Laverne Cox as a trans lawyer on CBS signals a TV transition
PASADENA, Calif. -- Laverne Cox always wanted to be a TV lawyer.
Cox, who this season also starred as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Fox's
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again, finally gets her days in court with the premiere on Wednesday of CBS's Doubt.
"I think there's inherent drama in the adversarial nature of the courtrooms. ... It's very theatrical. And I'm a drama queen," said the transgender actress, who made her mark in Netflix's Orange Is the New Black as trans inmate Sophia Burset.
A legal drama from former Grey's Anatomy producers Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, Doubt stars Grey's veteran Katherine Heigl as a criminal defense lawyer who falls for her client (Steven Pasquale, Rescue Me), a pediatric surgeon who may or may not have killed his girlfriend 24 years earlier.
Beyond that smart-woman/foolish-choices scenario lies a show about a firm in which Cox's character, Cameron Wirth, is just another Ivy League-educated lawyer.
"Yes, she's trans. But now what?" Cox told a small group of reporters last month during the Television Critics Association's winter meetings. "It's sort of like a who cares, really. And I think having something like that on television, it helps the public to become familiar with that, to become comfortable with that. ... Years before we saw a black president in real life, we saw black presidents on television."
Cox's character, who grew out of the married Phelan and Rater's experiences as parents of a transgender son -- actor Tom Phelan has played a trans teen on Freeform's The Fosters -- is just one sign that television is transitioning in its treatment of people who don't conform to gender norms.
Where Caitlyn Jenner's now-canceled E! docu-series I Am Cait and Amazon's dramedy Transparent have featured their trans characters, real and imagined, as the disruptive centers of their universes, Fox's music-driven drama Star, created by West Philadelphia's Lee Daniels and Drexel Hill's Tom Donaghy, includes a character, Cotton (Amiyah Scott), whose transition-based conflict with her mother, Carlotta (Queen Latifah), is only one of many storylines.
The second season of Showtime's Billions, which begins Feb. 19, features Asia Kate Dillon (Orange Is the New Black) as Taylor, a brilliant intern at Axe Capital whose money-crunching abilities catch the attention of hedge fund founder Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Damian Lewis). Taylor, like Dillon, identifies as neither a man nor a woman. Which requires some linguistic gymnastics.
"My pronouns are they, theirs, and them," Taylor tells Axe in their first meeting.
Speaking last month after a Showtime news conference, Lewis still struggled a little with those pronouns in talking about the unexpected rapport between his character, a billionaire who grew up working class, and Dillon's.
"Bobby is somebody [who ] can be vindictive; he can be overpowering, he can be overbearing, he can be harsh. And, like many autocrats, he likes people who speak truth to power. He sees that ... in Taylor -- them -- and he sees that she, they, have an intellectual purity. And Bobby immediately recognizes someone who is as quick, and as smart, as he is. And he wants them around for that reason," he said.
Though it might be hard to imagine that a workplace as macho as Axe Capital could judge someone like Taylor on merit alone, it's a "place that's just built on making money and where you can measure it so easily," said Billions executive producer David Levien.
When auditions were held for the character, Levien and fellow showrunner Brian Koppelman didn't know "that that's the life Asia leads as well," Levien said.
Doubt's Cox, who appeared on the cover of Time in 2014 beside the headline "The Transgender Tipping Point," was better known to producers Phelan and Rater.
"When we conceived of the part," Phelan said, "we knew that Laverne was on Orange" and expected to have to do a nationwide talent search, to cast Cameron, only to get a call from Cox's agent, who said, 'This is Laverne's part.' "
Cox, he said, "flew herself to L.A. and said, 'I want to read for you guys to prove to you that this is my part.' "
"We wanted to create a character who is transgender on TV, but it wasn't about their transition, or their coming out," Rater said. "I always say, our son is transgender, but ... he's still funny and smart and sloppy, all the things he was before he came out as transgender."
Cameron Wirth will have a love life, something that delights Cox, who's played more than her share of sex workers.
"What was fun about it was that we were shooting and, oh, my God, I'm flirting with a man and I'm not trying to get him to pay me. On TV," she said, laughing. "I'm a huge flirt in real life."
Scott, who plays Cotton, Carlotta's trans daughter on Star, and who is trans herself, is a newcomer to acting, though she did appear briefly on Bravo's Real Housewives of Atlanta.
"We found Amiyah on Instagram," said Star cocreator Donaghy.
"Lee [Daniels] said, 'I want to bring her out to L.A. and audition her.' And I think it was her first audition, and she walked in, and ... Lee's spirit and her spirit connected immediately, and he knew she was the one," said Pamela Oas Williams, another of the show's executive producers.
Making Cotton relatable wasn't the priority, Donagh said.
Daniels, he said, "grew up with trans people. This is to some extent based on his cousin's beauty shop ... in West Philadelphia," where some of the stylists were trans and gay people.
"So we're not here to represent so much as to try and tell a unique story, especially about a black trans woman who comes from poverty. How does such a person complete their transition when they don't have the means?"
Scott, who has more than 957,000 followers on Instagram, has a story of her own.
"I was raised in New Orleans; I was evacuated to Atlanta when Hurricane Katrina hit, and then I got involved in the underground ballroom community from there," she said. "Balls are kind of like [LGBT] beauty pageants mixed with fashion shows. ... So those events are usually videotaped and they're placed on YouTube, and that's how I began to garner such a huge social-media following," she said.
"I think it's great for the opportunity for a trans woman to be on prime-time television. I think it's great for a trans woman to be represented in a positive light, and I'm so blessed to be that trans woman."