Interview with Eddie Redmayne on portraying Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
Actor Eddie Redmayne was virtually unknown among the general populace before he took on the role of famed physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and won an Oscar for his performance earlier this year. Redmayne was by no means an overnight success and one of the filmmakers he had worked with a number of times before was Tom Hooper, who cast him for his new movie The Danish Girl in the role of Lili Elbe, the very first person to undergo gender confirmation surgery back in 1926.
Lili’s story begins as renowned Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener, who is happily married to the lovely Gerda (Alicia Vikander), another lesser-known painter who supports her husband while at the same time trying to gain attention for her own work. Einar is asked to step in as Gerda’s absent model and then attends a party with her as Einar’s cousin “Lili,” which starts the painter down the path to realizing that he feels like he was meant to be a woman. Eventually, they have to seek out a doctor who is willing to perform the dangerous surgery to help Einar become Lili for good, all the time getting support from Gerda whose portraits of Lili start getting her attention.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net spoke with Redmayne over the phone from the London junket where Redmayne had taken a day off from filming J.K. Rowling’s next magical epic Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to talk about the important and timely film.
ComingSoon.net: We’ve spoken many times before, but this might be a tougher movie to talk about than some of the others. You’ve played real characters before, but in this case, this is someone who no one involved with the movie would ever have a chance to meet, but it’s also a tougher subject in some ways even though it’s a relevant subject right now.
Eddie Redmayne: Yeah, I think that’s what’s wonderful about it. We started making the film, and I committed to it three, four years ago when we were making “Les Miserables.” Even in that timeframe since then, but certainly in the last year since we made the film, the process of preparing for the film was a huge education for me and I feel like in this past year, with discussions about trans issues and what trans have been going through, and the mainstream media, it’s an amazing time, in some ways.
CS: You had worked with Lana Wachowski, who is probably one of the more high-profile trans individuals in the industry. Did you connect her with Tom and was she involved with the conversation as well?
Eddie Redmayne: So what happened was I had been cast or offered this by Tom while we were doing “Les Mis,” but the film didn’t have financing and wasn’t real. When I was making “Jupiter Ascending,” I sort of mentioned the story to Lana and she just was so impassioned by them as people, she talked me through all of arc specifically. She’s such a brilliant mind, Lana, and talked to me about Man into Woman, the book that was published after Lili’s death and really pointed me into the direction as to where to start educating myself. I introduced Lana and Tom. So really, that was an embryonic stage, before the film had become real, but it was certainly where my education started.
CS: This project has been around for a while, and I feel like there have been a number of actresses who were mentioned to presumably play the role of Lili. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but had you heard about the project with these other people being mentioned or was the first time you heard of it when Tom brought it up?
Eddie Redmayne: I didn’t. Actually, it was the first time I heard of it when I was given it to read, and it was only after the event that I did a quick Google and saw that all these extraordinary actors and actresses and directors had been attached to it. So I just thought it was incredibly lucky that I was around when finally the film got made. One dreams, as an actor, to play interesting people and I felt like I’d had my quota with playing Stephen and the fact that I got to play Lili afterwards has been just a real, real great fortune.
CS: How did you prepare for it? Having Stephen Hawking alive while you were making “Theory of Everything” puts an onus over it because the person’s still alive. You did have that resource in some ways as well, when in this case, there’s no resources. So how else did you study?
Eddie Redmayne: What was wonderful was there was so much sort of source material. There was historic elements in it, there were photographs of Lili and Gerda, but also, the paintings by Gerda of Lili. Then you have “Man into Woman,” which was this book that was published after her death, but people aren’t sure whether it was that reliable a source, but some people thought it has been sort of tampered with. Then you have David Ebersoff’s book, which is a sort of fictionalized version of their story. Then, of course, you have contemporary trans experience and all the many women who I met in preparation, of different generations, and they were so generous in sharing their experience to educate me. What was important for me was to try and take, eventually, take all of that information, and try and find, this is my interpretation of Lili somewhere in me.
CS: I think one of the difficult things of playing any character is to try to get the audience to relate to them and I think you’ve done a great job trying to get them to relate to the situation. And you’ve done that in other movies as well. For a role like this, you’re going to have a lot of scrutiny from the LGBTQ community, so was that something on your mind and were you ready for that aspect?
Eddie Redmayne: I mean, of course. I think if you’re playing someone who is an icon, that there will always be scrutiny, and in the same way, when I was playing Stephen and I knew that he would see the film and judge it, what I try and take is if you were given the privilege to play someone like Lili or someone like Stephen, that the fear and anticipation of scrutiny just galvanizes you to educate yourself and work harder, whether I’m successful at it or not, I don’t know. But what I learned as a human being and the generosity of the community in my preparation for playing Lili was pretty overwhelming. Of course, one hopes one’s done the character justice. But even as people react and when they see the film, I hope it just encourages the conversation to continue and for cisgender people to continue to learn how to be allies to the trans community.
CS: Being able to create a character that audiences can relate to is quite a talent and you’ve created quite an empathy for Lili, which is tough since few people who watch this movie will have that shared experience or stakes in it at all.
Eddie Redmayne: Oh, that’s good. Thank you. That means a great deal.
CS: Is that something you’re aware of when you’re playing a character, that you need to create that empathy with an audience?
Eddie Redmayne: I try genuinely, when I’m playing a character, to not judge them and just to inhabit someone as how one sees them. That being said, you also want to make sure that you don’t blur the edges of people too much because humans are naughty and complicated beings. But certainly, I try not to make any judgment of characters and try not to get in the way of the characters.
