The film adaptation of David Ebershoff’s bestselling 2000 novel The Danish Girl was a passion project for everyone who came into contact with it, including tenacious producers Gail Mutrux and Anne Harrison and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, who never gave up during the 12 years the film took to get off the ground. Such duration shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in this town, but what is unique to this film is the real-life love story of Einar and Gerda Wegener, happily married artists whose relationship is put to the ultimate test when Einar transitions into a woman, Lili Elbe. Lili was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery in 1920s Europe and her transformation is at the heart of the film.
That The Danish Girl finally could be made and come out, quite coincidentally, at a time when the transgender movement has hit a peak in terms of public awareness, is pure kismet for a passion project that brought together determined director Tom Hooper, freshly minted Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who suddenly is one of the hottest new stars on the scene. The story the film has to tell is unquestionably remarkable and moving, and the story behind its journey to the screen is just as extraordinary.
Here, the director and his two stars discuss how the The Danish Girl was a life- and career-defining experience.
The Change-Up Artist
The role of Lili Elbe has been with Redmayne now for a few years, since he first received the script for The Danish Girl from Hooper, who was then directing him in a scene for Les Miserables and handed it to him between takes. It would be just a matter of time (well, years) before the film finally became a “go,” but even through Les Mis, Jupiter Ascending, The Theory Of Everything and its Oscar campaign—which had him coming back and forth to Los Angeles—and his own wedding, Lili always was there in Redmayne’s head. “I’m one of those people who, the more you have on your plate, the better. When I am on holiday it can take me days to do virtually nothing, whereas when I’ve got lots of things going on I tend to be able to focus more,” Redmayne says on a rare day off from yet another major project, J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts. He’s now trying to squeeze in promotional time for Danish Girl during breaks from that production.
His journey with Lili has been inter-connected from one set to another. At one point when he was shooting Jupiter Ascending, co-director Lana Wachowski, herself a transgender person, helped him out. “I started educating myself and I mentioned Lili’s story to her, and she was passionate about both Lili and Gerda and talked to me about their art and really told me where to start,” Redmayne recalls, adding that everywhere he went during the promotion of Theory Of Everything he would meet people from the trans community. It all added up
“The script, when Tom handed it to me in a plain brown envelope during the Les Mis “barricades” scene, was unlike anything I had ever read. It was a love story and I felt it showed to me that love was about souls rather than (something) defined by anything else—gender or bodies. It was something other,” he says. “There was one trans woman I met in Los Angeles and she said that she would give anything, anything to live an authentic life. That, in a sense, involves ultimately looking into yourself and finding yourself.”
Redmayne’s physical transformation in portraying Stephen Hawking in last year’s Theory Of Everything is what many people believe propelled him to the Best Actor Oscar. Lili Elbe is yet another stunning metamorphosis for Redmayne, one that is sure to land him a consecutive nomination in January.
Twist of Fate
For Vikander the opportunity to play Gerda was fated. “I remember I had heard about this film, Hollywood had been trying to get it made for a long time,” she says. “I even had friends who were on previous (casting) rounds years ago. But I think it was one year ago when I sat on the tube in London and read about the fact that Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne announced they were finally going to try and get the story told. I thought, ‘Wow, that is incredible casting. I really look forward to seeing that film.’ ” Two days later, Vikander’s agent called informing her there was a second female role and she should read for it.
When the time came for the audition, Vikander thought she blew it because Hooper just sat there. (Unbeknownst to her, he was weeping.) Needless to say, those first glimpses of what would be a devastating performance got her the part. Vikander has been grateful to Hooper and Redmayne ever since for helping her navigate the way into Gerda. “From the start, Tom told me his vision for this woman, who really is able to almost love another person more than herself, or at least be able to look aside of a difficult path,” Vikander says. “It’s an extremely unique love story about the struggle of two people who go through a big change, but together—going through a transition but on two different sides of the road, parallel to one another. The braveness and the courage that they had to support each other, above anything, was what got to me from day one.”
And the chemistry with her co-star was instant. “Eddie is probably one of the most humble, sweet and wonderful people that I’ve ever met,” she says. “While we were filming, he actually jumped on a flight just before the Oscars and went straight to L.A. Then, of course, he came right back, on Tuesday morning, straight from the airport, back to his trailer, and he probably did one of the most difficult scenes in the film, straight off the plane,” she says. “I thought that was extremely admirable. He could just be 100% of his role with us.”
Coming off back-to-back Best Picture Oscar nominations for The King’s Speech and Les Miserables (with a win for the former as well as the Best Director trophy), Hooper probably could have called the shots on any film he wanted to make. But he knew exactly what he wanted to do next and he was ready.
The project actually came through his longtime casting director Nina Gold in late 2008. “I was on the phone doing that usual complaint that directors often do, which is, ‘Where are all the great scripts? They’re so hard to find,’ ” he says, noting that Gold then handed him the unmade script for The Danish Girl. “I was in early prep for King’s Speech. This was just an extraordinarily moving script. I mean, it made me cry, which I don’t think I had done with a script before. What really moved me was the love story at the center of it. I had that moment in my life where I could make a passion project. You know, I could make one of those films that was considered difficult to finance, difficult to get made. Maybe I could be the one to get (The Danish Girl) made.”
While the project had been around for over a decade, now it had hit the zeitgeist. The transgender conversation seems to be everywhere—in such TV shows as Amazon’s Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner’s reality series—and it puts a smile on Hooper’s face because that had not been the case until this year, long after he first laid eyes on the script. “I suppose the good part of that is it means the culture’s changing, and it means the culture can change fast,” he says. “And it means that brilliant shows like Transparent and Orange Is The New Black have made transgender narratives exceptional in the mainstream, and that’s only a good thing.”
For Hooper, this film was a no-brainer. “This is what I wanted to make, and in the end I feel like you’ve just got to follow your heart,” he says. “For me, I have to fall in love. If I’m not in love with a project, I don’t want to spend two, three more years of my life on something. There are people who would’ve happily seen me not do this, supposedly because they thought it was risky or whatever, but it was what my heart told me to do.”
To see the trailer for The Danish Girl, click play below: