The two actresses discuss their groundbreaking nominations and creating a movement versus a moment for transgender actors.
Emmy nominated actresses Laverne Cox and Rain Valdez are blazing a new path for transgender people and people of color alike. This year, they became the first two openly transgender people recognized in any acting category. Additionally, Valdez is the second performer of Filipino descent and among only a small handful of Asian performers nominated for an Emmy while Cox shares in a record year for the number of Black performers recognized.
Valdez is up for her first Emmy -- Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series -- for her unflinching performance as Belle, who’s unafraid to call out micro-aggressions or bad behavior in the people around her, in Razor Tongue, which the actress also created.
“It’s so good. I was just engaged in the story and engaged in the performance,” Cox says of the digital series, telling Valdez, “I cried when I saw that you were nominated. It’s hard being the only one, I have to say. It’s quite a lot.”
Meanwhile, Cox is up for her fourth acting Emmy -- Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series -- for playing Sophia Burset on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, which came to an end after seven seasons last summer.
For Valdez, seeing someone like Cox onscreen was a motivator to keep pursuing her dreams in Hollywood. “I know you worked so hard and you literally trailblazed,” she tells Cox. “I feel like this opened up [doors] for me because you’ve been out there. It’s a beautiful thing.”
In a conversation with ET, the two actresses discuss what it means to be recognized at this point in their careers, why the snubs for other transgender women of Pose and Transparent matter and how to make sure these historic nominations are not just a moment in time.
ET: How does it feel to be nominated at this point in your respective careers?
Rain Valdez: I'm still pinching myself. It feels like a huge win because I'm not only being acknowledged for my acting ability and my talent, but also for work that I created with my community here in Los Angeles. So, it makes me very proud that it's actually for Razor Tongue, something that's self-made and community built. It was also a very challenging role in terms of having to be really personal about it.
I think for me, you just never know where your career is going to take you. There's no blueprint in this industry on how to make it or how to be successful and what making it even feels like. But to be here because of something that I created and something that I wrote and knew that I could do and execute -- because I'm a Filipina American trans woman, I knew the character so well -- I just felt very confident going in that this was something that's going to be special for me.
Laverne Cox: I remember my first Emmy nomination -- this is six years ago -- and I remember saying to myself, I am going to try to be as present as possible, enjoy every second of it because it might not happen again. And now it's happened three more times, which is honestly shocking. I really didn't expect it this year -- I don't know if you've ever expected it -- but I wasn’t on anyone's radar.
Also, as I processed it this year, I had this sensation in the first few days of, like, because so many people are overlooked so often that I worried people would be like, “Oh no, not her again.” I feel sort of bad that was part of my honest reaction to it but four days later, I went up to the pool and was like, “Let me just breathe.” And then I sat and thought about all the women that I admire, the women in the category I’m nominated with, like Cicely Tyson and Phylicia Rashad. Then I was like, “Oh my god, do I need to become more regal and more Cicely Tyson-like 'cause I’ve been nominated?” And then I was like, “I just gotta be Laverne. I’ve got to be the messy, flawed 2020 chick that I am.”
ET: Rain, you mentioned the community that went into making this and considering that you’re both nominated this year -- the first time any two openly transgender people are vying for acting Emmys -- does it feel like these nominations are bigger than either one of you? Like, it’s not just a nomination for you, it’s also a nomination for the community.
LC: It’s tricky. I used to think, “Yes.” And then I thought about all the trans women from Pose who were snubbed again this year and there was a lot of press about that. And then I thought about Halle Berry and an interview she gave in 2017 where she desperately -- I don’t know if you remember her Oscar speech, which I'm obsessed with. She said, “This moment is bigger than me. It's about every nameless, faceless woman of color, who now believes they have a chance because this door has been open.” She said that she desperately wanted to believe that it was bigger than her but it turned out -- and this was in 2017 -- that it wasn't.
I know that it inspires a lot of other trans people, for sure. I know I'm inspired by moments like this when Viola Davis won her Emmy for How to Get Away With Murder and became the first Black woman to win for a Lead Actress in a Drama. I was deeply inspired. But it has to be a part of a larger movement for change.
Halle Berry's moment at the Oscars -- I keep alluding to it because I think it's so instructive because it was a moment. It was a moment that was part of this historical night. It was a big night for Black people at the Oscars but it was a moment because there was not a full movement in place in Hollywood yet, at that time. Oscars So White did not happen in 2002. So it needs to be part of a larger movement for change within our industry, so that we have pipelines to have more trans people work behind the scenes and tell our stories, that we are cast in more roles. And then there's so many things about what is considered awards worthy. I think continuing to diversify the Television Academy is going to be really important as well. So I think there are a lot of questions and a lot of issues that have to be addressed to assess whether something is indeed bigger than just us.
RV: I completely agree with you. I think there needs to be a much more conscious, strategic effort to really make Hollywood be equity-centered for all identities. You know, prior to being nominated, it always -- what I witnessed over the years with these award shows -- and it always just seemed to be a lottery. It always seemed like it’s this sort of a crap shoot, it just never really seemed like there was this strategic way for every show to get recognition. With that said, I do feel that with trans people, it does feel like a win for the community when it's not just one of us, when it’s more.
For me, personally, I think that love and respect can be very conditional in our community. That's just how I grew up. How it was presented to me was always very conditional based on how I presented myself into the world -- it had a lot to do with my identity. But when you're thriving publicly and more people get to see that love and the respect, the dial goes from conditional towards more unconditional, because people are celebrating you for daring to be who you are. And then that creates an effect on other people who may not have seen you as someone that's lovable or may not have seen you as someone to celebrate or be attracted to.
