told the panel of judges on her first episode.
Cox’s carefully cultivated seriousness about a fundamentally ridiculous task is ultimately fairly awkward. Sean Combs may be hugely self-important, but the music mogul had the good sense to parody himself in the 2010 comedy “Get Him to the Greek.” Watching Cox treat Combs with the solemnity one might reserve for a head of state and go into girlish paroxysms over the chance to meet him is not an uplifting spectacle.
But if the mark of a strong actress is the ability to be absorbing in a bad show or movie, “The Exhibitionists,” a deeply terrible and highly pretentious indie movie released in 2012, is a mark of Cox’s talent. In that film, Cox plays Blithe Stargazer, a washed-up pop star who comes to what will ultimately become a serious contender for the worst New Year’s Eve party in history, thrown by a pretentious filmmaker who wants to shoot her next music video.
While the people around her jitter with nerves, Blithe is still and contemptuous. She is the only one dressed for a party, in leather and fishnets, and she holds herself with a formality to accompany her outfit. Cox has a great, full-throated laugh, but her chortles are merciless here. Like many fine actors, she knows what to do with the corners of her mouth and eyes.
“Darling, the only people who accomplish anything in this world are the sons and daughters of the extremely powerful,” Blithe tells one of her fellow guests, a super-fan of Blithe’s who has gone to film school to try to emulate her. “You’ll do your rounds on some unpaid projects, eventually end up giving up in grief, and end up going back to school to become a nurse or something of that sort. You’ll end up harboring intense feelings of worship and jealousy for some privileged tart who ended up living your dream.”
This could have been a grim narrative of Cox’s own career. When she appeared on “I Want To Work For Diddy,” Cox’s profession was listed as “hostess,” despite the acting credits to her name. But instead, she and “Orange Is ihe New Black” were fortunate enough to find each other.
Sophia Burset is a character who combines all of Cox’s talents. From her post in the Litchfield prison beauty parlor, Cox is often still, and often listening to the other inmates. The scams and scheming the setting requires makes wonderful use of Cox’s talent for a wicked smile or a put-on look of piousness. And perhaps most of all, “Orange Is the New Black” lets Cox be something that her previous parts have rarely allowed her to be: tender. When Cox is playing off Tanya Wright, who portrays Sophia’s wife Crystal, her enormous eyes turn liquid.
If Cox’s rise as a political symbol had been a substitute for acting talent, her ascent
would still be important, but her impact would be confined to a single sphere. Instead, Cox’s advocacy is in service of both art and social progress. Her career trajectory is evidence of the pleasures we deny ourselves when we treat transgender people as stereotypes.