Laverne Cox On The Lasting Impact Of ‘Disclosure’: Emboldening Trans Representation By Taking Action – Q&A

Laverne Cox has been and still is changing the game when it comes to the representation of the trans community and Black people in film and TV. She continues to bolster this message of inclusion of marginalized voices as an executive producer on Netflix’s Sam Feder-directed Disclosure. More than just a documentary, it’s a call to action as well as a lesson in history that has been swept under the rug.

When it comes to representation of the trans community in media, it has been more harmful than helpful, perpetuating a negative stigma of violence, shame and ridicule in regards to the trans community with no room for nuance. Disclosure starts a long-overdue journey to undo some of those portrayals.

Like all underrepesented communities, the trans experience is not a monolith, and it hasn’t portrayed authentically until recently with series such as Pose and Transparent. Before this groundbreaking series, many in the trans community haven’t felt seen in film and TV, which has an impact on their feelings of acceptance. For Cox, it wasn’t until 2007 when she saw Candis Cayne on Dirty Sexy Money that made her feel seen.

“That was the first time that I felt I saw something on screen that really reflected who I was, my experience,” Cox told Deadline. “I think it’s deep to me. That’s a long time to wait to really fully see yourself.”

Deadline has been with the documentary from when it made its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year (listen to the live Disclosure episode of the New Hollywood Podcast here) and  when it was acquired by Netflix to now, at the start of an awards season where it is in close company with other outstanding documentaries.

In addition to Cox, the documentary features Jen Richards, Marquise Vilson, Tre’vell Anderson, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, MJ Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton, Brian Michael Smith and Chaz Bono. The film audiences an eye-opening look at transgender depictions in film and television, revealing how Hollywood simultaneously reflects and manufactures our deepest anxieties about gender.

Deadline had an in-depth conversation with Cox about her involvement in the film, her experiences in the industry and how she has navigated tone-deafness and toxicity in film and TV — specifically with a photographer during the production of Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show.

DEADLINE: Where in the making of Disclosure did you start to get involved?

LAVERNE COX: So I have been involved since 2017. I met Sam Feder, the brilliant director, at a panel at Outfest, where he was presenting some clips and some of the research he was doing that would become the film. Sam had been working for about two or three years before that just doing research on research — research interviewing trans folks and then finding archival footage.

DEADLINE: The documentary hits very close to home for you and people in marginalized communities can certainly relate. It even leans into the struggle with imposter syndrome — which I can talk about for hours. That said, early in your career, did you feel that you needed to bite your tongue when it came to tone-deaf behavior on certain projects you were working on? Even now, how do you attempt to navigate these issues and choose your battles?

COX: That’s exactly it. You choose your battles. I think that I learned very early on that I would need to let some things go for the bigger battle ahead and so I think that has been something I’ve done throughout my career. I think for sure I’ve had to let a lot of stuff go, just to not have it become a distraction. That’s the way I put things right.

Sometimes creative flow is so tricky, right? Like when you’re working in a creative field, it’s really important that creativity can flow and that artists feel like they can work. There’s a lot of things that I’ve let go over the years… I remember the first time I really felt like I didn’t let something go. I’ll tell this story… we were shooting Rocky Horror Picture Show… I never told this one publicly… we were in Toronto shooting and we had a photographer on set that day who was going to be taking photos. We were going through photo shoots and this legendary photographer came in and was going to photograph us. We were supposed to be so honored that he was there — wow! Am I going there? (laughs)

DEADLINE: You can keep it general, but specific (laughs).

COX: He was a very provocative photographer, so while he photographed people, he would say things that are, in a post-#MeToo world, would just not be acceptable. They weren’t acceptable then. You can’t even say some of the things he said. He would say, “Say my name” and then would call people “c*cksuckers”

DEADLINE: Wow.

COX: Again, he was just a big personality from a bygone era so everybody was like, “Okay, you’re a little odd” and they would sort of laugh it off. It was kind of harmless, but then there was a moment when he was photographing me, and he kept getting my pronouns wrong. I corrected him. I told him, “It’s she.” He had photographed Iggy Pop and David Bowie back in the day, and he was like, “Oh, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, they were all he-she” and I’m like, “All due respect to both of them. They’re not here. I’m here. I prefer my pronouns.”

