To prepare himself for the role of transgender character Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne read her pseudo-autobiography, studied sketches of her, read other books by transgender authors, watched the British TV series, My Transsexual Summer, and reached out to six transgender women from different generations to get their take on their personal experiences.
“Their openness of spirit was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” he said. “That was galvanizing – you felt the trust.”
The film is inspired by the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) in the 1920s. Wegener asks her husband Einar Wegener to stand in as a female model. Gerda continues to paint her husband as such a model and he realizes how much he enjoys his life as a woman. Einar decides to become the first ever recipient of sex reassignment surgery and becomes Lili. Gerda supports Lili’s transformation, though their marriage becomes strained.
Director Tom Hooper said that while a transgender character wasn’t casted as Elbe, many appear as extras in the film. There was also an outreach program in Brussels and Copenhagen.
“There is a problem in the industry,” Hooper said. “The access of transgender actors to roles is utterly key. I would champion any shift where the industry would move forward.”
Redmayne spent two years learning about the transgender community before he was even officially offered the role as Elbe.
“It was an education,” he said. “I didn’t understand that gender and sexuality were not related. I was utterly appalled at the statistics. There are amazing tips on YouTube, in which you can take lessons in shifting your own voice. And then I was like, ‘These are things that Lili wouldn’t have access to.’ For many trans women, it’s about being yourself, and not passing as someone else.”
Vikander also did her research to best play a supporting wife.
“My dad is a psychiatrist,” she said. “For two years, he was taking in people who were in the late stage before they transition. The first thing I did was send the script to him.”
She also watched and read documentaries of wives with a transgender partner, like Leslie Hilburn Fabian’s memoir, My Husband’s a Woman Now.
“To read her very honest description, knowing how she wanted people to realize she’s also a person going through a transition as much as her loved one, it very much translated to the story of Gerda,” Vikander said.
The Danish Girl premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 5 and will open in theaters on November 27.
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