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Long before Amazon Studios’ “Transparent” became a hit, or Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn, Lili Elbe made her transition.
Elbe had previously been Einar Wegener, a popular artist in Copenhagen in the 1920s. One day his wife, Gerda Wegener, also a painter, asked him to don woman’s heels and stockings to fill in for a client who had missed her portrait sitting. It was a case of the clothes making the woman; Einar recognized that his true gender was female, and Lili was born. In 1930 she would be among the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Portraying the tricky role of Einar/Lili in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel “The Danish Girl,” a fictionalized account of the story, Tom Hooper cast Eddie Redmayne, whom he had directed previously in “Les Misérables” (2012).
Redmayne received an Academy Award earlier this year for his demanding lead performance in “The Theory of Everything” as the scientific genius Stephen Hawking, who suffered from motor neuron disease. In “Danish Girl,” which opens here Dec. 11, his character undergoes both a physical transformation and profound psychological introspection.
On the phone from London in October, Redmayne discussed the challenges and satisfactions of playing Lili.
Q. It must be an acting workout to go directly from Stephen Hawking to Lili Elbe.
A. As an actor, your dream is to portray interesting people, and I certainly thought after the last year I had my quota with playing Stephen. And when this film came together — I had actually been attached myself to the film for three or four years — when the financing came together, it really felt like a privilege. Our dream as actors is to get to play interesting people. So one doesn’t think of it in terms of difficulty. It’s a joyous thing to do.
Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, returns to the screen this week with another transformational performance in The Danish Girl. Directed by Tom Hooper, the film tells the story of artist and transgender pioneer Lili Elbe — the first known recipient of gender confirmation surgery — and wife Gerda Wegener (Redmayne and Alicia Vikander).
During a video interview at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, Redmayne, Hooper, and Vikander spoke to EW about what drew them to Lili and Gerda’s story, and how they tried to tell it.
Eddie Redmayne rattles off statistics about the transgender community: “In 31 states, you can still be fired for being transgender,” he says by phone from London. “The suicide rate within the community is incredibly high at 41%. The violence to trans women of color is confounding.”
Just three years ago, he knew none of this. Even while reading the script for “The Danish Girl,” the film opening Friday that chronicles the gender transition of artist Lili Elbe, Redmayne wasn’t fully aware of the historical or the present-day struggles of transgender people. He did, however, recognize the importance of Lili’s story and its need for the big-screen treatment.
This was before the world knew of Caitlyn Jenner and before Laverne Cox rose to critical acclaim on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” Journalist Janet Mock had not yet released her memoir “Redefining Realness,” and though Chaz Bono’s “Becoming Chaz” had aired in 2011, many were still ignorant about the transgender community.
“When you’re playing someone like Lili, who was and is an icon, it comes with great responsibility,” said Redmayne, 33. “I felt extraordinarily privileged to tell her story, but the whole thing was a huge learning experience for me.”
Redmayne began preparation shortly after filming “Les Misérables,” long before director Tom Hooper got the greenlight for “The Danish Girl.” Transgender producer Lana Wachowski, who with brother Andy directed Redmayne in “Jupiter Ascending,” was one of the first people the actor spoke with. Wachowski knew the relatively obscure story of Lili, born Einar Wegener, and spouse, Gerda (played by Alicia Vikander), who also was a painter. Just as important, the producer knew the arts world of the late 1920s in which the couple painted.
“She knew so much about them,” Redmayne said. “Lana gently pointed me to where I should begin my education.”
“Pretty well-endowed,” Eddie Redmayne says emphatically, sliding his iPhone across the tabletop. It’s late morning at Colbert, a café-bistro in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, and, latte orders placed, it seems we’ve reached the dick-pic-sharing portion of the conversation. He points down at his screen, and there it is in all its glory: the chiseled, shimmering torso—of his Oscar statuette. And it’s wearing tighty-whities. The mini briefs were a gift from Jimmy Kimmel given to Redmayne in February after he won Best Actor for his portrayal of the ALS-afflicted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. “The Velcro is coming off,” Redmayne says, laughing. “So, occasionally, he’s buck-naked.”