I think the reason I was very comfortable, first of all, was that he misgendered me. I was No. 1 on the call sheet. I think it was because I was starring in the film, that I felt a little more emboldened to correct him. And I was like, I refuse to be misgendered on a film that I’m starring in. I was like, “You’re not going to do this”… and then he called me a tar baby.

DEADLINE: Really?

COX: Oh yeah. This happened in front of a room full of people and then I was just done. I said, “You would be shocked if you said that in a certain neighborhood.” I didn’t give a f*ck. I just didn’t care. He had crossed all these boundaries. He had shot me early in the day, and I didn’t say anything at first. I was so upset because I felt victimized and I didn’t say anything. I said if something happens again, I will say something… I did.

DEADLINE: What was the reaction from others on the set?

COX: Everyone backed me up. My director [Kenny Ortega], to be fair, came to me and said, “I’m so sorry this happened. This will not happen again.” Everyone did everything they were supposed to do. Even though this happened, Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of my top three most incredible experiences that I’ve had in my career. But that was the moment that I felt emboldened, partly because I was starring in the film.

I felt an incredible amount of support from director Kenny Ortega and the producers. I had been delivering on set for several weeks. I think I had established a trust — and I’m the last person who will complain. I’m the last person who will make a stink about anything. Unfortunately, I think part of this is because I’m Black and trans. I’ve always wanted to not make a stink. I’ve always wanted to be just agreeable and never a problem. I always want to be just professional and prepared, and that’s how I arrive. Everyone who’s worked with me knows that. That is my reputation, and I’m very proud of that, but this was a moment that I didn’t allow it. I can’t believe I just told that story.

DEADLINE: Unfortunately, that kind of story goes beyond the world of film and TV — and sharing these experiences is important. I think with certain underrepresented or marginalized people, we go through that. Then we feel bad that we said something. It’s also a generational thing. The younger generation was brought up to be a bit bolder — and I’m kind of jealous of that.

COX: They’re not having it. I’ve talked to trans actors who have been on set and they have stood up for themselves in ways that I would never, and still probably wouldn’t do. I’m so inspired. And honestly, I could cry, because I’m like all of this sh*t that I’ve eaten over the years — it’s so that these young people can go on set and feel their power. I love it.

DEADLINE: I’ve also learned that holding back is a means of survival in spaces where you are the only “diverse one in the room.”

COX: There was another moment when I was being misgendered on set years earlier and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want it to become a distraction. I was aware of it. It affected me, but I also didn’t allow it to keep me from delivering the performance I needed to deliver. My training is very much about: “No matter what happens when the director says, ‘Action!’ you just do your job.” So for me, I think if I had said something in that moment, I didn’t have the power. I had none. I felt very disposable on that job and so I didn’t say anything. And so I don’t know if I would have gotten the support that I got when I spoke up while shooting Rocky Horror Picture Show.

DEADLINE: Your experience is relevant to Disclosure. Watching the documentary puts a mirror up to Hollywood, holding them accountable for their actions and telling them “You need to explain herself.” What have the reactions been like since it premiered at Sundance?

COX: I’m still deeply moved by the response to our film across the board from people in and outside of the LGBTQ+ communities. I literally just got a message from Sharon Stone. She wrote a comment on my Instagram saying: “How could I have missed me singing? I had no idea you could sing like this. We watched your doc last night. Excellent. Congrats.” You know… it’s just Sharon Stone leaving me a comment on Instagram. (laughs) And there’s also Ryan Reynolds. I’ve often talked about his reaction because he wrote, “This film changes the way I see film and changes the way I’ll make films going forward.” That, for me, is the epitome of what we wanted for industry people to feel when they saw our film. It’s been really beautiful. Brittany Packnett Cunningham said that she thought she was aware of the issues and Disclosure taught her how much she didn’t know, how much she has taken for granted, and how much she had been indoctrinated.

DEADLINE: I think that’s the same for the majority of people who watch the documentary.

