A long-time advocate for the transgender community, Laverne Cox will make history as the first transgender actress to play a transgender series regular on a broadcast television show when the legal drama Doubt premieres on CBS tonight.
Cox, who is already known for portraying Sophia Burset, a transgender woman serving time for credit card fraud on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, is cast as Cameron Wirth, an Ivy league-educated defense attorney, on Doubt, starring alongside Katherine Heigl and Dulé Hill, who also depict lawyers working at a New York City law firm defending underdogs and dealing with drama in the courtroom and in their personal lives.
Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, Grey's Anatomy alums and the husband-and-wife creators of Doubt, wrote the part of Cameron with Cox in mind. "We knew she was on Orange, so we assumed that she was unavailable, and we were ready to conduct a nationwide talent search to find the person who was going to play Cam," Phelan tells Co.Create.
Then Cox, the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy award back in 2014 for her performance on Orange Is the New Black, got wind of the project. "Pretty much as soon as CBS made the announcement that we were going to make a pilot, and the script went out to agents, Laverne's people called us and said, 'Look, this is Laverne's role. She is going to fly herself from New York to LA to audition for you,'" Phelan says.
Cox nailed the audition, performing a closing argument with passion and confidence, according to Rater, who recalls, "She wanted this role, and we were all like, 'Off to wardrobe!' "
Actually, Cox did have some concerns. She wanted to make sure Cameron's story would be told in a respectful way, and she and Phelan and Rater discussed the character in depth before her audition.
"After she did her audition, and as she was walking out the door, she turned to us and said, 'I just have one more question for you. Are you Tom Phelan's parents?' We were like, 'Yeah,'" Phelan says, "and she was like, 'Okay, good to know.' "
Cox knew of Phelan and Rater's teenage son Tom because the transgender actor had gotten a lot of press at the time for playing the recurring role of Cole, a transgender teen living in a group home on the ABC Family series The Fosters.
Tom was the reason why Phelan and Rater wanted to include a transgender character on Doubt. He had come out to his parents about a year before they wrote the pilot. "I didn't know anyone who was transgender at that point. I didn't understand it that well," Rater says. "So we immersed ourselves in that world, trying to understand it."
At first, Tom's revelation was confusing, Rater admits, but it didn't take long before she and her husband realized their child was still their child. "I remember a week afterwards just looking in his bedroom, which was always a mess, and it was still a mess, and I just had this realization that he was still a smart, funny, sloppy, hilarious, theater lover, and he was also transgender, and he was still exactly the same person he was," Rater recalls. "It was literally nothing different. He was this fully-realized person, who happened to be transgender."
While transgender visibility has increased on scripted television in recent years thanks to shows ranging from Amazon's Transparent to Orange Is the New Black, there are still boundaries to be broken, which is why it was important to Phelan and Rater that they include a trans character on Doubt not just in an occasional way but as a full-time cast member.
After they wrote the Doubt pilot, Phelan and Rater asked Tom to read it. "We wanted his sort of stamp of approval if you will. We wanted it to not feel preachy or wrong," Rater says. "We wanted him to like it, and he did."
Phelan and Rater are television veterans, who joined ABC's Grey's Anatomy as writers at the start of the show's second season and co-ran the show with creator Shonda Rhimes for seasons seven through 10. They know how to tell stories on television, but to ensure that they were accurately portraying the experience of a transgender woman, the duo hired a transgender woman and writer, Imogen Binnie, to join the Doubt writers' room. (Binnie is the author of a novel titled Nevada about a punk trans woman living in New York City.) They also talked to Cox about where she would like to see the character go.
"We're not telling the story of somebody going through the transition," Phelan points out. "We are telling the story of somebody who is secure in who they are and existing in the world and trying to succeed in their personal life and their professional life."
As season one of Doubt progresses, Cameron will be involved in "a sweeping romance," Rater teases. The relationship begins in the third episode of Doubt when Cameron gets together with an old law school classmate of hers, who knew her before she transitioned.
"She is a trans woman dating a cis [that's short for cisgender] man," Phelan says, "and it's something that Laverne had all sorts of ideas about as a trans woman who dates cis men."
"He's a prosecutor," Phelan adds, "and she's a defense attorney, so there's that to deal with as well."
"There's some stuff that comes up later in the season that feels like a conversation that you’ve never seen on TV," Rater chimes in.
While the aim of Doubt is to entertain, of course, as the proud parents of a transgender son, Phelan and Rater also hope to enlighten people and spread acceptance, using the power and reach of series television. "You get very possessive of these characters who are on the shows that you regularly watch, and you feel like you really know them, and I think that the intimacy that people have with these shows, the way that these shows can raise issues and bring characters that they might not encounter in their lives to their attention is a tremendous force for change," Phelan says. "You really have this wonderful opportunity to be in a dialogue with the audience."
"We feel really lucky that we get to bring our show and Cam's character into so many homes," Rater says, "and, hopefully, have America fall in love with her."