"The Danish Girl" is based on a true story about one of the first gender confirmation surgeries in the world. Set in the 1920s, Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, a Danish artist who identifies as a woman and later calls herself Lili Elbe. The film is based on the 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff.
The Frame's John Horn spoke with Eddie Redmayne about how he went about getting into character, the hardest part about shooting this film, and why he was nervous the first time he dressed as Lili Elbe on set.
In “The Theory of Everything” you worked with a movement coordinator, Alexandra Reynolds, to portray Stephen Hawking. Did you learn anything that you could carry into “The Danish Girl?"
I worked with Alex on “The Theory of Everything” because it was supposed to depict Stephen Hawking’s physical decline with as much authenticity as possible. When you’re playing the part, you can’t actually see what it looks like. So it was wonderful to have someone else’s eyes who’s been through that whole process with me. Alex and I worked on “The Danish Girl” again. For me, it was about meeting women from the trans community and hearing their stories and their emotional journey and experience. But then also the physical side of it, and she helped me with that.
Lili is also a historical person. As you sift through research material, how do you form the basis of what you need to know and what you can discard?
I didn’t go to drama school, but the notion of process — each character for me requires its own method or technique. With "The Danish Girl," you have the history of Lili’s story. You have “Man Into Woman” which was published after Lili’s death. It’s in theory her writing, but people question the authenticity of that. You then have, [the novel] "The Danish Girl," a fictionalized version. Then there were all the trans women and their partners who were incredibly generous in speaking from their heart, and opening themselves up with their experiences.
I tried to take as much information and then try to find elements in me. Particularly in relation to the women from the trans community that I met, it was about finding their stories, and then trying to place that into the context of the 1920s, when there was no vocabulary. There was no community. And I’d try to imagine how it must have felt.
The vocabulary of how we talk about people who are trans and cisgender is complicated. It seems that this story isn’t about gender reassignment; it’s about gender revelation. In other words, this is the true self of Lili coming forward.
You’re right that the language is so important. The minutiae can be seen as, Why are you being so fastidious? But when you speak to trans women, and use, for instance, the term “gender reassignment” — it’s as if your gender is being changed into something else, whereas with the women I met, it was as if they were always women. So it’s gender confirmation surgery. It’s confirming the gender which you are and which you feel.
So for me it was about finding who Lili was, starting there and then working back to find out who she was when she was living as Einer. There are some amazing drawings of Lili when she was living as a man. She has this incredibly high, starched collar and these very tight, tailored suits. To me [they're] like a scaffolding — an exoskeleton of masculinity that she had put on herself. And it was about unraveling that.
But then also finding the moments in that earlier part of her life, when perhaps her femininity shone through subconsciously, when she was sleeping, or whatever. So it was interesting to try and find those moments in the film.
I’m wondering what it was like having Lili revealed to the cast and crew — the first day you were Lili on set. Did you start to understand how trans people are looked at?
The first day I came on set as Lili — oh god, I was so nervous. One felt scrutiny and you felt particularly the male gaze, and judgment, but you also couldn’t work out whether that was your own actor’s neurosis. Beyond anything it made me feel uncomfortable, and that sort of echoed what many of the trans women I’d met had described. When they were first going out in their transition — that fear of judgment. But when I walked in as Lili I was in an incredibly safe environment . . . whereas for trans women there’s the utter threat of genuine violence and discrimination.
What was also interesting was that feeling of being looked at. And talking to some of the cisgender women on set, they were like, Oh well, welcome to being stared at. So that was a confusing or interesting moment.
There’s a scene where Lili goes into a Paris peep show and starts to imitate the movements of the women on display. It’s an incredibly powerful scene, because of the way that Lili’s being transformed emotionally. Could you talk about that scene in particular?
It was a scene that read beautifully in the script. So you see Lili . . . goes off into this peep show in Paris and you think there’s some sort of sordid quality to it. She opens this curtain and is watching this girl dance. The girl assumes that because she looks like a man, she’s sort of getting off on something. But gradually Lili starts to recreate or copy this dancer’s movements. But the dancer just sees her and sees through her and into her, emotionally, in that moment. And what was interesting about shooting it — actually, Alexandera Reynolds, the movement coordinator, had found this dancer. And we didn’t really meet — we didn’t talk beforehand. We just played the scene. We barely spoke, this dancer and I. It was a very intimate sort of connection. It was very intriguing to shoot that.
What was the hardest part to shoot in this film?
I suppose the hardest part of filming it — as it is in any film — was the lack of [shooting] in chronological order. When a character is changing so much — emotionally, physically, vocally — you have to be incredibly specific with those shifts and changes in preparation. So that when you get to shooting them out of chronology, you can still be free.
There’s a line in the film where Lili says, "Do you think I’m pretty enough?" I know that line means a lot to you. Why?
One of the things that’s interesting about Lili’s relationship with Gerda is Gerda starts painting Lili. In these paintings, Gerda beautifies Lili. There’s a point of Lili aspiring to look as beautiful. This notion of being “pretty enough” or achieving something very specific is a complicated one, and one that I wrestled with quite a lot.