The Danish Girl: ‘It’s only now that the world has embraced the trans cause’

Tom Hooper’s film about a transgender woman born in 1882 has hit the zeitgeist

Blockbusters may bring home the bacon, but the movie world still pivots around those late-winter, early-spring months when prestige pictures receive statuettes and gongs. And yet, over the past decade, awards season has become just a little more inclusive.

In 2005 the transgender comedy-drama Transamerica got two Oscar nods: for its star, Felicity Huffman, and for Dolly Parton's song Travelin' Thru. In 2013, Jared Leto won an Academy Award for his role as a transgender woman in Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club.

Still, nobody was prepared for the visibility of gender transition in 2015. It's fortuitous timing for Tom Hooper, who has spent eight years getting his historical trans drama The Danish Girl into a multiplex near you.

"It looks like a zeitgeist film, but I couldn't have planned for it," says the director. "It just happens to be an extraordinary time. We've had the wonderful series that is Transparent. We've watched the extraordinary Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black. We've had Caitlyn Jenner sharing her story with such candour. We've definitely reached a kind of tipping point for culture and civil rights."

The 2002 novel

The Danish Girl may seem eerily prescient, and yet, as Hooper notes, the script is adapted from a 2000 David Ebershoff novel that fictionalised the true story of Lili Elbe, a transgender woman born in Denmark in 1882. Indeed, Ebershoff and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon drew on even earlier material, notably Lili's diaries and letters, which were published in 1933.

“I have to give a lot of credit to David for writing the novel when he did,” says Hooper. “But it’s interesting that, almost 100 years after Lili, it’s only now that the world has embraced the trans cause. During Lili’s life there wasn’t even language or terminology to express what she was going through.”

Lili was born as Einar Wegener, a celebrated landscape painter married to the fashion illustrator Gerda Wegener. An early scene in The Danish Girl sees Einar (Eddie Redmayne) standing in for a no-show female model whom Gerda (Alicia Vikander) is painting. Thus begins an odyssey into identification, the self and early sexual reassignment surgery.

In common with Jared Leto's turn in Dallas Buyers Club, the casting of Redmayne, a cisgender male actor, as Lili, has created something of a backlash. Those involved with the production insist there are extenuating circumstances: Redmayne consulted extensively with trans activist Paris Lees, with 1960s icon April Ashley and with his Jupiter Ascending director Lana Wachowski.

“We did reach out to the trans community,” explains Hooper. “I’m pleased that a couple of roles in the film, small cisgender roles, are played by trans actors, like Rebecca Root. But the first time I read the script – and it was the best first draft of a script I’ve ever read – I cried and I immediately thought of Eddie.”

Why? "I had worked with him once before, on Elizabeth I. He played a young man who rebels against Elizabeth, who is played by Helen Mirren. And it's probably not advisable to rebel against Helen Mirren. So he's sentenced to death. And I just remember his performance was incredible. His skin looked translucent and pale. And there was something so raw and vulnerable about him. That's quite unusual in a British actor: they tend to be quite buttoned up or mannered.

"So I cast him in Les Miserables. And he was always in my mind for this. I suppose there is something quite feminine about him. I don't think it's an accident that Mark Rylance cast Eddie as Viola in Twelfth Night. He always played the girls' parts at school. I suppose, too, that I think gender is a spectrum. We all have a balance of masculine and feminine attributes."

Hooper was enjoying a fruitful career as a director of such TV shows as Byker Grove and EastEnders when he came to make his first feature film. Red Dust (2004) concerned South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and starred heavyweight thespians Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor, but Hooper would have to wait for his second feature, 2009's The Damned United, to score a hit. The following year, with The King's Speech, Hooper landed Oscars for best director and best film.

His 2012 screen adaptation of the hit musical Les Misérables would earn €407 million worldwide.

The Danish Girl, which for much of its run time is a two-hander, must have felt comparatively unfussy. "For me, Les Mis was all about that moment between Jean Valjean, a man who's been brutalised by years in prison, and the priest who forgives him. That moment allows him to have this extraordinary epiphany."

It took the success of Les Mis to allow Hooper to make The Danish Girl. Many talents had tried and failed to get the project off the ground. In 2009, Variety reported that director Tomas Alfredson would turn Danish Girl around ahead of his adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In 2010, Swedish director Lasse Hallström replaced Alfredson. The role of Gerda Wegener has been variously assigned to Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz and Marion Cotillard; Nicole Kidman was previously attached to play Lili.

"There are times when I miss the anonymity of working away on an episode of EastEnders," says the 43-year-old director, smiling. "But I've wanted to make The Danish Girl since before we went into production on The King's Speech. And I've finally managed it."

  • The Danish Girl opens on January 1st

TRANS ON FILM

Andy Warhol's Trash (Paul, Morrissey, 1970)

Hollywood great George Cukor orchestrated a writing campaign so that Holly Woodlawn, the Puerto Rican trans star of the Trash, might receive an Academy Award nomination. She didn't get the nod but she is immortalised in Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side.

In a Year of 13 Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)

Arguably the great German director's most depressing film: Elvira, formerly Erwin, is abused physically and verbally and again and again until 13 Moon's grim denouement.

The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1993)

Stephen Rea’s IRA man looks up Dil (Jaye Davidson), the former lover of a kidnapped British soldier (Forest Whitaker). He throws up when he discovers she’s transgender. Not the most accepting reaction, but a neat twist in Neil Jordan’s complicated tale of sex and politics.

Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Pierce, 1999)

Harrowing true-life tragedy about a young man (Oscar-winner Hilary Swank) who attempts to hide his sexual identity.

Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, 2013)

The Canadian wunderkind’s sprawling epic account of a love affair between a woman called Fred (Suzanne Clément) and the title character as he transitions is as daring and moving a film as the subject merits.