The Danish Girl, opening in limited release Friday, is based on the real-life story of early 20th-century painter Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener), one of the first known people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and her wife, a painter named Gerda. Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the novel of the same name stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili and Alicia Vikander as Gerda, and is a major contender in the Oscar race. I spoke with Hooper (Les Misérables, The King’s Speech) about his aesthetic choices for the film and how he felt about the pushback he received from some members in the LGBTQ community for casting Redmayne, a cisgender male actor, in the role of Lili.
The film looks gorgeous, and I’ve seen lots of critics compare its aesthetic to a painting. What kinds of images and paintings inspired you during the filmmaking process?
I was very inspired of [Vilhelm] Hammershoi, who’s this amazing Danish artist who kind of slightly obsessively painted his own apartment. [It] had these very Danish blue-gray walls and there’s this very sort of tightly austere palette in different shades of blue—there was something about the kind of loneliness and the starkness and the beauty of that that spoke visually to me of what it might be like to really be living as Einar. There’s something claustrophobic about it that I think spoke to something slightly unsettling, which is the mood I wanted to create ... And so we built a set that was based on very specific Hammershøi paintings … what’s behind Eddie Redmayne is basically exactly a Hammershoi canvas.
Then I think I was very influenced by the art of Gerda and Lili themselves. I felt that Gerda’s art is all about the pursuit of beauty, particularly idealizing feminine beauty. [She tends to idealize] the women she paints and make them more beautiful, so her art is about the beauty of the close-up. Einar’s art is about the beauty of the wide shot, the beauty of the landscape. I wanted to internalize the sensibility of the two artist protagonists and shoot the film with their eyes and that sense of an acute awareness of beauty both in the form of a person or of a landscape, and wanted it to be part of the texture of the film.
Eddie Redmayne has such a distinct face. With this character, where he is transforming before our eyes, how did you decide how to shoot him?
What Danny Cohen, the cinematographer, and I did was sort of study—I suppose we went through the same process as Gerda must have gone through with Lili. Just as Gerda starts to think—to spot—the latent femininity in her husband and become fascinated by it and start to draw it, we became fascinated by the ways Eddie’s femininity was revealed, from what angles, in what lights.
Danny noticed that if you shot Eddie from slightly above eye height, Lili would be better revealed and it’s partly because Eddie’s quite tall, he’s my height, and Alicia is quite small … There were little subtle things like that, but what was very important to the storytelling was that I wanted the camera, the lighting, the makeup, the costume, Eddie’s performance, to all collude in the moments when Lili felt she was herself and was happy. And then equally take out support from that collusion when she was not happy, you know so after [she and Henrik, played by Ben Whishaw] kiss, when she has the nosebleed ... there are subtle things in the way we shoot her that changes so that she’s less comfortable as Lili, less comfortable in her skin. There was a sort of complex dance of us all colluding with Lili passing or blending, or pulling away some of that support.
You've mentioned that Eddie was the first person you thought of when you read the script. There was a lot of controversy about your casting a cis- actor in a transgender role. Was that something you anticipated?
I must admit I thought about Eddie Redmayne the very first time I read the script, and this was back in 2008. I’d worked with him once before in Elizabeth I, the miniseries, and I think, you know I always have felt there was a femininity in Eddie or in his features, and I’d remarked on the fact that he’d been drawn to the feminine—he played the girl’s parts in school plays, he played Viola in Mark Rylance’s [2002 Shakespeare Globe production of] Twelfth Night, so he was a young actor who had a body of work from which he could draw. Gender is on a spectrum and I just felt that he sat on an interesting place on that spectrum.
What’s quite interesting is a lot of the controversy happened three years after I cast him, because when I first offered him the role it was on the barricades of Les Misérables. The film didn’t become a real film that was actually going to happen, until like last year, and when the controversy started. I mean you know this film hasn’t happened in a hurry. It’s taken me seven years to get it made so I had plenty of time to think about the casting; I know that there was a previous incarnation where Nicole was going to play—
Yeah, she was going to play [the role], before my time. But I was open to an idea of a woman playing it, I was open to the idea of a trans actor playing it, I just had a very strong instinct that Eddie—because of all the things I’ve said about his relationship to his feminine side—that there was something very interesting about giving him the opportunity to really explore that.