Because my career and my public persona has been gradually going this way, I'm seeing it with my own family and how they're starting to change and how they're starting to interrogate how they've treated me and how they feel about me. So I feel like the more we get to represent the different types of trans people in media, the more that dial turns towards unconditional respect and love.
ET: I like this idea of a movement versus a moment. Considering the fact that this year both of you are nominated is another achievement. But if the women of Pose as well as people behind the scenes, like Janet Mock, had been nominated as well, would that have represented more of a movement? Or is it still just a moment?
LC: Let’s not forget Our Lady J and Silas Howard, who also work behind the scenes on Pose. But I was literally thinking about all of us storming the Emmys -- obviously everything's virtual now -- but that would be so powerful. All of us as nominees would be insane. That would just be everything and more.
Last year actually, we were all there because Pose was nominated. I remember being at the Emmys last year and before I left, I was running around during commercial breaks to find the cast of Pose so we could all get a picture together because it was this unprecedented moment of, like, all these trans women at the Emmys.
Ultimately, for there to be a moment, there are conditions and what happens in Hollywood in terms of storytelling, right? And then there can be these powerful moments such as the unprecedented number of Black actors nominated this year.
So yes, that could potentially be a movement in Hollywood, but then how does that begin to translate into the lived experiences of people who aren't in Hollywood? That's the question we ask in Disclosure. Because at the end of the day, if we had two or three actresses from Pose nominated, Janet nominated, that’s still a small group of people when trans women are fighting for their lives on the streets right now. So how do we translate it into the lived experiences?
But, like Rain said -- I don't want to be pessimistic -- she said it does matter. I think change just happens slowly because it does make a difference when people see -- I've seen it in my life and my career -- people’s minds have been changed when they see trans people onscreen represented in a human way. But when you keep saying trans folks experiencing violence and being murdered, it's hard to not feel hopeless and that all the work that we're doing -- it matters, but it gets hard sometimes.
RV: I go back and forth between the two because I do believe that there's a revolution happening. I do believe that there is a movement. You spoke on this, Laverne, and it's not happening fast enough. With everything that's been happening in the world with Black Lives Matter, even with COVID-19, Hollywood isn’t happening fast enough. And because of COVID, in particular, it's not able to function the way it normally can and create content that represents what's happening in the world right now.
With that said, it's sort of like a double-edged sword because if it's just the two of us or if it's just one of us, then you're still in a way perpetuating tokenization. Even with being Emmy-nominated at this point, all the press are so quick to say, “transgender actress Rain Valdez is Emmy-nominated,” as opposed to saying, “nominated-actress Rain Valdez.” So they're very quick to set me apart from all the other actresses that are nominated. And I'm seeing it happen time and time again.
So yeah, I feel like there is a movement but I don't know that it has a strategy. I don't know that it has an intent to really disrupt the system so that it could be more equity-centered. You know, you mentioned the cast and the crew and the writers of Pose, but Alexandra Billings was also snubbed and she had a killer performance in the Transparent finale. She's been in this business a lot longer than any of us has been in this business. She’s paved roads that I'm literally walking on. So I think about that. I think about how they are all these women who are our trailblazers, but don't ever get to be recognized for the blazing that they did.
So for me, it's still ongoing for me. I’m always going to be trying to figure out how this can be more of a movement than a moment.
LC: These are the conversations we need to have amongst ourselves but it really is also about who the gatekeepers are. Jen Richards, I know for years, has been having conversations with casting directors about why don't you think about casting a trans person to play something like “nurse no. 2” that doesn't necessarily need to be any gender. So those are the conversations with casting directors, the conversations with the showrunners and producers around who's cast. These are the kinds of things that need to sort of permeate the industry.
RV: Laverne, I liked that you mentioned that because I do believe giving LGBTQ artists and creators more decision-making power and allowing them to be on the other side of the gate is going to really shift things.
Even with my experience with Razor Tongue, we had no problem making it 80% plus queer and trans in front of the camera. And behind the camera, every department that we had was queer and trans. That was a no-brainer for me, but that's because I was on the other side of the gate. I was making these decisions. I had the freedom to do that. And so if the industry could make room in that sense and start letting us in, I think we'll see a lot more change happen.
ET: Rain, you mentioned recognizing our trailblazers and that takes me to the next question: What does it matter then, to win? Laverne, you talked about Halle Berry and how significant that win was in that moment. But then what has it translated into in the years since? So does a win matter and what does that do for moving things forward?
LC: Halle Berry's win mattered immensely to me. I don't want to diminish that moment because it, like, shifted my molecules. I remember bawling in my studio apartment in New York. I was in acting school at the time, I was studying really seriously. And then this moment happened and it made me believe that it was possible for me. It really changed my life.
You know, when Viola Davis finally won an Emmy and then sort of broke the glass ceiling, it mattered. And now Viola is this triple crown award-winning actress. I think it makes a difference for other Black actors. I’m also thinking of other people of color right now, like Sandra Oh. I feel like Sandra Oh’s Golden Globe win does make a difference.
RV: I completely agree. Even Halle Berry’s moment was huge for me, I have to say. But when I was acting here in L.A., I was the only trans actress I knew until I saw Laverne on Orange Is the New Black. It made me feel something, it made me feel like this was possible for us. And then with her nomination as well, it means something.
Laverne said it: “You can't expect anything out of this. You just kind of have to celebrate it for what it is.” And that’s what this nomination is for me. It means I get to have a little bit of leverage when I go into a room with Razor Tongue season 2. People are going to be wanting to listen to me now whereas in season 1, I had to crowdfund the whole thing.
So for me, it’s leverage to keep going and keep creating because there's still so much to make. There's still so much to create. There's still so much representation that we need to see because there's just way too many negative depictions that have been created in the last hundred years that we have to combat. And so we can't stop at one nomination or two nominations or one win.
This interview has been edited and condensed.