During PEOPLE’s exclusive first look at the Paley Center’s Pride Month programming, A Salute to LGBTQ+ Pride Achievements in Television, actress and activist Laverne Cox revealed shocking news about her journey to Hollywood superstardom. Just before booking the role of Sophie Burset on Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, Cox considered throwing in the acting towel altogether.

“In the fall of 2012 we started shooting this show and I was just so happy to have a job; I was in rent arrears on my apartment, I had rolled back rent and I was in all kinds of debt and I was going to give up acting actually, a few months before I booked Orange,” Cox said, as reported by People. The actress was also joined in discussion by Cynthia Nixon, Ilene Chaiken, Jason Collins, and Adam Rippon, and was moderated by Gio Benitez“I had turned 40 that year and had a breakout moment and I was in debt and things weren’t going the way I hoped they would.” 

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As an alternative, Cox was planning to pivot her career back to academia and head back to graduate school. She actively began studying for the GRE and suddenly the audition for OITNB happened, which she said: “turned out to be my grad school.” During the virtual panel, she described her life as “kind of in shambles” and was “devastated” at the thought of hitting her 40s and not achieving her dreams of an actress – just yet. “I was just like, ‘I’ve got to do something else. Who do I think I am? I’m a Black trans woman — no one’s ever done this before, let me go and do something, have a real job or something,'” Cox continued.

“It changed everything. I have a career now that I always dreamed about because of that show, and what’s really beautiful about Orange is, I had writing and storylines that I had dreamed about,” she gushed about her path to success. Cox made history as the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted series and the first openly trans actress to be nominated for a primetime acting Emmy.