Emmys: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Star Laverne Cox Revisits Sophia’s Brave Pushback Against Solitary Confinement

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 12 to June 26 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.

Orange Is the New Black’s Sophia Burset continues to have one of the harshest prison lives in the Netflix series, between strife with other inmates and a continuing battle to repair strained relationships with her estranged wife and son on the outside.

But as Laverne Cox shares in Yahoo TV’s “My Scene to Remember” Emmy series, the time her transgender character spent in solitary confinement in Season 4 was among the most damaging physical and psychological abuse Sophia has weathered. It also marked Sophia’s first appearance in Season 4, as she had been sent to solitary in Season 3, after being beaten by a group of her fellow inmates.

For Cox, it was (literally) one of the most immersive episodes she’s had to film, as she spent two days in wet pants, stuffing shirts down a toilet to flood Sophia’s cell to protest her unjustified time in solitary in OITNB’s “Doctor Psycho” episode.

“We’re a really raw show, and I really appreciate that now more than ever, how raw everything is, just because then it gets to be about the work, it just gets to be about the circumstances and living, and not anything sort of superficial,” Cox says.

“I was very aware when I got this episode that transgender people are mostly serving time in men’s prisons and are often placed in solitary confinement allegedly for our ‘protection,’” says the Emmy-nominated (and Daytime Emmy-winning) actress. “Knowing that, it was really important for me to try to convey a level of truth and authenticity to this experience of being in solitary.”

Getting to those emotional beats required some practical physical work, too — work that Cox recalls as being a lot of fun, if uncomfortable.

“We had to practice flooding the cell a lot. Everything was rigged so that when I flushed the toilet it would overflow, so we had to do that several times,” she says. “So I’m standing in water, and I hate having my feet wet. And it was cold. But it was really fun. It was just so different from anything I’ve ever done before on this show or anywhere else. I was just so excited. I was wading in water, and then later on in the episode, we see that Sophia sets her mattress on fire, and I love that sort of nod to her firefighter days. She knows how to set a fire. She has many skill sets. I’m like, she’s flooding the frickin’ prison? That is just badass!”

Cox also spent considerably less time than usual in the hair and makeup chair for the episode, as she shed Sophia’s wigs — and her own. The hair team undid her own braids and wet her natural hair, to make it look like Sophia had been sleeping on it. The makeup team added bruises.

“I met with my acting coach, Brad Calcaterra. We looked at the episode, and these scenes, and tried to make specific choices about how we could convey what was going on with Sophia with a look, with her physicality,” Cox says. “We see that she’s chosen not to eat much — she’s lost weight since the last season. She’s been stripped of the glamour she’s been able to approximate behind bars. Solitary is often referred to as ‘a prison within a prison,’ so we see that even within prison, this person that we’ve gotten to know over three seasons, [who was] kind of empowered in a way — all that’s been taken away from her. How does she react, what is her psychological state, and what does she do?”

Seasons 1 to 4 of Orange is the New Black are now streaming on Netflix. Season 5 premieres June 9.

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