Gail, Laverne Cox’s character in Promising Young Woman, is an unexpected role model.
People sometimes bemoan the role of the “best friend” in a movie. But as coffee shop owner Gail, the employer of and best friend and confidant to Carey Mulligan’s revenge-minded Cassie, Cox is affecting change even while she serves coffee and tries to counsel Cassandra into injecting fun into her life. Gail’s revolutionary status doesn’t just come from Cox’s own life as an LGBTQ activist and one of the biggest headlining trans actresses in Hollywood. It also comes from the fact that whether or not Gail is trans, her tendency towards the mundane is something not often afforded to trans actresses, especially trans actresses of color. To go even further, Gail’s mundane life exhibits a privilege trans people in America and around the world wish to indulge in without threat to their lives.
Cox herself was surprised when I brought up the fact that Gail, who was described by Bo Burnham’s “nice guy” character Ryan as “really nice,” is an undercover revolutionary by virtue of her nondescript, yet aspirational, life.
“Believe it or not, [I haven’t] really thought about that. I just want to be able to play characters that I find interesting and [to] really be involved in projects that I think are meaningful and work with incredible people,” she said. “So I’m just really grateful that in two different films that I’ve [been in] this year–this and Bad Hair–that I play characters that were not written as trans. They are characters that are, you know just characters. I mean, I guess it could be trans or not, I guess Gail could potentially be trans, but she wasn’t written that way.”
This leads to a conversation about what happens to characters when an actor takes on the role. What does the actor lend to the character that wasn’t there before? And how do any additions affect how an audience might perceive a character? She referenced a question that has come up in casting before–if a Black actor plays a character, even if the character wasn’t written as Black, that character is automatically Black. When Cox plays a character, she asked rhetorically, does it mean that her character automatically becomes trans because she’s openly trans?
“I don’t know that,” she said. “I…think it really comes down to directors with producers, casting directors, having a vision to cast the person who’s the best for the role, who’s the most likeable. I think there’s something about my talent and my energy that would be good for [Gail]. And so I am so grateful that [director Emerald Fennell] saw that, and I’ve loved this movie so much, so I hope that becomes the criteria. It’s about talent and about what someone has to bring energetically to a project.
Cox’s passion for Promising Young Woman is palpable in her thoughts about how the film relates to today’s conversations about America’s relationships to toxic masculinity, female objectification and lack of consent, as evidenced by the Me Too and Time’s Up movements.
“I think that conversations around consent and accountability, particularly the consent part, haven’t really happened, or haven’t happened in a robust enough way for me to really change what I would call rape culture,” she said. “I think what this film invites us to do is just to begin to have this conversation, to inspire, hopefully, parents to have more conversations with their children about consent–their children of all genders, particularly their male-identified children around consent and what that looks like. That [can lead to] conversations with themselves and each other around consent and then people of all genders can begin to ask themselves how they may or may not be complicit. And [with] all of these things, I think hopefully we can begin to really have those conversations in a deeper way so that we can change the culture.
Cox also said Promising Young Woman doesn’t just spread a message about acknowledging the pressures placed on women, but on all survivors of sexual assault regardless of gender. The film’s storyline of Cassie fighting for her friend, who became a victim of sexual assault, is something that could affect anyone, not just women.
“I think it’s important to understand that people of all genders can experience and have experienced sexual assault,” she said. “I think that support for those folks who have, is finding space where they’re believed. I think one of the big things that happen to Cassie’s friend is that no one really believes her and that they believe that the life of the man is way more important than the experience that has happened to this woman.”
“I think a lot of it starts with believing survivors, but then creating spaces so that we can begin to heal. Tarana Burke, who founded the Me Too movement so many years ago, started it for survivors to not feel alone,” she continued. “The idea of Me Too is ‘I am not alone’ It’s empathy, it’s ‘I don’t have to go through this aftermath of an assault by myself.’ I think we need to support by supporting organizations that doing work like Tarana. I would suggest people go to Tarana’s website; she’s doing really specific work for survivors and [also support] organizations that are doing work to support survivors.”
Cox said that the conversations around transforming how society talks and thinks about sexual assault survivors is what she’s the most interested in, particularly with how Promising Young Woman can help facilitate those conversations.
“I really would rather not have to hear stories about children or people of any gender experience [sexual assault] ever again,” she said. “…I would be so moved if we’re hearing people being excited to have conversations they weren’t having before…Let’s talk about consent, let’s talk about what consent looks like with [a] child who might be about to go through puberty. What do we need to talk about around consent so we make sure we’re raising children who will never do these things?
I think parents should be having these conversations with their kids and having conversations with each other. What does consent look like? It doesn’t have to be this thing that’s not sexy, right? Hot, consensual sex is possible.”
Promising Young Woman debuts Christmas day.