'Orange Is the New Black's' Laverne Cox on the "Intense" Season 3 Finale: "I Was Just in Tears"

"The reality of the system hit [Sophia] really, really hard this season," the actress tells THR about the Netflix drama.
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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for season three of Orange Is the New Black, in particular episodes 12 and 13.]

Like a lot of people, Laverne Cox just watched the season three finale of Orange Is the New Black. Unlike just about all of those people, however, she knew ahead of time that her face wouldn't be seen in the episode.

"When I found out I wasn't in it last year, I decided not to read [the script], Cox tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I was like, 'I'm gonna not read it so when I watch it next year' – which is this year – 'I'll be surprised.' So it was deep. It was really intense to watch."

In an interview with THR, Cox gets emotional in discussing the real-life conditions for transgender people in prison, why Sophia let her conflict with Gloria (Selenis Leyva) get out of control and her favorite moments from the season finale.

Since you just recently watched the finale, what struck you about the way Sophia's situation was talked about and then not really dealt with?

I think a lot about Gloria and her conflict about feeling kind of responsible about what happened to Sophia. The whole prison turns on her, basically. God, I can't even say it — I'm so connected to this show emotionally. But the entire prison turns on her, and Gloria feels responsible.

I think about the conversations I've had with Selenis Leyva, who plays Gloria, and how close we are, and how difficult it was for her to play those scenes and be mean to me. [Laughs.] Because we're friends, and we love each other. Selenis has a transgender sister too, in real life. It's really — I don't know. What's weird for me is it doesn't even feel like acting anymore. It just feels like it got so real, almost too real for Sophia this season, particularly with episode 12. Just watching Selenis in those scenes, it just felt like it wasn't even the character anymore. I just felt Selenis there, and I felt her love for her own sister who's trans.

We were just very aware of how transgender people in prison are often placed in solitary confinement — sorry. Wow, this is really bothering me. And the rationale is that it is for our protection, that it's to protect us. And the reality is this injustice happens every single day to trans people. I think about CeCe McDonald, who I'm doing a movie about now called Free CeCe. We're in our final IndieGogo campaign to raise post-production funds to finish this movie. CeCe McDonald experienced being placed in solitary confinement three different times when she was incarcerated in a men's prison, allegedly for her own protection.

So this is an issue ... for people in prison in general. For so many people, it's considered cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the Eighth Amendment. It's just really f—ed up. I don't know any graceful way to put it. What happened to Sophia is really f—ed up, and it's real.[Creator] Jenji [Kohan] and our writers just went there. This is not just something that's happening on TV. It's happening every single day in prisons where trans people are incarcerated and placed in really unjust situations.

Sophia's relationship with her son grows really strained in season three, and it plays a part in the trouble she has with Gloria. Where does she stand with Michael?

At the end of the day, Sophia blames herself. She feels it's her fault she's not there, and she can't really deal with that. She can't really be accountable. Instead of taking responsibility on herself — even though she feels like it's her fault — she turns it all on Gloria. It's a lot easier for her to make it Gloria's fault than it is for her to deal with the reality that she's not there for Michael, that she, in her mind feels like, "God, why is this so raw for me today?" She feels like she's abandoned her son and she's not there for him.

It's what a lot of people who are parents and are incarcerated probably deal with. They really just can't be there, and there's nothing she can do. That moment where Michael's like, "What are you gonna do about it?" and walks out of the visitation room, she can't run after him. She's trapped, and it's a lot easier for her to blame Gloria than it is to look at herself.

There have been hints that some fellow inmates were uncomfortable around Sophia, but she never seemed to feel threatened before. Did she let her guard down, do you think?

Honestly, I think she got a little comfortable. She thought, "OK, I've got this setup at the salon. Everybody needs their hair done, so I trade my services for commissary, and people are going to need me." In terms of being strategic and being smart, she just wasn't. [Laughs.] She didn't think long-term. She really was like, "My son is spinning out of control. I'm responsible, [but] I can't take responsibility. I'm gonna blame Gloria because that's a lot easier."

At the end of the day, she should have apologized to Gloria. At the end of the day she should have allowed Benny to continue to get rides to the prison, and none of this would have happened. Sophia could have prevented this. But it was pride, it was ego, it was her not wanting to deal with the reality of what her circumstances were in relationship to Michael. And then not really thinking about the realities of what prison life is like for people like her. She's been lulled into a false sense of security, and the reality of the system hit her really, really hard this season.

For a lot of the season, it didn't seem like the MCC takeover of Litchfield really affected the inmates' day-to-day lives, but the hammer really comes down in the final episodes.

I would slightly disagree with that. We see with Pennsatucky, her relationship with that guard, this untrained guard who's obviously not [professional]. ... That was really hard to watch. ...  It was a rough season, gosh. But we're going there. I love that Jenji's going there. I love that our writers are going there.

What I think is brilliant is ... that's the way it works. They're insidious at the beginning, and then it's like, uh-oh. You start seeing the real consequences. That's how the system works.

True. It just seemed that other than the terrible new food, the routine stayed largely the same for most people.

What's beautiful ... is how resourceful the prisoners become to try to work around the system. ... Stay with me for a minute. Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow talks about prisons being the new sort of Jim Crow. ... I think about the resources black folks and slaves created to maintain their humanity and this sense of the spiritual, for example, to maintain their sense of connection to something bigger than themselves.

Faith is obviously a huge issue that permeates the season. You think about people who are enslaved. You think about people in prison are basically enslaved, and I think about what enslaved people, particularly African-Americans, did to maintain their sense of humanity and their sense of connection and love with each other and powers that are greater than themselves. We see that in Litchfield in a really beautiful way. ... What do people do in these dire, dire circumstances to maintain a sense of hope? So much of that is about faith. ...

We see that in Litchfield in what the prisoners are doing to create resilience for themselves and create a sense of hope. Part of that is religion, part of that is the garden and growing these vegetables to try to circumvent this corrupt system.

What else about the season finale stood out for you?

It was so beautiful. All those moments by the lake. There was so little dialogue. Just watching these women have this moment, which they know is fleeting — they know they're not necessarily free. But the moment between Suzanne and her potential new love interest [Emily Althaus] was so tender and innocent and beautiful. And oh my god, Adrienne [C. Moore], Black Cindy, getting her mikvah. ... It was so deeply moving. I was just in tears.

I feel like this season elevated [the show] to something else that was just beautiful and grand and epic. It was just so stunningly beautiful and moving.

One small thing that stands out is Taystee putting her ID badge back on after she makes her shirt into a turban.

It's the thing of becoming institutionalized in that way, and also she didn't want to get her hair wet. It was just real, right? I think black women all over America were like, "Yes, I am not getting my hair wet." [Laughs.] So that was that piece. It's all those little details — our show is filled with that all season. Like with Chang, what she does with the peas and the Fritos in the microwave — all these little things that are so very specific. It's in the scripts, but it's also in the choices that our actors make.

Orange Is the New Black's third season is streaming now on Netflix. Season four went into production in early June.

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