RED CARPET: Laverne Cox Talks Tattooing Lily Tomlin in ‘Grandma’

Grandma Laverne Cox 1
Laverne Cox | Paula Schwartz Photo

Laverne Cox plays Deathy, a tattoo artist and a friend from the past to Lily Tomlin’s character in “Grandma,” directed by Paul Weitz that opened Friday to excellent reviews.

Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet and academic, who is a feisty, complicated and brainy woman, still mourning the relatively recent death of her partner of 35 years. After a surprise visit from her granddaughter (Julia Garner), who is pregnant and needs $630 for an abortion, the two go on a road trip to collect money from friends and acquaintances – some with whom Elle has a heavy-duty history – which they need by the end of the day.

Deathy, an exotic and compassionate transgender woman who owes Elle $500, is one of the pit stops. Although she doesn’t have the scratch, Deathy gives Elle a free tattoo, which focuses her thinking.

Cox is best known for playing Sophia, a transgender woman who is in prison for credit card fraud in “Orange is the New Black.” The actress is also a social activist on behalf of transgender women, who, Cox points out, are often the victims of crime and suffer high rates of unemployment and depression. She once told me that unlike her character Sophia, transgender women in prison are often incarcerated with men and preyed upon by the general prison population.

In an appearance on “Good Morning America” last week to promote “Grandma,” Cox told Robin Roberts about the recent murder of another member of the transgender community, bringing the number up to 17 transgender women who have been murdered in 2015 alone. Cox called it “a state of emergency,” adding, “Your life should not be in danger simply for being who you are.”

On a lighter note, last week at the Cinema Society premiere of “Grandma” at the Landmark Theater on the Lower East Side, Cox looked stunning in a long red gown, showing lots of cleavage, but not a tattoo in sight. I chatted briefly with the actress about her role as tattoo artist Deathy and what she took away from the experience of working with a legendary icon.

Do you have any tattoos? If you do, they aren’t evident in that gown.

I don’t have any tattoos, and I have no plans to get any. But the movie was fun! When Paul [Weitz, director] approached me, I thought it would be really cool. The look for Deathy was inspired by a dear friend of mine. She worked with me at a place called Lucky Cheng, which no longer exists. She had all of these tattoos. She had tattoos everywhere, and she has this sort of rockabilly look, and I was like, “It would be really cool if Deathy had that kind of look.”

So Paul and I talked. I actually showed Paul a picture of the woman I used to work with and we came up with this really fun look. I had so much fun coming up with the hair and makeup. I wanted to visit a tattoo parlor, but I was traveling a lot at the time. So I watched YouTube videos to see how tattoo artists do the whole thing. Everything’s on YouTube, which is amazing. So yeah, most of my research was YouTube.

How long did those tattoos take to apply?

The fake tattoos, probably like four hours for everything. The make-up team was pretty awesome, I’m not sure what it was, some sort of thingy. But it was pretty quick.

I like your character, she’s compassionate and exotic. And she’s special because she’s the only person Elle has not pissed off.

I know! Paul and I talked a lot about that. This relationship is really important because we see this other side of Lily’s character. Everybody else has issues with her and she’s burned some bridges and pissed off some people, and it’s lovely to see that there’s that. There’s something between the relationship between a tattoo artist and the person they’re giving tattoos to that’s intimate, sort of ritualistic, sacred in some way, and so I hope we found that.

Also, I think there are some people you don’t want to piss off. You don’t want to piss off your hair and makeup people. You don’t want to piss off the person giving you a tattoo who’s got a gun that can maim. You don’t want to piss her off, right?

If you were going to get a tattoo, what would it be?

I’m not a tattoo person, but my acting coach has this thing he always talked about, the image from the Sistine Chapel, the fingers. He talked about that all the time in relation to sort of aligning with the universe’s plan for you artistically, and these things, like when the right role and the right actor meet, the right person romantically, all these things about trying to get out of your own way, to align so that you can have these moments in your life. So I’d probably get two fingers doing that, like a tattoo of that.

What did you learn from working with Lily Tomlin?

I learned that I could get older in this business and continue to work and still be gracious and graceful and badass.


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