Even though the hashtag #oscarsocis never got the attention of #oscarsostraight, #oscarsowhite or #oscarsomale, mainstream international cinema has had a problem casting trans actors in trans roles, let alone casting trans actors at all.
Cisgender actors, however, have frequently been rewarded for playing trans characters. Hilary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry”), Felicity Huffman (“Transamerica”), Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”) have all been nominated for Oscars for playing trans roles; Swank and Leto both took home the coveted gold statuette.
This year, however, things have started to change. A Chilean film may finally break the Academy’s trans ceiling. In Sebastián Lelio’s stunning film “A Fantastic Woman” (Una Mujer Fantástica), transgender actress Daniela Vega plays transgender singer Marina Vidal, a woman who is threatened by the medical, judicial and legal system after her boyfriend’s death. Although Vega was not nominated in the Best Actress category, the ground-breaking film has been nominated for an Oscar as the Best Foreign Language Film. It opens Friday, Feb. 9 at the Angelika Mosaic and Landmark E Street.
Director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio (“Gloria”) says he did not initially set out to write a film about a transgender character.
“I got the idea for the movie slowly,” Lelio says. “At the beginning we were playing with the idea of what would happen if the person you love dies in your arms. And then we thought what if this happened to a transgender woman.” Lelio and co-screenwriter Gonzalo Maza began to look for a “cultural advisor” to help them develop the idea and to help them get better acquainted with Santiago’s trans community.
“We brought on Dani and that was a milestone,” Lelio says. “I decided I wanted to make the movie and I decided we would not do the movie without a transgender actress in the lead.”
Vega and the authors worked together on Skype for a year and Lelio finally realized he had found his leading lady.
“Towards the end of the writing process,” he says, “I realized that Dani should be the star of the film. She has some acting experience, she is an opera singer, she is an artist, she is a force of nature. Why look any further?”
Lelio says the “film is both a celebration and examination of its main character: Marina Vidal.”
Marina is an aspiring singer who is working as a waitress and living with her boyfriend, an older married man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After Orlando’s sudden death, Marina is treated with suspicion by everyone around her: the police suspect she is involved with Orlando’s death, she is forced to undergo a degrading physical examination and Orlando’s widow forbids her from attending the funeral service.
But in the end, Marina triumphs, performing a beautiful classical aria as a memorial to Orlando and a public celebration of their love.
Vega says making this film was “was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but I like challenges. It’s like playing an opera. Singing opera is very hard, but you enjoy it when you are doing it. The movie is violent and emotionally complex, but I was part of an amazing team. We took care of each other. We are artists.”
Both Vega and Lelio have been excited by the enthusiastic international acclaim for the movie. Besides the historic Oscar nomination, “A Fantastic Woman” won several awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for a Golden Globe and several Dorian awards from GALECA, the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics.
“It was quite wonderful to see how well understood the film was,” Lelio says. “I was quite touched.”
As a director, he says he tries to avoid preaching.
“It’s hard for me to think in terms of messages. I think of films in terms of energy. Beauty is my only duty.”
But his star offers some guidance for her audience.
“I want everybody to question everything — love, family, death, relationships, freedom. We should ask ourselves who prohibits things and why and what are we doing with our empathy.”
After the shooting for “A Fantastic Woman” was over, Lelio shot his first English language films. Scheduled for a spring release, “Disobedience,” based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, stars Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz as childhood friends who become lovers when they are reunited as adults; Alessandro Nivola plays McAdams’ husband, an orthodox rabbi.
Scheduled for a fall release, “Gloria,” staring Julianne Moore, is a remake of Lelio’s 2013 film about a woman in her 50s looking for love in the dance club of Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the multi-talented Vega is writing a book and is working on a new theater piece. She’s also reading film scripts and thinking about what she will wear to the Oscars on March 4.
“A beautiful dress with a big long train,” she says, “probably in a color I have never worn before.”