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The Danish Girl “There is a scene in the film, in which my character Lili is still living as Einar, and she goes out in Paris to a peep show,” Redmayne says of his role as a transgender woman in 1920s Europe. “There are men watching this woman dance, and Lili watches through a pane of glass, and then starts emulating her. This woman looks through the glass and sees the real Lili, not just her in the male guise. It was an extraordinary scene to shoot because I hadn’t met the woman playing the dancer before, and we didn’t really get to know each other, but we had this spontaneous and improvised moment together. It was unlike any other acting experience I ever had, and it was completely unique. It was just a moment and then it was gone, but I think it was one of the more important moments in the film.”
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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.”
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