Less than a year after winning his first Oscar for his portrayal of famed physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne is attempting to somehow outdo himself. The 33-year-old actor’s performance in The Danish Girl, just released, has been met with deserved astonishment since its premiere at the Toronto and Venice film festivals in September. Redmayne has now been put in an extraordinary position to win back-to-back Academy Awards for best actor—a feat only Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks have ever pulled off. But there’s much more at stake with The Danish Girl than whether it garners another round of awards for Redmayne.
The film tells the real-life story of Lili Elbe (portrayed by Redmayne), one of the first people to ever undergo gender-reassignment surgery. A successful artist living in Copenhagen, Elbe’s transition is emotionally aided by the support of her loving wife, Gerda Wegener (played by Alicia Vikander in the film). Though their story takes place in the 1920s and 1930s, its relevance today is exceptional. This year has been a very big one for mainstream transgender representation, from the success of TV series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black to the media storm surrounding Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn. With these examples as backdrop, The Danish Girl hits theatres across the world this month freighted with responsibilities—and Redmayne is well aware of that.
When the film made its debut in Venice, Redmayne, who is married to public-relations executive Hannah
Bagshawe, was eager to discuss the research that went into his performance, saying that the process made for “the most mammoth education.”
“I met many people from the trans community, both men and women,” Redmayne said. “I tried to meet people of different generations, because the story is set at a time when there was no precedent. Across the board, the generosity of people was amazing.”
Redmayne indicated there was one couple in particular who inspired his work: a woman named Cadence and her partner, Trista. The Los Angeles couple had been together when Cadence had been living as a man, and have remained together since her transition—much like Elbe and Wegener in The Danish Girl. “They allowed me to ask anything,” Redmayne said of his encounter with the duo. “There were two things Cadence said: One was that she would do anything and everything to live a life authentic, and the other thing was in relation to her partner.
While she was transitioning, the question for her was, ‘How deep was her partner’s pool of empathy?’ Those two things sat with me all the way through the whole filmmaking process.”
The Danish Girl is directed by Tom Hooper, a man who is no stranger to helping actors win awards. The movies Les Miserables and The King’s Speech, with Hooper as director, brought Oscars to Anne Hathaway and Colin Firth, respectively (and in the case of Speech, one for Hooper himself). But this is his first film centred around a hot LGBT issue, and the director received some pushback on the film-festival circuit with respect to the casting of the cis gender Redmayne over a transgender actor.
“Access to trans actors, women and men, to roles, both trans roles and cis gender roles, is utterly key, and I feel that within the industry at the moment there is a problem,” Hooper said in response to his critics. “There is a huge pool of talented trans actors and the access to parts is limited. I would champion any shift where the industry could move forward and embrace trans actors in trans and cis gender roles and also celebrate and encourage trans filmmakers.”
Whether The Danish Girl aids in that industry shift remains to be seen, though it’s clear that Redmayne and Hooper are dedicated to greater understanding of the issues represented in the film. “I think to some extent that the villain in the piece, if there is one, is dualism,” Hooper said. “The idea that there is a duality—that if you are not a man, you have to be operated on fully to become a woman. That if you are not a woman, you need to be surgically corrected to be a man. I do think we are evolving beyond the binary and thinking about gender as a spectrum. There can be very complicated places on that spectrum.”
With specific respects to the trans woman portrayed in the film, Hooper said that from the very beginning of the project, he and Redmayne “talked in terms of the idea that Eddie was playing a woman who was going to be revealed. Rather than it being a process of how Eddie might learn to imitate a woman, it was about how he might create the impression that he was uncovering a latent femininity, a woman inside. This guided us through the process.”
That process ultimately led to a performance that will leave few dry eyes in movie theatres. Redmayne’s embodiment of Elbe is nothing short of astounding, further establishing this young actor as one of his generation’s finest—whether or not that places him alongside Tracy and Hanks in the Oscar record books.