Talking pictures: True selves

Director Tom Hooper reveals inspiration for ‘The Danish Girl’

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'The Danish Girl,’ directed by Tom Hooper, explores the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo transgender surgery.

By David Templeton

“What I want audiences to take away from The Danish Girl is the fact that this, above all else, was a great love story.”

The remarkably soft-spoken Tom Hooper, British director of numerous award-winning movies including Les Miserables and The King’s Speech, is addressing a roomful of reporters and photographers on the opening night of the Mill Valley Film Festival, where last October, his acclaimed film The Danish Girl screened to dazzled crowds.

Shortly before the screening, one of the first questions that Hooper receives is, to paraphrase it for brevity’s sake, why—of all possible subjects—did he choose to make a movie about Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener), who, in 1930, was among the very first people to undergo transgender surgery?

The film, loosely based on Wegener’s life, is nominated for numerous Oscar awards, including Best Actor for Eddie Redmayne, who plays Wegener before and after her transformation, and Best Supporting Actress for Alicia Vikander, who plays Wegener’s artist wife Gerda Wegener.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do this,” Hooper says, so softly that reporters lean forward to hear him better, “was because the script captured the love story between these two people so well. It examines that very broad theme of what happens, in a marriage, when one of the partners changes. How do you manage that change? In a way, in this story, Lili’s change is partly made possible by the incredible, unconditional love that Gerda has for Lili. To me, it’s a celebration of how people can find their true selves when they are truly loved and truly seen for who they are.”

The film, while warmly received by critics, has been called out for the changes it makes to Wegener’s story, which did not have quite the same happy ending as in the film. Others have called into question Hooper’s decision to cast Redmayne—a “cisgengered” actor, defined as someone who identifies with their biological sex—when there might have been a historical opportunity to cast a real transgendered actress. Asked if he believes that there will come a time when trans actors will be playing trans roles more often, Hooper nods enthusiastically.

“Yes I do,” he says. “I believe transgendered actors should have access to both cisgendered roles and transgendered roles, and I also feel that goes both ways. The industry, both here in America and in the U.K., still has a long way to go to provide those opportunities, but I do think we are moving in that direction.”

Hooper admits that, while the casting of Redmayne had something to do with the star’s enormous popularity with audiences—and his having won an Oscar last year for his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything—there was another reason that he was eager to cast the appealingly chameleon-like actor.

“There’s just something in Eddie that he’s been working with for a long time, something that suggested he could do this,” Hooper says. “He’s played a number of ‘girl roles’ over the years. There was a famous production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 2002, directed by Mark Rylance, in which he played Viola, a woman who disguises herself as a man and then falls in love with her employer. So here was Eddie, a cisgendered man playing a cisgendered woman who pretends to be a cisgendered man, and he was brilliant. So we knew he could do it.”

Hooper adds that, since Lili initially appears as a man, and transitions rather late in the film, there were strategic reasons to cast a man in the role.

“For the majority of the movie, two thirds of it, Lili is pre-transition,” Hooper points out. “And using Eddie allowed us to do that first part of the film without a lot of complication and difficulty. In terms of Eddie’s transformation as an actor, during the making of the film, I think the most exciting thing was watching Eddie coming to grips with the idea that this wasn’t about imitating a woman, or learning to speak or behave and look like a woman, but to learn how to find and reveal his own latent femininity. For Eddie, it was ultimately more about revelation than transformation, which was a thought that became a kind of guiding principle for him throughout the making of the film.

“I think what’s interesting, as a theme in the film,” he goes on, “is the extent to which ideas of gender are often constructed for us, and even used against us, as a sort of act of power. For centuries, the female gender has been defined by men, men who wanted women to fit a very defined and specific role. In the 20th century, thank God, we began to see this incredible revolution, where that definition was finally beginning to be challenged.”

Hooper’s voice grows gradually louder—if never exactly loud—as he becomes more engaged in his answers. Asked what he hopes will be the legacy of Lili’s story—and The Danish Girl itself—he smiles and holds out his arms, as if to embrace whatever it is that is coming. “I think this story will open up a lot of important conversations about how gender is experienced, and how it’s constructed,” he says. “That’s a fundamental piece of being human, wanting to be seen as our true selves, as the person we know ourselves to be.

“Even now, sitting here, I’m doing it,” he says with a laugh. “I’m trying very hard to be seen, by all of you, as myself, and I’m not sure how well I’m accomplishing that, to tell the truth. We all feel, sometimes, that there’s a version of ourselves that is true, that’s who we are, and then there’s a version that’s who people see us to be—and that might not be quite so true. And then there’s this other person, who is the person we become when we engage in this ‘performance’ that is trying to be seen for who we are.

“A lot of us have blocks—shyness, insecurity, depression, addiction—that get in the way of showing our true selves,” Hooper concludes, rising to leave for the screening of the film. “I hope all of my films have the effect of making people think about the blocks we put in front of other people, and especially those we put in front of ourselves.”

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