Laverne Cox hits the big screen this month for the first time in her career, which, up until this point, has been highlighted by a few reality-TV show appearances and numerous independent films.
Cox portrays Chantelle, who she describes as "sassy, sexy and wise," in Musical Chairs, a movie about wheelchair ballroom dancing. The movie opens March 23 in New York and Miami, and then March 30 in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Chantelle is African-American, transgender and disabled (paraplegic), "but she doesn't allow any of those categories to interfere with her being fantastic, an amazing person," Cox said. "Chantelle has a great sense of humor about life and her circumstances."
Musical Chairs, according to the movie's website, is a romantic tale of two New YorkersArmando from the Bronx, and Mia from the Upper East Sidewho come together through their love of ballroom dancing. When a tragic accident puts Mia in a wheelchair, Armando, aided by a group of colorful misfits at the rehab center, dedicates himself to helping Mia dance once more by introducing her to the world of competitive wheelchair ballroom dancing.
Cox filmed the movie about a year ago in New York City.
"It's a beautiful film about the power of the human spirit. It's a gorgeous film; I'm so happy with it. I'm very proud of it," said Cox, who truly took her role to heartand the streetsone day in Times Square.
She went with actress Auti Angel and others for lunchand all were in wheelchairs.
"That experience was interesting, illuminating. I developed a new-found respect and admiration for people with disabilities, especially those who thrive, not just survive, in a world that isn't really made for them," Cox said. "[That lunch] was truly an amazing, amazing experience."
Cox, who has been acting in movies for about 10 years, said she is "excited and nervous" for Musical Chairs, one of six films she worked on in 2011.
"Even though I've already seen [Musical Chairs] seven times, I'm still going to see it in the theatres with the general publicto see how they respond to it," Cox said. "Acting has been my dream for a really long time. Part of the reason I got into reality TV was because I wanted to advance my career as an actor. I think the goal for every actor is to just keep acting, and that's the case for me, too."
Cox is now working on a TV pilot, but could not elaborate. She also is a producer and transgender advocate who made television history when she became the first African-American transgender woman to appear on an American reality show. She was a finalist in 2008 on VH1's 'I Want to Work for Diddy,' the show that won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Reality Program.
Cox then starred in her own show, TRANSform Me, making her the first African-American trans woman to produce and star in her own TV show. TRANSform Me was nominated for a GLAAD media award for Outstanding Reality Program.
Cox also has had guest starring roles on Law and Order, Law and Order: SVU, and HBO's Bored to Death.
"[The] Diddy [show] was one of the most intense and insane things I have ever done in my whole life," Cox said. "It was very stressful; I felt a great deal of pressure to represent my [transgender] community.
"Diddy has this philosophy that sleep is forbidden. Apparently, he is up all night, and expects his assistants to be up all night, too. It was a crazy, exhausting experience. I'm really glad that I did it, but I don't think I'd ever want to do anything like that ever again.
"It definitely led to some really fantastic things in my career.
"All of my advisors and friends told me not to do it, but I'm really glad that I did."
Cox said TRANSform Me was a "dream," but a lot of pressure, too.
"I love the process of making a TV show or a movie," Cox said. "TRANSform Me was one of the happiest times of my lifetraveling around the country, shooting that TV show. I feel grateful to have had that experience."
Transform Me only survived one season.
"We never quite found our audience, but I learned so many lessons and am so grateful that I had that experience, and it's led to some really fantastic things," Cox said.
Cox said the media spotlight has certainly been pressure-packed, especially being a pioneer.
"There are more transgender folk in the media [spotlight] now, which is fantastic, but there are just not a lot of us," Cox said. "People might see one trans person and then just assume that we are all like that. The real thing is, it's about diverse folks in the media; it's not just about me or just about Chaz Bono or anyone else. It truly is a diverse community. I don't think one person alone can represent the transgender community. Rather, if a lot of us are in the media spotlight, in various capacities, being ourselves, then the country and the world can get a better idea of who we are … because we're all different."
Cox is among an ever-growing list of stars who have made the transgender world more visible.
"We're now more visible," Cox said. "Since 2007, which was a watershed year when Candis Kayne was on Dirty Sexy Moneythat really changed my thinking of what was possible for me and my career.
"Awareness [of the transgender community] has improved; it's something that's very different from even, oh, five years. But it's still an uphill battle because we still need protection against being discriminated against; we need more awareness and laws to protect us, but progress has been made, though we still have a long way to go.
"Clearly, education is the key. A lot of people just don't know, or fully understand, what it means to be transgender. I am always humanizing [the] transgender experience, [to] make it relatable; I feel like that is my job."
However, don't call Cox a role model.
"I don't like that term," she said. "I think that term sort of suggests that there's something that you're doing that other people should emulateand I never would be that presumptuous or that arrogant, to think that the way I'm living my life, or approaching my career, is something that other people should do. I'm just trying to be as authentic to my views and visions of what I want.
"I am aware that my work and my visibility has inspired others, but I don't think of myself as a role model. I just want to make things better for the people who follow me."
Cox considers Leontyne Price, the late African-American opera star, as her inspiration.
"Black opera singers were able to do things after her that they weren't able to do before her," Cox said.
Cox confirmed she is single, and has been for about seven years. "Dating has been an interesting journey, with men and being trans," Cox said. "Dating and relationships is not something I really know anything about."
Cox said she has only been in one long-term relationship.
"I'm not really sure I understand dating," Cox said. "I am now focused on cultivating the friendships that I have. I have amazing friends, people who are really supportive of my lifeand I value them, a lot."
So who's the perfect person for Cox?
"Someone who I could be myself with, someone who fully accepts and respects me," Cox said. She added that admiration, communication and sense of humor are also key.