how i get it done

How I Get It Done: Actress and Activist Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox. Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.

Actress and activist Laverne Cox is a groundbreaking figure in the trans community. In 2013, she was cast as Sophia Burset in Orange Is the New Black, a role that catapulted her to fame. She is the first openly trans person to be nominated for a prime-time Emmy in an acting category; she has now been nominated for three and won a Daytime Creative Arts Emmy for producing the documentary Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word. She is also the first openly trans person to be featured on the covers of Time, Cosmopolitan, and British Vogue. She has received an honorary doctorate from the New School for her work to advance gender equality and been recognized by the Transgender Law Center and the Forum for Equality. She lives in L.A., where she divides her time between acting and activism. Here’s how she gets it done.

On a typical morning:
As soon as I wake up, I try to write down five things I’m grateful for. Then I’ll do some transcendental meditation, at least 20 minutes. If I jump into the day without meditating or doing the gratitude list, then I have to do a catch-up at some point, to center myself in my body. But it’s very imperfect, my self-care. I do my best, but it’s messy and hard to keep up with, especially when I have early flights and call times, which is often the case. I try to sleep at least seven hours a night, but sometimes it’s just not possible.

On therapy:
I’ve been in and out of therapy for almost 20 years. After Orange Is the New Black became a success, I was suddenly famous and stressed out, and my doctor in New York suggested somatic therapy. The word “somatic” just means “the body,” so the way it works is that you’re tracking your energy and what’s going on, physically. For example, I’ll go into a therapy session, and I’ll say, “I’m feeling really anxious today,” and my therapist will ask me where in my body I feel it. It’s almost always in my stomach, sometimes in my chest. Then she’ll ask me where in my body it feels neutral or pleasant. Often that’s my ankle or my calf, and she’ll invite me to focus on that part of my body. Invariably, when I do that, the anxiety will dissipate a little bit or a lot. It’s about retraining the nervous system to push that trauma through and out of the body. Sometimes I have to punch something or kick something or push against a wall. Sometimes my therapist puts a weighted blanket on me. It’s about redirecting the energy.

On achieving success later in life:
When I turned 40 in 2012, I’d just gotten my second eviction notice in two years. I was like, “What am I doing with my life? How did I end up here, with no money, no savings, on a payment plan for my rent?” I was like, “What the fuck?” I had worked really, really hard for a long time. But a lot of people work really hard for a long time; they don’t get anywhere because they’re up against a system that needs to change. The system that changed my career and my life was Netflix, which had a new production model and a revolutionary show with a trans character that the show’s creators wanted to hire a trans person to play. That was a systemic change that allowed me, this unlikely person, to become a working actor and arguably a star. Now I’m 47, and I’m living the dream I had 20 years ago, when you didn’t even see transgender people on television unless they were being ridiculed on a daytime talk show.

On leaving New York:
I lived in New York City for 23 years. I came to Los Angeles in 2016, but I did not want to move here. I was a hard-core New Yorker. I was Carrie Bradshaw. I still love New York tremendously. But I moved here because I had a job [the CBS show Doubt], and then the show ended and I just stayed. Part of the reason I stayed is because of other work that is here, but also because it’s just slower. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think I needed a different experience. I needed a new zhuzh.

On treating herself:
I have a thing for handbags. I recently got myself a new bag because I was like, “I’m on the cover of British Vogue! I have a new Emmy nomination!” I told myself I wouldn’t get any more bags this year because I have enough of them, but I’m feeling the need to celebrate myself more. Part of it is that I’m single again. Not that my life ever revolved around any man, but a lot of celebrations used to happen with my ex-boyfriend.

On dealing with her breakup:
It feels like such a cliché that my career is in this wonderful place just as I’m mourning the end of the best relationship I’ve ever had. I’m still deeply in it. Right after the breakup, I had a job in London, and I was like, “Perfect. I can just completely distract myself and go and work.” So I did that, but then the breakup was still there. I feel like I’m barely getting through the day sometimes. But I always find a way to show up to work, no matter what, and that has been the truth for me forever. I could be in the worst mental space in the world, but I’ll show up and I’ll deliver. It’s my best way to cope. What artists do is we take shit and we make Champagne and diamonds from it.

On her beauty routine:
Before I started my transition, I had terrible acne, but taking estrogen cleared my skin. Now I get like two pimples a year, maybe. My beauty routine is really simple. I get a few facials, but it’s mostly about moisturizing and thinking about what I put in my body. I stopped eating refined sugar in December of last year, which was hard, because I’m a sugar addict. I also stopped consuming caffeine in January, and I stopped dairy four or five months ago. I just have such an intense schedule that I have to take care of myself. Things like sugar and caffeine may seem like they’re going to give you energy, but they were depleting me. I’m taking it a day at a time. Maybe next week you’ll see me with a Snickers bar and some Ben & Jerry’s.

On traveling:
I find traveling so stressful. People are going through your luggage and your flight is getting changed and you just have no control over anything. To reduce the stress, I try to fly on a consistent airline as much as possible. When I do different airlines, I’m like, “Where’s the gate? What’s on this boarding pass?” When everything is in the same place, it’s a little bit more predictable.

On blowing off steam:
For fun, I dance. A good morning for me is when I put on music and just dance around the bathroom while I’m getting ready. I’ll post videos of me dancing around my glam room. For me, fun is what makes me feel like a carefree 9-year-old. Karaoke is another thing. I’m actually trying to wrangle some friends to go to karaoke tonight. If not, I’m just going to go by myself. It will free me and give me life. I have many go-to songs. Lately, I’ve been into this karaoke place that does opera. I sing opera as a hobby. Lately, I’ve been singing “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, by Puccini. I will also try “Phantom of the Opera.” On a really good day, I can hit the high E in the “Phantom of the Opera,” but that’s a crap shoot.

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How I Get It Done: Actress and Activist Laverne Cox