“We’re Collectively Traumatized:” Laverne Cox On Promising Young Woman & Surviving 2020
‘Promising Young Woman’ is an emotional rollercoaster—so is this conversation with the Emmy-nominated actress and activist.
Promising Young Woman, Laverne Cox’s stunning new film, is a lot of things — a feminist manifesto, a bubble-gum hued revenge fantasy, a twisted dark comedy. But mostly, it’s a movie about the ways in which the world fails women. It’s about how trauma festers and haunts, living in our bodies long after a harrowing event. Cox plays Gail, the best friend of a grieving woman (Carrie Mulligan) furiously seeking retribution from a past rape by targetting unsuspecting sleazy men. Cox knows firsthand how relevant the film’s subject matter is. “2020 has been deeply traumatizing for me,” she tells R29Unbothered over Zoom from Los Angeles. “I think we're collectively traumatized. And we aren’t talking about it enough. I'm really interested in people having tools to process trauma.”
Cox, 48, isn’t just talking about the general way this year has taken us on a tumultuous emotional rollercoaster, or just about Promising Young Woman. Two weeks before we spoke, Cox posted a 10-minute Instagram Live video detailing an incident over Thanksgiving weekend where she and a friend were accosted in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park by a man spewing transphobic remarks. During our conversation, she’s still visibly shaken by the attack, but I can also tell there’s another emotion overwhelming the actress: exhaustion.
While she says she is still “publicly processing” the incident, she also shares that in June, she decided she was done talking about trauma. 2020 had other plans. In a different world, and maybe even a different year, Cox wouldn’t have to promote a movie about gender-based violence while having just lived through a gender-based violent attack. Maybe she wouldn’t be weeping silently with me over Zoom about how easily Black trans lives are disregarded, oppressed and taken too soon. Cox wouldn’t have to put her trauma on display so that people understand that she may be a glamorous Hollywood star, but she’s also still Black and trans in America. Even the first out trans woman to be nominated for an Emmy is not safe in this society.
I wanted to share [my story] so people will know that it does not matter who you are or how famous you are; if someone reads you as trans in public, it might not be safe for you.
“I'm sorry, I didn't expect this reaction,” she says during one of the more emotional moments of our conversation. But it’s not all tears and trauma. Cox is one of those people who can have you crying one second and laughing the next. Like the experience of watching the electric Promising Young Woman, talking to Laverne Cox is an unpredictable ride of emotion, hard truths and comedic relief that will leave you in awe of her vulnerability, candor and humour. Aside from tackling why the movie’s message is so necessary, Cox talks about how she’s holding up after the attack, her pride over the revolutionary documentary Disclosure, and why consent is always sexy.
R29Unbothered: First, I want to check in after the attack you endured recently. Are you OK?
Laverne Cox: "To be clear, I wasn't physically harmed in the attack. My friend was hit in the incident and he's doing okay. The biggest part [for me] is how traumatizing it was and how triggering it was in terms of past traumas. I've experienced street harassment. I've been physically assaulted on the street. I grew up being bullied and physically assaulted as a child. [I have] a long, long history of not feeling safe in public, being harassed because of my gender, being assaulted because of my gender. So, I’m just trying to lean into my trauma resiliency tools with my therapist, Jennifer. I'm grateful that I have a great therapist, and that I have a lot of tools to [help me] stay present. Because the body doesn't know if a trauma happened 20 years ago or five years ago. Once triggered, the nervous system experiences the trauma as if it were happening right now. So, staying present has been crucial. I've had better days at that than others."
As you said in the video you posted on Instagram, it's not shocking, but it's still traumatizing. Why was it important for you to tell the story so soon after it happened while, I imagine, you were still processing it?
"It was a strange decision. I journaled about it, and the reason — I'm crystal clear about this — is I wanted to share [my story] so people will know that it does not matter who you are or how famous you are; if someone reads you as trans in public, it might not be safe for you. And that is a huge, huge problem. I went public with it so that people will know and understand. I've been talking about violence against trans people my entire public life. I'm really actually over it. It's really interesting because this year, I got to a point right after June when it was just too much. I was like I can't talk about murdered trans people anymore. I just can't do it. And then this happened. I actually do believe everything happens for a reason. And when bad things happen, it's hard to embrace and understand that. So, even though I think this happened for a reason, I'm still figuring out what that reason is. But I hope sharing it the way I did when I did that people don't feel alone and [they] understand that there's a way to process something like this."