CS: I guess empathy is just one of the characteristics you need to have to be an actor.
Eddie Redmayne: That’s interesting. It’s interesting only in relation to one of the trans women I met while I was preparing to play Lili. She stayed with her partner through her transition and she described for herself how when she was undergoing or transitioning, she got to a point where she would give her everything and anything to live a life authentic, and that is about oneself. It feels like a simple human right to be able to be yourself, and yet, what trans people have to go through in order to get to there, it can be so complicated. But as she was deeply in love with this woman, as she was transitioning, the question she constantly had was how deep her partner’s pool of empathy was. When you’re having to go through something that is about yourself, how much could her partner, how deep could she reach into her pool of empathy? I thought that was interesting.
CS: It’s a really complicated thing, even among the LGBTQ community, trying to decide whether you’re a man or a woman, whether you want to be with men or women after the transition. It’s not something that’s easy to understand if you haven’t experienced it.
Eddie Redmayne: Maybe even that’s sort of shifting and changing, the idea that one of the things that I learned while prepping for this film is I sort of, in my ignorance, thought that a trans person had to have gone through some sort of physical transformation, but actually, it entirely has to do with what is in your mind and your soul, and that you can have in no way trying to sort of dress or be. It’s how you are. The sort of prefix of “he,” “she,” and “they,” and that gender itself is a fluid thing rather than perhaps something that’s binary.
CS: By the way, I should have congratulated you on winning the Oscar much earlier, but congratulations.
Eddie Redmayne: No, thank you.
CS: How was it to preparing to make this movie and then you had to take the weekend off, go win an Oscar and go back to work? Tom mentioned you didn’t change one bit, but how was it putting aside that stuff when you’re in the middle of trying to portray this character?
Eddie Redmayne: It’s been such a surreal experience and it’s been a complete mad frenzy, but so overwhelmingly exciting. It’s kind of extraordinary. It felt like a weird mirage, that weekend, because I was in the thick of “The Danish Girl,” and then went over for a day or two and had this staggering evening, in which you’re so pumped full of adrenaline that you can’t really take anything in, which is a desperately sad thing, because you’re almost having the memory because there is so much adrenaline in your body. Then you’re suddenly back on set a day or two, literally as if the whole thing were a dream. Subsequent to that, to “The Danish Girl,” I’ve been working on “Fantastic Beasts,” and so, I think after “Fantastic Beasts” finishes in February or March, I need to take a moment to try and take it all in and be able to explain better how it feels. I need that hindsight.
CS: I hope you’ll be back again and hopefully with Alicia (Vikander) this time and you can be her kind of guide through the system. Alicia’s had an amazing year. She’s been in so many great roles.
Eddie Redmayne: She’s extraordinary, isn’t she?
CS: Hopefully, if she has to go through that, you can be her guide through it.
Eddie Redmayne: Oh, I think she doesn’t need any help from me, she’s a formidable, formidable talent. It was amazing, actually. I’ll never forget the audition because I’d been cast in it a few years back, and then once it got greenlit, Tom met with Alicia and I was reading, and we did the scene the morning after the ball. We’d finished the scene and I was waiting for Tom to call cut and I sort of looked to my side and he was there just bawling his eyes out. It was phenomenal.
CS: By the way, you’ve confirmed a story that Tom mentioned earlier.
Eddie Redmayne: Oh, is that true? I’m pleased that we’re not lying.
CS: You talk to someone for a movie and then someone else says something different, but no, you guys are on the same page, so that’s good.
Eddie Redmayne: Well, what’s the word? “On message.”
CS: I was curious about “Fantastic Beasts,” because I feel like doing these fantasies, even “Jupiter Ascending,” in between, is that something very conscious, that you said, “Okay, I need to get away from this kind of intensity and do something a little more fantasy-based?”
Eddie Redmayne: I wish I could describe anything I do as conscious or strategized. To be honest, in acting, you have so little control. The only control you have is if you’re lucky enough to be in a position, which is not very often, in which you have choice. It’s about what choices you make, and for me, it’s entirely instinctive. When I read “Fantastic Beasts,” the world that J.K. Rowling has created is so wonderful. It just felt, if we could do her imagination justice, then that would be a wonderful thing.
CS: I don’t know very much about it and how it relates to “Harry Potter,” so do you basically just have the script to work from? The actors from “Harry Potter” had the books, but do you have access to J.K. Rowling and did you talk to her about the character?
Eddie Redmayne: When I was prepping, I met J.K. Rowling, and what’s amazing is her imagination is so full and thorough, it’s sort of encyclopedic of her world. We had an hour together and I sort of asked her about 800 questions, so that was a lot of my wonderful research.
CS: I guess David Yates is very familiar with that world as well.
Eddie Redmayne: Yes, he’s wonderful, David, I’ve got to say. Even though there is a scale to these films that could be intimidating, he has such a kindness, but an absolutely brilliant eye, that it feels very intimate and he’s got such a wonderful eclectic cast. Hopefully, it’ll be good.
CS: Had you worked with him before? He’s been doing TV for quite a while before.
Eddie Redmayne: I’ve never worked with David before, no, no. It’s my first time, but I’m absolutely loving it. In fact, I’m going back tonight to Liverpool in an hour or two.
The Danish Girl opens in select cities on Friday, November 27.