To portray the transgender artist in “The Danish Girl,” Eddie Redmayne built the character from the inside out. He started by poring over Lili Elbe’s pseduo-autobiography “Man Into Woman,” chronicling her groundbreaking 1920s gender reassignment surgeries, and studying sketches of her. He read other books, such as the 1974 memoir “Conundrum” by transgender author Jan Morris, and watched the British TV series “My Transsexual Summer.” He even met separately with six transgender women from different generations to absorb their experiences. “Their openness of spirit was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” Redmayne says on a recent afternoon near his home in London. “That was galvanizing — you felt the trust.”
Then there was the day last summer when he screen-tested as Lili. It was the first time he appeared in public as the character — wearing an auburn wig and lipstick. Like most transgender people stepping out for the first time, Redmayne felt self-conscious. “You walk in, and the crew is looking at you,” he recalls. “The feeling of being gazed at and scrutinized, and the fear… ” He trails off. “The fear is there.” Eric Fellner, the co-chair of Working Title Films, which produced the $15 million movie, recalls: “That was the moment Lili came to life. It was stunning.”
Just six months after he won the best-actor Oscar for portraying another real-life figure, Stephen Hawking, in “The Theory of Everything,” all eyes are back on Redmayne. The 33-year-old British actor stars opposite Alicia Vikander in “The Danish Girl,” poised to be one of this year’s major Oscar contenders. Directed by Tom Hooper, the dramatic love story about landscape artist Einar Wegener, who transitions to Lili with the help of wife Gerda (Vikander), debuted at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 5, and will make its North American premiere at Toronto this week, before opening in theaters on Nov. 27 through Focus Features.
The arrival of the movie comes at a key moment in the careers of its two young stars. Even before the film’s release, there’s strong buzz that Redmayne could win back-to-back Oscars, and the 26-year-old Vikander will be in the running for a best supporting actress nomination.
Although the project had been in development for 15 years, based on David Ebershoff’s novel, “The Danish Girl” is debuting at a time when the zeitgeist has never been more supportive of transgender issues. The film’s first trailer, in which Lili declares, “I believe that I am a woman,” echoes the E! reality series “I Am Caitlyn,” starring Caitlyn Jenner, which premiered to 2.7 million viewers in July. Amazon Studio’s “Transparent,” starring Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender parent of three, is up for 11 Emmys. “The Danish Girl” is a period piece set in the early 1900s, yet the themes of the story — about identity and unconditional love — feel relevant now. “This is a civil rights movement,” Vikander says, noting that she has been following Jenner’s journey. “It’s just wonderful our film can come out at this time, and be part of that.”
“The Danish Girl” will also be a test of Hollywood’s ultimate glass ceiling. The film industry — which has been reticent to bankroll projects headlined by LGBT characters, despite the success of 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” — has yet to produce a mainstream movie about the transgender experience that has crossed over into Middle America. When transgender characters have popped up in supporting roles, they were sometimes offensive caricatures (such as in 1994’s “Ace Venture: Pet Detective”) and usually played by cisgender (non-transgender) actors. “I think this will probably be one of the last high-profile transgender roles going to a cisgender actor,” predicts trans actress Rebecca Root, who portrays one of Lili’s nurses in the film. “As more of us come up through the ranks, the more likely it will be we’ll take these roles.”
The stakes for “The Danish Girl” are high for another reason. The box office of smaller movies has been sluggish this year, and awards-season titles will need to sell tickets by the boatload to convince theater owners to book them opposite the blockbusters that occupy most of their screens. Given the tough economics for specialty films, even Focus Features, the boutique label launched by James Schamus in 2002, has found a need to diversify beyond the art-house market. Its slate under CEO Peter Schlessel includes highbrow fare like “Suffragettes” (Oct. 23), starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep; biblical drama “The Young Messiah” (March 11); and fantasy epic “A Monster Calls” (Oct. 14, 2016). Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” which the company bought in Cannes for $20 million, is also due out in late 2016. “For Focus, in my opinion, a robust distribution business would include a healthy mix of both specialty and wide-release films,” says Schlessel, who previously ran Film District, and before that was a top executive at Sony Pictures.
