How Laverne Cox Made Dr. Frank-N-Furter Her Own on Fox's 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' Remake

The actress also discusses her personal connection to the beloved movie musical. "It’s part of what gave me the courage to truly transition," she tells THR.
Steve Wilkie/FOX

To say Laverne Cox is a trailblazer in the transgender community would be a massive understatement. The actress rose to prominence for her portrayal of Sophia Burset on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, becoming the first trans actress to garner a primetime Emmy nomination for acting.

Thursday, she will tackle the iconic role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter on Fox’s reimagining of Rocky Horror Picture Show. And for Cox, the chance to play the part of the gender-bending mad scientist has a personal connection.

Rocky means so much to me because it presented the idea of possibilities of around not just dreaming it but being it, purely in terms of my gender expression,” Cox tells The Hollywood Reporter. “After I saw Rocky Horror for the first time, it became a turning point in my life. It’s part of what gave me the courage to truly transition.”

Although the cultural significance of Cox being cast in the role made famous by Tim Curry is certainly not lost on her – “A black transgender woman has never starred in a TV movie; it was time,” she says – the chance to just be seen is important. “As a trans actress I just want to work. I just want a shot to do what I do and show people what I have. I’d like to think I’ve been able to work because I have some talent.”

Cox continues: “For me, I just want people to know that I’m talented, that I can do a lot of different things. That I’m not just a one-trick pony.”

Early next year, Cox will continue to show her ability to play a wide range of roles with CBS’ upcoming legal drama Doubt, where she’ll portray trans lawyer Cameron Wirth. It's another pioneering move for Cox, who will be the first transgender actor to play a transgender series regular character on a broadcast series.

“She’s gone to Yale, she’s an attorney. She’s very different from Frank-N-Furter and Sophia [from Orange is the New Black]," she says. "I was able to play a lot of different characters.”

But there is still no role like Dr. Frank-N-Furter, says Cox. After all, when else do you get the chance to play an alien from Transylvania that creates life while singing and dancing?

“It was different than anything I’d ever done before,” she says. “What was strange was that I knew the movie so well; I’ve seen the movie probably over 100 times. I knew all the dialogue, knew all the songs. It was about finding my way into it.” If that wasn’t enough pressure, she also had to do it with Curry, who returns to Rocky Horror, this time as the Criminologist who serves as the narrator, starring alongside her.

“I sang all the songs from the show in front of Tim,” she says, but notes that Curry mostly pushed her to do her own thing with the role. “I think he really wanted me to find it on my own.” She explained that they mostly talked about the character itself and her motivations.

“My voice is really different than Tim’s and the [other] people who’ve done Rocky Horror before me,” she explains. “It’s basically a baritone role; I can sing baritone but I can also sing soprano. A lot of it was starting with the music and finding my way into the music and finding how it would feel with my voice.”

Another notable difference – outside of it being played by a black trans woman instead of a white male – is that Cox added more choreography (she has a BFA in Dance). “We decided that we wanted this Frank-N-Furter to move more [than past incarnations].”

When Rocky Horror first premiered in the mid-1970s, it was known more being a cult classic, the kind of movie experience (emphasis on the experience) that at the time was thought as something on the fringes of society. Back then, most who would see it would go at midnight, dress up as their favorite characters and interact with the show. Most shows would feature shadowcasters, people who mime the film while it plays in the background. Cox said bringing that vibe to a primetime broadcast production was paramount.

“Very specifically, when Lou [Adler, who produced the original version and is a co-producer on the Fox remake] was talking with [director] Kenny [Ortega], he said we have to bring the audience participation into our film, and that’s what we’ve done,” she says. “We have an audience who does some of the more iconic callbacks. We incorporated that because Rocky Horror is so much about the fans, and we wanted them to be a part of the experience.” There were also shadowcast actors on hand during the red carpet premiere.

With the original Rocky Horror having celebrated its 31th anniversary in August, Cox is well aware the Fox version will be for many the only incarnation they’ve witnessed. “I’ve met a lot of people who’ve never seen Rocky Horror, so our version will be the first version they’ve ever seen. The hope is that a new generation will discover this film.”

But just how will the audience that typically watches primetime broadcast television take to seeing Rocky Horror on their screens? “I don’t know if [that audience] is ready or not, but ready or not here we come!” she exclaims.

“I think a lot of Fox’s motivation was about bringing this musical to a new generation and having sort of a different spin on things,” she says. After all, Rocky Horror was originally a parody of the science fiction and horror “B movies” that was meant as a callback to classic Hollywood. “I think that's what made this musical so charming.”

Even though the Fox remake features considerably higher production values, Cox contends it still does it in a way that harkens back to films of the 1930s and 1940s. “There’s an opulence in old Hollywood," she says. "To be able to have the massive set and these grand production values, therein keeping with this spirit of old Hollywood that this film really is celebrating.”

Fox’s Rocky Horror also comes a particularly advantageous time, as broadcast networks have been finding success adapting musicals such as The Wiz and Grease for a TV audience. “I don’t know why all of this is happening, but I love that I get to be alive now and that I get to do this.”

Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

Watch the trailer below:

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