You're talking about the personal trauma you and so many other trans women have experienced. And now you're promoting a movie about the trauma women carry after gender based violence.
"Yes. There are no mistakes in God's universe. I don't understand the plan; I'm just here living it. I am insanely grateful that I got to be a part of this film and that this film exists. I think Emerald [Fennel], our writer-director, is brilliant. Carey's performance is so incredible. And the questions [the film] brings up around accountability, how we deal with trauma and grief, and how we empower ourselves are at the center of this story and narrative. And now is the time to be having these conversations."
You touched on how hard this summer was and how exhausting it has been to have these conversations. But one of the bright spots, for me, was Disclosure [which Cox executive produced and appears in]. It was such an incredible documentary about trans representation. At the same time, there was a bigger push for Black Lives Matter to include trans lives. Did you feel like those moments moved the conversation forward and gave you hope?
"I'm insanely proud of Disclosure. My career and most of my public life has led up to Disclosure. It feels like the culmination of a lot of the work that I've been doing my entire life. And I'm so grateful for Sam Feder, our director, and his vision, and bringing me on board. I just feel like there's a post-Disclosure world now. We can move on to new conversations, new awarenesses, and new perspectives because of that film. And it was released in June, which was, arguably, the height of the Black Lives Matter protests this year. There were some really beautiful actions — the Black Trans Lives Matter march, specifically. I think that happened in June, in Brooklyn, New York. I just got goosebumps thinking about thousands of people showing up for Black trans lives. It just never stops being…"
[Cox pauses as tears stream down her face]
"I can't believe I'm having this reaction right now."
"I think it's [because] when this stuff happens on the street, I am just deeply reminded of how so many people just don't think that I'm human. And I'm just deeply aware, even as privileged as I am, that so many of my siblings who are Black and trans or non-binary are just treated so badly and treated with such a level of disregard, as if we're less than human. The fact that it is still such a huge reality in our lives is not lost on me. So, to see thousands of people show up for our lives, suggesting that they matter, and that we are human, it's really beautiful. So many people just disregard my humanity because I'm Black and trans. And so, it's beautiful that there are movements, and that there is work being done to celebrate our lives."
Thank you for your vulnerability and for the work you continue to do for your community. Take a moment if you need it.
"Thank you." [Cox cries, then collects herself]
I want to talk about your character in Promising Young Woman, Gail. She brings a lot of levity to the film. And her identity, her race, and her gender are not part of her character. Did you consider that when deciding whether to take on this role?
"There's nothing in the script that suggested Gail might be trans. There's nothing in the script that suggested that Gail was Black. So, I think there was something that Emerald saw in me that she wanted me to be Gail, which I am so grateful for. And for me, honestly, when I read the script, I just wanted to be in the film. I just wanted to be a part of this project because I thought it was important. And I wanted to be involved in projects that I think are important, that are having conversations and engaging in storytelling that I think is important. So, I didn't even really care."
I'm so blessed that I'm having hot consensual sex. It can be really, really, really hot. I'm having the best sex of my life at 48 years old, and it's consensual.
We shouldn't be eroticizing lack of consent.
Why do you think it’s important for a film like Promising Young Women to exist right now?
"In the post #MeToo moment that we're in now, I don't think we've fully had the conversation we need to have around consent. I think the backlash against #MeToo began to run the conversation and then conversations around what consent looks like just got lost in the sauce for me, personally. I think this film is an opportunity for us to really begin to do that work again, culturally. It is my hope that people will watch this film with friends and family and have conversations. I hope parents will have conversations with their children — particularly their children who identify as boys — around what consent looks like and that men will have conversations with each other. I hope it’s not just, 'It's horrible to be accused,' but, 'What does consent look like in the moment? How do I make sure I have that consent?' And that does not need to make something not hot anymore. I'm so blessed that I'm having hot consensual sex. It can be really, really, really hot. I'm having the best sex of my life at 48 years old, and it's consensual. So it is possible. Sorry, girl. TMI [laughs]."
Don't apologize. I'm happy for you.
"Sorry, girl [laughs]. But the point is that it doesn't have to be this thing that's not hot anymore. We shouldn't be eroticizing lack of consent. I think it's an opportunity for us to have nuanced conversations that we have not been willing to have, or have been afraid to have. The [#MeToo] backlash has just let us off the hook. This film doesn't let anyone off the hook. Women are complicit in this as well, and Emerald and this film so beautifully lay that out."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.