Tom Hooper On ‘The Danish Girl,’ Trans Actors In Hollywood
Tom Hooper‘s The Danish Girl follows the true-life gender transition of artist Einar Wegener to Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) and its effect on her marriage to fellow artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). Acting as stand-in for one of Gerda’s female models ignites a reawakening in Einar as he discovers he was meant to be a woman. Met with resistance at every turn, the reborn Lili’s only supporter is Gerda, the two of them fighting together to build a life in which Lili can finally be herself.
In a roundtable interview in San Francisco, we caught up with Hooper to talk about the film, which opens tomorrow in select cities and expands wide on Christmas.
The difference between Gerda and Lili’s way of dressing struck me. Gerda is so fashion-forward and Lili is much more traditional.
Paco Delgado is a genius. He’s the costume designer. He’s done Pedro Almodovar’s films for years. We did Les Miserables together, and I thought his eye for detail was extraordinary. We were lead a lot by the photos we have of the real Gerda and Einar. It became clear that Gerda’s eye for fashion was immaculate. One of the ways she paid the bills was doing covers for fashion magazines. What was extraordinary was that Einar was aspiring to a very different idea of the feminine, which was quite bourgeois conservative. It’s actually quite conventional—she just wants to be identified with the other half of the population. I think in that kind of anxiety to be validated as a woman she felt safer in a conventional style of clothing. It’s also interesting to me that the film doesn’t involve Lili learning to be like Gerda. Gerda’s body language is actually quite masculine.
I get quite excited by actors who are good at expressing themselves with their bodies, and Alicia and Eddie are two of the best young actors doing that kind of work.
Yeah, I love that. I think a lot of screen actors kind of act from here up (brings hand to chest). They’re so used to being in close-up [that the rest of their] body goes to sleep. I started to become very aware of it when I was doing The King’s Speech. Geoffrey [Rush] was actually mime-trained and is amazing with his body. I’d be doing close-ups with Geoffrey and I’d go, “Look at what he’s doing with his hands,” so I’d pull back and do a mid shot. Then I’d go, “Actually, I like the whole profile,” so I’d pull back again. I’d come out of that experience thinking more about body shape.
What was very interesting was that, after doing all of these things as a director, you never ever say to an actor, “I’m sorry. At that moment, you betrayed your gender. You were not convincingly a man.” You never say, “You weren’t in gender.” I’ve never actually corrected someone on their gender. The really fascinating thing was having to think about the way gender is constructed. You start thinking about to what extent culture has put pressure on us to take on a certain construction of gender and how much of it is innate. I go around now seeing much more how people have constructed themselves. It’s really affected the way I look at the world.
What was your process with Eddie when you started this journey, turning him from a he to a she?
It started with a lot of research. I was lucky enough to have a meeting with Lana Wachowski because Eddie had done a film with her. She gave us a great reading list, and through her we discovered this book by Jan Morris called Conundrum. It’s the most brilliant book about transition. We met trans men and woman. There’s a great one called April Ashley who was a famous model in the ’60s in London and had an amazing life. We sat with her, drank champagne, had tea time and listened to her life story. We did some early tests on a stills camera, and a lot of it was about this idea that we were revealing Lily rather than him transforming into Lily, this late femininity being revealed. That idea of getting him to that point of confidence where he carried the woman inside him and really start to show it and reveal it was a key concept early on.
I like the way you shot the scene where Lily is posing for Gerda for the first time. It’s like she’s rediscovering her body.
It was a very key scene. To get it right, we were showing a release into anxiety. Obviously, the discovery that she’s making in that moment carries with it a lot of stress and conflict. But it’s also this release out of anxiety and into this possibility of being her authentic self and the potential experience of joy she’d never imagined. In Lili’s memoirs, that’s the moment she talks about as being key. Of all the scenes, I think it was important to get that one right. Her body’s waking up.
Something interesting I read was that Lily often referred to herself in the third person.
In her memoirs, she talks about Einar and Lily in the third person. Eddie and I had long debates about [this]. In modern trans experience, you’d probably talk about “I” rather than talk in the third person. But we wanted to capture this period in the 1920s when there wasn’t an existing language for being a trans person. She was trying to find a way to communicate this to other people, and a way she could do it was to say that there is a struggle between Einar and Lily, and Lily has to win.
Talk about the pool of talented trans actors out there and how filmmakers like yourself can create opportunities for them. You hired a number of trans actors for this film.
I just think it’s a necessary shift. It’s all about equality of access. I still think we have a huge issue in the film industry with equality of access with women directors. It still feels like there’s sexism operating in that world. For people of color, there are barriers of access. There’s a greater fight of making sure there’s equality of actors for people who feel their voices have been marginalized. There’s a great journey to go. I think trans employment is very important. On Les Miserables, my musical director was a woman called Jennifer White. I feel like, particularly in the U.S., there are huge issues of discrimination in the workplace against trans people. If this film in any way can keep the process of shedding a spotlight on those indignities, that would be great.
This movie’s coming out at a very interesting time because of the Caitlyn Jenner story. What do you expect this to add to that conversation?
I speak from a London perspective, not an American perspective, but I think there’s a generational thing where the older generation are perhaps far less progressive in their understanding than the kids coming through now. It would be great if the film could reach those very people who are kind of closed to this narrative and open people’s hearts to caring about Lily and trans stories in general. I don’t know whether it can do that, but it would be great.
Talk about Eddie as an actor. He’s got a one-in-a-million smile, which I think is invaluable in this movie.
He has this great gift where he takes the audience with him on every step of the journey. I don’t feel Lily is “othered” by Eddie’s performance. If anything, Lily’s journey feels inevitable in Eddie’s hands. He has this gift where you understand every step. Not many actors can do that. There would be moments that would feel strange, but he has this compassion. It allowed us to go on a journey that, in theory, could have been unwatchably painful. But you stay with him. He’s also the nicest person on the planet. He went off to the Academy Awards, came back after the weekend and was completely unchanged. He’s the same guy.
Alicia is having such a year.
One of the first things I said to her was, “Because Eddie’s working so hard to be this person, don’t be lazy. Don’t think about how different Gerda differs from you. Can you be as specific with her as Eddie’s being with Lily?” I thought she really embraced that idea. Early on, she had an idea of Gerda having a personality that is more charismatic than she is herself. She’s quite a contained person. Mainly, I was intimidated by finding someone to act opposite Eddie. If you didn’t have two actors who matched each other, it would have been quite tough. I felt like Alicia had such a great, big heart. It’s this love story, and you see how Gerda has this inexhaustible source of love for Lily that helps her through this transformation.
I love Matthias Schoenaerts.
I still can’t believe he’s in my film! [laughs] I asked my casting director Nina Gold if we could ever get Matthias and she was like, “Probably not.” But he said yes! He’s like a natural film star. He’s so still and simple and powerful. There’s a calmness to him.