Redmayne was informally approached by Hooper to play Lili while they worked together on 2012’s film version of “Les Miserables.” In the same way he did extensive research on ALS to inhabit Hawking, Redmayne spent two years learning about the transgender community before the role was even officially his. “It was an education,” he says. “I didn’t understand that gender and sexuality were not related. I was utterly appalled at the statistics,” he says, citing the fact that 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide. He summoned Lili’s vocal pitch by watching videos online. “There are amazing tips on YouTube, in which you can take lessons in shifting your own voice,” he says. “And then I was like, ‘These are things that Lili wouldn’t have access to.’ For many trans women, it’s about being yourself, and not passing as someone else.”
Like any respectable woman in Hollywood, Lili’s appearance came under scrutiny. Redmayne lost 15 pounds to play her, but he had to be careful. “The makeup designer (Jan Sewell) was going, ‘Don’t lose weight!’ Because when my face gets gaunt, my features are too big, and it will be more difficult to find Lili. Whereas the costume department was like, ‘You’ve got to lose weight!’ I was in this slight dilemma.” But for once, his inability to grow facial hair was an asset. “My greatest fear is being asked to grow a beard for a film,” he says. “It’s not going to happen.”
But for Redmayne, Lili’s physical appearance wasn’t as important as understanding her core. He didn’t want to come across as a man playing a woman, but as a woman trapped in a man’s body. “I recognized in Eddie a certain gender fluidity,” says Hooper, who thought of the actor based on a stage performance as Viola in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” early in his career. “Rather than witnessing an actor being someone else, one felt that Eddie had revealed something that was latent. I felt like he was realizing some kind of femininity inside himself.”
As Redmayne continued his research, he found inspiration from the high-profile transgender director Lana Wachowski, who had worked with him on “Jupiter Ascending.” Wachowski knew about Lili and Gerda’s story, and offered her thoughts. Talking to Hooper, she suggested the film’s art nouveau look, to capture a time when architecture was turning away from straight masculine lines and becoming more sinuous and feminine. “It led me to the city I filmed in,” says Hooper of the sequences shot in Brussels (the production also filmed in London and Copenhagen). “It was great psychological insight into the story.”
“The Danish Girl” isn’t just a coming-out party for Lili. It’s also a star-making vehicle for Vikander, who has eight movies out this year, including “Ex Machina” (where she plays an android), “Testament of Youth” (a World War I. nurse), “Tulip Fever” (a 17th century muse), “Burnt” (as Bradley Cooper’s stylish ex-girlfriend) and “The Light Between Oceans” (a light house dweller opposite Michael Fassbender). Next year, she pops up as the female lead of Paul Greengrass’ “Bourne Identity” sequel, a role she nabbed without an audition or chemistry test with Matt Damon. “It’s a female role that hasn’t been in the franchise before,” Vikander says.
Growing up as a ballet dancer in Sweden, Vikander didn’t think a movie career was in her future, even though she’s the daughter of a stage actress. “My mom was always very encouraging of me. But she also showed me the tough reality of being in an industry that didn’t have much work.”
Vikander was among a handful of actresses who read for the part of Gerda, which in early stages of development had drawn interest from Gwyneth Paltrow and Rachel Weisz. She auditioned with Redmayne, performing a pivotal scene on the morning after a ball, where Einar, appearing as Lili for the first time, flirts with a male suitor (Ben Whishaw), and must confront Gerda about her true feelings. When Vikander finished her lines, Hooper was weeping. “The only other time in my memory I cried at an audition was when Anne Hathaway sang ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ for ‘Les Miserables,’ ” Hooper says. He wanted Vikander for the part, but there was just one problem: She was set to shoot Derek Cianfrance’s drama “The Light Between Oceans,” and her schedule wouldn’t allow her to make both films. Hooper delayed the beginning of “The Danish Girl” by five months to secure the actress. “I’ve never pushed a start date before,” he says. “It was so much a film about a marriage that the marriage had to be cast right.”
