Long before Amazon Studios’ “Transparent” became a hit, or Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn, Lili Elbe made her transition.
Elbe had previously been Einar Wegener, a popular artist in Copenhagen in the 1920s. One day his wife, Gerda Wegener, also a painter, asked him to don woman’s heels and stockings to fill in for a client who had missed her portrait sitting. It was a case of the clothes making the woman; Einar recognized that his true gender was female, and Lili was born. In 1930 she would be among the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Portraying the tricky role of Einar/Lili in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel “The Danish Girl,” a fictionalized account of the story, Tom Hooper cast Eddie Redmayne, whom he had directed previously in “Les Misérables” (2012).
Redmayne received an Academy Award earlier this year for his demanding lead performance in “The Theory of Everything” as the scientific genius Stephen Hawking, who suffered from motor neuron disease. In “Danish Girl,” which opens here Dec. 11, his character undergoes both a physical transformation and profound psychological introspection.
On the phone from London in October, Redmayne discussed the challenges and satisfactions of playing Lili.
Q. It must be an acting workout to go directly from Stephen Hawking to Lili Elbe.
A. As an actor, your dream is to portray interesting people, and I certainly thought after the last year I had my quota with playing Stephen. And when this film came together — I had actually been attached myself to the film for three or four years — when the financing came together, it really felt like a privilege. Our dream as actors is to get to play interesting people. So one doesn’t think of it in terms of difficulty. It’s a joyous thing to do.
Q. Nonetheless, playing Lili must have offered challenges, starting with the high heels.
A. Actually, 1920s high heels were not the stilettos of today, so they were easier than you think.
Q. Did you find your first stage performance as Viola in “Twelfth Night” back in 2002 gave you some insight into this role?
A. The interesting thing about Viola is that there is this tradition in Shakespeare’s time in which boys were playing women. So in “Twelfth Night” I was a man playing a girl who was masquerading as a man — which was an interesting challenge in itself. Playing Lili was different. I approached it by meeting women from the trans community and hearing their stories. Everyone was sensationally generous with sharing their experience to educate me.
Q. Did you consult with Lana Wachowski [born Laurence, widely known for directing movies with brother Andy Wachowski] when you worked with her on “Jupiter Rising?”
A. While I was working with Lana I mentioned Gerda and Lili to her. She spoke passionately about their story and their art. And she had such illuminating things to say about “Man into Woman,” the diary that was published after Lili’s death, though people don’t know if it is entirely her writing. (It is a slightly unreliable source.) She pointed out where to start my education. And when I was traveling a lot promoting “The Theory of Everything” I got to meet transgender women in London and the states and from many different nations.
Q. What did you learn from this?
A. One of the things I became educated about when prepping for the film is that being trans does not involve undergoing any formal physical transformation or change and it is what you are in your soul and what you are in your mind. For example, I always assumed that “gender” and “sexuality” were closely related, that the gender you are attracted to was determined in part by your own gender. But many of the trans women I met were in relationships with women before they transitioned and remained with these women even when they themselves became women. So the notion of sexuality and gender being related seems not true.
Q. Would you say that gender is a form of performance? At one point Lili says that she feels like she is performing herself, playing a role.
A. That specific line is in relation to the public version of herself as Einar. Like, this is me on parade. It’s like when you go to a premiere of a film. It’s overwhelming with people asking you quite personal questions and in order to retain a privacy you portray a version of yourself rather than give up all your inner depths. But it does have a double meaning, that everything in her life at that time, when she was trying to live as a man, was in some ways a performance.
Q. Is this a good time to release this film because the topic is so popular?
A. You know what — the film has been 15 years in the making and Tom offered it to me when we were making “Misérables” a few years ago and it’s taken a while for it to be made. We were making it last year when Caitlyn came out. But certainly with shows like “Transparent” it does feel like it’s in the zeitgeist. One of things that astounds me is that it’s almost a hundred years since Lili and Gerda’s story took place and the discrimination that transgender people have to contend with is still rampant. There’s an incredibly high suicide rate and there are many instances of violence against trans people, particularly trans women of color. Even though we feel in the last year or two there’s been progress, there’s still a long way to go.Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.