How did you react to the backlash?
Well, one of the ways I reacted was I worked very hard to audition and meet trans actors in London where our film was based, and I was pleased that a couple of roles in the film, small roles, are trans, one by a trans actress called Rebecca Root, and one by a trans actor. And they’re playing cisgender roles. I sort of felt that I did do outreach into the community of actors in London, and I like the fact that you can cast trans actors to play cis roles, and I hope the world will evolve to a point where the flow can be both ways. I think the problem now is [the lack of] equality of opportunity for trans actors to play cis and trans roles, and until the industry, evolves to break those barriers down I think the issue will remain.
But I was certainly pleased to do that, and also I know that certainly in the U.S. the issue of discrimination against trans people in employment is a massive issue, and I know that in something like 29 or 30 states you can fire someone for being trans, which is out-fucking-rageous. My musical director in Les Mis was a trans woman, Jennifer White … so I feel it’s about employing trans [people] in whatever part of the film industry.
And Eddie worked with a trans person as well in order to help develop the character, is that correct?
Yeah. He did a huge amount of outreach from [director] Lana Wachowski … to April Ashley—April is an incredibly iconic trans woman in London who was a famous model in the ’60s … and she’d shared her life story, it was wonderfully inspiring. Eddie spent about a year prepping for the film, met trans women and was very struck by how generous they were in sort of saying, “Ask me anything, there’s nothing you can’t ask,” and he did.
It’s screened in several places already—I saw it at Toronto. Have you heard from any people in the trans community who have seen it about what they’ve thought about it?
The most moving for me was Jennifer White. ... She could hardly speak for five minutes afterwards and sort of said, “It’s like you’ve served up a dollop of my own brain back to me.” … She mentioned particular scenes that were very resonant and spoked to her adolescence. There have probably been a number of trans people who have seen it, but the one who’s most special is Jennifer, because I had an existing relationship with her and she’s in my world.
The last few movies you’ve made, between this and Les Mis and The King’s Speech, have all been historical or biographical films. What is it that draws you to those stories instead of making something more contemporary?
I don’t know. I suppose [Danish Girl] feels very connected to the present. I mean it’s funny—in reviews people don’t call it a period drama or a costume drama. I mean, they obviously know when it’s set, but the fact that it’s so timely now almost 100 years later is evidence of how slowly the world has really embraced the trans cause.
I would say there’s a civil rights movement happening right now, which was something happening then, and this is partly about reclaiming trans history because this story was really poorly known and very marginalized. And I suppose with Les Mis, with the Arab Spring and the extraordinary revolution around the world, that also felt weirdly topical. So I think it’s partly I gravitate toward a story when, even though it’s set in the past, it’s something that speaks to the urgent present.
It seems like The Danish Girl couldn’t have come at a more opportune time—you have Transparent…
It’s great, isn’t it? It’s so good.
It’s great. And you have actresses like Laverne Cox. Do you think that, had the movie come out a year ago, the world would’ve been ready for it?
That’s a fascinating question, isn’t it? I mean it’s so weird, but seven years ago this was considered a hard film to make, a difficult film to finance, a difficult film to cast … I think what’s really encouraging is that in the seven years I’ve been involved it’s now considered timely, and people use the word zeitgeist, but I think a lot of that credit is down to some of the extraordinary … you know, Laverne Cox being so extraordinary in Orange is the New Black or Transparent or to Caitlyn sharing her story with such candor with the world and then that becoming a kind of global story instantaneously, so there’s definitely like a tipping point in trans narrative acceptance in the mainstream culture that’s happened so recently. And I hope it’s a sign that the pace of change has accelerated and I hope to see a lot more change in the culture because there’s still so much discrimination. I think it’s a good thing that the world in which I’m releasing the movie is so different from the world in which I first read the movie.