How Lana Wachowski helped Eddie Redmayne play The Danish Girl

23 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

How Eddie Redmayne’s Transgender Role in ‘The Danish Girl’ Went From “Commercial Poison” to Oscar Contender.

The director, who was born Laurence Wachowski, gave Redmayne advice on where to start when reading about Lili Elbe, who was the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery, when the pair were working on Jupiter Ascending. That is why, over a decade ago, when Hooper directed a 2005 TV mini-series that featured a mere stripling of an actor holding his own against Dame Helen Mirren, he knew that he had found someone special in Eddie Redmayne. “I first saw him when he was 22-years old, in Elizabeth I,” Hooper tells PEOPLE while attending the Los Angeles premiere of his latest film, The Danish Girl on Saturday. “He was just a kid actor playing a rebel that was trying to overthrow Elizabeth I, which is a death sentence, because you don’t ever try to overthrow Helen Mirren.” “When we shot that scene, the rawness of that performance … ” says the director. “With English actors you often have that emotional reserve, and it was such a brilliant moment that I vowed, then and there, that, even ten years ago, I wanted him to be the lead in a film.” Both Redmayne and Hooper are getting Oscar buzz for their latest collaboration in The Danish Girl, and it came about in a way that was a little bit subterfuge – and a little bit brilliance.

woman arrives in U.S. movie theaters this week, it catches a shift in the cultural zeitgeist that is expected to help take the film and its stars all the way to the Oscars. “I saw it as a small passion project. Eddie Redmayne was about to shoot the climactic battle sequence in Les Miserables — the part where the French Army fires cannonballs into the barricades to scatter the student revolutionaries — when director Tom Hooper calmly strolled across the battlefield and handed the young actor a large unmarked envelope.

Redmayne is now tipped to receive his second Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the Dutch painter. “I was actually making a film with Lana Wachowski, and she pointed me … when I talked to her about Gerda and Lili’s relationship, she knew about their art and their work and their life together. Nine designated “champions” – who include activists Pidgeon Pagonis and Fiona Dawson, artist LJ Roberts and poet Joanna Hoffman – will also be highlighted.

They seem touchingly young, like earnest teen-agers playing at adult life, and, despite the fact that both of them are artists, we sense little rivalry or spite. Hooper said that when the script came to him in 2008, it had been passed around for about 12 years, struggling to secure finance because of what was seen as the story’s limited appeal. At moments over the years, there were even hopes that the film actually might get made — at one point, Nicole Kidman was signed for the lead — but something always went wrong.

Its release now caps a year when transgender issues have gone mainstream, fueled by the success of award-winning TV series like “Transparent” and “Orange Is The New Black,” and the transition of Caitlyn Jenner, the former U.S. The film has, however, drawn some flak for failing to find a significant role for a transgender actor, despite director Hooper acknowledging the film industry has “a problem” with the issue. Gently, he dons ballet shoes and silk stockings—just for fun, although the donning earns such close and reverent attention from the camera that something more than amusement, clearly, is at stake. The Champions of Change event is due to take place on 23 November, shortly after the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, commemorating victims of transphobic murders, which falls three days earlier.

The White House hired its first openly transgender staff member, the Pentagon launched a study aimed at ending the ban on trans people in the military, and U.S. female colleges have begun accepting transgender women students. Or somebody got cold feet. “It was the subject matter,” says Lucinda Coxon, who wrote the script in the envelope. “It was considered commercial poison.” Times change.

Getting the tone right was important for the filmmakers, who spent months on research and outreach in a bid to represent the community in an authentic way. Britain’s Eddie Redmayne, who is seen as a strong contender for what would be a second Oscar for his nuanced performance as Lili, spent three years meeting trans women, reading Elbe’s diaries and educating himself about transgender issues. “The generosity of these women in sharing their souls and their stories was totally overwhelming,” he said. Hence the next step: Gerda goes to an artists’ ball, taking Einar along not only in drag, decked out in a wig and a long gown, but in the complete guise of another person, who is introduced as Lili Elbe, Einar’s cousin. Few of the guests look askance; one of them, indeed, an impassioned fellow named Henrik (Ben Whishaw), engages Lili in conversation, and, in the seclusion of another room, bestows a kiss.

Aside from a few notable exceptions — like Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning turn in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry — they would pop up only occasionally as quirky best friends (John Lithgow in The World According to Garp) or, more commonly, as evil freaks (Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill, Ted Levine in The Silence of the Lambs). Even hiring a writer to adapt the novel proved problematic. “I had been going to all the usual places, but people were saying, ‘No, thank you,’ ” says Mutrux. “I remember I was on the Tube, and they had just announced that Tom and Eddie were going to do this film,” recalls Vikander, who co-stars as Elbe’s wife. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s going to be a really great film.’ Then my agents called me two days later and told me I should read it.” Eventually, a producer Mutrux was working with on Kinsey suggested Coxon, a British playwright who’d just written a Helena Bonham Carter-starring period piece called The Heart of Me. By this stage, the movie is rife with confusions of every type, and Hooper handles them with clarity, grace, and a surprising urgency, far more at ease in this intimate drama than he was with the super-sized galumphings of “Les Misérables.” He is right to be urgent, because Lili and Gerda are all too aware that, for those who are sentenced to lifelong incarceration in the wrong form, a change of clothes is not enough. Einar Wegener was a real person, and “The Danish Girl” is based on a novel, of the same title, by David Ebershoff, which retells the tale of Lili, and honors her determination to undergo transgender surgery. But by 2009, Tucker and Theron were out, replaced by Tomas Alfredson, director of the vampire cult hit Let the Right One In, and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Gerda role.

