By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com April 10 2012 1:00 AM ET
To prepare for her role as a transgender woman who uses a wheelchair in the new film Musical Chairs, actress Laverne Cox decided she needed to get used to wheeling around. Cox plays Chantelle, a friend to ballroom dancer Mia, who falls for Armando, a guy from the other side of the tracks. He introduces the women to the world of wheelchair ballroom dancing.
Whenever possible, Cox made it a point to stay in her wheelchair to better understand her character. One afternoon, amid upper-body workouts and after weeks of rehearsal, Cox ventured out into New York’s Times Square during the dizzying lunch rush with two of her costars. Even with the guidance of cast mate Auti Angel, who is disabled in real life, Cox and fellow actor Morgan Spector had no idea what they were in for.
“Being seated with crowds of people around you in Times Square in the middle of the day was an intense experience,” Cox says. “There was this store that we wanted to go to, but my wheelchair didn’t fit through the doors. There was an adjoining door that the proprietors of the store could have opened so I could get through, but they didn’t want to.”
It was a tough moment for Cox, who says she felt deeply connected to Chantelle and disheartened by the whole experience.
“As a transgender woman, the world isn’t set up for me to live and thrive,” she says. “But then look at someone with a disability, where the world really isn’t set up for you, even with laws in place — it’s a whole other challenge. The disabled people I’ve met working on this film live with such dignity, and they just thrive.”
Even with snide remarks hurled at her, particularly by Spector’s character, Kenny, Chantelle shines with charming, dignified resilience — a trait that Cox also exhibits. The actress grew up in Mobile, Ala., where being transgender, or even the least bit feminine as a boy, made her a target for bullies. While she does worry for transgender kids back home and across the South, Cox hopes young people today who don’t exactly fit in will find solace and resources through the Internet or, where the digital divide exists, the great equalizer: television.
Cox is no stranger to the small screen. Reality television fans may remember her from the 2008 VH1 competition series I Want to Work With Diddy, where wannabe entertainment moguls vied for the chance to work with one of the music industry’s most successful executives. Cox became the first African-American transgender woman cast on a reality show, introducing the very concept of being transgender to millions who had never even considered the matter. Fortunately, she says, the producers took the cue from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to avoid the “freak show” route and just let Cox tell her own story as a transgender black woman.
“Real human beings are complicated,” she says. “I’m not one to say we shouldn’t have one kind of black woman on TV or a certain kind of transgender people on TV, but we should have the diversity, or representation and depth, of the community.”
After Diddy, Cox become a producer herself, spearheading the groundbreaking VH1 reality show Transform Me in 2010. She and fellow trans women — actress Jamie Clayton and fashionista Nina Poon — went across America giving makeovers to nontransgender women, again challenging people’s views of what it means to be trans.
But lately Cox has been concentrating on her passion for acting. In addition to the Susan Seidelman–directed Musical Chairs, Cox is also in several other upcoming indie films, finally, she says, ascending from “Hooker Number 2” to fully fleshed-out characters. Thanks in part to casting director Sig De Miguel, Cox has also been able to transcend merely playing transgender characters, as well. In her next film, The Exhibitionists, Cox simply plays a British pop singer, described in the screenplay as “M.I.A. meets Grace Jones.”
“I was sitting on the set on the first day of shooting, thinking to myself, I’m doing this movie where me being transgender has nothing to do with the character. And then I started crying,” Cox says. “So it’s already happened for me. I am a black transgender woman, but I’m an artist first. Hopefully more people will see that too.”