‘There’s still very few trans people who work outside ‘the night’. Or hairdressing’

Daniela Vega, a Chilean trans actor, is sensational in ‘A Fantastic Woman’ and is helping nudge trans issues into the mainstream

Actress Daniela Vega of ‘Fantastic Woman’ is photographed at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival on September 13, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario. Photograph: Jennifer Roberts/Getty Images

Actress Daniela Vega of ‘Fantastic Woman’ is photographed at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival on September 13, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario. Photograph: Jennifer Roberts/Getty Images

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On Sunday, Daniela Vega will make history when she becomes the first transgender person to present an award at the Oscars. There is a lot going on this awards season. Celebrations are in order. But more than a few punters saw the nod as compensation for Vega’s failure to secure a best actress nomination. It was, for the Chilean star of an arthouse picture, a tough ask in a competitive year, but Vega is sensational in Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. The director’s follow-up to Gloria concerns a transgender woman who, when her older, middle-class partner dies, is forced to engage with suspicious family and aggressive officials. Vega owns it. She is quiet and focused. But inner determination and corseted dignity ooze from every pore.

A Fantastic Woman was among the most buzzed-about titles at last October’s London Film Festival. Everyone feels that Vega will, at least, be at the edges of the conversation during the coming awards season. We meet at a boutique hotel in Soho. Glancing occasionally at a beeping phone, she seems simultaneously confident and cautious. Her answers are short but well-thought-through.

“This is not my first work. I have been experiencing the public side of it in Chile with other projects,” she says.

Francisco Reyes as Orlando and Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Francisco Reyes as Orlando and Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The next level

Born in Santiago, she began singing opera when still a child. After transitioning a decade ago, she has divided her time between singing and acting. But A Fantastic Woman has really pushed her to the next level. Following a triumphant premiere at Berlin in 2017, the picture has strolled towards an Oscar nomination for best foreign language picture.

“I had a grandmother who was blind and she taught me to understand sound as an image,” she says. “That also helped me understand that sound can come out of your throat if you work at it. Talent is only a part of the work. It is the work that generates the talent.”

I wonder how A Fantastic Woman was received in Chile. That country has, like Ireland, a complicated relationship with religion and colonisation. Santiago is a big, diverse city. But repressive forces remain.

A Fantastic Woman has been seen as very interesting and entertaining,” she says. “The film has had very good reactions. We are very surprised and delighted how the characters have connected with so many people.”

In recent years, trans issues have finally been nudged into mainstream discourse. Reactionary, armpit-fanning panics about who’s allowed into what lavatory have, in the United States, at least forced the media to engage with the issues. Vega will not be the only trans person at the Oscars. Yance Ford, nominated in the best documentary feature race for Strong Island, is believed to be the first ever trans director to receive a nomination.

Have attitudes changed in Chile as well?

“There are still very few trans people who work in something that is not ‘the night’. Or hairdressing,” she says. “But I am here because I want to be here. I have always wanted to act. There had to be the right set of circumstances and the right people for it to happen. I was discovered at just that right moment.”

Sebastian Lelio and Daniela Vega on the set of ‘A Fantastic Woman’
Sebastian Lelio and Daniela Vega on the set of ‘A Fantastic Woman’

Hollywood’s reluctance

As these conversations have continued, Hollywood has been confronted with its continuing reluctance to cast trans actors in trans roles. That battle seems to have been largely won when it comes to race. There is little “blacking up” in mainstream productions. But cis performers still get Oscar nominations for playing trans characters. Able-bodied actors get Oscar nominations for playing disabled characters. Heck, in the space of two years, Eddie Redmayne did both – for, respectively, The Danish Girl and The Theory of Everything.

Vega is not dogmatic on the issue. “I have two points of view regarding that subject,” she says. “As an actress, I don’t mind if cis actors interpret transgender characters. Or the other way round. It is a different acting exercise for me. I never saw a woman getting upset because Robin Williams played a woman in the past. But there is the political side of it. Trans people have not been integrated in the cinema in the past. That has to do with a political reaction. Bear in mind that most people who have played transgender characters have been men.”

Vega makes an interesting point here. Mainstream cinema has seemed more comfortable with men playing trans women rather than the other way around. Some sort of bias is at work here.

“That’s because the people who inhabit the feminine world – people like me – we are still oppressed by the patriarchy,” she says.

New possibilities are opening up for Vega. There is a sense that she is becoming something of a standard bearer. As Oscar season drags on, she is picking up more interviews than many other nominees. She tells me she has no great interest in leaving Santiago. That’s where her friends are. That’s where her family are. But she has no fear.

“One of the things that saves you from being entangled with your own anxieties is not being afraid of the future,” Vega says. “I don’t know what will happen. But the future will bring me beautiful things.”

A Fantastic Woman is released tomorrow.

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