Laverne Cox on 'Rocky Horror' remake: 'This is my singing debut to the world'

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Laverne Cox was a freshman in college when she first met Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the "sweet transvestite" portrayed by Tim Curry in the 1975 musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the longest-running release in movie history (it has grossed $112 million to date). "I was transfixed," says the Orange Is the New Black actress, 32, of the groundbreaking, sexually fluid character. "[His song ] 'Don't Dream It' became a personal mantra."

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Thanks to her new biggest fan -- High School Musical and prolific music video director Kenny Ortega, 66 -- Cox will step into Curry's platform heels as a very glam Frank in Ortega's made-for-TV Rocky (Fox, Oct. 20), alongside Victoria Justice, Adam Lambert and Curry himself, for a star-studded version intended to break TV's reboot slump. The cast also has recorded a new version of the seminal soundtrack (Oct. 21, Ode Records) in hopes of topping the original's chart peak: No. 49 on the Billboard 200 in 1978.

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Why do you think Rocky has ­become so ­beloved?
Cox: I've heard hundreds of stories from people who say, "That's where I dressed in drag for the first time, where I came out. It created a whole adopted family."
Ortega: I felt like an alien in the '70s! I didn't feel like I belonged to this world. And I could connect to those Transylvanians and Dr. Frank-N-Furter. For me and many of us who perhaps lived a bit in the shadows at some point in our lives, it gave us the confidence to liberate ourselves and to come into a truth of who we were, but also have a sense of humor about it.

How did Laverne score the role of Frank?
Cox: I sang "I'm Going Home" and "Sweet Transvestite."
Ortega: And you did an improv with dance! You threw yourself into the Chinese splits on the floor. I worked with Michael Jackson, and Laverne is one of the most deeply gifted performers I've ever worked with.

Is this a total reinvention of the ­original or paying homage?
Cox: Everyone approached this with a reverence for the film. But we also acknowledge that that movie is done. I don't think I'm like anyone else who has played [this role], certainly not like Tim Curry. I thought a lot about Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, a lot of Grace Jones. Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis influenced my approach to the dialogue.

What can we expect from Laverne Cox, the singer?
Ortega (To Cox): I was listening from the other room as you were warming up one day, and it was like, "Whoa!" These were high soprano, operatic notes, then all the way down to this great alto range.
Cox: I started out as a dancer. I didn't study voice until college, and then I started opera. But this is sort of my singing debut to the world.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of Billboard.

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