Overcoming obstacles takes serious
courage, determination and of course a big set of, well,
whatever gives you the power. It’s not easy to face adversity
when the whole world is on the outside looking in. Laverne Cox,
who plays “Chantelle” in the independent film “Musical Chairs,”
proves that art does often times imitate life. Laverne, who made
television history when she became the first African American
transgender woman to appear on an American reality show with her
appearance as a finalist on VH1's "I Want to Work for Diddy,”
walks the walk in a role that is all about following one’s
heart. In the film, Laverne’s character, “Chantelle,” is a
transgender woman in a wheelchair who joins members of her rehab
facility in competitive ballroom dancing. Opening on March 23
in New York and South Florida, “Musical Chairs” explores the ups
and downs of facing challenges and the zest for life that exists
despite even the most difficult circumstances. Laverne recently
spoke with Mark’s List about the film “Musical Chairs,” playing
“Chantelle,” learning how to dance in a wheelchair, being a
transgender actress and dealing with society’s misconceptions.
You play “Chantelle” in “Musical
Chairs.” Talk a little bit about your character and what
attracted you to her.
I love “Chantelle”—she’s sassy, sexy
and wise. She’s a woman who has had a very difficult life, but
she doesn’t let that take away her sense of humor about life.
She’s also a big flirt and very romantic at heart. The dance
elements of the film really attracted me to the film. I
did a little bit of jazz and tap growing up, but I never got to
experience ballroom dancing—and doing it in a wheelchair was
something I never really expected to do. It was a wonderful
How was your experience with
working with director Susan Siedelman?
Working with Susan was a dream come
true. It was very intimidating when I was auditioning— I mean
she’s worked with Madonna and Meryl Streep and Sarah Jessica
Parker. She is so amazing and really trusted us to do our thing.
She had a very clear vision and was very supportive throughout
Learning to ballroom dance for a
film is difficult in and of itself. How difficult was it
to learn to dance in a wheelchair?
I’m just really grateful that we had
the rehearsal period that we did. It was harder than I
thought—there were balance issues and also working with a
partner. It gave me a newfound respect for people living
with disabilities. Auti Angel, who plays “Nicky” in the film,
was great to work with. She taught me what it was like to live
everyday in a wheelchair. She took me out to lunch one day
and I stayed in my wheelchair the whole time. I really got
a feel for what it was like out in the world in a wheelchair—it
was very intense.
You talked earlier about
“Chantelle’s” flirtations nature, which causes her to butt head
with “Kenny” during the film. How was it during those scenes?
Morgan Spector, who plays “Kenny,” was
just awesome. We got along really well during rehearsals so
things just kind of happened organically on-screen. He’s a great
actor and an incredible person.
“Musical Chairs” was recently
featured at the Miami International Film Festival. How important
is it for the public to support independent films?
I think it’s crucial—I think we should
support more independent films in this country. There’s never
been a film about wheelchair ballroom dancing, and it was great
to see how excited people were about this film. We got some
really great feedback from people with disabilities and actors
with disabilities who were in the film. The job of art is to
represent diversity. The fact that someone can lose the use of
their legs and still enjoy dancing and living life is really a
beautiful thing. It certainly inspired me a lot.
The movie deals a lot with
overcoming obstacles. How much can you identify with that from
your own experiences?
I identify with it on so many levels.
Casting directors would tell me for years how talented I was but
there were just no parts for someone like me. I never gave up
and I’m still here—I’m still finding ways to work as an actress.
Do you only play transgender women?
Predominantly I audition for
transgender roles, but I have played roles that are not
transgender. Hopefully more casting directors will give me more
opportunities regardless of my gender identity. It’s been a slow
process for the industry to come around, but I’m ready [laughs].
When did you know that you felt
different from what society expected you to be?
I was very feminine growing up. I grew
up in Mobile, Alabama and kids teased me a lot and called me bad
names like “fag” before I even knew what that meant. It seemed
like a lot of people knew before I did—I just always felt like a
girl. When I was in 3rd grade, my teacher
called my mother to have an intervention to try to “fix” me and
get me to act like a boy. It wasn’t until I graduated from
high school and went to college in New York that I finally
started to accept it—I ran from it for a long time. Now I love
What has your dating experience
I’ve definitely been in situations
where I wasn’t sure if someone knew or not. I try to make sure
when I’m dating that I tell someone right away, because I don’t
want to get hurt. Earlier on I was very dramatic about it
[laughs], but I’m very nonchalant about it now.
What do you think is the biggest
misconception of transgender people in society?
I think the media and society focus
too much on the surgeries we’ve had and the surgeries we haven’t had
instead of focusing on the humanity. I try to focus on my
qualities as a person and not what body parts I have and don’t
have. Another big misconception is that all transgender people
are the same, and that’s just not the case. We’re young, old,
tall, short and do different things for a living.
What was your experience like
appearing as a finalist on VH1's "I Want to Work for Diddy”?
When I did the show, there hadn’t been
any transgender people on any reality show at the time. I
was freaked out about representing my people and not playing
into any sensationalized stereotypes, but it all worked out in
the end. Ultimately I just had to be myself. I never actually
met him [Diddy], but I did have a conference call with him and
he was very sweet on the phone. He was very cognoscente of the
fact that I was just a person. The great thing about the show
was that I was treated just like all the other contestants, and
by the third episode no one really saw me as the transgender
Can you talk about your activism
I’m doing a lot of projects on the
internet for transgender people to tell their stories. I’m
trying to get people to think differently about gender and the
types of questions to ask transgender people. I’ve been getting
my own story out there through television and writing and films,
and really doing my best to increase the visibility about the
More about Laverne Cox:
More about "Musical Chairs":
"Musical Chairs" isdirected by Susan
Seidelman ("Desperately Seaking Susan," "Making Mr. Right," and
the pilot as well as some episodes for "Sex and the City"). Set
against the exciting backdrop of competitive ballroom dancing,
"Musical Chairs" is about Armando, a Bronx-bred Latino who
aspires to be a dancer but whose only way in is as handyman at a
Manhattan dance studio, and Mia, an Upper East Side princess who
is the studio's star performer. Though worlds apart, their
shared passion for dance promises to bring them together until a
tragic accident changes Mia's life forever, and she finds
herself wheelchair-bound at a rehab facility, with her dreams of
a dance career shattered. Fortunately, Armando has enough dreams
for both of them and, when he hears about a wheelchair ballroom
dance competition that will soon be held in NY, he sees a way to
return something to Mia that she thinks is lost forever. At
first she is reluctant--wheelchair dancing, though highly
popular overseas, is something she never even knew existed. But,
with the help of several other patients at the rehab center,
Armando organizes an intense training program that will bring
them all center stage and in the spotlight. The prize is
irrelevant; what they really stand to win back is their zest for