While “The Danish Girl” is Lili’s story, Gerda — who was a portrait artist — is the backbone. As the film begins, she playfully asks her husband to dress in women’s clothes, because she needs a stand-in model for a sketch. But as she gradually learns that Einar’s attraction to female clothing is part of her husband’s identity, Gerda comes to accept Lili. “My dad is a psychiatrist,” Vikander says. “For two years, he was taking in people who were in the late stage before they transition. The first thing I did was send the script to him.” She also watched documentaries of wives coming to terms with a transgender partner, and relied on Leslie Hilburn Fabian’s memoir “My Husband’s a Woman Now.” “To read her very honest description, knowing how she wanted people to realize she’s also a person going through a transition as much as her loved one,” Vikander says, “it very much translated to the story of Gerda.”
Vikander is impressed by her character’s strength. “She’s quite different from me,” the actress says. “The kind of commitment and letting go and loving someone so much — almost more than yourself. Even if Lili was always there, Einar hadn’t been able to accept that. But Gerda lets it out.”
“The Danish Girl” faced a tough slog to the big screen. Producer Gail Mutrux first read the novel when it was published in 2000, and optioned the rights, envisioning it as a portrait of a complicated marriage. “I was developing ‘Kinsey’ at the time, and as a result of that, I became interested in doing research on the whole landscape of sexuality,” Mutrux says.
The script by Lucinda Coxon came together around 2005, with Nicole Kidman attached to star as Lili. (The producers say they never considered an actor’s gender when casting the lead role.) Meanwhile, directors — from Tomas Alfredson to Lasse Hallstrom — came and went, and the film never got off the ground. It wasn’t until Hooper, the Oscar-winning director for 2010’s “The King’s Speech, laid his hands on the script, and convinced Working Title to make it his next project, that “The Danish Girl” finally had momentum. The social climate, too, had improved, notes Fellner. “In the last 18 months, the landscape in terms of the transgender conversation is very different,” he says. “So I think it may be easier to persuade people to see this film now than when we started.”
Mutrux also believes that broader acceptance of LGBT rights in society has helped the film get to the starting line. “It’s probably not unrelated to same-sex marriage just getting passed in the U.S.,” she says. “I think for a long time, people sort of retreated from the subject in fear.” But all the delays turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “The almosts and not-quites of the movie ended up happening for a reason,” Ebershoff says. When he finally saw Redmayne as Lili in a scene shot in Copenhagen, the author joined the crying club. “It was real,” he says. “She was beautiful and had the energy and spirit and independence that we always knew Lili had possessed.”
Because the project was pushed back to accommodate Vikander’s schedule, the cameras on the 44-day shoot didn’t start rolling until February. That meant “The Danish Girl” was under way at the tail end of this year’s awards season. Redmayne accepted the BAFTA award for “Theory of Everything” the night before he started shooting “Danish Girl,” and two weeks later, he found himself donning a tuxedo. He landed in Los Angeles on a Friday night, picked up his Oscar on Sunday and flew back to London on Monday. “It’s just a blur, because you’re straight back to work,” Redmayne says. “You don’t have time to think. It’s only been subsequently that you can really try to value what those two days were.”
With his Oscar in hand (he’d come straight from the airport), Redmayne returned to the set, where the art department had decorated his trailer with a congratulatory banner. He dove right into a scene where Lili visits a doctor and is subjected to a brutal medical examination. “We talked about the Oscars for three minutes,” Hooper says. “You can imagine some people regretting they didn’t have time to live that moment. He went straight back to work, and was happy to do it.”
After “The Danish Girl’s” Venice debut, Redmayne might have the chance to earn a rare Oscar double. If he wins for the role, he’ll be the first actor since Tom Hanks in 1994 and 1995 (with “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump”) to score consecutive victories. There have been other reasons for Redmayne to celebrate this year. He got married to his girlfriend, Hannah Bagshawe, and was cast as Newt Scamander in J.K. Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” his highest-profile role yet. “I’m on censorship mode about what I’m allowed to say,” he says. The plot of Warner Bros. release is so under wraps, he didn’t even receive the script until right before he signed on, and he only spoke to Rowling recently. “She was having to run off, and I bombarded her with questions on the character,” Redmayne says.
Yet traces of Lili are still with him. “I can access her smile quite easily,” Redmayne says. “It’s my interpretation of her smile.” He recalls a conversation he had with a transgender woman as part of his research, where he asked her when she felt happiest. “It was after transitioning, and she was just walking through a park and sat on a bench — and saw the world go by and smiled to herself,” he says. “It was a moment of the world feeling right. The idea of that smile was something I tried to find.”