COX: I think that’s the thing. People didn’t really fully realize and understand how many things that they just took for granted about what they thought about trans people. They didn’t understand where those things came from. They didn’t understand that they were sort of being propagandized, and Disclosure breaks it down for everybody in a way that’s really easy to understand through films and television shows that folks loved or have seen — and this includes tropes we have seen over and over again. I think because it centers the experiences and stories of trans people, that we are literally at the center of telling this story, our history, that it hits home in a different way for people. Audiences are able to connect with the stories of trans folks and how these representations have affected our lives.

DEADLINE: How do you think this film has the ability to go beyond the confines of Hollywood?

COX: In a world where it’s really difficult to trust what we see in the media now, very few people trust news reports and sourcing is an issue. There are these moments where the media have been called into question all the time. I think having and developing critical awareness around media representation is something that we all need. I think Disclosure does that work of having a critical relationship to media in a way that is empathetic and loving.

I love film. We love film and television. We love this medium and so we approached this from a place of love. It’s not about canceling people or canceling projects, and saying you shouldn’t watch this. It’s about how it’s a new lens, an oppositional gaze, if you will, that we can have to propel because I think it’s important to give people their credit, because I think the idea of the oppositional gaze is so crucial for film criticism and film theory.

Disclosure offers an oppositional gaze — a trans gaze. That is so rare. We have trans people in our own words. I think there’s something about the trans lens that is established in Disclosure in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before.

DEADLINE: Was there anything during the course of your research that you discovered that shocked you?

There was a film in 1914, Florida Enchantment, that basically had [sex reassignment surgery] on silent film. The first cinematic sex scenes that happened in 1914 were surprising — but it wasn’t surprising on certain levels, but then there’s always been a fascination with like gender traversing, gender expectations, cinematically. But just to know that we go all the way back — that this fascination goes all the way back to the beginning of film. There is a correlation that Susan Stryker, Yance Ford, and others make in the documentary around this dual fascination with blackface and then sort of gender cross dressing. These two things have co-existed, in a way, throughout the history of film. That’s been really interesting. Also, I think there is brilliance of the folks we interview. Jen Richards, Tic Milan, Brian Michael Smith — so many people on screen said things that I hadn’t thought about and that made me think differently about projects I’d already seen. I learned so much from the brilliance of the trans people that we interviewed.

DEADLINE: The film and TV industry is very much known for exploiting “trends” and virtue signaling — especially with marginalized communities. I hope Disclosure is the start of a movement where the trans issues can get more attention. However, a lot of documentaries and conversations about underrepresented voices tend to be flashes in the pan and after their release, the issue fades away. How do you hope the documentary sticks and becomes a touchstone for representation of the trans community?

COX: It’s about changing behavior. Disclosure offers a new perspective that will hopefully inspire us to change our behavior. We need to change the way that we’re making film. Who’s telling the story? Who’s working for the scenes? How are we doing? What are we doing to foster new talent and diversity? Are there fellowship programs where we’re bringing in people to train them from different backgrounds? These are the kinds of conversations that need to be happening, so that Disclosure inspires new ways of making film and brings new people to the table.

That’s part of our impact campaign. One of the people who works in our crew, went back to IATSE, the tech union, and initiated the first diversity training for trans people in that union and these are the things that Disclosure does very intentionally. We’re inspired by the trans people we see on screen. What are you going to do for trans people off screen? We’re very much interested in bettering the lives of trans people in real life. This is also the deadliest year on record for trans people. The relationship between the representations of trans people and violence against us — we have to change those narratives. That is the crucial work that Disclosure hopefully will inspire. Our whole team is committed to that, so that is the ongoing work. This is really about the real world and so what I think Disclosure brings home more than anything, is how the media influences the ways in which you think about trans people, and discounts the humanity of trans people and then all the things that people do to us become okay. I hope Disclosure really lets people know that none of this is okay.

DEADLINE: Advocates and activists are always fighting an uphill battle and there are times when it just gets so frustrating that you feel like giving up. What is it that keeps you motivated to continue to push that needle forward for representation for the trans and Black community?

COX: I had a lot of moments where I feel like I’m done. That’s real. There’s a lot of fatigue around dealing with all these issues over and over again. I think the thing that has always kept me going is love and passion… that I love what I’m doing. I love being an actress. Because my acting, which I’m so proud of, I have gotten platform and I wanted to do something with that. There is a calling higher than me, that it’s given me. I’m trying to stay connected to energy that is bigger than me.

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