“The Danish Girl,” the remarkable film inspired by the true story of trans pioneer Lili Elbe and her partner Gerda Wegener, is a passion project that has obsessed British director Tom Hooper for years. It opens in Washington on Friday, Dec. 11.
He credits casting director Nina Gold with bringing the piece to him in 2008. He read it, was moved to tears and proceeded with a goal of moving audiences in the same way he was moved.
As the Academy Award-winning director of “The King’s Speech” began to think about casting the challenging central role of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, actor Eddie Redmayne immediately came to mind.
He had directed him previously in the HBO mini-series “Elizabeth I” (2005) with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. He had played a young rebel trying to overthrow the queen. He gets sentenced to death because, “obviously it’s not a good thing to rebel against Helen Mirren,” Hooper says.
“He did this extraordinary performance that I remember vividly.” Hooper says. “When he receives the death sentence, he was practically quaking. His performance had this extraordinary emotional translucency. It was so raw. English actors are often quite reserved; there is some kind of dialogue with emotional repression. Eddie was completely out of that tradition; there was this amazing emotional connection with the part. I think I knew then and there that I wanted to work with him in a lead role.”
Hooper next cast Redmayne as the romantic Marius in “Les Misérables.” He gave Redmayne the “Danish Girl” script during that shoot and says the actor “read it overnight and loved it.”
Redmayne introduced Hooper to one of his most influential advisers on the film, visionary director and transwoman Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”), whom Redmayne knew from the film “Jupiter Ascending.”
“I had a wonderfully inspiring couple of hours with Lana very early on and she was incredibly generous with her wisdom and her ideas,” Hooper says. “She knew a lot about Lili and Gerda and thought they were very important pioneers for the trans movement.”
He credits her with a key visual in the finished film.
“She said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fascinating when you go to Paris if you set the emergence of Lili against backdrop of Art Nouveau, because the Art Nouveau period is about the rejection of the masculine, the rectilinear, the straight line, the embracing of the curved form, the explosions of color, the feminine in design.’ As a result of that inspiration, we ended up going to Brussels to shoot rather than Paris because Brussels has the best Art Nouveau interiors in Europe.”
Unlike Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, who plays Gerda, had to audition for the film. But Hooper says it didn’t take him long to realize she was perfect for the complex role of Einar’s supportive wife, a celebrated artist in her own right.
“She came in for a screen test and she did the romantically titled ‘Scene 56’ where Gerda confronts Lili about her encounter with Henrik. After the first take, I had tears in my eyes. I was knocked out. Eddie turned around and said, ‘Well, there’s not a lot of suspense about who you’re going to cast now, Hooper.’”
“I felt lucky to have her,” he says. “I love the strength she brings to Gerda. In fact, she reminds me of Laura Linney, who I worked with on ‘John Adams.’ They both have that gift to make goodness fascinating.”
Hooper’s sensitive work with his ensemble also extended to casting trans actors in featured roles and as extras. He says it was important that they be utilized since anti-trans biases exist in casting.
Hooper cast trans actress and vocal coach Rebecca Root as one of the nurses who cares for Lili. Trans filmmaker Jake Graf plays Henri, a friend of art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts).
“It was great to have Rebekah and Jake play cisgender roles, which I think makes the whole thing quite interesting. They also ended up becoming people we could go to for advice on the set. Eddie and Alicia talked to them a lot.”
In addition, Hooper cast trans actors as extras in each shooting location — Denmark, Belgium and England. It’s exciting to note the transgender extras were also cast in cisgender roles.
Once the movie was complete, Hooper turned to a very different adviser from the trans community. Jennifer White was one of the musical directors on “Les Misérables.”
White played the piano for the actors who were singing live on the set; the full orchestra was added later.
“Jennifer was going through her transition during the shooting of ‘Les Miz,’” Hooper says, “and at first she didn’t feel comfortable using her real name. When she was ready, we changed the call sheets to reflect her real name.”
Hooper invited White to see an early cut of the film and nervously awaited her response.
“She was quiet at the end,” he says, “and there was tremendous suspense until the lights came up and I saw tears on her face. The comment she gave me was, ‘It was as if you served a dollop of my own brain back to me. How did you know?’ That by itself made the whole film worth it, to have her feel that she felt her own life reflected on the screen.”