Redmayne, like his little gold man, prefers modesty—he’s bashful about discussing his well-heeled upbringing in London, his education at Eton (where Prince William was a classmate) and then Cambridge, where, as an undergrad, he landed his first big break in a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, opposite the theater legend Mark Rylance. But nowhere was his almost-pathological humility more apparent than during his Oscar-acceptance speech, when he practically begged the Academy’s forgiveness for his short yet amazingly ascendant career arc: “I’m fully aware that I am a lucky, lucky man.”
He’s also kind of fucked. Redmayne, who turns 34 in January, realizes this too, which is why his typically British stiff upper lip is quivering a bit today. The source of his agita: The Danish Girl, the ripely timed story of Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener, the first person to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, in Dresden, Germany, in 1931—and a role that brings with it more potential pitfalls than Redmayne can count. “You don’t want to let people down,” he explains, nervously fidgeting with a sugar dispenser. “And you know you will—you can’t please everyone.”
Since the first images of a lithe, ruby-lipped, bewigged Redmayne surfaced online in February, The Danish Girl has produced buzz and scrutiny in equal measure. After all, the difference between a subtle, nuanced portrayal of an iconic transgender pioneer and Mrs. Doubtfire–esque bad drag can be as thin as a pair of panty hose. And Redmayne—unlike Caitlyn Jenner or Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox—is cisgender, leading some to accuse the filmmakers of having wasted the rare opportunity to cast a transgender actor. Redmayne can offer only so much to counter that criticism, but the responsibility he feels to the community weighs heavily on him. As one transgender friend told him during his research, the decision to transition boils down to a willingness to “give anything and everything to live a life authentic.”
Last year’s best actor, Redmayne, takes on another transforming role, playing the first person ever to undergo a sex-change operation in a film that took 10 years (and as many false starts) to get to the screen.
Eddie Redmayne was about to shoot the climactic battle sequence in Les Miserables — the part where the French Army fires cannonballs into the barricades to scatter the student revolutionaries — when director Tom Hooper calmly strolled across the battlefield and handed the young actor a large unmarked envelope.
“I think he said something simple like, ‘Read it,'” recalls Redmayne, 33, recalls of that day in 2011. “Tom has a very gentle manner.”
The pages inside — the screenplay for The Danish Girl — had been circulating among filmmakers and actors in just this fashion for the better part of a decade. At moments over the years, there were even hopes that the film actually might get made — at one point, Nicole Kidman was signed for the lead — but something always went wrong. Financing fell through. Or talent dropped out. Or somebody got cold feet. “It was the subject matter,” says Lucinda Coxon, who wrote the script in the envelope. “It was considered commercial poison.”
Times change. And it’s hard to imagine a more hospitable moment than right now for a commercially viable movie based on the life of Lili Elbe, a Danish painter in the 1920s who — with the help of a supportive wife (played by Ex Machina and Man From U.N.C.L.E. newcomer Alicia Vikander) — became the first person in history to undergo a male-to-female sex- change operation. Far from poison, the subject matter has reunited an award-winning director (before Les Miserables, Hooper won an Oscar for The King’s Speech) and an award-winning actor (after Les Miserables, Redmayne won one for The Theory of Everything) to finally bring to the screen the story of a transgender icon predating Caitlyn Jenner by nearly 100 years.
Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl will receive a Humanitarian Award from Capri, Hollywood—The International Film Festival. The transgender drama film about artist Lili Elbe, which bowed this year in Venice, stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.
The festival also announced that Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, which premiered in Cannes, has been named European film of the year. The film stars Michael Caine as a retired orchestra conducter who is called back into duty by the Queen of England. Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda also star.
“Both Tom Hooper and the Italian maestro Paolo Sorrentino have the uncanny ability to bring highly sensitive subject matter to the screen in a way that impacts audiences on a global basis,” said festival director Pascal Vicedomini. “I am truly pleased that we are able to honor their most recent work at this year’s festival.”
The Danish Girl opens in the U.S. on Nov. 27 and in Italy on Feb 4. 2016. The Capri screening will be sidelined by a forum from the Young People Against Homophobia to discuss current issues in Italy. Youth, which already played in Italy, opens Dec. 4 in the U.S.
This year marks the 20th edition of the festival, which runs Dec. 26-Jan. 2. This year’s edition will be presided over by Danish director Bille August, and will be dedicated to French actress Brigitte Bardot. Lina Wertmuller serves as Honorary President and Mark Canton serves as Honorary Chairperson. [Source]
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