Reality TV fans will remember that before Laverne Cox was a lead actress on Orange Is The New Black, the LGBTQ activist made an impression on viewers while vying to become Diddy’s assistant on I Want to Work For Diddy.
It’s been nearly a decade since she first appeared on our TV screens, and following a recent Hollywood panel at OZY Fest — an annual event dubbed New York City’s answer to SXSW — the Emmy-nominated actress spoke to ESSENCE about the work she’s put in to get to where she’s at.
“For years I studied, I worked with an acting coach named Susan Batson, and I interned at her acting studio, answering the phones, mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets,” Cox shared. “I learned everything I could about her acting process, about the business part of being an actor and just immersed myself in it. I was obsessed.”
It’s not lost on the Alabama-bred beauty that her presence in Hollywood is a gamechanger for the industry. When Cox first emerged on television, she brought a level of diversity rarely seen on screens. While TV watchers were used to all-White casts or an all-White lineup in the position of leading roles, Cox’s presence offered a new take on the role of “leading lady.”
“Right now, it’s looking [more inclusive], especially on television,” Cox acknowledged. “I feel really blessed that I’m a part of Orange Is The New Black, but five years ago, when our show premiered, there were not Asian, Black, and Latino women of various sizes, ages, shapes, and sexual orientations on television.”
Cox points to streaming service Netflix, along with the FX network, as an example of how power players in show production are changing the media genre. Prior to the 2013 debut of Orange Is The New Black, there were no transgender actors in recurring parts on television.
With the help of the groundbreaking drama Pose, there are now close to 20.
“That’s still not enough, but that gives me hope,” Cox said of the progress. “We have to keep pushing, we have to keep making sure that we are emboldening diverse talents to get the skill set that they need to work in this business.”
Cox herself has made it a point to offer emerging talent helpful advice to aid in their success.
“Show up so qualified and prepared that they have to say yes and always find a way to add value,” she added. “Be persistent, be smart, and be really, really good and undeniable. Get to a point with whatever you want to work in— whether it’s props or below-the-line jobs—you get really good at it and people can’t deny you when you walk into the room.”
Season 6 of Orange Is The New Black is available now on Netflix.