In 2011, Weisz left the film, followed almost immediately by Hallstrom, and the project finally sputtered to a full stop. “I didn’t want to make a film that was only about the pain,” says Hooper. “Where someone might watch and think, ‘God, becoming a trans woman for Lili was a painful thing from start to finish.’ I didn’t want the audience to feel sorry for her. It wasn’t a man transforming into a woman; it was a woman who had been living as a man.” It was right about that time, though, that Hooper was passing notes to Redmayne on the set of Les Miserables.

Nothing rude or untoward has been admitted; when the word “penis” is mentioned, it rings out like a gunshot, and anyone who snickers when Henrik says to Lili, “You’re not like other girls,” may well be asked to leave the cinema. From Shakespeare to “Shakespeare in Love,” fluidity of gender was a great dramatic staple, touched with sexual inquisitiveness and flourishes of farce. As the Caitlyn Jenner saga has confirmed, the visual and verbal language of the subject has become a minefield, and Hooper’s film is a master class in how to tiptoe through the mines. Let’s wait and see.’ ” While waiting for Hooper to finish up on Les Miserables, Redmayne went on to make two movies: the award-winning one about the astrophysicist and another (at 10 times the budget) that explored outer space less scientifically. But at least some good came out of Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis’ $176 million sci-fi dud in which Redmayne played an intergalactic baddie: Between takes the actor got transgender tutoring from no less an authority than Lana Wachowski. “She talked in depth and wonderful detail about [Elbe’s] art and also extraordinary things about that period.

The Copenhagen interiors are modelled, with aching fidelity, on the paintings of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, who died in 1916, and the same nicety gilds everything from garments to complexions. How architecture had gotten more feminine with Art Nouveau, how the notions of gender were beginning to change in the 1920s, with women’s clothing becoming more boyish and haircuts getting shorter.

To be honest, he’s so outrageously pretty to begin with that the journey into feminine loveliness is for him little more than a sidestep. (Did I detect a faint testiness in Vikander as she realizes that, for once, she must settle for being the second-most-beautiful creature onscreen?) I struggled hard to picture Steve Buscemi, say, in the role of Einar, but nothing came, and, likewise, were you to swap the stately trio of Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden for downtown Pittsburgh, the film would swiftly collapse. I wanted to work with him again.” Says Redmayne of his director, “He sees everything.” Shooting in Denmark was set for early 2015, but first Redmayne had to find the right look for his character. Better yet, in the dimly lit highlight of the film, he visits a peepshow, in Paris, where a naked model feigns her pleasure behind a glass screen; rather than leering, however, Einar studies her devoutly, his imagination hungering toward her. Makeup designer Jan Sewell, who’d worked with Redmayne on Theory, gave him dozens of wigs to try on, but it wasn’t until he tried on the fiery red one that the character started to take solid form.

It was as uncomfortable an experience for me as it would be for anybody.” To make the scene a little less nerve-wracking, Hooper promised the star something directors almost never offer their actors — final cut. All of them attend the same school, and, on the last day of the spring term, they race to the beach and splash around, sitting on the shoulders of boys—their fellow-pupils—to stage a mock battle in the water. If that reminds you of “Spring Breakers,” glistening with beer and bikinis, think again; the girls are fully clothed, and they run home none the worse, in a state of sportive bliss. Erol calls them “sullied.” Their antics, glimpsed by a neighbor, have brought shame upon their house, which, from here on, is hardened into a jail. Exits are blocked, and bars are later welded onto the windows; fripperies like phones, computers, and makeup are confiscated; in public, T-shirts and denim shorts are replaced by what Lale, whose voice-over we occasionally hear, describes as “shapeless, shit-colored dresses.” But the jail is also, in her words, “a wife factory,” and soon both Sonay and Selma are married off, not merely in accordance with custom but also, we sense, in haste, before they can land themselves in more trouble.

How can they duck the same fate? “Mustang” is the début feature of Deniz Gamze Ergüven, and it’s quite something: a coming-of-age fable mapped onto a prison break, at once dream-hazed and sharp-edged with suspense. Most audiences will reel in dismay as the older girls are summoned to a “virginity report,” or as family members knock on the door of a bridal chamber, midway through the wedding night, and ask to inspect the sheets. As for the grandmother, she’s no witchy crone but a tired and kindly figure who can hardly be hated for clutching at the roots of old traditions. “I didn’t know my husband at all,” she recalls, “but I grew to love him.” The film will be of most use, perhaps, to anyone who is teaching “Pride and Prejudice” to a bunch of teen-agers.

They will relish the scenes in which the five sisters, showing slightly more initiative than the Bennet girls, escape to watch a soccer match, from which all male spectators have been banned. The question that Ergüven puts, in the context of modern Turkey, is one that Jane Austen might have recognized: How, as a young woman, can you preserve not just your modesty but also your freedom of spirit and the play of your wits, when the purpose of your being, as laid down in social laws, resides in the finding of a man?

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